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Global first as young Eswatini writer Ntsika Kota wins 2022 Commonwealth Short Story prize

22 June 2022 - 09:44 By Ruth Killick
Ntsika Kota is the winner of the Commonwealth Short Story prize 2022.
Ntsika Kota is the winner of the Commonwealth Short Story prize 2022.
Image: Supplied

Ntsika Kota, 29, was announced the overall winner of a prestigious global literature prize on Tuesday. In another record year for entries, Kota beat off competition from 6,729 entrants worldwide to take the £5,000 (R98,000) prize.

The Commonwealth Foundation announced Kota’s win in an online ceremony in which he and the four regional winners read extracts from their stories. He was presented with the award by performance poet Mr Gee.

Kota is the first writer from Eswatini to win the prize. He is also the first writer from that country to be shortlisted.

Kota’s winning story, and the earth drank deep, centres on a group of villagers in a hunter-gatherer society set in the “distant past of our species”.  As they encounter threats from wild animals, disease and unexpected death, the story tells of a day when “cold blood flowed for the first time, and the earth drank deep’”. Some aspects of the social hierarchy of the village were very loosely based upon Nguni cultures from Southern Africa, Kota said, but the society he depicts is imaginary.

The judge representing the African region, Rwandan publisher Louise Umutoni-Bower, praised it as a story that “uses African folktale in a way that remains true to form but is also accessible. It is a reminder of a time when storytelling had a prized place in social gatherings”.

She said: “I was personally transported back to the floor by my mother’s feet where I quietly listened to tales of Rwandan folk heroes and villains.”

Chair of the judges, Guyanese writer Fred D’Aguiar, said: “This year’s winner is an instant classic: a linear narrative in the tradition of the realist short story. The events unfold around a central ethical conceit with tension that accumulates, and a surprise ending leaves the reader with many questions and in a state of provocation. The deceitfully simple and straightforward style rubs against an artful orchestration of tension. The writer controls elements of character and plot to captivate the most sceptical of readers. The reader inherits a host of hot topics for discussion at the end of the story, all of which shine back at the reader’s world. Like the best parables, the result is an interplay between story and reality, invention and the quotidian, the writer’s imagination and the world of the reader.”

Dr Anne T Gallagher AO, director-general of the Commonwealth Foundation, the intergovernmental organisation that administers the prize, said: “Ntsika’s wonderful success is a reminder of what makes the prize unique. It is an opportunity for writers from across the Commonwealth to express themselves, regardless of where they live or their previous writing experience. How fitting that Ntsika — a self-taught writer, hailing from one of the smallest Commonwealth countries — should triumph. His success is a reminder of the universality of writing and storytelling. We all have that special power for storytelling within us, if we can only find a platform to unleash it. Once again, the prize has confirmed its uncanny ability to unearth new talent that, in this and future work, will no doubt take the world by storm.”

Kota said: “There are not many literature prizes more global in scale or inclusive in scope than the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. I submitted my story more out of pride than expectation. I was aware of the calibre of writing and adjudication so I was under no illusions about my chances. However, against all odds, my story was shortlisted. It was just the endorsement I had hoped for. It meant the pride I felt in what I had put to page was justified. It was everything I had hoped for. I expected no more. That being said, I couldn’t help but daydream about winning the prize. I never let myself actually hope to win, though, let alone expect to. After all, that would be ridiculous. A rank amateur? In such distinguished company? Fantasise if you will, I told myself, but for goodness sake, be realistic. Imagine my surprise when I got that call.”

Born in Mbabane, Kota is a chemist by training. A self-taught writer, he was originally inspired by a high school writing assignment. Kota’s work is a reflection of his thoughts and feelings, and he enjoys creating that reflection.

Article provided by Ruth Killick on behalf of the Commonwealth Foundation 


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