Header image (l to r, top to bottom): Hana Gammon, Agnes Chew, Rue Baldry, Kwame McPherson, Himali McInnes
The regional winners of the 2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, known as the ‘world’s most global literary prize’, have been announced—including Hana Gammon from South Africa.
The twenty-year-old from Cape Town, who is studying at Stellenbosch University, is the youngest of the five regional winners.
Her story, ‘The Undertaker’s Apprentice’, winner of the Africa region, follows a group of children and their interactions with their small town’s sombre but kind mortician.
The judges praised the story as ‘a carefully observed, patiently narrated, and exquisitely written story about youth and the ways in which we come to adulthood through experiencing loss and death’.
Gammon beat off strong competition from five other shortlisted writers in the Africa region: fellow South Africans Michael Boyd and Matshediso Radebe, as well as Kenyan writers Buke Abduba and Josiah Mbote, and HB Asari from Nigeria.
Commenting on the background to the story, Gammon says it was inspired:
‘by my frequent thoughts about the process of life and its inevitable end. The topic of death—and of anything to do with change, decay, and liminality, really—is one that has been a source of much fascination and questioning for me my whole life … The story was also, in part, inspired by my research on funerary science and its history.’
‘There’s a lot about death that we don’t know and probably never will know as long as we’re on this side of the grave, but I do have faith that death can be as much of a beginning as it is an end… I hope that my story will be able to speak, in a soft but clear voice, to its readers, and that it might contribute in its own small way to how we embrace life, death, and change.’
The judge representing the African region, Namibian writer and photographer Rémy Ngamije, says:
‘“The Undertaker’s Apprentice” is a carefully observed, patiently narrated, and exquisitely written story about youth and the ways in which we come to adulthood through experiencing loss and death. There is, at its heart, a complex examination of the exchanges made between the living and the dead, the young and the old, and the experienced and the naive. Gammon’s command of language is gentle but powerful and provides each reader with their own way of coming to terms with the fruits of its reading. ‘The Undertaker’s Apprentice’, through its strangely refreshing narrative and poignant ruminations, shows the diversity of stories from the African continent; its selection as Africa Regional Winner is a testament to the richness of continental storytelling and the ability for stories to be both intensely personal and universal.’
The five winning writers, chosen from 6,642 entrants this year, hail from Jamaica, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa, and the United Kingdom, and are recognised for stories that range from literary fiction to historical and speculative fiction. The Commonwealth Foundation called the stories ‘gripping’ as they tackle ‘difficult metaphysical and historical questions’. The international judging panel chose the five winning stories from a shortlist of twenty-eight.
The foundation writes:
‘The stories address a rich diversity of themes: from exploitation to subversive acts of rebellion, cultural displacement, the balance of life and death, the world of adults as viewed by children, and the pull of family ties across the globe and through the generations. The judges remarked on the strong sense of place in all the stories—with locations featuring a building site in Britain, a German oncology clinic ‘oceans away’ from the narrator’s homeland, and a war-torn town in Sri Lanka.’
Chair of the Judges Bilal Tanweer had this to say about the judging process:
‘It was both an agony and a pleasure to choose the overall winner from each region. All the winning stories demonstrated impressive ambition, an intimate understanding of place and a real mastery of the craft. The judges were unanimous in their admiration of these stories and how they sought to tackle difficult metaphysical and historical questions.’
2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize winners
‘The Undertaker’s Apprentice’ by Hana Gammon (South Africa)
‘The Undertaker’s Apprentice’ follows a group of children in a small town, relaying their interactions with the town’s sombre but kind mortician. As the children grow up, they are forced to question issues of growth, decay, and exchange between different states of being.
About the author: Twenty-year-old student Hana Gammon was born in Cape Town, South Africa, and has had a love for writing ever since she could first pick up a pen. She is currently studying for a BA in Language and Culture at the University of Stellenbosch.
‘Oceans Away from my Homeland’ by Agnes Chew (Singapore)
‘Oceans Away from my Homeland’ is about a woman’s struggle to confront the perceived changes in her life—both of and beyond her own making.
About the author: Thirty-four-year-old Agnes Chew is the author of Eternal Summer of My Homeland (forthcoming from Epigram Books) and The Desire for Elsewhere (Math Paper Press, 2016). Her work has appeared in Necessary Fiction, Wildness Journal, and NonBinary Review, among others. She holds a Master’s degree in international development from the London School of Economics. Born and raised in Singapore, she is currently based in Germany.
Canada and Europe
‘Lech, Prince, and the Nice Things’ by Rue Baldry (UK)
A young Black plasterer, drawn to committing petty acts of revenge against his employer’s neglected possessions, risks becoming more diminished than those status symbols.
About the author: Rue Baldry is a British author. She lives in York, has a Creative Writing MA from Leeds University, was a Bridge Awards Emerging Writer, Jerwood/Arvon mentee and Women’s Prize Discoveries longlistee. She has published stories in Ambit, Mslexia, Fairlight Shorts, Litro, Honest Ulsterman, MIR, and The First Line. Her work has placed in several competitions, including coming second in the Yeovil Prize. Her debut novel, Dwell, is currently on submission.
‘Ocoee’ by Kwame McPherson (Jamaica)
The story is an interweaving of African American reality and history, and Caribbean folklore.
About the author: A past student at London Metropolitan University and University of Westminster, Kwame McPherson is a 2007 Poetic Soul winner and was the first Jamaican Flash Fiction Bursary Awardee for The Bridport Prize: International Creative Writing Competition in 2020. A prolific writer, Kwame is a recent and successful contributor to Flame Tree Publishing’s (UK) diverse-writing anthologies and a contributor to The Heart of a Black Man anthology to be published in Los Angeles, which tells personal, inspiring, uplifting, and empowering stories from influential and powerful Black men.
‘Kilinochchi’ by Himali McInnes (New Zealand)
‘Kilinochchi’ is set during an especially bloody time in Sri Lanka’s civil war. The protagonist, an up-country Tamil tea-picker, comes from a long line of indentured labourers.
About the author: Himali McInnes works as a family doctor in a busy Auckland practice and in the prison system. She is a constant gardener, a chicken farmer, and a beekeeper. Himali writes short stories, essays, flash fiction and poetry, and has been published in various journals and anthologies. Her non-fiction book The Unexpected Patient was published in 2021.
The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is awarded annually for ‘the best piece of unpublished short fiction’ from any of the Commonwealth’s fifty-six member states. This year’s award saw, for the first time, entries from Togo and Gabon—the very newest member states of the Commonwealth.
Unlike most writing competitions, entries can be submitted in a diversity of languages, including English, Bengali, Chinese, Creole, French, Greek, Malay, Portuguese, Samoan, Swahili, Tamil and Turkish. In 2023, 475 entries were submitted in languages other than English.
Bilal Tanweer chairs this year’s panel of judges, each representing the five regions of the Commonwealth. These are Rwandan-born writer, photographer, and editor, Rémy Ngamije (Africa), Sri Lankan author and publisher Ameena Hussein (Asia), British–Canadian author Katrina Best (Canada and Europe), Saint Lucian poet and novelist Mac Donald Dixon (Caribbean), and New Zealand’s former Poet Laureate, Selina Tusitala Marsh (Pacific).
The five regional winners’ stories will be published online by the literary magazine Granta, ahead of the announcement of the overall winner.
The 2023 overall winner will be announced on Tuesday, 27 June.