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 Mike Boyd.
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 very much! It really has been a whirlwind since being shortlisted. I am an English teacher at St John’s College in Johannesburg, so I spend a lot of time in the world of storytelling. I usually get my inspiration from the everyday. I think sometimes to be a writer is to be observant of the world around you, to be curious about other people’s lives and situations. I have written from the point of view of waitresses and ice cream salesmen, and about friendships, lonely people and thieves. I see people and I give them a fictional life. If you look closely enough, the extraordinary can be found in the ordinary.
Could you tell me about your country and what you experience as story material in the country you are from – and why?
South Africa is a very vibrant country. In the city where I live, Johannesburg, there is constant movement and life – and therefore endless material for stories. Johannesburg also has an edge, like all cities, and the number of diverse people, from all walks of life, also reveals the injustices in our society. To link to what I said above, to be observant in this city is not only to see all the good, which there is, in the smiles and warmth of the people, but to understand that there is darkness, too.
What is your story about – and what inspired you to write this specific story?
“Mama Blue” is about a man telling a particular story of his past, but he tells it through his interactions with his neighbour, Mama Blue. In many ways, she represents his childhood, and so, when she is threatened, he tries to defend her in order to hold onto his own past. I got inspiration from watching the immense development of Johannesburg, and wondering whether I will recognise this place in years to come. And also – and this is a little strange – I dreamed the first moment of the story. I woke up with a very vivid image of it, and wrote it down so I wouldn’t forget. I pulled the two ideas together, and “Mama Blue” was formed.
Do you think stories can make a difference? Tell me about a story you have read that you still think about.
Stories are the way we experience life. They are how we remember our past, and hold onto the world around us – whether it be writing stories, telling stories or listening to stories. Stories are how we are able to understand each other, how we can share our humanity and our experiences. I think the power of stories cannot be underestimated. Two stories come to mind. Firstly, “The crow” by Zimbabwean writer Charles Mungoshi, about two boys who slip out of church to shoot a bird. But the bird won’t die when they finally get it, and it’s about being caught in guilt and fear, but not backing down out of pride. A harrowing and memorable story that tells so much about humans. Also, I love “An astrologer’s day” by RK Narayan. It’s about an astrologer who recognises a man who asks for his future to be read in the stars, and it has an incredible twist in the final sentences.
Stories are the way we experience life. They are how we remember our past, and hold onto the world around us – whether it be writing stories, telling stories or listening to stories. Stories are how we are able to understand each other, how we can share our humanity and our experiences.
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?
It is incredibly humbling to be shortlisted for this prize. I have followed the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for years, and love the different voices that are represented. It is so important, and to be listed among other incredible writers from every corner of the world is truly awe-inspiring. And that is what it has done: it has inspired me. The shortlisting calms my doubts, which all writers face, and gives me more confidence to feel that maybe what I write is worthy and that I do have something to say.
I think that in South Africa, there is a healthy reading culture. I can see this in the variety and vastness of the books being published – I attend book launches at least once every two weeks – as well as in the book clubs and conversations taking place. But I suspect that reading is in danger of being replaced by videos and photos – especially in these fast-paced times where the stamina for reading is falling away. But stories still exist in videos and photos, and so it is just storytelling taking different forms. For example, I love the rise of audiobooks, which are just a different way of experiencing a story.