CityLife Arts

Story about two, ageing destitute women digging through debris to find lost dignity wins Sri Lankan author Kanya D’Almeida top Commonwealth literary prize

By CityLife Arts Writer

The Commonwealth Foundation announced D’Almeida’s win in an online award ceremony on 30 June, 2021 which featured readings from Zambian author Mubanga Kalimamukwento, Sri Lankan actress Ranmali Mirchandani, British actress Lyndsey Marshal, Jamaican author Kei Miller and Australian actress Francesca Savige.

D’Almeida, from Colombo, Sri Lanka, was named the winner by British-Jamaican actress Dona Croll who presented the online ceremony. D’Almeida is the first Sri Lankan to win the overall prize and the second to win for the Asia region.

The 2021 prize was judged by an international panel of writers, each representing one of the five regions of the Commonwealth, and chaired by South African writer Zoë Wicomb. The other panellists are Nigerian writer A. Igoni Barrett; Bangladeshi writer, translator and editor Khademul Islam; British poet and fiction writer Keith Jarrett; Jamaican environmental activist, award-winning writer and 2012 Caribbean regional winner Diana McCaulay; and award-winning author and 2016 Pacific regional winner Tina Makereti from New Zealand.

“Winning the Commonwealth Short Story prize during this moment of global upheaval feels like a tremendous honour and an equally tremendous responsibility. It makes me question what it means to be a writer in these times, times when the human imagination might offer us our best shot at survival. I’ve long felt that fiction is the last ‘free’ place on earth in which to fully envision (and execute!) radical alternatives to the often dismal systems that govern us. To have won the prize for a story about two destitute, ageing women in Sri Lanka digging through the debris of their lives in search of a little dignity is more than a blessing—it’s a firm order from the universe to keep inventing ways for the powerless to gather together, giggle together, and win.” said Kanya D’Almeida.

Kanya D’Almeida’s winning story, ‘I Cleaned The—‘, is a story about ‘dirty work’: domestic labour, abandonment, romantic encounters behind bathroom doors, and human waste. The Asia judge, Bangladeshi writer, translator and editor Khademul Islam, described it as ‘a life-affirming story of love among the rambutan and clove trees of Sri Lanka—love for a baby not one’s own, love for a high-spirited elderly woman. Love found not among the stars but in human excrement. Literally. And all the more glorious for it.’ An extract from the story was read at the ceremony by Sri Lankan actress and arts professional Ranmali Mirchandani, and you can read ‘I Cleaned The’ now on Granta.

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