What is The Commonwealth Short Story Prize?

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize, inaugurated in 2013, was envisioned as an international platform for new writers, particularly those from countries that offer little by way of publishing opportunities.

How do I enter? The prize is free to enter and invites submissions from around the world. By removing all barriers to entry, whether money or geography, the prize aims to have a democratising influence in the literary world. All you need to enter, after all, is a brilliant original short story and an internet connection. To enter your story, go to the Commonwealth Short Story prize website.

What do I win? Winners also receive a significant cash prize (£2,500 for regional winners and £5,000 for the overall winner), which is an incentive not many new and struggling writers would sneer at!

What are the judges looking for?

Sunila Galappatti, a Sri Lankan-British writer and editor, is on the panel of judges for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2018. The British Council Libraries team had the opportunity to chat with Sunila about the vision behind the prize, and what kind of submissions she’s looking forward to. If you’re an aspiring writer looking to submit (and we hope you are!), read on to find out more, straight from the judge’s mouth.

What is your personal association with literature, and how did you come to be a judge for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize?

What a question! I'll give you one long answer and one short one.

What is my personal association with literature? Sometime around about the age of seven, I realised that reading was a delicious pleasure. One thing led to another and I went on to a more detailed study of reading and writing. With a degree in English literature, I started looking around for jobs, accepting that the job I found may have little to do with literature. I couldn't have been more wrong. Six months later, I found myself an apprentice dramaturg at the Royal Shakespeare Company, working on the company's classical and new repertoires and making critical value judgement on other people's writing. Exactly, as it turned out, what I had been trained to do, but with one huge difference: I often had to meet the writers and tell them what I thought (not Shakespeare, but some of the others). I carried on doing that, in theatre, film and prose worlds; eventually even at Commonwealth Writers where I commissioned and edited the non-fiction section of www.addastories.org in its first year. Somewhere along the way, I moved from the UK to Sri Lanka, my other home, and ran the Galle Literary Festival for two years, needing to bring myself quickly up to speed with writing in Sri Lanka and South Asia as a whole. But I always found that when I worked with others on their writing, I stopped writing myself. So, I spent a few years away from that work and worked with one man to tell his story of being a high ranking prisoner, captive for eight years in Sri Lanka's long civil war. A Long Watch was published last year and is my first book.

How did I come to be a judge for this prize? They asked me and I said yes straight away.

What do you think distinguishes the Commonwealth Short Story prize from other literary prizes?

I have mixed feelings about the fanfare of literary prizes, but not about the recognition for writers that they generate. So I appreciate them, as long as we remember they're all subjective and usually affected by the same power dynamics that shape the rest of the world.

I like the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for genuinely being as open as it says it is. It's open to all, free to enter, requires no previous experience. I happen to know that everyone at Commonwealth Writers is especially delighted when the judges give the prize to a newcomer who may even be unheard of in their own home town.

I also like that this is a prize that strives to do better for writers each year and is open to evolving. Did you know that the prize now accepts entries in Bengali, Chinese, Kiswahili, Malay, Portuguese, Samoan and Tamil (as well as stories translated into English from other languages)? This is an effort to acknowledge and address the limitation (and history!) of reading only writing in English.

It is an effort that is not afraid of being imperfect (how will we ever incorporate the languages of 1.3 billion people who live in the Commonwealth) and wears its intentions on its sleeve.

How do you judge a prize collectively as a panel when the judges live in five regions of the world and can't actually meet?

I'll tell you when I find out! I know that a huge effort goes into time zone calculation to organise Skype meetings between judges in five different regions of the world, to make sure that everyone is wide awake while having those important discussions about the stories we have read.

But you remind me also of another answer to your previous question: having judges who are actually living in — steeped in — their region allows them to read and understand in context. Writers are never 'writing in' to a centre that knows only vaguely about them!

What qualities in writing do you most look forward to reading among the entries?

The joy of a truly worldwide prize like this is that it can't be standardised. Stories coming from vastly different places — say Quetta, Honiara, Valetta and Vancouver — will bring not only different voices and concerns but hopefully different ways of telling stories.

The short story is admittedly a form that comes from a particular tradition but it is also one that has travelled — think of the way 19th century Russian short stories have been read and adapted all over South Asia - and been drawn into other traditions.

The short story possesses a kind of confidence of the moment — it speaks from inside a reality (or unreality) without explaining itself — that can reveal truths of context.
So I can't give you a list of qualities I look forward to but rather a number of things I hope to learn and a number of voices I hope to hear: hundreds on each count.

On the flip side, what are your pet peeves when it comes to writing? What do you recommend new writers avoid, or be wary of writing?

The first is an irritation with one type of writing in our own Asian region that is, as I call it, addressing the air. Writers often write for what we call 'a broader international audience' which is, after all just a larger collection of locals.
And in the process we over-explain, exoticise ourselves and reinforce every colonial project that has ever been visited upon us. We commodify ourselves into red saris and henna-painted feet. 'Ah, the swish of silk and the scent of jasmine,' as one of my friends puts it, wearily.

My other, greater, problem is with the creative writing industry itself. I feel that over the last 30 or so years we have developed an over-emphasis on the form and craft of writing - producing a lot of beautifully written but vacuous stories. Content became unfashionable.

When I read writing from an earlier time, full of even seemingly accidental social commentary, I feel like we've lost something. For me, one of the joys of writing is to seek ever more precise ways of expressing the real truths we live with.

What function do you see the prize serving for its winners?

It's not easy getting yourself read as a writer, particularly if you're newer on the scene. I remember the writer Romesh Gunasekera author of [‘Noontide Toll’] once saying that it was the early prizes that counted the most - the small acts of recognition that can give a writer greater confidence and blow a few doors open that were previously closed.

I think that is what this prize can do and then there is no telling how each writer can take it from there. A little prize money never hurt either, to pay a few outstanding bills and take them off your mind.

Please note that submissions to the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2018 are now open. The deadline for submission is 1 November 2017. Please find more details here. Fingers crossed the regional prize goes to a Pakistani writer in 2018!

Sunila Galappatti Image Courtesy of JA Byrde

Did you enjoy this article? Why not read Friday Five: Inspiring Biographies