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Nigerian Author Innocent Chizaram Ilo is Africa Winner: 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize

By Ruth Killick
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Winning story ‘tells you something shocking and yet leaves you with empathy.’

The Commonwealth Foundation today announces the regional winners of the world’s most global literary prize. Nigerian author Innocent Chizaram Ilo has won the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize (Africa) for the story, ‘When a Woman Renounces Motherhood’.

The 23-year old, Lagos-based author, who is Igbo, beat off competition from a strong field of shortlisted entrants including fellow Nigerian Caleb Ozovehe Ajinomoh, Ghanian Aba Asibon, South African Alboricah Tokologo Rathupetsane and ML Kejera from The Gambia to become the Africa winner. Innocent will go through to the final round of judging and the overall winner will be announced on 30 June.

South African writer and musician Mohale Mashigo, the judge representing the African region, commented, '"When a Woman Renounces Motherhood" is one of those stories that tell you something shocking and yet leave you with empathy for the characters in a story. The writing is so specific and intimate which makes you want to go back and read it again... and again.’

Innocent’s story tells how a woman and her mother bond in the face of a sexist tradition. The story, Ilo says, ‘is inspired by my mother. No, she hasn't renounced motherhood, at least not yet. But I just wanted to capture what women like my mother lose and give up in the name of marriage and, by extension, motherhood.’

On hearing of the win, Ilo said ‘I still can't wrap my head around it. You know you always dream of this moment, how you'll scream from the rooftops and rent your clothes. Then it comes by sudden and the only thing you can do is call your mother and cry over the phone about how proud your father would have been if he was alive. This means so much to me. I feel grateful, honoured, proud, and humbled, at the same time. This is one of those moments that make me look back at all the late nights and piles of rejection emails and say, "Maybe, just maybe, this writing thing is worth it.”’

The story was selected from a shortlist of 20 by the international judging panel, chaired by Ghanaian writer Nii Ayikwei Parkes. The other panellists are: South African writer and musician Mohale Mashigo, Executive Director of the Singapore Books Council William Phuan, Canadian author Heather O’Neill, Trinidadian scholar and writer Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw and Australian writer and arts organiser Nic Low, who was himself shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth Short Story Prize earlier in his career.

Of Ilo’s win, Parkes commented, ‘Innocent's story is particularly striking for their confidence switching between languages. The unapologetic use of interspersed, un-italicised Igbo and pidgin add a wonderful texture to the storytelling in “When A Woman Renounces Motherhood”’.

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is awarded annually for the best piece of unpublished short fiction from the Commonwealth. It is the only prize in the world where entries can be submitted in Bengali, Chinese, English, French, Greek, Malay, Portuguese, Samoan, Swahili, Tamil, and Turkish.

The 2020 overall winner will be announced during a special award ceremony which will be broadcast online at 1pm BST on 30 June 2020.

Sign-up to our newsletter to receive a link to the broadcast nearer the time at or follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram @cwwriters to find out more. The event will provide everyone with a chance to hear excerpts from the stories, to meet the regional winners and to find out, first-hand, who has been selected as the overall winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2020.

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The full list of regional winners are as follows:

  • Africa - ‘When a Woman Renounces Motherhood’ by Innocent Chizaram Ilo (Nigeria)
  • Asia - ‘The Great Indian Tee and Snakes’ by Kritika Pandey (India)
  • Canada and Europe - Wherever Mister Jensen Went’ by Reyah Martin (United Kingdom)
  • Caribbean - ‘Mafootoo’ by Brian S. Heap (Jamaica)
  • Pacific ‘The Art of Waving’ by Andrea E. Macleod (Australia)
  • The five regional winners’ stories will be published online by the literary magazine Granta in the run-up to the announcement of the overall winner.

    Luke Neima, Granta’s Director and Online Editor says,

    ‘For many years Granta has proudly partnered with Commonwealth Writers to publish the five regional winners of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize— one each from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Pacific, and Canada and Europe. The prize gives a platform to places isolated from the traditional infrastructure of publishing, and through it we’ve had the chance to discover a range of brilliant new voices, many of whom go on to find success on bookshelves around the world. In every shortlist there are new voices and new worlds to discover, and this year's is no exception. We hope that you will enjoy these stories as much as we have.’

    Last year’s Africa winner was Zambian author Mbozi Haimbe for her story Madam’s Sister.

    Now in its ninth year, the prize has developed a strong reputation for discovering new writers and bringing them to a global audience. Nominations have helped many new writers find publishers and agents.

    Haimbe won a PEN/Robert J. Dau award for her winning story which will be part of their 2020 anthology launching this autumn. Nigerian author Oyinkan Braithwaite, one of The UK Guardian's 2019 debut novelists to watch for her novel My Sister, the Serial Killer, secured her agent through the visibility of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

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