Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2024: Five writers from Africa – an interview with Azags Agandaa

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The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is awarded annually for the best piece of unpublished short fiction from any of the Commonwealth’s 54 member states.

The stories on the 2024 shortlist were selected from a total of 7,359 entries. Small countries like Mauritius, Rwanda and St Kitts and Nevis have authors on the shortlist for the first time.

“Today, perhaps more than ever, it is storytelling that will help inspire the love, compassion and understanding that our world so desperately needs,” commented Dr Anne T. Gallagher AO, director-general of the Commonwealth Foundation.

Jannike Bergh conducted interviews with the shortlisted authors from Africa. Below is an interview with Azags Agandaa.

Hi there, and congratulations on being shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Please tell me a bit about who you are and what you usually write.

Thank you. My name is Azags Agandaa, and I’m a Ghanaian writer. I live in Accra and write fiction and poetry. My writing tends to lean towards ordinary lives and be about people who find themselves in new places, within and outside their homelands.

Could you tell me about your country and what you experience as story material in the country you are from – and why?

Ghana, as you may know, has been experiencing some economic crises and rapid population growth for a long time now. The capital, Accra, where I live, has such a strong force of attraction; it’s choked, yet people keep moving in. Ghanaians from different parts of the country, including from the north, as well as immigrants from around West Africa, are all trying to eke out a living in here. These people bring in their stories, religions, lived experiences, struggles, cultures and identities into the one basket of Accra. Then they begin to interact with one another, taking on new identities, morphing into something new. That’s interesting, isn’t it? There’s a lot a writer can fish from, right?

What is your story about – and what inspired you to write this specific story?

“Fadi” is a story about an impoverished father and his autistic daughter who have come from the northern part of Ghana, trying to find a home in Accra. This story was inspired by a real experience. I witnessed, in one slum in Accra, an impoverished father and his small daughter who had come from the northern part of Ghana, and who had an unusually close relationship and warmness, which touched me profoundly; it was intriguing to find that love could thrive in the unlikeliest of places – beyond poverty. And that you don’t need material possessions to be happy.

Do you think stories can make a difference? Tell me about a story you have read that you still think about.

Stories do make a difference – they make something happen – but only for those who read them. Not just one story. John Steinbeck’s The grapes of wrath, Harper Lee’s To kill a mockingbird, Damon Galgut’s The promise and JM Coetzee’s Life and times of Michael K have moved me, made me feel what it is like to be the “other” human. These have greatly influenced and shaped my writing. Also, ever since I read Jennifer Makumbi’s “Let’s tell this story properly”, the story has stayed with me. I recommend it to anyone who wants to read a short story with a novelistic scope.

What is the importance of being shortlisted for a prize like this?

I’m excited and grateful about the prize. My stories are usually about people and lives you don’t usually find on bookshelves; at least, that’s what I feel. To think that these stories of lives on the periphery matter to other people from different parts of the world gives me confidence to keep writing. I feel validated. It’s a great feeling to be recognised for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

As with many art forms, writing can be a solitary practice – perhaps the most solitary pursuit of them all; there is no stage, no gallery wall with an audience, no viewers’ visible reaction. What is your writing process, and what do you typically do once you have finished a piece and sent it into the world?

My writing process is not very organised. I hardly plan my writing, and I don’t write linearly; whatever comes, I write down, and I end up having discrete parts to be assembled. I discover the story as I write it. However, sometimes the story is in my mind, taking shape before I finally start to write it. I write many notes on different parts of the story – it could even be the last part. And I don’t usually have different drafts, because I write and edit the same draft on my phone or laptop. I revise and edit as I write, and that slows down my production.

I haven’t published much. However, it depends on what world the work is sent out into. But generally, I wait to see another rejection, which often is the case, or the usual silence from the literary world, or the little and rare genuine praise from one or two readers.

From your experience, what advice or message do you have for young writers?

Young writers should read, read and read. Widely and across genres. And then write. Have an editor.

Artificial intelligence is here – many creatives fear or resist it, while others embrace it and include it in their creative process. What are your thoughts on the matter?

I fear AI. Someone who isn’t a writer recently wrote a story with AI tools, and I couldn’t tell the difference. It’s scary. At the same time, I think AI can be of great help to writers in the research process. So, it’s sort of a surgeon’s knife; it cuts and heals. However, personally, I resist it; I don’t want it to get in the way of my creative process at all.

See also:

Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2024: an interview with Jean Pierre Nikuze

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2024: an interview with Olajide Omojarabi

Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2024: an interview with Jayne Bauling

Press release: 2024 Commonwealth Short Story Prize shortlists announced

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