Malaysian writer Ling Low shortlisted for Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2021


Low's short story 'Weeds' - surrounding the pandemic and societal class - has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2021. Photo: Hezrai Guan

The shortlist for this year’s Commonwealth Short Story Prize has been announced, and a writer from Malaysia has made the cut.

Ling Low’s Weeds, a story which centres on a retired, wealthy old man who chafes at the idea of being constrained indoors, was written during the first movement control order (MCO) in Malaysia last year.

“In Weeds, the old man finds himself envying the gardeners at his condominium because they are allowed to be outside. He grows increasingly obsessed with watching them, ” says Low, 34.

She notes that there are many foreign workers who fill essential jobs in the city, from security guards to cleaners, gardeners and construction workers.

“I feel that they are often treated as disposable labour, and are expected to be invisible and voiceless. In Weeds, the old man is isolated and in many ways quite self-absorbed. He doesn't really see the people around him. That changes in the course of the story. By the end, the gardeners are no longer invisible to him – instead, he finds his own sense of himself blurring at the edges, ” she says.

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is administered by the Commonwealth Foundation, through its cultural initiative Commonwealth Writers.

The prize is awarded for the best piece of unpublished short fiction (2,000-5,000 words).

This year’s shortlist, comprising 25 stories, was selected from a total of 6,423 submissions from 50 Commonwealth countries.

“I was stunned when I got the email saying I had been shortlisted. I have followed the prize for several years and I know it gets a huge number of entries. It is humbling and rewarding to know that my short story was read by jury members around the world, and that together they found it meaningful enough to include it on the shortlist, ” says Low.

Weeds, along with the other shortlisted stories, will be published in adda, the online magazine of Commonwealth Writers, which features new writing from around the world.

Low had short stories previously published by Buku Fixi in various anthologies, including KL Noir Blue and Little Basket: New Malaysian Writing 2016.

She was a runner-up for the DK Dutt Memorial Award For Literary Excellence in 2016.

“My development as a writer owes a lot to the local writing and publishing community, as well as to good friends who have read my work over the years and given me feedback, ” she says.

Low, who also writes and directs short films, and has been working on and off on a novel, says she finds the short story form very challenging, but loves working in this format.

“In real life, we are often only afforded glimpses into each other's lives. Similarly, the short story form can plunge us deeply into a moment, but then it passes. In my writing, I try to create a world that is vivid enough that you feel the characters will continue to live after the story ends. In Weeds, I was pleased that I could convey the sense of a situation escalating slowly but palpably, in a short space of time, ” she says.

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is in its 10th edition this year.

The five regional winners (Asia, Africa, Canada and Europe, Caribbean, and the Pacific) will be announced on May 12, and the overall winner on June 30.

Regional winners will receive £2,500 (RM14,200) and the overall winner, £5,000 (RM28,400).

The 2021 judging panel is 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.

More details here.

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