2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize – Regional Winners

We are pleased to announce this year’s Commonwealth Short Story Prize regional winners!

The 2022 overall winner will be announced in an online ceremony at 1pm, Tuesday 21 June, and at a special event as part of the Commonwealth People’s Forum in Kigali, Rwanda. Sign up here to be amongst the first to find out the overall winner for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

Canada and Europe

‘A Hat for Lemer’
Cecil Browne

(United Kingdom / St Vincent and the Grenadines)

Now in its eleventh year, the Commonwealth Short Story Prize is awarded annually for the best piece of unpublished short fiction from the Commonwealth. This year’s regional winners have been selected and risen to the top from over 6700 entries, from across 52 Commonwealth countries. Details of the full 2022 shortlist can be found here.

Chair of the Judges, Guyanese writer Fred D’Aguiar, said:

‘This year’s regional winners offer a cornucopia of riches for readers globally from sources located around the world. These stories testify to the varied tones of fiction, from the oblique to the direct reference, with moments of character illumination to those associated with an imperiled planet. If a reader harboured any doubt about whether fiction is relevant to today’s world these stories answer with a riposte that resonates beyond a resounding ‘yes.’  These stories fulfill a higher function as exemplars of the short story form: vibrant, memorable and indispensable.’

Fred D’Aguiar is joined on the international judging panel by a judge representing each of the five Commonwealth regions: Louise Umutoni-Bower (Africa), Jahvani Barua (Asia), Stephanos Stephanides (Canada and Europe), Kevin Jared Hosein (Caribbean) and Jeanine Leane (Pacific).

The five regional winning stories will be published online by the literary magazine Granta in the run-up to the announcement of the overall winner on 21 June. They will also be published in a special print edition by Paper + Ink, available online and in bookshops from 21 June.

Read on to hear more from this year’s winners.

Press contact: Ruth Killick  publicity@ruthkillick.co.uk
Commonwealth Writers contact: writers@commonwealth.int

Africa

‘and the earth drank deep’, Ntsika Kota (Eswatini)

A tale from the distant past of our species; of a day when cold blood flowed for the first time, and the earth drank deep.

‘and the earth drank deep’ is a universal story. One that reaches across cultures and generations. A story that uses African folktale in a way that remains true to form but is also accessible. It is a reminder of a time when storytelling had a prized place in social gatherings. I was personally transported back to the floor by my mother’s feet where I quietly listened to tales of Rwandan folk heroes and villains. The judges felt that in this story we could see ourselves; what it means to be human. The willingness of the writer to put ‘evil’ on display without interrogation or judgement was commended.
Louise Umutoni-Bower, Judge Africa region

Born in Mbabane, Eswatini, Ntsika Kota is a chemist by training. A self-taught writer, he was originally inspired by a high school writing assignment. Ntsika’s work is a reflection of his thoughts and feelings, and he enjoys creating that reflection.

‘Being shortlisted was a shock of its own, but winning the regional prize as a rank amateur honestly strains the bounds of credulity. Even I would never write such an improbable storyline! I’m deeply grateful that something I wrote is being recognized at such a prestigious level. When I write, my goal—or at least my ambition—is to get across the whole experience of existing in a place. Wherever you are reading this, how would you describe what it feels like to be you right now? How much of it is the sum of the sensory impressions you are paying attention to? How much of it is your emotional state? Or the memories that are freshest in your mind right now? My goal when I write is to weave a similar sort of tapestry of experience. One that allows you—hopefully, briefly—to exist in my imagination. You’ll be the judge of whether I’ve achieved that, but I’ll be satisfied if you’re entertained.’

– Ntsika Kota

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Asia

‘The Last Diver on Earth’, Sofia Mariah Ma (Singapore)

In a climate-ravaged future, a young free diver retraces her mother’s final dive off the coast of the Lesser Sunda Islands, hoping to discover the cause of her mother’s death.

