Kanya D’Almeida has been declared the overall winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, for a “captivating” tale set in a Sri Lankan “sanctuary for the forsaken”.
D’Almeida, from Colombo, Sri Lanka, was named the winner by actress Dona Croll in an online ceremony on 30th June. D’Almeida, who won for her story “I Cleaned The—”, is the first Sri Lankan to win the overall prize and the second to win for the Asia region.
The prize is awarded for the best piece of unpublished short fiction. Regional winners receive £2,500 with £5,000 for the overall winner.
“I Cleaned The—”, is a story about “dirty work”—domestic labour, abandonment, romantic encounters behind bathroom doors and human waste. The Asia judge, Bangladeshi writer, translator and editor Khademul Islam, described it as “a life-affirming story of love among the rambutan and clove trees of Sri Lanka—love for a baby not one’s own, love for a high-spirited elderly woman. Love found not among the stars but in human excrement. Literally. And all the more glorious for it.”
The 2021 prize was judged by an international panel of writers, each representing one of the five regions of the Commonwealth, and chaired by South African writer Zoë Wicomb. Alongside Islam, the other panelists were Nigerian writer A Igoni Barrett, British poet and fiction writer Keith Jarrett, Jamaican environmental activist, writer and 2012 Caribbean regional winner Diana McCaulay, and author and 2016 Pacific regional winner Tina Makereti from New Zealand.
Wicomb said: “Congratulations to Kanya D’Almeida, whose winning story captivated the judges from the outset. In “I Cleaned The—” the short story form is fully exploited. Set in a sanctuary for the forsaken, ‘a place for people who have no people’, it brims with humanity, exploring the themes of love and death in an ingenious structure. In a frame narrative, Ishwan cares for a terminally ill fellow inmate, and embedded within it is a story she tells her friend about her previous years of caring for a severely debilitated child. The narration is an accomplished interweaving of the two-time frames in which the stories artfully testify to love in its various forms. For all its scatology, its depiction of the unsavoury body in decline, ‘I Cleaned The—’ deals in delicacy and the forbearance that love bestows. With a title that speaks of the unspoken and the unutterable, as well as attempts by the poor and overlooked to voice their feelings, D’Almeida appeals to both the heart and the mind of the reader in this portrayal of unspeakable injustice.”
D’Almeida’s fiction has appeared in Jaggery and The Bangalore Review. She holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University’s School of the Arts. She is working on a book of short stories about women suffering from mental illness, and is the host of “The Darkest Light”, a podcast exploring birth and motherhood in Sri Lanka.
Commenting on her win, she said: “Winning the Commonwealth Short Story prize during this moment of global upheaval feels like a tremendous honour and an equally tremendous responsibility. It makes me question what it means to be a writer in these times, times when the human imagination might offer us our best shot at survival. I’ve long felt that fiction is the last ‘free’ place on earth in which to fully envision (and execute!) radical alternatives to the often dismal systems that govern us. To have won the prize for a story about two destitute, ageing women in Sri Lanka digging through the debris of their lives in search of a little dignity is more than a blessing—it’s a firm order from the universe to keep inventing ways for the powerless to gather together, giggle together, and win.”
Dr Anne T Gallagher, director-general of the Commonwealth Foundation, the intergovernmental organisation that administers the prize, said: “As we enter the second year of a pandemic marked by the heroism of invisible frontline workers, it seems fitting that the wonderful tale which has won the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize celebrates a member of this hidden army. Kanya D’Almeida’s story of love and humanity, in the face of loss and grief, is one that speaks to us all.”