Nigerian writer wins 2020 Commonwealth short-story prize for African region

Nigerian writer, Innocent Ilo
Nigerian writer, Innocent Ilo

A Nigerian writer, Innocent Ilo, has been named the regional winner for Africa of the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for his story, “When a Woman Renounces Motherhood.”

Founded in 2012, the Commonwealth Short Story Prize is awarded annually for the best piece of unpublished short fiction. It is open to Commonwealth citizens aged 18 and older in five regions: Africa, Asia, Canada and Europe, Caribbean and the Pacific.

The prize is awarded to the five regional winners with each receiving £2,500 (approximately N1.2 million) and a publication with Granta, The global winner gets an additional £5,000 (approximately N2.4 million).

23-year-old Mr Ilo is the youngest writer to be awarded the Africa region prize since its establishment in 2012.

He joins an illustrious line of Nigerian literary figures like Jekwu Anyaegbun who won with the entry, ‘Morrison Okoli’ in 2012; Lesley Armah who won with ‘Light’ in 2016; Akwaeke Emezi who won with ‘Who is like God’ in 2017 and Efua Traoré, with ‘True Happiness’ in 2018.

Mr Ilo’s award-winning story is about the bond between a woman and her mother in the face of a sexist tradition.

The chair of the judging panel, Ghanaian writer Nii Parkes, praised the story for its “particularly striking confidence switching between languages and Mr Ilo’s unapologetic use of interspersed, un-italicized Igbo and pidgin.”

The regional prize judge, Mohale Mashigo, said “When a Woman Renounces Motherhood’ is one of those stories that tell you something shocking and yet leave you with empathy for the characters in a story. The writing is so specific and intimate which makes you want to go back and read it again… and again.”

The five judges representing the regions of the Commonwealth are Mohale Mashigo for Africa, William Phuan for Asia, Heather O’Neill for Canada and Europe, Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw for Caribbean and Nic Low for Pacific.

Elated

In his reaction to the win, Mr Ilo said he was too emotional and all he could do was to share the good news with his mother.

“I still can’t wrap my head around it. You know you always dream of this moment, how you’ll scream from the rooftops and rent your clothes. Then it comes by sudden and the only thing you can do is call your mother and cry over the phone about how proud your father would have been if he was alive.

“This means so much to me. I feel grateful, honored, proud and humbled at the same time. This is one of those moments that make me look back at all the late nights and piles of rejection emails and say, ‘Maybe, just maybe, this writing thing is worth it’,” he said.

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Asides from the £2,500 cash prize, each winner will have a publication in Granta, a renowned literary journal.

The 23-year-old writer has been a finalist for the Gerald Kraak Award and Short Story Day Africa Prize; his works have been featured in Fireside Magazine—Overland, Strange Horizons, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores and Cast of Wonders.

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He has also won the Africa YMCA and Oxford Festival of the Arts short story contests.

The other regional winners are: “The Great Indian Tee and Snakes” by Kritika Pandey (Asia Region), “Wherever Mister Jensen Went” by Reyah Martin (Canada and Europe Region), “Mafootoo” by Brian S. Heap (Caribbean Region) and “The Art of Waving” by Andrea E. Macleod (Pacific Region).

The overall winner will be announced during a special online award ceremony at 1 p.m BST on June 30.



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