Celebrating 25 Years of Scoop
Special: Up To 25% Off Scoop Pro Learn More

World Video | Defence | Foreign Affairs | Natural Events | Trade | NZ in World News | NZ National News Video | NZ Regional News | Search


Sanjana Thakur Wins 2024 Commonwealth Short Story Prize

Indian writer Sanjana Thakur has today been announced as the overall winner of the world’s most global literature prize. The 26-year-old from Mumbai saw off 7,359 entrants worldwide to take the £5,000 prize.

The Commonwealth Foundation announced her win at an online ceremony, presented by New Zealand’s former Poet Laureate, Dr Selina Tusitala Marsh, in which Sanjana and the other four regional winners talk about their writing and read short extracts from their stories.

Taking its name from a famed Bollywood actress, ‘Aishwarya Rai’ reimagines the traditional adoption story: a young woman, Avni, chooses between possible mothers housed in a local shelter. The first mother is too clean; the second, who looks like the real-life Aishwarya Rai, is too pretty. In her small Mumbai apartment with too-thin walls and a too-small balcony, Avni watches laundry turn round in her machine, dreams of stepping into white limousines, and tries out different mothers from the shelter. One of them must be just right…

The judge representing the Asia region, Singaporean short story writer, screenwriter and novelist O Thiam Chin, praised ‘a provocative and mesmerising story from start to end’. He added, ‘Sanjana Thakur’s “Aishwarya Rai” astounds with its hypnotic prose and lyrical magic realism, pulling readers into the compelling story of a young woman’s earnest but fumbling search for an ideal mother. Unrestrainedly candid and full of unshielded candour, the story extracts dark humour from the wry, absurd observations of contemporary life, imbuing every scene with grit and compassion. The power of Sanjana Thakur’s story reminds us that the best of fiction peels back the hard skin of life and grants us the privilege of feeling every flutter and pulse of its raw, quivering heart.’

Advertisement - scroll to continue reading

Are you getting our free newsletter?

Subscribe to Scoop’s 'The Catch Up' our free weekly newsletter sent to your inbox every Monday with stories from across our network.

Chair of the judges, Ugandan-British novelist and short story writer Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi commented, ‘The short story form favours the brave and the bold writer. In “Aishwarya Rai”, Sanjana Thakur employs brutal irony, sarcasm, cynicism and wry humour packaged in tight prose and stanza-like paragraphs to confront us with the fracturing of family and the self as a result of modern urban existence. No matter which city you live in, you’ll recognise the stress-induced conditions like insomnia, restless leg, panic attacks and an obsession with a celebrity kind of beauty, in this this case, Bollywood. Thakur pushes this stinging absurdity as far as to suggest hiring mothers to replace inadequate ones. Rarely do we see satire pulled off so effortlessly.’

Dr Anne T. Gallagher AO, Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation, the intergovernmental organisation that administers the prize, said ‘It is my immense pleasure to congratulate Sanjana Thakur, this year's overall winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. We are also celebrating our regional winners and the thousands of participants who poured their hearts into their submissions. Their stories, imbued with the spirit of diverse cultures and experiences, affirm our belief in the power of storytelling. Stories help to weave generations of people together, they light up the world with meaning, and serve as a catalyst for empathy and understanding. It is through stories that we preserve our histories, communicate our dreams, and build a shared future.’

Sanjana Thakur, who currently lives in the US, described her story as ‘a Mumbai story’. She added: ‘I've spent ten out of twenty-six years living in countries not my own. India, where I'm from, is simultaneously strange and familiar, accepting and rejecting. Writing stories is a way for me to accept that Mumbai is a city I will long for even when I am in it; it is a way to remake “place” in my mind. I feel that the Commonwealth Short Story Prize offers that chance up to all of us: to be a writer who is from “somewhere”, to write from inside a legacy of colonialism and migration. I am so incredibly grateful to the prize for recognising that stories are not written in a vacuum.

