Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 29, 2015

Whatever happened to the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize?

Re-reading one of my own reviews for some reason, I came across a reference to the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and wondered, whatever happened to it?

Commonwealth Writers’ Prize: Best Book (1987–2011)

Great WorldThe Commonwealth Writers’ Best Book Prize introduced readers to some great writers outside their own patch.  Just looking through the list of winners at Wikipedia, I see authors that came to my attention because of this prize.  In 1987 (the first year of the prize) there was Maori author Witi Ihimaera, and from Nigeria co-winners Ben Okri and Ken Saro-Wiwa.   (Don’t laugh, I’m still boycotting Shell almost 30 years later because of what they did in Nigeria.  I have a long memory for corporate and institutional perfidy.)  There was Kiwi Janet Frame in 1989 with The Carpathians (the very first of her books that I bought).  The CWP discovered David Malouf in 1990 with The Great World before the Booker Prize did with Remembering Babylon in 1993.  In 1990 the prize brought us Solomon Gurski Was Here by Mordecai Richler, only the second Canadian writer I had ever read, (after Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale).

Indie bookshops in Australia might have stocked British books like A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Louis de Bernières Señor Vivo & the Coca Lord anyway, but would they have introduced us in 1992 to Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry (Canada) or Changes (see my review) by Ama Ata Aidoo from Ghana? The CWP was Vickram Seth’s first major prize in 1994 for A Suitable Boy; it was also Tim Winton’s first major international prize, for The Riders in 1995.  (He’d already won the Miles Franklin by then, so we knew about him already, but perhaps the rest of the world didn’t).

Gillian Mears came to attention with The Grass Sister in 1996 (and yes, I bought it at the time) and Sue Woolfe’s marvellous Leaning towards Infinity in 1997.  (Someone gave it to me as a Christmas present).

gouldsfishIn some CWP years, you can see that the prize was going to established writers who already had an international profile, but if you skip to 2001 there’s Zakes Mda from South Africa with The Heart of Redness, and in 2002 Richard Flanagan won his first prize with real money for the magnificent Gould’s Book of Fish.  (I’ve got the first edition with the beautiful coloured pages, lucky me!) Sonya Hartnett picked up the prize in 2003 for Of a Boy.  I’d never heard of Andre Brink from South Africa until he won the CWP for The Other Side of Silence. What a breath-taking book that was! I went on to read everything I could find by Brink, and I still have more recent finds on the TBR.   (He died only this year, what a loss to world literature, a White South African demonstrating the power of the pen to effect political change.)

someone-knows-my-nameKate Grenville came to international attention with The Idea of Perfection in 2001 when it won the Orange Prize, but it was the CWP that acknowledged her most important work, The Secret River in 2006 when she was pipped at the post for the Miles Franklin by Roger McDonald’s The Ballad of Desmond Kale.  2006 was also the year that I discovered Zadie Smith when she won the Europe and South Asia CWP for On Beauty (see my review of NW) and a year later we all discovered Canadian author Lawrence Hill taking out the prize for Someone Knows My Name (see my review).

Hand Me Down WorldAussies always dominated the South East Asia and South Pacific category and it had been a long drought for New Zealand when in 2007 Lloyd Jones won the prize for Mr Pip. (See my review of Hand Me Down World). But it was the same with the Canada and Caribbean category: Canada nearly always won. (The only exceptions were writers from Trinidad: Earl Lovelace (1997); Lawrence Scott (1999); V.S. Naipaul (1995); and Erna Brodber from Jamaica in 1989.)

And that’s what was wrong with the CWP in its years from 1987 to 2011.  While the importance of promoting the literature of countries that get swamped by US and UK publishing is not to be overlooked, because of the way the categories were structured

  • Australia nearly always won the Southeast Asia and South Pacific category with New Zealand winning only three times and the only other country to emerge was Samoa, when Albert Wendt won it twice in 1992 and in 2010;
  • Canada overwhelmed the Canada and Caribbean category;
  • the Europe and South Asia category barely noticed wonderful writing coming out of the sub-continent (until their authors migrated to Britain, that is).

But the Africa category was doing something important.  Yes, South Africa dominated, but there were authors from Ghana, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, and Mauritius.  It was a very useful impetus to an emerging publishing industry in these countries and a much-needed encouragement to their authors.

