Jenny Bennett-Tuionetoa on how being a regional winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize developed her confidence and transformed her worldview.

Personal growth is something which, for me at least, does not occur gradually or steadily. Rather, it happens in fits and starts during significant moments in my life; moments which are so pivotal to my journey as a human being that they permanently alter the way I see myself and the world.

The short week I spent in Nicosia for the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize can definitely be counted among those rare defining moments. If personal growth could be measured in inches, then I’m sure I grew a foot taller during the last week of July.

Having travelled the twelve thousand eight hundred miles from Samoa to Cyprus, I arrived red-eyed and exhausted in Nicosia after more than thirty hours without sleep. Not the most promising start for a highly anxious introvert! But the efforts of the hard-working Commonwealth Writers team made everything run so smoothly that my many anxieties evaporated and I was able to enjoy every moment of the experience, in spite of myself.

Above: Jenny shares writing experiences at a Q&A session following the Commonwealth Short Story Prize Award Ceremony 2018 in Nicosia, Cyprus

Coming from the Pacific, whose literature is still relatively young, and in particular from a very small island nation which can only boast a handful of authors, meeting people who share my passion for story-telling is a rare privilege. To meet and connect with the four writers whose work outshone the other five thousand entries for this year’s prize was beyond amazing. Socialising is often quite difficult for me, and at home I am something of a recluse, but with Efua, Kevin, Lynda and Sagnik the connection was instantaneous.  Not only was the presence of these writers pleasantly energising, I also learnt a great deal from each of them: from the variety of techniques, the diversity of backgrounds, the multiplicity of experiences and the beauty of their unique personalities.

‘Not only was the presence of these writers pleasantly energising, I also learnt a great deal from each of them: from the variety of techniques, the diversity of backgrounds, the multiplicity of experiences and the beauty of their unique personalities.’

While every day of the trip provided new insights and memorable experiences, the highlight was of course the Short Story Prize announcement ceremony on 25 July. The open-air, rooftop setting at the Centre of Visual Arts and Research, overlooking a quiet street in old Nicosia, could not have been more ideal. The mood which the setting sun and darkening skies had helped to create was enhanced by the poignant songs of Cypriot artist Vasiliki Anastasiou which threaded together the stories that were read that night. So touched was I by the atmosphere which both the music and surroundings had created that I shed my nerves, which for me is no mean feat, and read from my heart; unafraid to reveal my soul to the world.  I am indebted especially to Janet Steel from the Commonwealth Foundation, who not only ensured that the evening was a success for all of us with her creative direction but whose support and encouragement gave me the courage to grow.

This growth I keep mentioning is impossible to measure and very difficult to describe, but it manifests itself in subtle changes in perception and visible differences in outward behavior. I find myself beginning to redefine who I am and to rethink some long-held preconceptions about the world. For one, I have become far more optimistic about the future of human rights in the Pacific Islands, having discovered that other Commonwealth countries which faced very similar challenges have begun to overcome them. More importantly, the Commonwealth Short Story Prize has taught me that no matter how small and isolated our islands are, our voices matter and we deserve to be heard. I am now also confident that there is a place for people like me in the world; something that I have struggled to affirm for many years.

Above: Regional winners of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2018

It was in Nicosia, among my fellow writers and new-found friends that I was able to, for the very first time, speak publicly about my gender identity: something I have always shrunk from mentioning despite being an LGBTQIA rights advocate. The people around me and the exposure to a new, diverse world finally made it possible for me to unlock the closet door, twelve thousand miles away from home. Never before had I said the words ‘I am non-binary’ out loud and I have never felt so liberated! This personal liberation has been mirrored by the freeing of inner voices and the unlocking of inner stories which will shortly find their way onto paper and eventually out into the world.  Winning the Regional Prize has thus not only provided validation, exposure and a platform for my advocacy, it has also been a significant step in my personal journey towards growth, self-acceptance and freedom, all of which will undoubtedly make me a better writer.

Jenny Bennett-Tuionetoa is a Samoan writer.

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