2012 Shortlist


The Wandering Falcon, Jamil Ahmad (Pakistan), Hamish Hamilton

‘A tribesman who attained the age of one hundred years was asked the secret of his longevity: ” I eat raw onions, I have eaten them every day of my life”. He thus offered the prescription of life itself – the ability to swallow and digest bitter things.  Tribes have faced unremitting prosecution, hostility and injustice over centuries, while struggling with a harsh environment. The Wandering Falcon tries to offer you a glimpse into their lives, both as a collectivity and as individuals.’

Jamil Ahmad was born in Jalandhar in 1933. As a member of the Civil Service of Pakistan, he served mainly in the Frontier Province and in Balochistan. He was Political Agent in Quetta, Chaghi, Khyber and Malakand and later, commissioner in Dera Ismail Khan and Swat. He was posted as minister in Pakistan’s embassy in Kabul at a critical time, before and during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and his last assignment in the government was Chief Secretary Balochistan. He lives in Islamabad with his wife, Helga Ahmad.


PatchworkEllen Banda-Aaku (Zambia), Penguin Books, South Africa

‘Zambia is a country that is rich in culture, what better way to preserve, document and share our culture than to write about it? Through Literature we exist. I have been asked many times, what inspired me to write Patchwork, my response; as I was growing up in Zambia I had a lot of questions in my head, a lot of questions I couldn’t ask because good children didn’t get involved in adult conversation. It is those unasked questions that inspired me to write Patchwork.’

Ellen Banda-Aaku has lived, studied and worked in Ghana, South Africa, the UK and Zambia. She has published three books for children and her short stories have appeared in anthologies published in Australia, South Africa and the US. In 2004 she won the Macmillan Writers’ Prize for Africa for Wandi’s Little Voice, a book for children. In 2007, her short story, Sozi’s Box was the overall winner of the 2007 Commonwealth Short Story Competition. Ellen has three university degrees and currently lives in the UK with her two children.


  Rebirth: a novel, Jahnavi Barua (India), Penguin Books India

‘I was born in Guwahati, the capital of Assam in the far north-eastern corner of India and have since lived in Shillong, Guwahati, Delhi, England, Bangalore,  Ahmedabad, Cochin and Kolkata. This nomadic lifestyle has, among other things, influenced me in two profound ways: it has made me sensitive to the landscape –  both physical and emotional – around me and it has made me sympathetic to the “outsider”, to the man, woman or child on the fringe of groups. These influences have gone on to inform my fiction in overt and in insidious ways. Another strong influence on my writing has been my medical training; although I do not practise   as a doctor, it has given me a privileged insight into the human condition. In my fiction, I explore the world of human relationships; I am fascinated by what flows beneath the surface of human interaction. I also tend to examine, frequently, the dilemma of the outsider. My fiction is also –as I mentioned – marked by a strong sense of place, especially that of my native Assam: the magnificent Brahmaputra river, the gorgeous river valleys, forests and misty hills of the state frequently find their way into my work. Of late, I find, the city of Bangalore, where I have lived long years, is doing the same, as is another of my passions – nature and conservation. Currently, I live in Bangalore with my husband and young son.’

Jahnavi Barua is a writer based in Bangalore. Her first book, Next Door, a collection of short stories, was published by Penguin India in 2008 to wide critical acclaim, and her second, Rebirth, a novel, was published by Penguin India in January 2011. This novel was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2011. Jahnavi’s short fiction has been widely anthologized and she also contributes essays and book reviews to various publications. In 2006, the British Council awarded her a Charles Wallace Trust fellowship for Creative Writing.


The Sly Company of People Who Care, Rahul Bhattacharya (India) Picador

My impulse for this book came from a desire to be in Guyana, a place whose mood is a physical sensation. Though it is not as rare to find in literature as you might think, I needed to work through its wonders and curiosities for myself. I am from a colonized country, and yet it was not before I went to Guyana that I could appreciate the epic consequences of colonization. Hosted upon its profuse, raw landscapes are the compressed histories of Indian, African, Chinese, European and indigenous people. I imagined whole populations leaving home with no information about their destination, as it would have been under slavery and indenture. Migration is an unfathomable depth. The most intimate way for me to write about this moving experience was in a novel. To me Sly Company is a book of movement, and new relationships, between men, and women and men, between races, between people and their circumstances and their yearning. I wanted to try and capture as best as I could the humour and frictions and the slipperiness of these encounters, and I wanted for it to feel as true and vivid as life.

