Alexia Tolas winner for Caribbean in 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize
The writer Alexia Tolas, born and raised in The Bahamas, has been announced the regional winner for the Caribbean in the world’s most global literary prize. In her story “Granma’s Porch”, the protagonist navigates the delicate border between adolescence and adulthood, guided by the past traumas of her friends and family and her troubled first love.
The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is awarded annually for the best piece of unpublished short fiction from the Commonwealth. It is the only prize in the world where entries can be submitted in Bengali, Chinese, English, Greek, Malay, Portuguese, Samoan, Swahili, Tamil and Turkish.
Tolas said: “Winning the regional prize for the Caribbean means everything to me. It means that I made the right choice. After my first semester in college, I had to make a difficult choice between doing what was expected of me and what I wanted.
“It seemed to be a selfish decision. I come from a struggling family and a struggling island, so as a girl with potential, I was expected to prepare myself for a lucrative career in the traditional professions: law, medicine, architecture. However, I chose to write. I got a lot of criticism for that choice. Many people asked me what I could do with a literature degree: write children’s books, teach? I could, and there is nothing wrong with either. I make my living using my degree, and I am happy, but I still felt as if the true purpose behind my decision had not been realized. It has now.”
The international judging panel, chaired by British novelist, playwright and essayist Caryl Phillips, has chosen the five winning stories, all written by women, from a shortlist of 21, after 5,081 entries were submitted from 50 Commonwealth countries.
Phillips said: “The regional winners of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize explore a remarkably diverse range of subject-matter, including stories about war, love, abuse and neglect. What unites the stories is a common thread of narrative excellence and dramatic intensity. The voices of a truly global cast of characters enable us to engage with, and recognize, universal emotions of pain and loss.”
The other regional winners are:
• In Africa, Mbozi Haimbe, who was born and raised in Lusaka, Zambia, and now lives in Norfolk, UK, wins for “Madam’s Sister”, in which the arrival of a sister from London causes upheaval in a Zambian household.
• In Asia, the Malaysian freelance writer and language and writing teacher Saras Manickam wins for her story “My Mother Pattu”. The story explores a mother’s violent jealousy and envy towards her daughter, who finds that no one can protect her from the abuse except herself.
• In Canada and Europe, the Cypriot writer Constantia Soteriou wins for her story “Death Customs”, about mothers and wives in Cyprus who were led to believe that their loved ones were missing after the 1974 war, when the state had clear evidence of their deaths. The story was translated by Nicosia-based translator and cultural critic Lina Protopapa.
• In the Pacific, the writer, artist and editor Harley Hern, who lives on a rural block where she chainsaws firewood and fixes fences, wins for “Screaming”, in which a visit to a New Zealand care home forces two friends to confront deceit, identity and endings.
The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is run by Commonwealth Writers, the cultural initiative of the Commonwealth Foundation. Commonwealth Writers develops and connects writers across the world and helps address the challenges they face in different regions. Such linguistic diversity in a short story prize in part represents the richness of the many and varied literary traditions of the Commonwealth.
Vijay Krishnarayan, director general of the Commonwealth Foundation, said: “This year’s regional winners demonstrate the richness of new writing and it is striking that they are all women. In a world where men still dominate the literary landscape you can see the value of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in bringing less heard experiences to the fore. The stories touch on the gamut of human emotions and speak to each of us. Not only is this the world’s most global prize, it’s the world’s most relevant prize.”
The prize is judged by an international panel of writers, representing each of the five regions of the Commonwealth. The 2019 judges were Ugandan novelist and short story writer Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, overall winner of the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize (Africa); the Pakistani writer and journalist Mohammed Hanif, whose novel “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize (Asia); the award-winning author of speculative fiction, Karen Lord, from Barbados (Caribbean); the British short story writer Chris Power, author of the Rathbones Folio Prize-longlisted collection “Mothers” (Canada and Europe); and the poet, playwright, fiction writer and musician Courtney Sina Meredith, a New Zealander of Samoan, Mangaian and Irish descent (Pacific).
The five regional winners’ stories will be published online in the run-up to the announcement of the overall winner by the literary magazine Granta.
Luke Neima, digital director at Granta, said: “This year’s Commonwealth Short Story Prize winning stories showcase the short story in a range of guises, innovations of form that stretch but never exhaust the potential of the short story to address the regional and universal questions this gifted crop of authors seeks to address. These outstanding stories capture the breadth of talent writing today across the Commonwealth.”
Following publication by Granta, the winning stories will also be published in the online magazine of Commonwealth Writers, adda (www.addastories.org).
The overall winner will be announced in Québec City on July 9, 2019.