Jonathan Tel from the UK has won the 2015 Commonwealth 2015 Short Story Prize for his story The Human Phonograph. Within its short form, the story encompasses great sweeps of the world and its history – from the US moon landing to Chinese nuclear tests to reading 19th century Russian literature. The protagonist of the story is a lonely figure in this vast world.
“The Human Phonograph ranges from the personal to the universal. The resonances remained with the judges, long after the reading. As one said, we were drawn into the lonely world of the protagonist and we stayed there. It is a disconcerting, extraordinary story of an individual in search of independence and reassurance in a difficult world,” said Romesh Gunesekera, Chair of the international panel of judges.
The Human Phonograph is published by The Guardian online. Its writer, Jonathan Tel, is himself a polymath with interests as varied as those in his story. A theoretical physicist and opera librettist, he has previously published three works of fiction including Freud’s Alphabet, a novel, and a short story collection The Beijing of Possibilities.
Jonathan Tel believes that “the one thing that fiction is so wonderful about, certainly ever since the modern novel was invented, is getting inside people’s heads …. Everything I write is imagined, but I feel I’m giving it some kind of truth.”
The Commonwealth Short Story Prize seeks out original voices from the 53 countries of the Commonwealth. The prize is judged by a panel of five eminent writers or readers, representing each of the regions of the Commonwealth, so that stories may be considered for both their regional and international voice.
Five regional winners (receiving £2500) are selected and one of these writers is named the overall winner (receiving £5000). The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is awarded for the best piece of unpublished short fiction.
The 2015 judges are Leila Aboulela (Africa), Fred D’Aguiar (Caribbean), Marina Endicott (Canada & Europe), Witi Ihimaera (Pacific), and Bina Shah (Asia). The overall Chair of the 2015 Prize is Romesh Gunesekera.
The regional winners for 2015 are Light by Lesley Nneka Arimah (Nigeria), The Umbrella Man by Siddhartha Gigoo (India), The King of Settlement 4 by Kevin Jared Hosein (Trinidad), Famished Eels by Mary Rokonadravu (Fiji) and The Human Phonograph by Jonathan Tel (UK).
The winning stories were published by The Caribbean Review of Books, The Guardian, Granta and Scroll.in and each of the winners celebrated in a local context of their own choosing. These included a bookshop in Delhi, a literary festival in Port of Spain, a university auditorium in Suva, an arts centre in Minnesota and a Chinese restaurant in central London – testifying to the global nature of the prize.
“Each year, entries to the Commonwealth Short Story Prize explore new territories in the stories they tell. This year, we received many more entries from countries not previously represented, which makes this prize a platform for less heard voices, and stories which need to be told,” says Lucy Hannah, Programme Manager, Commonwealth Writers.
The 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize is part funded by the Sigrid Rausing Trust.
Commonwealth Writers also has an association with the London-based literary and media agency Blake Friedmann, which works with selected writers identified through the Prize.