As we explained in our (long) shortlist announcement, choosing winners for the 2018 Short Story Day Africa award was almost impossible, and not just in the usual sense – how to choose between a crisp apple and a sensually scented orange – but in terms of the democratic voting system adopted by the judges, which led to the closest competition yet seen in SSDA’s history.
Having so many closely matched and high-quality stories is an excellent outcome, of course; but it did make choosing a shortlist and the winners a far more onerous task than usual. We broke the deadlock by pressganging an additional judge into providing three extra votes, and this is how, by a whisker, Adam El Shalakany’s “Happy City Hotel” took the winner’s place, nudging Noel Cheruto’s “Mr Thompson” into second place, while Lester Walbrugh’s “The Space(s) Between Us” was established as holder of the third spot. We congratulate these authors sincerely and enthusiastically while once again noting that this competition was the tightest we’ve yet seen; if this had been a horse race, we would have had to call for a photo finish.
We are especially delighted to have the length of the continent represented by the top three stories. Given our commitment to featuring literature from all over Africa, which has to be juggled with practical and financial constraints that mean we can only accept submissions in English, we are very pleased that the winning story is our first ever winner from Egypt (and North Africa, in fact). It’s hard to explain the charm of this story, which features a small and shabby hotel in Cairo, and a cast of strangely endearing characters, but everyone who read it said it made them “happy”; which, given that it features very ordinary people living somewhat melancholy lives, is testament to how deeply it resonates with the reader.
Noel Cheruto represents Kenya with her moving story of the dashed dreams of a hotel worker who silently confesses all to a guest. This rich and subtle piece, in which wit and compassion are skilfully blended, was extremely popular with the judging panel. And South Africa’s Lester Walbrugh, who was shortlisted in last year’s anthology, provides one of the most original and haunting versions of a “romantic getaway” at a fancy hotel you’ll ever read.
The following stories are particularly highly commended (they all featured in the photo finish): “Why Don’t You Live in the North?” by Wamuwi Mbao, “Slow Road to the Winburg Hotel” by Paul Morris, “Outside Riad Dahab” by Chourouq Nasri, and “The Snore Monitor” by Chido Muchemwa. Mbao’s story is a subtle meditation on the landmarks, both inner and outer, that colonial histories leave, while Morris’s is a deceptively simple account of a journey to a hotel that has a double twist at the end. “Outside Riad Dahab”, a particularly moving account of contact between outsiders and insiders, describes the interaction between a privileged hotel guest and the homeless man who camps outside the building. And “The Snore Monitor”, in which a young Zimbabwean woman has a most unusual job in a South African hotel, also explores the theme of fleeting contact between wealthy tourists and those who are obliged to care for them.
We heartily congratulate the winner and runners-up once again, and close with the truism that the real winner is African literature, with this exceptionally fine selection of stories.