All is now set for the announcement of the winners of this year’s Phoenix Short Stories for Children Competition, which is in its second year of running. This collaborative literary competition, run by the University of Namibia and Cardiff University in Wales, the United Kingdom, was launched in Namibia in 2020, with the first results announced amid pomp and celebration in both institutions that are separated by thousands of kilometers, yet united by a common cause – promoting multicultural experiences in readers in the two countries and beyond.
The aim is not to define childhood and children’s literature, but to create children’s stories with a Welsh touch and a Namibian perspective. This preview, therefore, serves the purpose of giving an overview of all the fifteen stories that made it into the selection pool, from which three over winning entries will be announced in two weeks.
More or less like last year, most of the stories submitted for the competition are highly creative in nature and have all the ingredients of successful children’s stories. The imagination in these stories is gripping and spellbinding; the humour, in some cases, and intriguing twists and turns keep readers in suspense, thereby encouraging them to keep on reading, eager to find out what happens next.
There is no doubt that such stories touch young readers’ minds, hearts and souls.
Equally important are positive messages the stories possess that naturally find themselves in young readers without preaching to them, without the traditional ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ that often have a backlash.
The round characters in these stories are worth emulating naturally, without elders having to extol the positive characteristics in them. Therefore, although the competition has to announce three winners, each of the fifteen stories is a good piece on its own.
The competition, though it encourages writing skills in adults for the pleasure and learning of children, it has also offered special learning experiences for the judges. Timothy Davies, a lecturer at Cardiff University, has been the filter judge for both competitions, and has given the competition a great deal of thought: “This is the second Wales-Namibia Short Stories for Children Competition, which I have had the pleasure to judge. Hopefully these two competitions will be the first of many, as their reputation and knowledge of them grows over time in both Wales and Namibia”.
Davies continued, with thoughts echoed by Simon Namesho, a Namibian competition judge from the University of Namibia: “In each competition, one thing has been immediately apparent. The entries from Namibia far outnumbered those from Wales.
In the 2020 competition, this might have been explained by our failure to publicise it effectively in Wales.
However, the second time around, we were far better-equipped to broadcast its existence on every conceivable type of communication in both countries; yet, the result was largely the same – a handful of stories from Wales, dwarfed by those from Namibia, which, in each case, outnumbered the Welsh entries by a factor of ten”.
“There seems to be something other than a lack of publicity at work here, which comes as a surprise to me. Writers are hungry people – hungry not for money (though that never goes amiss) but for recognition, respect and success. Such things are measured not just by publication, though that remains the Holy Grail for all of us, but by a mention in a runners-up list, a remark from a judge in a summing-up – anything that says we know you are here.”
Namesho expressed concern about the lack of response from Welsh writers; he felt it is to be a bit of a mystery, and worried that this could lead to the demise of the Welsh leg of the competition.
This brings us to the second, immediately apparent feature of the competition – and here, we revert to the thoughts of Davies in contextualising: “Those brought up in the traditions of British-European-North American short fiction are, all unwittingly, educated in the tropes and mores, and expectations of that tradition – restraint, a kind of guardedness, a caution, perhaps a fear of being accused or suspected of a callowness or naivety of approach. When contemplating judging for the first competition, those of us so charged wondered how we might be able to judge Namibian stories as against Welsh ones. We feared a disparity of style, of experience, of world-view, which might render a comparison impossible – we feared having to quote George Orwell to compare a rose with a sausage”.
Though the Namibian stories were in many ways different from those of Welsh writers, mostly they featured the important factors of any story – internal logic, brevity, clarity of structure, and creation of an urge to know what happens next. Yet, they were written with joie-de-vivre, a kind of heedlessness of form that blew like a breath of fresh air across the page.
The Namibian stories bounded around, leapt over fences, ran around joyfully and jumped into the air, finishing with glittering eyes: stories so right for children.
As it turned out, the fears of the judges from both countries were quite groundless.
We all liked nothing better than the breath of fresh air that came blowing in as the stories were submitted.
Of course, what happens in future regarding the continuation of the competition remains to be seen.
The judges have thoroughly enjoyed being part of this adventure; the quality of the story telling has turned what could be an onerous task into one that is quite compelling. It is perhaps not an accident that most stories are from Namibia; Namibians have wonderful, meaningful stories to tell.
But surely, so do the Welsh? Is there something more that we can do to encourage a fuller meeting of minds in story-telling across nations?
The competition organisers will further reflect.