Cypriot author Constantia Soteriou has won the £5,000 Commonwealth Short Story Prize with 'Death Customs', marking the first time the prize has been awarded to a translation as the judges choose an all-women line-up of regional winners.
Originally written in Greek and translated for the prize by Lina Protopapa, 'Death Customs' sees Soteriou write 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 evidence of their deaths.
Caryl Phillips, chair of the judges, praised the "poetically intense and moving" story, which won the Canada and Europe category and scooped the overall prize for the best piece of unpublished short fiction.
Soteriou said: "I feel honoured and happy to win this amazing prize; it feels like a reward for all the hard work I have been doing over the last eight years, writing about the perspectives of women on the political and historical events of Cyprus. This prize is a recognition for giving voice to those who did not have the chance to be heard before; those who were left behind to pick up the mess of the war. I grew up seeing the faces of the mothers and the wives of the missing people; those were the real victims of the war. Women should not be victims of any war. Women are the continuation of life. I wrote this story to salute their strength."
Vijay Krishnarayan, director-general of the Commonwealth Foundation, added: "Constantia Soteriou’s story, expertly translated by Lina Protopapa, is a powerful tale and a deserving winner of the 2019 Short Story Prize. Excitingly, this is the first time we have ever had a translated story win. The fact this happened in the first year we opened the prize to translations from Greek suggests a vast wealth of writing around the Commonwealth that has yet to reach Anglophone audiences."
The winner announcement was made at the Maison de la littérature in the UNESCO City of Literature Québec City last night (Tuesday 9th July), where the regional winners, who each won £2,500, were joined by high-profile Canadian authors including the poet, writer and comedian Erika Soucy and the award-winning fiction writer Christiane Vadnais. The winners were chosen from a 21-strong female dominated shortlist.
Mbozi Haimbe, who was born and raised in Lusaka, Zambia, and now lives in Norfolk, UK, won the African category for ‘Madam’s Sister’, in which the arrival of a sister from London causes upheaval in a Zambian household.
The Malaysian freelance writer, language and creative writing teacher Saras Manickam won the Asian category 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.
Alexia Tolas, born and raised in The Bahamas, scooped the Caribbean category with ‘Granma’s Porch’, which has her protagonist navigating the delicate border between adolescence and adulthood, guided by the past traumas of her friends and family and her troubled first love.
In the Pacific category, the writer, artist and editor Harley Hern, won for ‘Screaming’, in which a visit to a New Zealand care home forces two friends to confront deceit, identity and endings. Literary magazine Grants will publish the regional winners stories.
At the ceremony, Commonwealth Writers, who run the prize, announced that short stories in French will be accepted for next year’s prize. The prize is already open to entries in Bengali, Chinese, English, Greek, Kiswahili, Malay, Portuguese, Samoan, Tamil and Turkish.
The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is judged by an international panel of writers, representing each of the five regions of the Commonwealth. Chaired by the British novelist, playwright and essayist Phillips, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Africa), Mohammed Hanif (Asia), Karen Lord (Caribbean), Chris Power (Canada and Europe), and Courtney Sina Meredith (Pacific) chose an all women line-up of regional winners in 2019, with 5081 entries submitted from 50 Commonwealth countries.
Submissions for the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize will open on 1st September 2019.