Born in 1979, Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of Pundits from Pakistan, a work of reportage on the cricket competition between India and Pakistan. He lives in New Delhi, India, and this is his first novel.


The Ottoman Motel
, Christopher Currie (Australia), The Text Publishing Company

‘I am completely gobsmacked and deeply honoured to be included on such a prestigious shortlist, and held among such esteemed company as the other shortlisted
authors. The Ottoman Motel, as with all first novels, was a labour of love, a project I had all but given up on more than once. To receive this recognition from the
Commonwealth Foundation is not only deeply heartening but also deeply encouraging, especially as I forge ahead on my next book. Writing is just one person and
their imagination. It can be a lonely and morale-sapping pursuit, and this type of recognition is invaluable. It speaks as well, of course, to the strength and
dedication of my wonderful publisher, Text, who has three books shortlisted. The rest of this year will see me finishing my next book, and then I’m off to Europe in
2013 to research book three.’

Christopher Currie is a writer and bookseller from Brisbane. His fiction has appeared in anthologies and journals internationally. Christopher maintains the literary blog www.furioushorses.com where he once posted a brand new short story every day for a year. Chris made international headlines when he proposed to his girlfriend in the acknowledgements page of his first novel, The Ottoman Motel. (She said yes!)


A Cupboard Full of CoatsYvvette Edwards (UK), Oneworld Publications

‘Since childhood I’ve been a passionate reader and writer, and my life experiences have naturally informed my writing process.  But I always felt separate from the mainstream – those widely represented across the genres – and always had a concern about their level of interest in difference.  Did they want to read about the Montserratian community in London’s inner cities? Were they interested in the influence of Caribbean culture on the lives of second generation migrants who have lived in England their whole lives, or the conflict of being simultaneously West-Indian and British?  Finally I realised that actually, it’s not the differences that define humanity, but the common grounds.  The yearning for love.  The need for security.  Our emotional responses to loss and pain and guilt.  Our capacity to make bad choices.  The claustrophobic desire for redemption.  These are common features of people of all races.   Once I recognised that, colour and culture became the adornments, the seasoning, the flavouring, but not the essence of the writing itself. I write what I want to read, using characters and settings I recognise, with emotional honesty that transcends the boundaries of difference.  And when I manage that, in addition to telling a riveting tale, I’m satisfied.’

Yvvette Edwards has lived in London all her life. She grew up in Hackney and is of Monserratian-British origin. Yvvette continues to live in the East End, and is married with three children. A Cupboard Full Of Coats is her first novel.


   The Book of AnswersCY Gopinath (India), HarperCollins India

‘I’ve been a journalist as far as I can remember, so the transition to writing a novel was painful. I wrote The Book of Answers kicking and screaming every step of the
way that I couldn’t. I kept telling my literary agent — Journalists need the facts first, Nathan; they’re not supposed to make up facts. But authors apparently do. And I
did. I found myself foraging among my own memories to fish out facts and details to use in my story. I came to realize that an author plucks facts out of his life and his
environment — and then, with a wave of a wand, turns them into fiction in the stockpot of his imagination. It is an author’s job to create new composites and amalgams from old details. But pure magic for me was in those moments when I found I had written something that rang no bells, was utterly unrecognizable from any part of my life or experience. These are moments when your mind goes hushed with awe. These unexpected unplanned moments of pure creation, of something from nothing, to me are the ones that stand out. These were the moments when the journalist had been completely supplanted by the author.’

From early beginnings as an itinerant reporter in India’s iconic JS magazine, C.Y. Gopinath’s career spans journalism, film-making, theatre, music, graphic design, and education. He lives in Thailand, where he is working on his second novel, Balman the Maltruist.


