Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

BooksMay 17, 2023

Himali McInnes wins coveted Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Pacific

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

The story about a mother’s search for her son beat out 6,641 other entries for the major international prize.

Himali McInnes, a family doctor in Auckland by day, has won the coveted Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Pacific region for her story about a mother’s search for her son.

McInnes’ story, titled ‘Kilinochchi’, rose to the top of 6,642 entries across 56 member states, which makes the literary prize the most global in the world. The five regional winners each receive £2,500 GBP (around $5,000 NZD) and the overall winner, announced on 27 June, will receive £5,000 GBP.

The judge representing the Pacific region is former New Zealand poet laureate Dr. Selina Tusitala Marsh, who said of McInnes’ story: “Nothing is ever simple, nothing is ever straightforward – except a mother’s unwavering desire to find her child. Crossing continents, moving through cultural collisions, and chaotic inner and outer journeys of human trauma and resilience, Himali McInnes’ Kilinochchi moves between New Zealand and Sri Lanka, Tamil and Sinhala, the living who repel, and the dead who guide.” She praised “an unforgettable story that explores family loyalty, gender, class and social inequity, war, life in the diaspora, and our fundamental need to belong. We discover that what can never be stolen, destroyed or lost, is love.”

The story is about Nisha, an up-country Tamil tea-picker, who comes from a long line of indentured labourers. She marries a New Zealander and moves there with her son – who later returns to Sri Lanka to take up arms with the Tamil Tigers. Desperate to find her child, Nisha follows him into the war zone, in Kilinochchi, northern Sri Lanka.

For McInnes, “Kilinochchi draws on the disparate themes of civil war, indentured servitude, the formation of identity, and the supernatural. It is a story that just spilled out of me; once the person of Nisha appeared in my mind, the rest followed, and I couldn’t stop writing. I particularly enjoyed writing about Nisha’s ghostly relatives and the freedom they have in the after-life.

The way the past affects us is something that I am constantly aware of, both in my writing and in my day job as a doctor. The narrative of this story is influenced by my identity as a Sri Lankan New Zealander who doesn’t feel fully at home in either country. It is also influenced by the sadness I feel over the blood that has been shed on Lankan soil. Although I have lived most of my life outside Sri Lanka, I worked there from 2007-2009 during the last stages of the brutal civil war. So many atrocities, so many unhealed wounds.”

Kilinochchi will soon be published online by literary magazine, Granta, along with the four other regional winners:

Africa – The Undertaker’s Apprentice by Hana Gammon (South Africa)
Asia – Oceans Away from my Homeland by Agnes Chew (Singapore)
Canada and Europe – Lech, Prince, and the Nice Things by Rue Baldry (UK)
Caribbean – Ocoee by Kwame McPherson (Jamaica)

As one of the five regional winners, McInnes is up for the overall prize, which will be announced in an online ceremony at 1pm BST (British Summer Time), Tuesday June 27. You can follow the prize online here.

The Unexpected Patient by Himali McInnes (a book of essays, HarperCollins NZ, $37) can be purchased from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

Keep going!