Commonwealth Short Story Prize offers unpublished writers a chance for recognition

The Commonwealth Foundation in London has announced the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, which is a competition open to all writers across the Commonwealth. This prize is awarded for the best piece of unpublished short fiction (2,000-5,000 words) in English. Short stories translated into English are also eligible. It is very specifically for work that has not been published before, unlike what obtains in most of the major literary prizes around the world.

Entries are invited from all writers who are citizens of Commonwealth countries regardless of where they may now be residing. The deadline for submissions is November 30, 2013. Manuscripts are to be sent according to specifications on an entry form which is to be found, along with all details of the competition, on www.commonwealthwriters.org/prizes.

Five regional winners will be selected and these will then go forward to the overall competition among all five regions. The winner of the overall Commonwealth Short Story Prize will receive £5,000. A Regional Prize of £2,500 will be awarded to the remaining four regional winners. Stories written in other languages must be translated into English, and the translators of the winning entries will also be awarded prizes – £1,000 for regional winners and £2,000 for the overall winner. The Commonwealth’s regions are: Canada and Europe, Asia, Africa, the Pacific and the Caribbean.

20131103ALThe competition is therefore an excellent opportunity for new and unpublished fiction writers to gain confidence and recognition. The opportunity is greater since it is unpublished short fiction and they might not necessarily have to compete with the highly recognised novelists. In fact, Emma D’Costa, Programme Officer of the Commonwealth Writers Prize at the Commonwealth Foundation specifies that the foundation is now focusing on “developing the craft of new writers across the Commonwealth, many of which are identified through the Short Story Prize. It’s also important for us that the Short Story Prize enables writers to enter from countries where there’s little or no publishing industry and enables authors writing in languages other than English to enter stories translated into English”.

Chairman of the Judges for 2014, Ellah Allfrey, invites applications with the following words: “My hope is that writers from across the Commonwealth will be encouraged to send us stories that bring us news of wherever they are, in the wide variety of voices and accents that make up the English language. It would be wonderful to see submissions from bold stylists and stories that experiment with the form as well as more traditional approaches to the short story. This prize celebrates the power of the short story to spin a tale that concentrates experience and character in such specificity that the local is transformed to significance far beyond its borders. This is the magic of good writing, and this is what I hope we will find.” What is of even greater interest is that the Short Story Prize is now the only literary prize offered by the Commonwealth Foundation. It has been in existence since 1996 when it was offered along with other more substantial prizes, but there were major changes in 2012. The most significant of these is that the Commonwealth Writers Prize for the best book of fiction was discontinued. It was replaced by The Commonwealth Book Prize which was for the Best First Book of fiction by a Commonwealth Writer. This prize was offered in 2012 and 2013.

2013 Joint Commonwealth Short Story Prize winners Eliza Robertson of Canada and Sharon Millar of Trinidad and Tobago
2013 Joint Commonwealth Short Story Prize winners Eliza Robertson of Canada and Sharon Millar of Trinidad and Tobago

In short time, there was another important change because the Commonwealth Book Prize was also discontinued. This leaves the Short Story award as the only one remaining and all efforts and resources of the foundation are now to be channelled into it. These changes reflect an important shift in policy. When the foundation began to offer literary prizes, it was in recognition of the rapid and outstanding growth in Commonwealth literature. Writers and writing from the former British colonies were emerging and making claim to a place in the world. The creation of the prize was to reward and recognise, but also to expand the audience, give further exposure to the writers and their work, and bring them to the attention of that wider international audience. The Commonwealth Writers Prize, which became the major award, had two categories: the Best Book and the Best First Book in which separate prizes were offered. The Best First Book came into being in 1989. This gave first time published authors an opportunity for recognition and exposure and they did not have to compete with established novelists.

The recent shifts in policy have given even more favour to the newcomers. The Best Book category was sacrificed to put more emphasis on the newer writers, since the Commonwealth Book Prize that replaced it was for first books. Now the shift is even greater in favour of developing literature since published books have been weaned altogether and the resources put into unpublished work.

Moreover, it is short fiction, which will more be the arena in which beginners will perform and where one is more likely to find accomplished new work.  Apprentices can better sharpen their craft in the short story before they take on full-length novels. Saying this, though, does not deny the short story as a form of high level accomplishment. It is still the chosen form of many of the best writers, and some of the greatest have worked there. Guy de Maupassant, O Henry, Chekhov, DH Lawrence, Joyce, Poe and Hemmingway immediately come to mind.

The discontinuation of the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the award for major novels, though, must be seen as the passing of a great tradition. It is the ushering out of an era, the relinquishing of grandeur, and the dismantling of one of the stalwarts of international literary competitions. It has gone too “gentle into that good night” (Dylan Thomas); it has ceased “upon the midnight with no pain” (John Donne) and on the eve of its cessation “there [were] no comets seen” (Shakespeare). There was relative silence and not the usual upheaval in the heavens that normally accompany disruptions in the natural order. Yet it is must be an unhappy development in the world of literature and the lessening of opportunities for, in particular, Caribbean writers.

The Commonwealth Writers Prize gave prominence to Commonwealth as well as world writing in English and some major international writers emerged from it or were associated with it. In addition, it accompanied the enlargement of one of the greatest literary movements in contemporary writing – that is, post-colonial literature and the theory of post-colonialism. It allowed for the possibility of Edward Said’s intervention with Orientalism. A number of winners of the Commonwealth Prize have been major contributors to the development of post-colonial writing and thought. These were exceptional inputs into the form of contemporary English fiction. A literature was created that had an impact on English and world literature arising from the political experience of colonialism and the relations of these writers with the United Kingdom.

This was the literature that was nurtured by the Commonwealth Writers Prize since it began in 1987, and the Commonwealth Poetry Prize that preceded it.  Among the regional and overall winners have been some of the leading names in post-colonial literature. These include Naipaul, David Malouf, JM Coetzee, Isidore Okpewho, Ama Ata Aidoo, Mordecai Richler, David Dabydeen, Caryl Phillips, Nadine Gordimer, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, and Ben Okri.

It was also important for Caribbean writers, many of whom were overall, regional or first book winners, particularly since there are very few prominent prizes in the Caribbean. The Commonwealth helped to keep Caribbean writing afloat even though over the years the region was dominated by Canada.  Among Caribbean winners, apart from Naipaul, Dabydeen and Phillips, were Mark McWatt, Pauline Melville, Olive Senior, Erna Brodber, Alecia McKenzie, Lawrence Scott, Earl Lovelace, Austin Clarke, Karen King Arabisala, Grace Nichols and Dennis Scott. African region winner Funso Aiyejina is now a Trinidadian.

But the Guyanese interest was even carried over into the short story, since the Short Story Winner in 2000 was Guyanese Dennis Nichols with “The Release”.  This Guyanese interest may also be said to have featured in the short-lived Commonwealth Book Prize since a novel by an Indian writer, Rahul Bhattacharya who had visited Guyana was shortlisted in the Asia region. The Sly Company of People Who Care, a novel about Guyana, was an extremely controversial item in that country whose readers were divided between shock, rejection and condemnation on one hand and praise and rave review on the other.

The closure of these prizes has increased the importance of the Guyana Prize for Literature as one of the few opportunities now open. Rising further in significance, too, is the Guyana Prize for Literature Caribbean Award, otherwise known as the Caribbean Prize, which is open to all Caribbean writers.  This prize was inaugurated in 2010 and won by Haitian novelist Myriam Chancy and Guyanese poet McWatt. It will now resume and is the only prize available to Caribbean writers in which they can win a major prize in each of all three creative disciplines Fiction, Poetry and Drama.

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