Prolific Jamaican writer Kwame McPherson wins the 2023 Commonwealth Short Story regional prize for the Caribbean

The prestigious Commonwealth Short Story prize has helped kickstart the careers of many Caribbean writers. Photo by Commonwealth Foundation on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

One of the most closely followed writing prizes is the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, which is awarded annually for the best piece of unpublished short fiction from writers in the Commonwealth. Chosen from among thousands of entries (6,642 this year), the prize, managed by the Commonwealth Foundation, recognises five regional winners (from Africa, Asia, Canada and Europe, the Caribbean, and the Pacific), with one of them going on to win the overall prize, worth GBP 5,000 (USD 6,237).

On May 17, the Caribbean regional winner for 2023 was announced as Kwame McPherson, who comes from Jamaica and impressed the judges with his story “Ocoee.” Poet and novelist Mac Donald Dixon, the judge representing the Caribbean region, described McPherson's submission as “a memorial to the enduring nature of the human spirit”:

It is a simple tale retold in a surreal atmosphere of creative uneasiness. Images awake in the subconscious and, without pointing fingers, remind us of man’s inhumanity to man.

Named after a town in Orange Country, Florida, where in November 1920, a group of Black people were massacred in a brutal, racially aggravated attack, “Ocoee” follows a Jamaican man who is stopped by police while driving through a small town. McPherson expertly interweaves the Black American experience with Caribbean folklore by drawing from shared stories and traditions of the African diaspora.

A past pupil of London Metropolitan University and the University of Westminster, McPherson is also a Poetic Soul winner (2007), and was the first Jamaican Flash Fiction Bursary Awardee for the prestigious Bridport Prize (2020). The 57-year-old Kingston writer has also contributed to several diverse-writing anthologies, including “The Heart of a Black Man,” which tells personal, inspiring, uplifting, and empowering stories from this perspective.

Other contenders for the 2023 regional prize included 2019 regional winner Alexia Tolas (The Bahamas), Cosmata Lindie (Guyana), Deborah Matthews (Trinidad and Tobago), and fellow Jamaican, Demoy Lindo.

In speaking about “Ocoee,” McPherson — who had submitted his work to the competition before, but had never reached this far — explained that his decision to do a mix of African American reality, history, and Caribbean folklore gave the story a supernatural, science fiction feel. “Everything is a story,” he says, “and I'm fortunate enough to be a storyteller … a griot.”

He strives for his work to be engaging and thought-provoking, and hopes that it sparks discussion about stories, especially about the African diaspora, that people may not otherwise get the opportunity to hear about.

“Ocoee” and the four other winning regional stories will be published online by the literary magazine Granta, as well as the online magazine of the Commonwealth Foundation, adda. The announcement of the overall winner takes place on June 27.

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