South African becomes youngest Commonwealth Short Story Prize winner

Hana Gammon

South African Hana Gammon, 20, becomes youngest winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

Photo credit: Courtesy | Hana Gammon via Commonwealth Foundation

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize committee on Wednesday named the five regional winners with 20-year-old Hana Gammon from South Africa winning in the Africa category and becoming the youngest winner in the history of the award.

Ms Gammon, who had not expected her story to make it this far, told Nation.Africa that she feels “incredibly honoured that my story was selected out of so many great entries from all around the world. This is a huge step for my writing career, especially as a young emerging writer.”

Her winning story, The Undertaker’s Apprentice, “is a story about life, death and balance. It follows a group of children in a small town at the edge of a forest, and their interactions with the titular town undertaker and his young apprentice. As they grow up, they encounter guilt, trauma, grief, and must learn what it means to give and to take.”

The author’s story beat five others that had been shortlisted in the African category: Price Tags by Kenya’s Buke Abduba, Punching Lines by Josiah Mbote (Kenya), Arboretum by H.B Asari (Nigeria), Mama Blue by Michael Boyd (South Africa) and Falling from a knife tree by Matshediso Radebe (South Africa).

The award is given to five winners from five different regions–Africa, Asia, Canada and Europe, Caribbean, and Pacific regions. The other winners in this year’s prize are: 

  • Asia: Oceans Away from my Homeland by Agnes Chew (Singapore)
  • Canada and Europe: Lech, Prince, and the Nice Things by Rue Baldry (UK)
  • Caribbean: Ocoee by Kwame McPherson (Jamaica)
  • Pacific: Kilinochchi by Himali McInnes (New Zealand)

The five regional winners were selected from a shortlist of 28.

The Commonwealth Foundation said the five “gripping” stories tackled “difficult metaphysical and historical questions”, and they range from literary fiction to historical and speculative fiction.

The stories address diverse 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.”

Chair of the JudgesBilal Tanweer said the judging process “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,” he added.

All the five regional winners will receive an award of £2,500 (Ksh411,663) each and will be published online by the literary magazine Granta.

Granta’s Deputy Editor and Managing Director Luke Neima says, “We're thrilled to be publishing the regional winners of the 2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize at Granta. Year after year the prize has put a spotlight on extraordinary new talents working across the Commonwealth, and this cohort is one of exceptional promise and talent.”

From the five regional winners, the judges will select an overall winner who will walk away with a prize of £5,000 (Ksh823,327). The overall winner will be announced in an online award ceremony on June 27.

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is awarded annually by the Commonwealth Foundation, an intergovernmental organisation, for the best piece of unpublished short fiction from the Commonwealth’s 56 member states.

For the 2023 prize, the foundation received 6,642 entries. And, for the first time, it also received entries from Togo and Gabon—the newest members of the Commonwealth.

This year’s judging panel consisted of Bilal Tanweer (Chair), Rémy Ngamije (Judge, African Region), Ameena Hussein (Judge, Asian Region), Katrina Best (Judge, Canada and Europe Region), Mac Donald Dixon (Judge, Caribbean Region) and Dr. Selina Tusitala Marsh (Judge, Pacific Region).

In 2022, eSwatini chemist and writer Ntsika Kota was named winner of the prize for his story and the earth drank deep. This was the first time a person from eSwatini won the competition.

“There are not many literature prizes more global in scale or inclusive in scope than the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. I submitted my story more out of pride than expectation. I was aware of the calibre of writing and adjudication, so I was under no illusions about my chances. However, against all odds, my story was shortlisted. It was just the endorsement I had hoped for. It meant that the pride I felt in what I had put to page was justified,” he said after winning the prize.

The 2024 prize will open for submissions on September 1, 2023.

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