JubileeShelley Harris (South Africa), Weidenfeld & Nicolson

‘Looking back at my early years, it’s probably no surprise that my debut novel is about a child who crosses cultures. I was born in Cape Town to a South African mom and a British dad. When my parents felt they could no longer live under Apartheid we moved to Britain, settling in an English village. A few years afterwards, in 1977, the Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee. I recall Union Jacks everywhere and a national obsession with all things royal. I recall my own hope that somewhere in all of this was the key to becoming really, truly British. I was, of course, wide of the mark – though it took many years to work that out. I revisited that national moment to tell Satish’s story in Jubilee. He too has come from Africa to Britain, though in his case he has fled from Idi Amin’s Uganda, arriving in a close-knit English village whose secrets are buried just beneath the surface. On Jubilee day, Satish is snapped at the centre of an iconic street party photograph. The picture is celebrated as an image of modern Britain. But only Satish knows the truth behind it…’

Shelley Harris was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1967, to a South African mother and a British father. She has worked, among other things, as a teacher, a reporter, a mystery shopper and a bouncer at a teen disco. When she is not writing, she volunteers at her local Oxfam bookshop, helping customers find just the right book. Jubilee is her first novel.


  The Dancing and the Death on Lemon Street, Denis Hirson (UK), Jacana Media

‘When Nelson Mandela stepped out of jail he opened a symbolic door not only to the future, but also to the deep freeze of what had been unspoken and unfulfilled in
the past. Despite making a new life for myself here in Europe, I recently found myself with a sense of urgent inevitability returning to 1960 in South Africa. That was the year when the Sharpeville massacre occurred and the deaf, blind violence of the National Party’s fundamentalism was fully loosed upon the country. Against this and other events I have set my first novel on a single Johannesburg street, wanting above all to tell a good story of people who lived through those strangely luminous days. For some the darkness seemed to be held at bay or even not to exist at all, while others saw it slipping inexorably under their doorsteps. Memory is a muscle, words a way of making it young and supple.  And while so much has changed in South Africa, it is important not to forget. With this in mind, I have returned to the texture of life in those days now, seeing it as I could not then.’

Denis Hirson was born in 1951, and lived in South Africa until the age of 22. He is a graduate of the University of the Witwatersrand, where he studied Social Anthropology. Since 1975 he has lived in France, where he works as a teacher and writer. He has published five books, all of them concerned with the memory of the apartheid years in South Africa, all of them crossing the frontier between prose and poetry: The House Next Door to Africa (David Philip); I Remember King Kong (the Boxer), We Walk Straight So You Better Get Out the Way, White Scars, and Gardening in the Dark (all with Jacana). He is the editor with Martin Trump of The Heinemann Book of South African Short Stories (Heinemann, 1994); and editor of The Lava of this Land, South African Poetry 1960-1996 (Northwestern University Press, 1997).


The Vanishing Act, Mette Jakobsen (Australia), The Text Publishing Company

‘Nothing prepared me for the kind of freedom that comes with writing. It’s not a backpacking, jungle-trekking kind of freedom. The privilege of having a voice immediately pairs the flight of imagination with the need to say something worthwhile.’

Mette Jakobsen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1964 but now lives in Newtown, Sydney. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and a BA in philosophy. In 2004 she graduated from NIDA’s Playwrights Studio and several of her plays have been broadcast on ABC national radio. The Vanishing Act is her first novel.


Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep MathewShehan Karunatilaka (Sri Lanka), Random House India

‘When I wrote Chinaman I didn’t expect anyone outside of Colombo to get it. So I wrote it as if I was speaking to one person, someone who didn’t live that far from where I was sitting. It’s been a crazy ride watching the book pick up fans across Asia, Africa and Europe. And witness readers who have no interest in cricket or Sri Lanka responding to the book. And now for it to get shortlisted for a Commonwealth Writer’s Prize is beyond insane. I’m very surprised and very grateful.’

Shehan Karunatilaka is an author of Sri Lankan origin and has written advertisements, rock songs, travel stories, and basslines. Chinaman is his first novel which has won the 2012 DSC Prize.


