Sunday, 6 October 2013

Ellah Allfrey / 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize

Commonwealth Writers, a cultural initiative of the Commonwealth Foundation, encourages Commonwealth writers to speak out on issues of concern to themselves and to their communities.  It has a guiding belief that fiction can affect the way people think, act, and engage with government agencies - that fiction has the power to bring about social change.  It has now opened for entry its 2014 Short Story Prize, via the online application form here.  The Prize covers five Commonwealth regions: Africa; Asia; Canada and Europe; the Caribbean; the Pacific.

Ellah Allfrey, writer, editor, critic, and broadcaster, is chairing the 2014 Prize. Given Commonwealth Writers' focus on the political power of fiction, I asked how she thought short stories can influence policy-makers, if, indeed, they read them? "One can’t be at all quantitative about the impact of fiction on individual readers, let alone on that hard-to-identify group of international policy-and-decision-makers. But my hope is that the stories we pick from each region will inspire conversation, focus attention and provoke debate. Good fiction does that. Short stories especially. However, it’s important to remember that these are pieces of fiction - literature, not policy documents."

Point taken.  Nevertheless, I asked Ellah whether the judges would let politics and theme trump good writing? It was perhaps a daft question. Ellah came straight back: "Nothing trumps good writing." 

Fine. I think. Although I do also think there are autobiographical stories coming out of Asia where worrying about the quality of the writing probably should take second place to worrying about the content - I'm thinking of, for example, the story snippets dribbling out of North Korea, or the stories of girls sold into the sex trade by their parents, or, less dramatically, the stories of migrant domestic workers.  

But perhaps, even when they're writing autobiographies, and telling of harrowing things, it's wrong, or condescending, not to hold writers to the highest standards of good writing?  But does good writing mean (so-called) literary fiction? What about genre writing?  This rarely wins literary prizes, except those specific to the relevant genre.  So if a writer set her story in a galaxy far, far away would that count against her winning the Commonwealth Short Story Prize? Ellah reassured not: "Speaking personally, a setting in a galaxy far, far away would probably count in an author’s favour. I'm a huge fan of genre fiction and fervently hope we do get submissions this year that push boundaries. It is, perhaps, harder to achieve literary merit that can be agreed on when one is writing in genre, but take, for example, the work of two great Commonwealth writers, Margaret Atwood and Doris Lessing: Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the Oryx and Crake trilogy; Lessing’s Mara and Dan saga. These are life-changing books - and great literature at the same time."

I'm a fan of genre fiction too, but surely a prize celebrating the power of writing to bring about social change must encourage writers to set their stories in their communities, not in distant galaxies? "No. There is nothing prescriptive about this prize. We want good stories, wherever they are set. Obviously, for many readers, there is a great desire to read writers exploring stories in their own communities. But a good story is one that transcends its boundaries - it has to be able to travel, to have universal meaning even if the setting and scene is closely bound geographically. In the end, we want writers to send us their best stories, wherever they are set."

Okay, but what makes a good story? And what is good writing? All my other questions to Ellah were perhaps dancing around these two. The judges working alongside her are Doreen Baingana, Michelle de Kretser, Marlon James, Courttia Newland and Jeet Thayil.  You can read about them here. I asked Ellah what she and her panel were looking for? Did they have some sort of checklist against which to appraise submissions? "There is absolutely no checklist. The judges I am lucky enough to be working with represent a great deal of experience and varied reading tastes. That range in itself, I’m convinced, ensures that we approach the entries with different expectations, with keen eyes attracted to different aspects of storytelling and style. Different things will thrill us - and the winning stories will be those we feel, collectively, are the best."

Did Ellah have any particular message for writers in Asia?  For readers in Asia? "This is a wonderful opportunity for a new work to reach an international audience. My ambition is to have a surfeit of original, confident, accomplished voices in the submission pile. So the message to the writers is to send us good submissions. To readers: we look forward to sharing many stories with you."

So, writers from Asia's Commonwealth countries, get writing! You are eligible if you are a citizen of one of the following: Bangladesh; Brunei Darussalam; India; Malaysia; Maldives; Pakistan; Singapore; Sri Lanka. The overall winner will receive £5,000 (approx US$7,750) and the remaining four regional winners £2,500 (approx US$3,785). Translators of winning stories will also receive prize money. UK literary magazine Granta will provide winners with an opportunity to have their stories published online, and selected writers will be offered a chance to work with the London-based literary agency Blake Friedmann.  If you are writing in an Asian language, and your story wins in translation, the original will be published on the Commonwealth Writers website, alongside the English language translation - Ellah told me she hopes that by welcoming submission of translated pieces, the Prize will be able to draw attention to the best of these, along with other winning entries.