In a first for Jamaica, Kwame McPherson is selected overall winner of the 2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize

Screenshot of Jamaican writer Kwame McPherson, overall winner of the 2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, taken from a YouTube video interview by Television Jamaica's ‘Smile Jamaica’ programme.

It was the seventh time Kingston-based writer Kwame McPherson had entered the prestigious Commonwealth Short Story Prize. But this year, he scored a first for Jamaica by being chosen overall winner of the prestigious literary award. The announcement was made at an online ceremony on June 27, presented by Jamaican journalist Dionne Jackson Miller, during which McPherson and the other regional winners discussed their writing and read short extracts from their stories.

On being told of his win by Pakistani writer Bilal Tanweer, who chaired the judging panel, McPherson was overwhelmed with emotion and almost speechless, at first laughing, then moved to tears. “I'm a writer, and I'm stumped for words,” he said as he tried to absorb the news. He described his win as “surreal”:

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.

McPherson, 57, was one of five regional winners of what the Commonwealth Foundation calls “the world’s most global literary prize,” which received over 6,600 entries from Commonwealth countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Canada and Europe, and the Pacific. His story, “Ocoee,” is based upon historical events, taking its name from the Florida town that was the site of a horrible racially motivated attack in 1920.

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.

Tanweer, meanwhile, said that the story “forces a reckoning with the challenge that confronts all writers in the post-colonial world: how to write about a world that has been destroyed without any traces”:

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.

McPherson, who was born in the UK and now lives in Kingston, Jamaica, says Stephen King is one of his favourite writers. A past student of London Metropolitan University and the University of Westminster, he is a 2007 Poetic Soul winner and 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 annual Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the best piece of unpublished short fiction from the Commonwealth is free to enter. 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. The prize has created opportunities for many new writers. Trinidad and Tobago’s Kevin Jared Hosein, who was overall winner in 2018 and Caribbean winner in 2015, recently released his first adult novel, “Hungry Ghosts,” to great acclaim, and appeared at this year’s Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica, among other festivals. Last year’s overall winner, Ntsika Kota (the first winner from Eswatini) has been approached by publishers and literary agents at home and abroad.

This year’s five winning stories are published in the Granta literary magazine. This year's regional winning stories, besides McPherson's, are by Asia winner Agnes Chew (Singapore), currently based in Germany; Canada and Europe winner Rue Baldry (United Kingdom), who has just written her first novel; Africa winner, 20-year-old undergraduate student Hana Gamon (South Africa), and the Pacific winner, whose daytime job is family doctor, Himali McInnes (New Zealand).

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