Purple Threads, Jeanine Leane (Australia), University of Queensland Press

‘I have been a writer and an educator for over half my life. Influenced as an Aboriginal child growing up in a small country town, I am passionate about alternative perspectives and experiences threaded through Australia’s narrative and official history. Purple Threads took years to write and was inspired by the death of one of my aunties, who was the custodian of many family stories. I experimented with different writing styles before I came up with the ‘episodic novel’ style as a realistic and respectful way to tell the stories, in fictionalised form, of strong Aboriginal women in the 1960s and 70s, whose personal histories so often stand in stark contrast to the nation’s official history. Some people who have read the book say that while they enjoyed its descriptions of land and people, there were too many loose threads and unanswered questions. But that is the reality of life for many Aboriginal people today – due to the past. Threads are an important motif in the novel: even though some threads may never tie up neatly, they represent the stories and people who wove the tapestry of my early life.’

Jeanine Leane is a Wiradjuri woman from South West NSW. She has a strong background in education, having taught for 20 years at both secondary and tertiary levels. Leane is a postdoctoral fellow at the Australian Centre for Indigenous History at the Australian National University & a recipient of an Australian Research Council grant to produce a scholarly monograph on post-Mabo Aboriginal writing, and currently works as an Indigenous Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. She recently submitted her PhD thesis at UTS, which examines how the fictional portraits of Aboriginal people by authors such as KS Pritchard, Patrick White, David Malouf and Kate Grenville influenced generations of non-Aboriginal learners via school curricula from the 1960s onward.


SweetheartAlecia McKenzie (Jamaica), Peepal Tree Press

‘Two days after the Commonwealth Writers shortlists were announced, my daughter and I were on a flight from Birmingham back to France. We’d been visiting my 84-year-old aunt and cousins, and the trip had been a pleasure. We recalled the jokes exchanged and the stories of Independence and emigration. We stopped talking about 30 minutes into the flight, when the plane ran into turbulence that shook us ferociously. Things flew through the air. People screamed. I thought I heard someone praying. The stylishly dressed woman next to us turned her wedding ring round and round on her finger. I clutched my daughter’s hand, surprised that she didn’t seem frightened. As my glass of apple juice – served just minutes previously – bounced off the tray and soaked my jeans, I closed my eyes. The thought popped into my head: what would Dulci (the main character in Sweetheart) do in a situation like this? The answer came right back:  relax and pretend you’re on a roller coaster. This helped enormously. It’s funny when fictional characters talk back and give advice, but I’m getting used to it now. We landed safely in pouring rain.’

 Alecia McKenzie was born in Kingston, Jamaica. She started writing while at high school, and her poems were published in local newspapers The Gleaner and The Star. She is the author of two novellas for children, and two collections of short stories, including Stories from Yard, Peepal Tree Press, 2005. Her first collection of short stories, Satellite City, won the regional Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book. Her work has also appeared in literary magazines and various anthologies such as Stories from Blue Latitudes, Global Tales and the first Girls’ Night In. Sweetheart is her first novel.


The Town that DrownedRiel Nason (Canada), Goose Lane Editions

‘I am so honoured that The Town That Drowned is on the shortlist for the Commonwealth Book Prize. The book is a coming-of-age story set in a fictional version of the small area where I grew up – rural New Brunswick, Canada. The thought that my novel has made a connection with readers so far away from here sincerely thrills me. (I love to think of someone in another country looking up the places in the book on Google maps!) That said, I hope/think the themes in the book are universal.  It is really a story about the challenges of change. The Town That Drowned focuses on both the changes in my 14-year-old protagonist Ruby Carson as she grows up over a period of two years, as well as the changes to a whole community who learn they will be permanently displaced once a hydro-electric dam is completed and their riverside homes will be forever swallowed by flood waters.  It was my goal to write an engaging straight-ahead story with a likeable character who the reader could cheer for. I’m proud of how the novel turned out.   Thank you so much for the recognition.’

Riel Nason lives in Quispamsis, NB with her husband and two young children.  Her short fiction has appeared in literary journals across Canada including The Malahat Review, Grain and The Antigonish Review.  In 2005 she was awarded the David Adams Richards Prize from the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick. She has also written many non-fiction articles on the topic of antiques and collectibles, including a long-time column in New Brunswick’s Telegraph-Journal. The Town that Drowned is her first novel. Riel maintains a website at http://rielnason.blogspot.com/.


