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Constantia Soteriou wins 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize

Published:Sunday | July 14, 2019 | 12:00 AM
Constantia Soteriou (left), winner of the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, with Karen Lord (Caribbean judge).
Five regional winners of 2019 Commonwealth Book Prize (from left): Constantia Soteriou, Saras Manickham, Harley Hern, Alexia Tolas, Mbozi Haimbe.

Constantia Soteriou from Cyprus is the winner of the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

In Death Customs, Soteriou writes about mothers and wives in Cyprus who were led to believe that their loved ones were missing after the 1974 war when the State had evidence of their deaths.

The story, submitted in Greek, was translated for the prize by Nicosia-based translator and cultural critic Lina Protopapa. It is the first time a translation takes the overall prize.

Caryl Phillips, chair of the judges, said: Death Customs is a remarkable short story that manages to be both personal – following, as it does, the painful narrative of a woman who has lost her son – and deeply political in that it charts the division of a land as it topples into civil war.

“We are encouraged to view the descent into bloodshed and mayhem as a domestic squabble between two brothers who can only be reconciled in death. The voices employed are beautifully resonant, and the story shifts gears, and ranges across time, with eloquence. Death Customs is poetically intense and complex in form and subject matter, yet the story remains admirably lucid and moving and deservedly wins the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.”

Soteriou said the prize felt like a reward for all the hard work she had been doing for over eight years, writing about the perspectives of women on the political and historical events of Cyprus.

“I feel honoured and happy to win this amazing prize,” she said. “This prize is a recognition for giving voice to those who did not have the chance to be heard before; those who were left behind to pick up the mess of the war. I grew up seeing the faces of the mothers and the wives of the missing people. Those were the real victims of the war.

“Women should not be victims of any war. Women are the continuation of life. I wrote this story to salute their strength.”

Soteriou was born in Nicosia in 1975. Her first novel, Aishe goes on vacation (Patakis, 2015) received the Athens Prize for Literature award. Her second book Voices made, of soil (Patakis, 2017) was included on the shortlist for the Cyprus Literature Awards. She has written plays for independent stages and for the Cyprus Theatre Organization.

The winner announcement was made at the Maison de la littérature in the UNESCO City of Literature Québec City, where the five regional winners were joined by high-profile Canadian authors, including the poet, writer and comedian Erika Soucy and the award-winning fiction writer Christiane Vadnais.

At the ceremony, Commonwealth writers, who run the prize, announced that short stories in the French language will be accepted for next year’s prize.

The prize is already open to entries in Bengali, Chinese, English, Greek, Kiswahili, Malay, Portuguese, Samoan, Tamil, and Turkish. This linguistic diversity – unique in the international prize landscape – represents the richness of the many and varied literary traditions of the Commonwealth.

Vijay Krishnarayan, director-general of the Commonwealth Foundation, said: “Constantia Soteriou’s story, expertly translated by Lina Protopapa, is a powerful tale and a deserving winner of the 2019 Short Story Prize. Excitingly, this is the first time we have ever had a translated story win.

“The fact this happened in the first year we opened the prize to translations from Greek suggests a vast wealth of writing around the Commonwealth that has yet to reach Anglophone audiences.”

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize was judged by an international panel of writers, representing each of the five regions of the Commonwealth.

Chaired by the British novelist, playwright, and essayist Caryl Phillips, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Africa), Mohammed Hanif (Asia), Karen Lord (Caribbean), Chris Power (Canada and Europe), and Courtney Sina Meredith (Pacific) chose an all-women line-up of regional winners in 2019, with 5081 entries submitted from 50 Commonwealth countries.

In partnership with Commonwealth Writers, the literary magazine Granta has published all regional winners of the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, including Death Customs.

The winning story can also be read on adda, the online magazine of Commonwealth Writers, at

Submissions for the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize will open on September 1, 2019.