Sanjana Thakur has a degree in English and Anthropology from Wellesley College and is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction at UT Austin's New Writers Project. Her short story ‘Backstroke’ was published in The Southampton Review. She is from Mumbai, India. (Photo/Supplied)

‘Writing is so often thought of as a solitary act. And yet, the truth is, the thing that has made the biggest difference to my work is community. It is my community—my teachers, family, and friends—whose support, belief, and love carries me through what is a deeply fulfilling but also frustrating and challenging practice. Now, the Commonwealth Foundation has given me this opportunity to be a part of their community, their lineage of incredible artists and people, and I could not be more grateful. I am so thankful to the judges, my fellow shortlisted writers, and the other regional winners for writing beautiful stories. For my strange story—about mothers and daughters, about bodies, beauty standards, and Bombay street food—to find such a global audience is thrilling. I cannot express how wholly honoured I am to be the recipient of this incredible prize. I hope I continue writing stories that people want to read. Thank you, thank you, thank you!’

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is free to enter and is awarded annually for the best piece of unpublished short fiction from the Commonwealth. It is the only prize in the world where entries can be submitted in Bengali, Chinese, Creole, French, Greek, Malay, Portuguese, Samoan, Swahili, Tamil, and Turkish as well as English.

The story was selected as the overall winner by an international panel of judges, chaired by Ugandan-British novelist and short story writer Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, who is joined by five judges drawn from the five regions of the Commonwealth. They are: South African writer Keletso Mopai (Africa), Singaporean short story writer, screenwriter and novelist O Thiam Chin (Asia), Canadian writer and editor Shashi Bhat (Canada & Europe), poet and author Richard Georges from the British Virgin Islands (Caribbean), and award-winning Australian Bundjalung writer Melissa Lucashenko (Pacific).

As part of the Commonwealth Foundation’s partnership with The London Library, the overall winner receives a two years’ Full Membership to the Library and the regional winners receive a year’s Full Membership.

The literary magazine Granta has published all the regional winning stories of the 2024 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, including ‘Aishwarya Rai’.

The five stories are also available in a special print collection from Paper + Ink (www.paperand.ink).

Global impact on writers’ careers

Winning or being shortlisted for the prize opens a wealth of opportunities for writers, propelling them further in their writing careers.

In 2023, Kwame McPherson from Jamaica won the prize for his story ‘Ocoee’. Since then, he has been approached to speak at many international events—including a film festival, a mental health conference and a social work conference—about the importance of storytelling. McPherson recently said that the prize ‘is truly an international competition and the only one with the reach that it has’.

Kenyan Buke Abdub Galma, shortlisted for the 2023 Africa region, has been awarded a fellowship to attend The International Literary Seminars in Kenya and has started working on a novel. She commented that ‘being shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize has opened me up to a world of literature that I didn't know existed’.

Bangladeshi author Arman Chowdhury, shortlisted for the 2023 prize, now has the position of Associate Fiction Editor of a United States-based literary magazine, while the 2023 winner for Asia, Singaporean Agnes Chew, found that the considerable media attention she received—from national media, podcasts, and cultural organisations—raised the profile of a short story collection she published in May of the same year.

Other 2023 shortlistees have found literary agents, been invited to literary festivals, and had their work published in national and international literary publications. Many have also appreciated and benefited from the connections made with other writers through the prize. Australian Jay McKenzie, who was shortlisted for the Pacific region in 2023, said ‘putting my [Commonwealth Short Story Prize achievement] in author bios gives me more pride than any of my other writing achievements to date’.

Both shortlisted and winning writers have gone on to publish novels. Caribbean writer Kevin Jared Hosein—the overall winner of the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize—released his first adult novel, Hungry Ghosts, in 2023, to critical acclaim. Sharma Taylor, also from the Caribbean, who has been shortlisted for the prize four times, released her debut novel

What a Mother’s Love Don’t Teach You in 2022, while Fijian writer Mary Rokonadravu, winner of the 2022 regional prize for the Pacific, was approached by a New York literary agency to submit a collection of short stories and has since been published in a wide range of American Literary magazines. She was also selected forthe Iowa International Writing residency in Autumn 2023.

Submissions for the 2025 Commonwealth Short Story Prize will open on 1 September 2024. Those interested in entering the prize can follow @cwfcreatives on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and keep up to date with the prize via commonwealthfoundation.com/short-story-prize.

© Scoop Media

Advertisement - scroll to continue reading
World Headlines


Join Our Free Newsletter

Subscribe to Scoop’s 'The Catch Up' our free weekly newsletter sent to your inbox every Monday with stories from across our network.