Commonwealth Writers’ Prize: Best First Book (1989–2011)

case-of-exploding-mangoesThere was more diversity in the Best First Book Prize, with many winners going on to have significant careers as authors.  The UK still dominated the Europe and South Asia category,  with twelve winners, notably Louis de Bernières in 1991, Zadie Smith in 2001, Sarah Hall in 2003, and Mark Haddon in 2004.   But six winners from India emerged in this absurdly-linked category, including Allan Sealy (1989); Amit Chaudhuri (1992); Vikram Chandra (1996); Manju Kapur (1999); Raj Kamal Jha (2000); and Rupa Bajwa (2005).  Even better, we also discovered books from other parts of the sub-continent: Tahmima Anam in 2008 from Bangladesh (see my review of The Good Muslim) and from Pakistan, Daniyal Mueenuddin in 2010, followed in 2011 by Mohammed Hanif’s riveting A Case of Exploding Mangoes. (See my review.)

Foal's BreadIn the South East Asia and South Pacific category, Australia still dominated but not overwhelmingly so.  Aussie Gillian Mears won in the first year of the prize for Ride a Cock Horse in 1990.  (See my review of her most recent novel Foal’s Bread.) Thea Welsh won with The Story of the Year of 1912 in the Village of Elza Darzins in 1991, (a book I must track down because the one review at Goodreads rates it five stars).  Andrew McGahan got his start in 1993 with Praise; and we see an Aussie winner of Greek extraction in 1994 with Fotini Epanomitis winning for The Mule’s Foal. Our multicultural landscape shows up again when Adib Khan won in 1995 for Seasonal Adjustments.  In 1998 Emma Tom won with Deadset and Arabella Edge won with The Company in 2001.  Meaghan Delahunt won in 2002 with In the Blue House and Nada Awar Jarrar won in 2004 for her Sydney novel Somewhere, Home (though she’s listed in Wikipedia as a Lebanese writer who now lives in Beirut.*) Andrew O’Connor won in 2007 for Tuvalu which won the Vogel too.

*This made me wonder what the eligibility criteria were.  Citizenship?  Residence? Place of Publishing?)

LegacyThere was a win for Indigenous Australian author Larissa Behrendt for Home in 2005 (see my review of Legacy); for Karen Foxlee in 2007 for The Anatomy of Wings (see my review); and also for Glenda Guest in 2010 for Siddon Rock (see my review).  There was a Malaysian win in 2003 for Rani Manicka, and Tash Aw won it in 2006 for The Harmony Silk Factory.  There was also a win for Samoa in 1997 with Sia Figiel winning it for Where We Once Belonged.

The Bright Side of My ConditionIn the same category Kiwis fared much better: John Cranna won in the second year of the prize in 1990; Beryl Fletcher won in 1992;  one of my favourite authors Charlotte Randall won in 1996 for Dead Sea Fruit; (see my reviews of three of her novels here); Catherine Chidgey won it in 1999; Kapka Kassabova in 2000; Mo Zhi Hong in 2009 for The Year of the Shanghai Shark and Craig Cliff for A Man Melting in 2011.

Waiting for an AngelIn the Africa Best First Book category, winners came from many more countries: There were eight winners from South Africa: Dene Coetzee (1996); Ronnie Govender (1997); Pamela Jooste (1998); K. Sello Duiker (2001); Manu Herbstein (2002, the first and only eBook to win); Diane Awerbuck (2004); Maxine Case (2007); and Cynthia Jele in the last year of the prize, 2011.  Nigeria also dominated with Karen King-Aribisala winning in 1991; Funso Aiyejina in 2000; and Helon Habila in 2003 for his heart-breaking Waiting for an Angel (see my review). Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie won in 2005 with that stunning Purple Hibiscus; followed by Sade Adeniran (2008); Uwem Akpan (2009) and Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani (2010) for I Do Not Come to you By Chance. (See my review).

But other countries also emerged.  From Kenya there was M.G. Vassanji in 1990 and Margaret A. Ogola in 1995; and Paul Conton won the prize for Sierra Leone in 1993.  Ghana did well with winners Lawrence Darmani in 1992, Lucy Safo in 1994, and Benjamin Kwakye in 1999.  Doreen Baingana from Uganda won in 2006.

