Kwame McPherson
Kwame McPherson lives in Kingston. Photo: Commonwealth Short Story Prize

Jamaican writer Kwame McPherson wins 2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize

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Jamaican writer Kwame McPherson has been announced as the overall winner of the 2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, which was announced on Tuesday. McPherson, who this year entered the prize for the seventh time, beat off 6,641 entrants worldwide to take the £5,000 prize.

The Commonwealth Foundation announced his win in an online ceremony, presented by Jamaican journalist Dionne Jackson Miller, in which he and the other four regional winners talk about their writing and read short extracts from their stories. McPherson is the first Jamaican to win the prize.

A mishmash of African-American reality

McPherson’s winning story ‘Ocoee’ interweaves Caribbean folklore and stories from African-American history. It takes its name from a town in Florida where, in November 1920, dozens of African-Americans were murdered in a brutal, racially aggravated attack.

The story centres on an exhausted driver, who is pulled over by the police on a lonely road outside Ocoee. As he hears about the terrible history of the town, he also rediscovers a connection with his own past.  McPherson says he was inspired to write ‘a mishmash of African American reality and history, and Caribbean folklore’ because he felt that ‘there are so many stories in the African Diaspora experience that are not well known and can be told to open others to that experience.’

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The judge representing the Caribbean region, Saint Lucian poet and novelist Mac Donald Dixon says, “’Ocoee’ traverses genres. Although not set in the Caribbean, the food, the flavours, the people, narration, appearances and disappearances are all there and happening in a logical sequence that imbues the short story with life. It is palpable; there is nothing incredulous about it.”

The story of a destroyed world

The Chair of the judges, Pakistani writer and translator Bilal Tanweer, says, “‘Ocoee’ forces a reckoning with the challenge that confronts all writers in the postcolonial world: how to write about a world that has been destroyed without any traces. Kwame McPherson takes on the extraordinarily difficult challenge of writing about a past that has left no evidence of its existence.”

“The story’s accomplishment is how it achieves this thorny task with simplicity, humility, and real heart. It is a story that resonates deeply and leaves us with a glimpse of all the ghosts that continue to haunt the present, and, in the process, performs one of the most essential tasks of writing: to bear witness to our condition, and to remind us, again, what it means to be human,” he added.

Dr Anne T. Gallagher AO, Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation, the intergovernmental organisation that administers the prize, welcomed “a beautiful, painful tale; a story that, once again, reminds us of the many and varied histories that have shaped our modern Commonwealth.”

Creating and imagining worlds

McPherson, who lives in Kingston (Jamaica), names Stephen King as one of his favourite writers. He says, “When I began my writing journey, it was not a conscious decision, it was just something I enjoyed doing. Creating and imagining worlds, sharing occurrences and experiences that brought no end of joy in seeing a reader engage and find pleasure in what I have produced. Having the ability to provoke thought, interest or move a reader from one mental and emotional state to the next, is a skill within itself and one I have been blessedly bestowed with and do not take for granted.”

“The culmination of that ability is where I am today, winning a prestigious award, not only for the Caribbean but for the entire Commonwealth. That is no mean feat. I am humbled since I stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before, especially those scribes, griots and storytellers of our story, fulfilling a purpose I now live, walk and breathe. I am extremely proud I have represented my many friends, family and, importantly, my country Jamaica, in the way that I have,” he added.

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McPherson studied at London Metropolitan University and the University of Westminster. He is a 2007 Poetic Soul winner and was the first Jamaican Flash Fiction Bursary Awardee for The Bridport Prize: International Creative Writing Competition in 2020. A prolific writer, Kwame is a recent contributor to Flame Tree Publishing’s (UK) diverse-writing anthologies and a contributor to The Heart of a Black Man anthology to be published in Los Angeles, which tells personal inspiring, uplifting and empowering stories from influential and powerful Black men.

The prize for short fiction from the Commonwealth

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is free to enter and 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, Creole, French, Greek, Malay, Portuguese, Samoan, Swahili, Tamil, and Turkish as well as English.

Tanweer chaired this year’s panel of judges, each representing the five regions of the Commonwealth.  The judges are Rwandan-born writer, photographer, and editor, Rémy Ngamije (Africa), Sri Lankan author and publisher Ameena Hussein (Asia), British-Canadian author Katrina Best (Canada and Europe), Saint Lucian poet and novelist Mac Donald Dixon (Caribbean), and New Zealand’s former Poet Laureate, Dr Selina Tusitala Marsh (Pacific).

They chose the overall winner from the line-up of regional winners: Asia winner Agnes Chew (Singapore); Canada and Europe winner Rue Baldry  (United Kingdom); Africa winner Hana Gammon  (South Africa); and Pacific winner Himali McInnes (New Zealand).

As part of the Commonwealth Foundation’s partnership with The London Library, the overall winner receives a two years’ full membership to the Library and the regional winners receive a year’s full membership.

The literary magazine Granta has published all of the regional winning stories of the 2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, including ‘Ocoee’. The five stories are also available in a special print collection from Paper + Ink.

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