Sri Lankan author Kanya D’Almeida has been announced the overall winner of the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for her story “I Cleaned The—.” At a virtual ceremony on 30th June, The Commonwealth Foundation announced D’Almeida’s win presented by the British-Jamaican actress Dona Croll. D’Almeida, based in Colombo, is the first Sri Lankan to win the overall prize and the second to win for the Asia region.
“I Cleaned The—” is a story that revolves around a female character who spent 20 years of her life cleaning human waste. Now, she is telling her life story to an old spinster in a home for forsaken women. This story is about “dirty work”: domestic labour, abandonment, romantic encounters behind bathroom doors, and human waste. It is a story about the things we leave behind, says a news release posted by Commonwealth Short Story Prize on its website.
On The Commonwealth Short Story Prize website, the Asia region’s judge, Bangladeshi writer, translator, and editor Khademul Islam praises the story and says, “Even among Asia’s gratifyingly strong showing in this year’s Commonwealth short fiction sweepstakes, D'Almeida's submission stood out. 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 older woman. Love found not among the stars but in human excrement. Literally. And all the more glorious for it. Just as class differences are subtly shaded, so too the narrator is aptly, and exquisitely, named Ishwari (Sanskrit for Goddess, with a capital ‘G’). A tale powerfully realized.”
Interestingly, in March 2021, Kanya D’Almeida submitted one story which was rejected by an online publication. However, a day later, she received an email from the Commonwealth Writers informing her that her short story was one of the 20 shortlisted from a record number of 6423 entries from 50 Commonwealth countries. This was for the latest edition of the coveted Commonwealth Short Story Prize, pointed out by The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka.
For many years, D’Almeida, now 35 years old, has been on a mission “to acquire, archive, and sometimes invent the stories of raunchy, rebellious, rude and real women that don’t get told,” says D’Almeida during the virtual event. From her mission of telling stories of so-called “mad women,” emerged out her winning story, “I Cleaned The—.”
Kanya D’Almeida’s fiction has also appeared on Jaggery and The Bangalore Review. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Right now, she is working on a book of short stories about mad women. Kanya is the host of ‘The Darkest Light,’ a podcast exploring birth and motherhood in Sri Lanka.
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 panelists are Bangladeshi writer, translator, and editor Khademul Islam; Nigerian writer A. Igoni Barrett; Jamaican environmental activist, award-winning writer and 2012 Caribbean regional winner Diana McCaulay; British poet and fiction writer Keith Jarrett; and award-winning author and 2016 Pacific regional winner Tina Makereti from New Zealand.
For this year, the regional winners are: Africa winner Rémy Ngamije (Namibia), Canada and Europe winner Carol Farrelly (United Kingdom), Caribbean winner Roland Watson-Grant (Jamaica), and Pacific winner Katerina Gibson (Australia).