The story that won Hana Gammon (20) the first prize in the 2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Africa region is dedicated to a very special person: her “Oupa” Prof Christo Viljoen, former Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at Stellenbosch University (SU) and President of the Convocation until 2016. Viljoen, who made a significant local and international impact as a researcher and teacher, passed away on 13 January this year.
Currently a third-year BA student in language and culture at SU, Gammon says she was “surprised and absolutely ecstatic” when she heard her story had been selected as the regional winner. She received the news via a Zoom call and immediately rushed to tell her father, Donald. “He couldn’t quite believe it at first. We waited for my mom Annakie to get home and when I told her we did a little dance in the kitchen,” Gammon says.
Judges praised Gammon, the youngest regional winner of the 2023 prize, for “a carefully observed, patiently narrated, and exquisitely written story about youth and the ways in which we come to adulthood through experiencing loss and death”.
Her winning story, The Undertaker’s Apprentice, follows a group of children in a small town, relaying their interactions with their town’s sombre but kind mortician. As the children grow up, they are forced to question issues of growth, decay, and exchange between different states of being.
“I wasn’t expecting it to get so far in the competition, especially since I’m an unpublished writer,” Gammon says. She describes The Undertaker’s Apprentice as “a little macabre”. “I’ve always been fascinated by the topic of death and everything related to it, as is evident in a lot of my work. The story was in part inspired by my research on the funerary industry last year, as that was a career path I was considering taking.”
Gammon hopes her story will speak to readers and “contribute in a small way” to how people embrace life, death, and change. “These themes have become even closer to me since my Oupa passed away at the beginning of this year. It was the first time somebody close to me died. Oupa was an esteemed writer and academic, and one of the first people to encourage my love for writing.”
Gammon submitted her story to the Commonwealth competition because she thought it was an excellent opportunity to contribute to a creative collaboration that brings together writers from all over the world.
“I believe telling stories has always been a very important part of being human and that it always will be, because storytelling has the power to connect us in ways that transcend the boundaries of space and time. Stories connect us to each other, to our past, and to our future.”
Fluent in Afrikaans and English, Gammon also studied German until her second year. This year her subjects are English literature, history, ancient cultures, and Latin. She’s inspired by modernist literature and mentions the writing of Franz Kafka as a specific influence.
“The modules that I’m studying have definitely helped me to be able to look at the world from different perspectives. History and ancient cultures have helped me understand the past in a new way.”
Apart from writing, Gammon also enjoys drawing, crocheting, knitting, sewing historically inspired clothing and collecting various oddities. She also likes spending time outdoors. “I’m very much inspired by the sublimity of our natural landscapes. It may sound a little clichéd, but I find a lot of inspiration in wandering the mountains, forests, and beaches. Cape Town’s winter weather is especially beautiful to me – there’s a reason it used to be called the Cape of Storms.”
Both Gammon’s parents are engineers, but even though they are “more left-brained”, they have been very supportive of their daughters’ creative endeavours. Her younger sister Emma loves ballet, cooking, and baking.
Gammon grew up in Cape Town and went to Ceder House School in Cape Town. Moving to Stellenbosch for her studies was an easy transition, she says. “Stellenbosch is a happy place for me. Our family would always visit my grandparents and have lunch with Ouma and Oupa on Sundays. I’m so fortunate to have the opportunity to now study here.”
Although she isn’t certain about a future occupation, Gammon plans to keep on writing. “I’m considering doing an honours degree in ancient cultures next year. I would still want to continue with my writing, even if it’s not necessarily a full-time job.”
She has already completed two novels and recently submitted one of them to a publisher.
When asked what advice she has for aspiring young writers, Gammon says she’s learned that good writing takes a lot of practice. “A lot of the stories and poems I’ve sent to magazines have been rejected. I’ve had to learn to accept rejection. The first stories I wrote weren’t very good. The only way to get ahead is to keep writing and practicing.”
Gammon has not decided what to do with her prize money. “My family is planning to go to Europe early next year, so I might save it for that. Actually, I haven’t thought about it that much. I really wasn’t expecting to be one of the regional winners!”
Gammon beat off strong competition from five other shortlisted writers for the prize: fellow South Africans Michael Boyd and Matshediso Radebe, as well as Kenyan writers Buke Abduba and Josiah Mbote, and H.B. Asari from Nigeria. She will go through to the final round and the overall winner will be announced on 27 June.