Eyes on the prize

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Exciting news this week: Commonwealth Writers has announced the regional winners of its international Short Story Prize 2014.

There’s always something nice about seeing authors recognised for good work, but this year I have two reasons to be particularly delighted by the list of five writers representing Africa, Asia, Canada & Europe, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

The first is that my old university friend, Lucy Caldwell, is the winner for Canada & Europe. Author of several excellent plays and novels, Lucy already has many accolades to her name, including the prestigious Dylan Thomas Prize for her second book The Meeting Point, which is set in Bahrain. Indeed, Lucy’s extensive research into that country meant that she was one of the people I turned to for advice when I was trying to find something to read from the small Persian Gulf state back in 2012.

The other reason that the list of winning stories makes me smile stems from the fact that I had the privilege of reading one of them almost six months ago. This was because I was lucky to be on the team of readers in the UK and around the world invited to help draw up the longlist for the prize.

In my case, this meant receiving a batch of some 120 stories in December and having a little over two weeks to read and assess them – a challenge for which my experience of devouring and blogging about four books a week during my year of reading the world stood me in good stead.

As well as a privilege, being a prize longlister was fascinating. Having nothing but the title, the writer’s region and the words on the page to go on, I was free to judge the works with an open mind and heart. I was amazed at the range of topics and inventive approaches wordsmiths around the world took on, with a considerable number venturing into the realms of fantasy and science fiction – something prize veterans tell me is relatively unusual.

I’d like to say that the standard was consistently high, but the truth is there were a few rotten apples in the barrel. What was tougher, however, was that the majority of stories were good but not exciting, leaving me hesitating over whether to put them down as a Maybe or a No on the spreadsheet (all those I put as Maybes would be read again, whereas the Nos were discarded – the Yeses went through to the next stage).

Nevertheless, every so often, a story would reach out and grab me by the scruff of the neck, making the world around me recede and thrilling me with what it had to say. Asia winner Sara Adam Ang’s ‘A Day in the Death’ was one of those and I am delighted that she has come out on top in her category.

I wish her, Lucy and all the other regional winners luck as they await the announcement of this year’s overall winner in Kampala, Uganda on 13 June. May this be one of many more successes in their writing careers.

Photo by Harvey Goldblum

 

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