The Commonwealth Foundation on Wednesday announced the regional winners of the world’s most global literary prize, with Sri Lankan author Kanya D’Almeida winning the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize (Asia) for her story, ‘I Cleaned The—’
The 35-year-old author from Sri Lanka fought off competition from a strong field of shortlisted entrants including Indian authors Aravind Jayan, Riddhi Dastidar, Ling Low from Malaysia and Nur Khan from Pakistan to become the Asia winner. She will go through to the final round of judging and the overall winner will be announced on 30 June.
Sri Lanka’s D’Almeida’s winning story, ‘I Cleaned The—’ is a story about ‘dirty work’: domestic labour, abandonment, romantic encounters behind bathroom doors, and human waste. It is a story about the things we leave behind.
Asia judge Bangladeshi writer, translator and editor Khademul Islam, says, “Even among Asia’s gratifyingly strong showing in this year’s Commonwealth short fiction sweepstakes, Kanya’s submission stood out. A life-affirming story of love among the rambutan and clove trees of Sri Lanka – love for a baby not one’s own, love for a high-spirited elderly woman. Love found not among the stars but in human excrement. Literally. And all the more glorious for it. Just as class differences are subtly shaded, so too the narrator is aptly, and exquisitely, named Ishwari (Sanskrit for Goddess, with a capital ‘G’). A tale powerfully realised.”
D’Almeida started writing the story shortly after her son was born. She says, “I was sitting on a rocking chair nursing him and watching the woman I’d hired to cook and clean for me washing his cloth nappies. And a voice in my head asked: ‘who is this child’s mother, you, or the person cleaning his shit?’”
Commenting on her win, D’Almeida adds, “Writing in the English language, in a former British colony, means you’re never quite at home in language. All around you a world is unfolding in other tongues; words must either be cramped or elongated to fit circumstances that are decidedly not English; and your characters themselves may be unfamiliar with the language of your own story! That’s why I believe the Commonwealth Short Story Prize is such a haven for writers across the world—it is perhaps the only forum large enough to accommodate the many expressions of language that thrive from region to region. To be in the company of such a diversity of voices, to have my story read by such a diversity of judges, and to see the story emerge as one of the regional winners, is one of the great honours of my life.”
The story was selected from a shortlist of 25 by the international judging panel, chaired by South African writer Zoë Wicomb. The other panellists are Nigerian writer A. Igoni Barrett; Bangladeshi writer, translator and editor Khademul Islam; British poet and fiction writer Keith Jarrett; Jamaican environmental activist, award-winning writer and 2012 Caribbean regional winner Diana McCaulay; and award-winning author and 2016 Pacific regional winner Tina Makereti from New Zealand.
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, French, Greek, Malay, Portuguese, Samoan, Swahili, Tamil, and Turkish.
The full list of regional winners is as follows: Africa: ‘Granddaughter of The Octopus’ by Rémy Ngamije (Namibia); Asia: ‘I Cleaned The—’ by Kanya D’Almeida (Sri Lanka); Canada and Europe: ‘Turnstones’ by Carol Farrelly (UK); Caribbean: ‘The Disappearance of Mumma Dell’ by Roland Watson-Grant (Jamaica); Pacific: ‘Fertile Soil’ by Katerina Gibson (Australia).
The five regional winners’ stories will be published online by the literary magazine Granta in the run-up to the announcement of the overall winner and published in a special print edition by Paper + Ink.
Granta’s Deputy Editor Luke Neima says, “Granta magazine is proud to be partnering with the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in this its 10th anniversary, by publishing the regional and overall prize winners for 2021. Over the past decade the reach and the influence of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize has grown rapidly, and for very good reason. This year’s regional winners bear testament to the quality of the writing that the prize attracts, and its success, time and again, in bringing to light talented new voices who would otherwise have no clear route to finding a global audience.”
The Commonwealth Foundation also announced a new three-year partnership with The London Library, which includes the offer of a year’s Full Membership to the five regional winners and two years’ Full Membership to the overall winner.
The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is administered by the Commonwealth Foundation, through its cultural initiative Commonwealth Writers.
The 2020 overall winner will be announced during a special award ceremony which will be broadcast online at 1 p.m. BST on 30 June.