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The Australian writer Peter Carey, twice winner of the Booker prize, and twice winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (2001 for True History of The Kelly Gang and in 1998 for Jack Maggs) has criticised the decision to open up the award to Americans for the first time, claiming that the old Commonwealth-only version had a “particular cultural flavour” that would now be lost. In The Guardian today, he stressed: “There was and there is a real Commonwealth culture. It’s different. America doesn’t really feel to be a part of that.”
Just over a year ago in the same newspaper, the writer Philip Hensher also warned against opening up the Booker, “The Commonwealth Writers’ prize provides a cautionary tale: in 2011, they made the decision to stop the main prize, and just continue with a first novel prize. Two years later, this was abolished, too. All that remains of a once very useful prize is a short story competition to which nobody pays the slightest attention, and which, in 17 years, nobody of the slightest reputation has ever won.”
There are three essential parts to a cautionary tale. First, some act or thing is said to be dangerous. Then, someone disregards the warning and performs the forbidden act. Finally, the violator comes to a grisly and unpleasant fate. In 2011, after much soul searching, we performed the forbidden act and ended the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. After 25 years, it no longer fitted in the context of a development organisation to which it belonged (The Commonwealth Foundation), it needed modernising and to be made more relevant. Also, The Prize struggled to compete with other richer, high profile awards covering similar territory – that of celebrating writers who are already fairly established. The Booker was the example we used.
As part of our forbidden act, we wanted a Prize that was different, that filled a ‘gap’. The Commonwealth Short Story Prize was launched in 2012 for unpublished fiction open to nearly 2 billion people, from more than 50 countries. This year our entries include short stories which have been translated into English and entries from writers in countries including Tonga, Lesotho, St. Kitts and Nevis, Mozambique and Papua New Guinea. Entry is free and the winner receives £5,000.
We hope no-one “of the slightest reputation” will ever win it (though it’s open to anyone over 18). It’s a Prize designed to unearth talented writers from places which have little or no publishing infrastructure and often limited internet access. It also seems that the world is paying it a bit of attention – a live BBC World TV interview with this year’s winner from Uganda, Jennifer Makumbi, reached millions. Jennifer would say she found that exposure and endorsement pretty useful.
As for our grisly and unpleasant fate, we expect it any minute.
Lucy Hannah, Commonwealth Writers
A Cautionary Tale?
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