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Is the Commonwealth Writers contest fair?

Baka Bina & Jordan Dean
Papua New Guinean author Baka Bina and publisher Jordan Dean

BAKA BINA

PORT MORESBY - I have written to the Commonwealth Foundation about its writing contest, which closes on Sunday 1 November (see details at the end of this article).

My letter was asking whether, in the interests of fairness, Pacific island competitors could be separated from Australia and New Zealand competitors in the contest.

The letter said:

“I would like to appeal to the organisers of the Competition to split the Oceania group and separate Australia and New Zealand from the rest of the Pacific Islands.

Australia and New Zealand are populated by English speakers and they have better fluency in English.  Also they have established and resourced literature teaching and literature support.

For us in the Pacific, English at most times is a third or fourth language and literature does not get the support it needs.  So we struggle to get our literature right.

To encourage us to contribute more to the competition, we would like to be screened in comparison to other pacific islanders and literature and not with Australia and New Zealand writers.

Besides we tell our stories differently and most of them are about our identities as Pacific Islanders.”

The senior program officer at the Foundation, Ms Emma D'Costa replied:

“We understand your concern, particularly in regard to English being the third or fourth language for many writers from the Pacific islands.

Please be assured that your stories are looked at in the context of the Pacific Islands. The way the judging works is that the stories which go to the judging panel are in the same ratio to the entries to the competition, that is, Australian stories would be judged against other Australian stories, PNG would be judged against other PNG stories, and so on.

This way, we maintain the balance of entries from countries and regions on the longlist which goes before the international judging panel.

The regional relationship comes into focus when the judges are considering the regional winner for the prize; then they will discuss stories from Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands together.

We have had regional winners from the islands - Mary Rokonadravu from Fiji in 2015 and Jenny Bennett-Tuionetoa from Samoa in 2018.

We also select judges who know the regional context - this year it is the Maori author Tina Makereti who edited the book,’ Maori and Pasifika writing Black Marks on the White Page’ with Witi Ihimaera.

We appreciate that Australia and New Zealand have a more developed literary infrastructure - indeed the same imbalance is true in all the five Commonwealth regions.

For example, Trinidad has a more developed publishing industry, a thriving literary festival and workshops for writers and the smaller Caribbean islands have none of these.

We have held a number of regional workshops to address this - one in Fiji for the Pacific Islands, one in Barbados for the smaller Caribbean Islands, one in Zambia for countries in southern Africa and so on.

We hope to continue with these workshops, most likely online for the foreseeable future, and would like to explore either such a workshop for writers in PNG and other Pacific islands, or mentoring opportunities.”

Even with this assurance from Ms D'Costa, I get the feeling that they will still put PNG contributions with the same scrutiny and aiglas when reading Pacific work with Australia and New Zealand work.

Having said that I still encourage contributions from PNG.

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is awarded each year for the best piece of unpublished short fiction of 2,000–5,000 words.

Regional winners each receive £2,500 (K11,300) and the overall winner receives £5,000 (K22,600).

The competition is free to enter and open to any PNG citizen aged 18 and over.

For further information, visit: https://www.commonwealthwriters.org/cssp-2021

For the entry form, visit: https://www.commonwealthwriters.org/submit-an-entry

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