Dancing LessonsOlive Senior (Canada), Cormorant Books

‘Although I have written a lot, I am really attached to the short form (poetry and short stories) so writing Dancing Lessons – my first novel – was a real challenge.  But I am glad I was able to give voice to Gertrude Samphire who, like many women, had spent her life in silence until she cracked open a new journal and day by day wrote her way into the world. I am thrilled to have Dancing Lessons on a shortlist which reflects a very special community of writers, united by history and language yet displaying such diversity.  The Commonwealth Book Prize is a marvellous opportunity for us to get to know more about each other; I certainly look forward to reading some of these books which I probably would not otherwise have heard about.’

Olive Senior is a fiction writer, poet, journalist, and editor. Her short story collection Summer Lightning (Longman, 1986) won the inaugural Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, and her poetry collection Over the Roofs of the World (Insomniac, 2005) was a finalist for the 2005 Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry. Born in Jamaica, she has lived in Portugal, the Netherlands, and the UK; she now spends her time in Jamaica and Toronto.


The Dubious Salvation of Jack VJacques Strauss (South Africa), Jonathan Cape

‘Two weeks ago, for the first and probably only time, I saw a stranger reading my book. Because the chances of this are infinitesimally small I thought, ‘How did that person get into my flat?’ I’ve read about other writers this has happened to, the way they’re flooded with feelings of warmth and gratitude towards the person, which of course I was. Writing is a bit like sidling up to a stranger on a tube and whispering ‘Um … can I tell you my story? It will only cost you £8.00.’ The miracle of the thing is that for all the black-eyes and punched noses (metaphorically speaking) sometimes people say, ‘Go on then.’ Who knows if one can make a career out of it? Who knows if anyone will ever listen? But the great thing is, hiding behind your laptop, you can be that nutter on the train for as long as you want, safe from physical harm, if not the occasional soul-destroying, one-star (annoyingly astute) evisceration. I live in South London with my partner. In between writing reams of corporate copy, I am trying to finish my second book. (Next month, I am going to collect my basset hound whose food bills will only be paid for by royalties. If you don’t want to starve puppies, please buy my book.)’

Jacques Strauss is a 30 year old South African. He studied philosophy at university, obsessed over Derrida and now writes reams of corporate copy for a London firm.


Me and Mr Booker, Cory Taylor (Australia), The Text Publishing Company

‘Since the publication of Me and Mr Booker I’ve been asked to explain the attraction younger women feel towards older men, as if there’s a bigger story happening outside of the book that I must know all about, except that in my experience writing doesn’t work that way. I don’t know anything other than what I have written. The act of arranging words to tell a story is about quietly chiseling out the particularities of a character, a situation, a setting, a conversation. I do this because it matters to me that these things be truthful, and because I believe it is the role of fiction to show rather than to explain. Beyond that there is what Joan Didion once described as a kind of bullying, an insistence that my version of events is the only one that makes any real sense. So I can’t tell you why some girls are attracted to men twice their age, all I can say is that Martha fell for Mr Booker and paid the price. Which makes the book sound like a cautionary tale, which it isn’t. It’s a love story.’

Cory Taylor is an award-winning screenwriter who has also published short fiction and children’s books. She lives in Brisbane. ME AND MR BOOKER is her first novel.


PaoKerry Young (UK), Bloomsbury

‘Pao was inspired by two things: firstly, my love for my father, and secondly, my love for Jamaica. My father died very young and I wanted for him a better life than the one he had so I invented Yang Pao as a gift to him – the life of a man who was more successful, more inventive and a lot funnier than my father ever was. As Jamaicans, I think we are misunderstood. In writing Pao I wanted to help people understand some of the reasons behind the difficult and sometimes violent journey we have had; how colonialism and slavery left us with a society divided by race, class and colour; the incredibly diverse nature of Jamaican society and why it is that, for us, our national motto ‘Out of Many, One People’ is so very important. Yet, despite the seriousness of its themes, Pao is, in essence, a book to be enjoyed. For me its underlying message is this: as human beings we are both complex and flawed. We enter into circumstances not of our making but created by history and given to us, and we try to do our best.’

 Kerry Young was born in Kingston, Jamaica, to a Chinese father and mother of mixed Chinese-African heritage. She came to England in 1965 at the age of ten. Kerry’s early life with her father, a businessman who operated within Kingston’s shadow economy, provided the inspiration for Pao. Kerry Young has written extensively on issues relating to youth work, including The Art of Youth Work. She lives in Leicestershire.