‘The Last Diver on Earth’ is a story that had me thinking about it long after I finished reading it. Set in a coastal community of Indonesia and rooted very deeply in the local, the issues explored – of love, of family, of threats to our environment – are nevertheless fiercely universal. This remarkable story is also set in the future but it feels as if it could be set in the present time, a testimony to the skill of the writer. The language is lyrical and immensely evocative; from the first scene I felt as if I was at the centre of the narrative, swimming in the depths of the mysterious ocean alongside the protagonist. As the story explores the bond between mother and child – the mother is dead and we watch the child mourning this great loss – it also simultaneously excavates the enormous threat our planet faces as our environment is relentlessly plundered. Without losing tension until the very end, the author manages to hold our attention and focus our gaze on this urgent need of the hour: the need to do something for our dying planet. A story that is disturbing but oddly satisfying at the same time, ‘The Last Diver on Earth’ tells an important tale.
Jahnavi Barua, Judge Asia region

Sofia Mariah Ma is a Singaporean writer. She recently placed second in the 2021 Golden Point Award and published her short story in the cli-fi anthology, And Lately, the Sun. She holds an MA in English Literature, examining the works of Kazuo Ishiguro and his experimentations with genre. Currently, she is working on a young adult novel inspired by her Javanese origins.

‘In these trying times when division and conflict seem more dire than ever, spaces where we can strive for unity seem too few and far between. Fortunately, the Commonwealth resembles one such community, and the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, one of its champions. Coming from a small island-nation, it is a great honour to have my story chosen to speak on behalf of the stunningly diverse, polyphonic Asian region, and by such an outstanding and exacting panel of judges, no less. In my story, I envision a future that has only managed to skim the surface of possible climate change solutions. Yet humanity does not dare lose hope. Today, as we further endeavour to overcome the various climate challenges that come our way, I hope that even the quietest, smallest voices can be heard so as to protect the future of all our children.’

-Sofia Mariah Ma

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Canada and Europe

‘A Hat for Lemer’, Cecil Browne (United Kingdom / St Vincent and the Grenadines)

The story of a woman who is faced with a dilemma after Emancipation. When estate owner Noah Brisbane implores her to find a missing Methodist minister new to the island, she has to decide whether to accept the task. The fee could build a house for herself and one for her parents, but can she ignore who Brisbane is and what he represents?

A striking and original story set in mid-19th century post-Emancipation St. Vincent. The spunky narrator’s voice speaks with verve in the island’s vernacular and is the driving force that carries the narrative. As a child of runaway slaves, the protagonist grew up in the island’s difficult and volcanic hinterland and knows how to navigate the lay of the land and the diversity of the people who inhabit it: Whites, Blacks, Mulattos, Caribs. One day, an estate owner unexpectedly arrives at her mountain shack, where she makes a living as a herbalist, to hire her services to find a missing ‘school inspector’ who came from England. Her search for the mysterious ‘school inspector’ takes us on a journey that surprises at every turn; the mystery unfolds as Lemer takes us along her quest from school to brothel, through trade depots and Estates, encountering drunken sailors whose red lips are repellent even to flies, courtesans with breasts like firm sweet mangoes, stable boys and Carib boatmen. In the compressed space of a short story, we are left with a visceral understanding of a culture at a crucial point of social and historical transition, seen through the vision and voice of an empathetic protagonist coming into her own.
Stephanos Stephanides, Judge Canada and Europe region

Cecil Browne was born in St Vincent and the Grenadines, but has lived in the UK since his teens. A college lecturer in Maths for over 35 years, he loves cricket, writing and music. His short story, ‘Coming Off the Long Run’ was published in the So Many Islands anthology in 2018. He has just finished writing his debut novel.

‘Discovering that I was the regional winner filled me with a private joy, but this quickly turned into the kind of joy I experience when the family is together for some function, all three generations, along with our close friends. ‘A Hat for Lemer’ portrays early Vincentian society, and the dilemma Lemer faces as she seeks to define a role for herself within that society. The story is dear to me. Within it are people with energy and drive, optimists negotiating a world both restricting and modern.’

