South African writer Hana Gammon emerges winner of the 2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Africa region. The 20 year old is one of five regional winners (and the youngest), selected from 6,642 entrants and a shortlist of 28.
Facilitated by the Commonwealth Foundation, the Commonwealth Short Story Prize is awarded for the best piece of unpublished short fiction globally. The regional winners receive £2,500 GBP while the overall winner gets £5,000 GBP.
Gammon is from Cape Town, South Africa where she is also pursuing a first degree in Language and Culture at the University of Stellenbosch. Winning this award did not come easy. Her winning story, titled “The Undertaker’s Apprentice,” rose to the top of a shortlist that featured very strong stories by fellow South Africans Michael Boyd and Matshediso Radebe, Kenyan writers Buke Abduba and Josiah Mbote, and H. B Asari from Nigeria.
“The Undertaker’s Apprentice” follows a group of children in a small town, relaying their interactions with the town’s sombre but kind mortician. As the children grow up, they are forced to question issues of growth, decay, and exchange between different states of being. Gammon said that “The Undertaker’s Apprentice” was inspired by her fascination with the idea and mystery of death:
The topic of death – and of anything to do with change, decay, and liminality, really – is one that has been a source of much fascination and questioning for me my whole life…The story was also, in part, inspired by my research on funerary science and its history…There’s a lot about death that we don’t know and probably never will know as long as we’re on this side of the grave, but I do have faith that death can be as much of a beginning as it is an end.
She hopes that her story brings some understanding to “how we embrace life, death, and change.”
Namibian writer Rémy Ngamije who is the judge representing Africa praised the story for the complex way it tackled a subject such as death and loss, adding that the quality of the story says a lot about the “richness” of storytelling on the continent.
The Undertaker’s Apprentice” is a carefully observed, patiently narrated, and exquisitely written story about youth and the ways in which we come to adulthood through experiencing loss and death. There is, at its heart, a complex examination of the exchanges made between the living and the dead, the young and the old, and the experienced and the naive. Gammon’s command of language is gentle but powerful and provides each reader with their own way of coming to terms with the fruits of its reading.
Here is a short video of Gammon talking about the story.
The other winning stories include “Oceans Away from my Homeland” by Agnes Chew for Asia, “Lech, Prince, and the Nice Things” by Rue Baldry for Canada and Europe, “Ocoee” by Kwame McPherson for the Caribbean, and “Kilinochchi” by Himali McInnes for the Pacific.
The stories of all five regional winners will be published online by the literary magazine Granta. Gammon is now well on her way to compete for the grand prize, which will be announced in an online ceremony on June 27.
Congrats to Hana Gammon!