2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize

Posted on 30/06/2021
By Commonwealth Foundation

Sri Lankan author Kanya D’Almeida has won the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

The Commonwealth Foundation announced D’Almeida’s win in an online award ceremony on 30 June which featured readings from Zambian author Mubanga Kalimamukwento, Sri Lankan actress Ranmali Mirchandani, British actress Lyndsey Marshal, Jamaican author Kei Miller and Australian actress Francesca Savige.

D’Almeida, from Colombo, Sri Lanka, was named the winner by British-Jamaican actress Dona Croll who presented the online ceremony. D’Almeida is the first Sri Lankan to win the overall prize and the second to win for the Asia region.

The 2021 prize was judged by an international panel of writers, each representing one of the five regions of the Commonwealth, and chaired by South African writer Zoë Wicomb. The other panellists are Nigerian writer A. Igoni Barrett; Bangladeshi writer, translator and editor Khademul Islam; British poet and fiction writer Keith Jarrett; Jamaican environmental activist, award-winning writer and 2012 Caribbean regional winner Diana McCaulay; and award-winning author and 2016 Pacific regional winner Tina Makereti from New Zealand.

Photo credit: Freya D’Almeida


‘Winning the Commonwealth Short Story prize during this moment of global upheaval feels like a tremendous honour and an equally tremendous responsibility. It makes me question what it means to be a writer in these times, times when the human imagination might offer us our best shot at survival. I’ve long felt that fiction is the last ‘free’ place on earth in which to fully envision (and execute!) radical alternatives to the often dismal systems that govern us. To have won the prize for a story about two destitute, ageing women in Sri Lanka digging through the debris of their lives in search of a little dignity is more than a blessing—it’s a firm order from the universe to keep inventing ways for the powerless to gather together, giggle together, and win.’
Kanya D’Almeida

Kanya D’Almeida’s winning story, ‘I Cleaned The—‘, is a story about ‘dirty work’: domestic labour, abandonment, romantic encounters behind bathroom doors, and human waste. The Asia judge, Bangladeshi writer, translator and editor Khademul Islam, described it as ‘a life-affirming story of love among the rambutan and clove trees of Sri Lanka—love for a baby not one’s own, love for a high-spirited elderly woman. Love found not among the stars but in human excrement. Literally. And all the more glorious for it.’ An extract from the story was read at the ceremony by Sri Lankan actress and arts professional Ranmali Mirchandani, and you can read ‘I Cleaned The’ now on Granta.

The moment Kanya D’Almeida finds out she is the overall winner of the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

‘Congratulations to Kanya D’Almeida, whose winning story captivated the judges from the outset. In “I Cleaned The–“ the short story form is fully exploited. Set in a Sanctuary for the Forsaken, “a place for people who have no people”, it brims with humanity, exploring the themes of love and death in an ingenious structure. In a frame narrative, Ishwan cares for a terminally ill fellow-inmate, and embedded within it is a story she tells her friend about her previous years of caring for a severely debilitated child. The narration is an accomplished interweaving of the two-time frames in which the stories artfully testify to love in its various forms. For all its scatology, its depiction of the unsavoury body in decline, “I Cleaned The-" deals in delicacy and the forbearance that love bestows. With a title that speaks of the unspoken and the unutterable, as well as attempts by the poor and overlooked to voice their feelings, D’Almeida appeals to both the heart and the mind of the reader in this portrayal of unspeakable injustice.’
Zoë Wicomb, Chair of the Judges

Kanya D’Almeida is a Sri Lankan writer. Her fiction has appeared in Jaggery and The Bangalore Review. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University’s School of the Arts. She’s working on a book of short stories about mad women. Kanya is the host of ‘The Darkest Light’, a podcast exploring birth and motherhood in Sri Lanka.

‘As we enter the second year of a pandemic marked by the heroism of invisible frontline workers, it seems fitting that the wonderful tale which has won the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize celebrates a member of this hidden army. Kanya D’Almeida's story of love and humanity, in the face of loss and grief, is one that speaks to us all.’
Dr Anne T. Gallagher AO, Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation

The 2021 regional winners are:

Africa winner Rémy Ngamije (Namibia), Asia winner Kanya D’Almeida (Sri Lanka), Canada and Europe winner Carol Farrelly (United Kingdom), Caribbean winner Roland Watson-Grant (Jamaica), and Pacific winner Katerina Gibson (Australia). Overall, there were 6423 entries from 50 Commonwealth countries.

In partnership with Commonwealth Writers, the literary magazine Granta has published all of the regional winning stories of the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, including ‘I Cleaned The-‘

The five stories are also available in a special print collection from Paper + Ink, available online here.

Paper + Ink is proud to publish the new anthology featuring the winners of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2021. For more about our series of classic and contemporary short fiction from around the world, and to browse, purchase books or subscribe, visit: www.paperand.ink

Submissions for the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize will open on 1 September 2021.

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is free to enter and is awarded annually for the best piece of unpublished short fiction from the Commonwealth. It is the only prize in the world where entries can be submitted in Bengali, Chinese, English, French, Greek, Malay, Portuguese, Samoan, Swahili, Tamil, and Turkish.

Those interested in submitting to the prize are encouraged to sign up to the Commonwealth Writers newsletter at commonwealthwriters.org/signup where you can receive alerts on key submission dates as well as information on other opportunities for writers and artists.