– Cecil Browne

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Caribbean

‘Bridge over the Yallahs River’, Diana McCaulay (Jamaica)

A story about the impacts of short term construction work by overseas crews on community life in Jamaica, illustrated by the wrenching choices a father must make between his ability to earn and his daughter’s health.

‘Bridge over the Yallahs River’ is the story of a storm-struck bridge and the various people tasked to re-build it. It transports the reader to the small riverside village of Back To. Modern political powers have kept it in a sort of post-colonial Sisyphean stasis. The new bridge seems to be the catalyst for something hopeful. Long-needed repair. As the bridge progresses, the residents and the Chinese construction workers form an unconventional symbiotic bond – only for their actions at the end to announce that more than a physical bridge had been broken. A tale of simultaneous triumph and botchery; loss and reclamation; comedy and tragedy.
Kevin Jared Hosein, Judge Caribbean region

Diana McCaulay is a Jamaican environmental activist and writer. She has written five novels – Dog-Heart, Huracan (Peepal Tree Press), Gone to Drift (Papillote Press and HarperCollins), White Liver Gal (self-published) and Daylight Come (Peepal Tree Press). She was the Caribbean regional winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2012, for ‘The Dolphin Catchers’. She is also on the editorial board of Pree, an online magazine for Caribbean writing.

‘What an absolute thrill to learn that my story, ‘Bridge over the Yallahs River’, has won the regional prize for the Caribbean in the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story prize. I wanted to write about the conflict I saw so frequently during my environmental life – the heavy costs of what we call ‘development’, who pays those costs, the painful choices people must make between their livelihoods and their lives and the many ways in which they fight back.’

-Diana McCaulay

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Pacific

‘The Nightwatch’, Mary Rokonadravu (Fiji)

A story about the plight of ordinary people within the machinations of capitalism and Christian fundamentalism and how these influence indigenous peoples and their responses to national and global events, as well as a story about unlikely sources of compassion. It features the coming together of a group of unrelated individuals through a series of events involving mining, marginal employment, sex work, and the baking of bread against the backdrop of a coup and the rise of a Christian prophetess.

‘The Nightwatch’ is a wry and poignant satire. The current environmental crisis in the Pacific region is cleverly juxtaposed against the backdrop of a political coup in extended metaphor that destabilises and unsettles Eurocentric values, such as meritocracy, classism, consumerism, and Christianity. Characters come to life through quirky dialogue using local language, as an embodied sense of place threads through the fragmented chaos of a country ravaged by extraction colonialism.
Jeanine Leane, Judge Pacific region

Mary Rokonadravu is a Fijian writer of mixed indigenous Fijian, indentured Indian, and settler European heritage. She won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Pacific region in 2015 and was shortlisted in 2017. Her short stories have been published by Granta, and adda, and included in anthologies by the University of London Press, and Penguin Random House New Zealand (Vintage).

‘ ‘The Nightwatch’ is about the confluence of several unrelated people on a single day in Fiji – how the lives of ordinary people play out in a national crisis, particularly, how lives are influenced by religious fundamentalism or extremism, in this case, Christian fundamentalism. It is about capitalism and structural poverty; how religion is used to become a vehicle for polarisation and hate in a crumbling world. For me, this win is affirmation that stories are evermore important. Stories are bridges to connect us with each other, especially when we disagree or are different – stories allow us to walk in each other’s complexities and gain understanding of the familiar. Facts don’t do that. I don’t have to leave the islands of the Pacific in order to be heard. I chose to remain in Fiji, to remain in the Pacific, and to tell stories from here. It was a difficult choice early on because there is no literary and publishing infrastructure in Fiji and this win is reaffirming.’

-Mary Rokonadravu

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This year’s overall winner will be announced on 21 June 2022.

If you would like to enter the 2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, it will open for online submissions on 1 September and close for submissions on 1 November 2022.