Malaysian writer Sharmini Aphrodite is up for Commonwealth Short Story Prize

  • Books
  • Tuesday, 21 Apr 2020

Sabah-born writer Sharmini Aphrodite, who currently divides her time between Johor Bahru and Singapore, has been nominated for the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her short story 'Ouroboros, Ouroboros' is loosely based on her childhood memories. Photo: Verkur

Ouroboros, Ouroboros, a tale by Sabah-born Sharmini Aphrodite, 25, has been shortlisted for this year’s Commonwealth Short Story Prize, awarded annually for the best piece of unpublished fiction by Commonwealth citizens aged 18 and over.

The story by the Malaysian writer from Kota Kinabalu is one of 20 selected from over 5,100 entries from 49 countries.

“I feel honoured to have been shortlisted. I've always been impressed by the calibre of writing that the prize has seen and produced, so it feels humbling to be included in this year's shortlist,” says Sharmini in a recent interview.

Sharmini is currently spending her "stay home" time in Johor Bahru during this movement control order (MCO) period. She works in Singapore and divides much of her time between the two places.

Her short fiction has been published in print and online, as well as shortlisted for Singapore’s Golden Point Awards (2017) and Australian Book Review’s Jolley Short Story Prize (2018). Her art writing also appears online and has been selected for Frieze Magazine's Art Writing Prize (2017).

And, yes, Sharmini Aphrodite is her real name!

Sharmini, who is of Tamil and Tatana (Dusun) parentage, reveals that her entry for the competition is based on her real experiences.

“The story is set in rural Sabah, when a girl goes back to visit her grandmother's kampung (village). While she's there, she comes across a tiger in the jungle, although tigers no longer exist there, if they had at all. While it appears that the tiger might be stalking her, no one believes her at first,” explains Sharmini.

“It's about what gets lost in – and exists between – the translation of languages and generational histories. While not explicitly biographical, the setting is inspired by my own visits to my grandparents' kampung,” she adds.

The title Ouroboros, Ouroboros, she reveals, refers to an ancient symbol that signifies eternity and the cycle of birth and death.

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize, now in its ninth year, is given to the best piece of unpublished fiction from any of the Commonwealth’s 54 member states. Writing translated into English from other languages are eligible.

The prize is administered by the Commonwealth Foundation through its cultural initiative Commonwealth Writers.

Entries are divided into five regional categories: Africa, Asia, Canada and Europe, the Caribbean, and the Pacific. In Asia, Sharmini’s story has been picked alongside four others from Bangladesh, Pakistan and two entries from India.

This year’s judges is chaired by Ghanaian writer/editor Nii Ayikwei Parkes. The other panellists include South African writer/musician Mohale Mashigo, Singapore Books Council executive director William Phuan, Canadian author Heather O’Neill, Trinidadian writer/scholar Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw, and Australian writer/arts organiser Nic Low.

The 2020 shortlisted stories will be published online in the Commonwealth Writers magazine adda, which features new writing from around the globe. The judges will go on to choose a winner for each of the five regions.

These regional winners will be announced on June 2 before being published online by literary magazine Granta. The overall winner will be announced on July 7.

Regional winners will receive £2,500 (RM13,500) and the overall champion will receive £5,000 (RM 27,315). Last year’s top prize went to Death Customs by Cypriot writer Constantia Soteriou.

Malaysian writers have gone from strength to strength in the competition. In 2019, two stories by Malaysians were shortlisted in the Asia category – My Mother Pattu by Saras Manickam, and Pengap by Lokman Hakim (which was written in Bahasa Malaysia and translated into English by Adriana Nordin Manan). Saras Manickam was named the regional winner.

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