When she found out she had been selected among the five regional winners of the 2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, South African Hana Gammon could not believe it. But soon, the disbelief was replaced with joy, which she immediately shared with her family.
“I was at home visiting my family when I got the news, so I immediately told them as well, and we all celebrated together,” she told Nation.Africa soon after she found out the news.
And family is truly important to Hana, such that she dedicated the winning story to her grandfather who had always encouraged her to write. She explained to the Commonwealth Foundation that the themes of life, death and change in her story are dear to her “since my Oupa passed away at the beginning of this year. He was an esteemed writer and academic, and one of the first people to encourage my love for writing. I would like to dedicate this story to him.”
“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,” Hana added.
The young author had not expected to win, let alone be among the top in the competition, when she answered the call for submissions in 2022. And she was “surprised” and “ecstatic” when her story won.
“I wasn’t expecting it to get so far in the competition, especially since I’m an unpublished writer,” she told the Commonwealth Foundation.
Hana had entered several competitions before, and had made it as far as the shortlists in some. But this win was still unexpected; and at only 20 years of age, becoming the youngest winner in the history of the award, she has achieved a feat many would like to.
“This is a huge step for my writing career, especially as a young emerging writer. I am very grateful for this opportunity and especially honoured to be the youngest of the selected winners,” she told Nation.Africa.
Hana’s story, The Undertaker’s Apprentice, is a story about life, death and balance, and how these intertwine in the lives of people in a small town. It tells the story of the interactions between a group of children and an undertaker’s young apprentice. “As they grow up, they encounter guilt, trauma, [and] grief; and must learn what it means to give and to take,” Hana told Nation.Africa.
Four other authors were selected winners for their respective regions. The award is given to five winners each from five different regions: Africa; Asia; Canada and Europe; the Caribbean; and Pacific regions. Hana bagged the cup for the Africa region category while 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 judges in the 2023 competition described the five winning stories as “gripping”, with the chair of the judges, Bilal Tanweer, saying “The judges were unanimous in their admiration of these stories and how they sought to tackle difficult metaphysical and historical questions.”
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,” he added.
The regional winners were selected from a general shortlist of 28, out of which six stories, including Hana’s, were shortlisted in the Africa category to battle for the category prize.
Rémy Ngamije, who was the judge of the Africa region category, said Hana’s story was a refreshing narrative while her language was powerful and relatable.
“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,” he said.
The winning story, Rémy added, “is a testament to the richness of continental storytelling and the ability for stories to be both intensely personal and universal.”
It is no wonder Hana was named the winner, beating five others, including two from Kenya, shortlisted in the Africa category. The shortlisted Africa region stories were: 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).
Born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2002, Hana began using words to tell stories even before she could write. When she was young and still didn’t know how to write, she would make up stories—mainly about dinosaurs and dragons—and narrate them to her father to write them down. As soon as she could write well, she began putting her words to paper.
Hana’s love for writing prompted her to pursue a BA in Language and Culture at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.
The course, she told Nation.Africa, has helped her to develop her writing skills and exposed her to new ways of thinking about the arts.
“Studying language and literature in-depth has given me very valuable insight to the literary world over the past few years, and I'm very thankful to have the opportunity to study,” she added.
Hana reflects on her writing, saying she is inspired by many things, but she is “especially inspired by mythology from around the world, Romantic and Gothic literature, and the horror genre. I want to create work that invites the reader to find the comfortable in what has been made uncanny and the uncanny in what has been made comfortable.”
As she celebrates her unexpected win, she is encouraged that she can go to higher heights. She plans to keep entering competitions and submitting her works, as well as working to get published. She has worked on a speculative horror novel, Joined at the Hip, and hopes to get it published this year. She is also waiting for feedback from a publisher about a novel she had worked on, and from a few literary magazines about short stories and poems that she submitted. As she waits, she continues pursuing other writing projects, including flash fiction works.
“I also recently started writing my first actual play, which has been really interesting for me, since I've never experimented all that much (sic) with theatre before,” she told Nation.Africa. “I'm also considering doing an Honours in Ancient Cultures next year, although I haven't decided yet.”
Hana urges budding writers to make use of the resources around them, especially those that are readily available online, as well as read widely as they work to build their own literary voices.
Hana and the other four regional winners–Agnes Chew, Rue Baldry, Kwame McPherson and Himali McInnes–will receive an award of £2,500 (Ksh411,663) each and will be published online by the literary magazine Granta.
“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,” said Granta’s Deputy Editor and Managing Director Luke Neima.
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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,” he said after winning the prize.
“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.”
The 2024 prize will open for submissions on September 1, 2023.