The shortlist for the 2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, selected from over 6 600 submissions by the international judging panel, was announced recently.
Chair of the judges, Pakistani writer and translator Bilal Tanweer said, “On behalf of the jury, I am thrilled to reveal the shortlist for the 2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. This year’s shortlist is a concert of voices from across the Commonwealth, showcasing the richness of its writing traditions, histories and perspectives. These stories brim with the energy and urgency of the present moment – read them to experience the beat and pulse of contemporary storytelling.”
Naomi Meyer conducted interviews with the shortlisted authors from Africa. Below is an interview with HB Asari.
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.
I’m an undergraduate student of pharmacy at the University of Lagos. I write mostly speculative fiction, although recently I’ve seen myself being drawn to some more literary stories. However, I think my heart will always be with speculative fiction. It’s what makes me the happiest.
Could you tell me about your country and what you experience as story material in the country you are from – and why?
I’m from Nigeria, specifically from the Niger Delta region, and that shows up directly and indirectly in what I write. I believe this is the reason for the area I’m most passionate about in my writing: climate change and environmental destruction. I come from an area where wanton extraction of resources has had dire consequences for the indigenous population and completely disrupted their way of life. In many of my stories, environmental degradation is either at the forefront of the characters’ lives, or a background but essential piece of the fabric of their reality.
I’m from Nigeria, specifically from the Niger Delta region, and that shows up directly and indirectly in what I write. I believe this is the reason for the area I’m most passionate about in my writing: climate change and environmental destruction.
What is your story about – and what inspired you to write this specific story?
My story is about grief examined through a magical realist lens. In a world where people spontaneously begin to turn to trees, how would this impact them – how would the nature of their grief be changed in the face of this inexplicable phenomenon? The initial kernel of the idea of the story came to me in a dream, and it sat in the back of my mind for years, gathering bits and pieces every once in a while, until it finally felt fully formed and I wrote it in a spell.
Do you think stories can make a difference? Tell me about a story you have read that you still think about.
I think stories do have the power to change how people think or feel about certain issues if they are amenable to them. It’s important to read outside of our lived experiences, so we can begin to understand and empathise with those who lead wildly different lives from us, instead of judging them in ignorance. One story I’ve read that I still think about is Detransition, baby by Torrey Peters, which follows two trans women. This book introduced me to a lot of insight and nuance around the lived realities of certain trans women.
What is the importance of being shortlisted for a prize like this? Also, do you think people read, or do they prefer listening to voice notes and stories, or looking at photos/Instagram?
Being shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize is, to me, an important recognition of my craft and ability as a writer. It’s bolstered my confidence in my abilities and is something I am very grateful for. On people’s reading habits: I believe it varies. Even with the advent of social media and its attention span-eroding features, there are still vibrant online reading communities on apps such as TikTok, Instagram and YouTube dedicated to the consumption and discussion of books.