In the problematic Canada and Caribbean category, Canada retained its dominance but a few other countries made a showing.   Robert Antoni won for the Bahamas in 1992 and from Guyana there was Pauline Melville in 1991 and Mark McWatt in 2006.  Alecia McKenzie won in 1993 for Jamaica as did Vanessa Spence in 1994.

Commonwealth Book Prize (2012-13)

ChinamanThere was a short-lived revamp for first novels in 2012.   The categories were changed to Africa; Asia; Canada & Europe; Caribbean; and Pacific, but it didn’t fix the diversity problem. For the two years the prize lasted Australia won the Pacific category both times (Cory Taylor for Me and Mr Booker (see my review of My Beautiful Enemy) and Michael Sala for The Last Thread); Jamaica won the Caribbean; Canada and the UK got one each; South Africa and Nigeria got one each.  However *drum roll* Sri Lanka won its first prize with Shehan Karunatilaka’s  Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew (see my review) and Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera.  It’s quite noticeable that in contrast to the winners of the preceding CWPs most of the winners of this revamped prize don’t rate their own page at Wikipedia.

Commonwealth Short Story Prize

They ditched prizes for published novels altogether after that and now there’s only the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for unpublished short stories for new and emerging voices.  Wikipedia tells me that it claims to bring writing from these countries to the attention of an international audience but it’s not possible to see much evidence of that.  Maybe it’s too soon.  Winning this kind of prize might have a bit of clout with publishers but readers like me don’t take much notice until there’s actually a book to read. 

Maybe they need to tighten up their eligibility criteria too.  Siddharta Gigoo (India) who won in 2015 doesn’t look like a new or emerging author.  His first book was published in 2011.

The CW website also claims to bring stories often from countries with little or no publishing infrastructure but if you check the Wikipedia page of winners, that looks like a forlorn ambition to me because, as before, countries with very well-established publishing industries dominate.

Problematic as it was, I think the original Commonwealth Writers Best Book and Best First Book prizes served a useful purpose.  These winners turned up in our indie bookshops and introduced us to authors outside the dominant US and UK market.  I assume that it did that for our Aussie authors in overseas markets too.  And especially in the case of African books, and for books from the other smaller nations with little in the way of a book industry that occasionally won a prize in the other categories, their place in the sun would have been a breakthrough.

The sad thing is that nothing seems to have taken its place. Apart from a few African book bloggers, a couple of bloggers doing a read-around-the-world challenge and some presence at Goodreads in Listopia, I don’t know of anything much that promotes African authors or bring us new ones, and pity help authors in countries like Fiji or Botswana. (There is the Africa39 project and there are some African literary prizes, but the only one I’ve heard of is the Caine Short Story Prize, and the only author to get any traction out of that here in Australian bookshops is NoViolet Bulawayo (2011) and she did that from the US anyway.)

People like Stu at Winston’s Dad have provided an invaluable boost for translated fiction from all parts of the world and especially the smaller countries that tend to be lost in the fray, but where is the online champion for books published in English from the countries that the CWP claims to support?  If the CWP has the wherewithal, it should set up a collaborative blog (like the blogs I’ve set up for Zola, Balzac and Maupassant) with a team of capable readers who can write authentic and enticing (not academic) reviews and find a way to supply them with review copies of books.  That’s the hard part.  How do you match up books published in less well-known parts of the world, with reviewers in other places?  The other hard part is making sure that there’s a proper distribution system so that people can buy the book after they’ve read an enticing review.

LOL Next time I’m in London I might go and bang on the CWP door and suggest it…


  1. Wow, you’ve done some research here Lisa! Good for you. I agree with you that it wasn’t a perfect prize but it did seem to bring other books to our attention.

    As you say the issue re making it easy for bloggers (or others) to review books from smaller countries is compounded by then making it easy for those who read the reviews and want to go on and locate the book for themselves. I remember how hard it was to track down some of those Man Asia shortlisted books.


    • Yes, indeed, I was thinking of that nightmare with those books from India when I wrote that. Thank heavens for the publicist who got special copies for us! It ought to be easier now, with eBooks (even though I don’t like them) but just recently there was something that was available at Amazon US, but not through Amazon Australia, and since my kindle is registered in Australia, I can’t buy from the American site any more. Very frustrating.


      • That’s the one I was thinking of, of course. And yes, e-versions are some help but as you say not totally. Hmmm …


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