Cambridge MPhil student wins African short story competition

11 December 2017

Lucy Cavendish graduate student and mother, Mary Ononokpono, has won a writing competition for her short story Firewater, which will be published in an anthology called The Short Story is Dead, Long live the Short Story!

The anthology provides​ ​a​ ​testing​ ​ground for​ ​emerging​ ​African​ ​writing.​ For​ ​the​ ​third​ ​volume​ ​of​ ​its​ ​annual​ ​anthology,​ ​it​ ​selected​ ​sixteen​ ​short​ ​stories​ ​from​ ​writers who​ ​claim​ ​some​ ​part​ ​of​ ​Africa​ ​as​ ​home. Mary’s story Firewater draws upon work first started on a ‘life-altering’ return visit to Nigeria in 2012, and it reimagines the transatlantic era from unusual and different perspectives.

Mary was born in Calabar, Southern Nigeria and has lived in England since she was seven months old. Her first prize for writing was a children’s literature prize in 2014 for her first full-length piece (yet to be published) called Talulah the Time Traveller. It tells the story of nine-year-old Talulah Taiwo who finds herself stranded in Pharaonic Egypt after coding a time travel app for smart devices.

Mary completed a degree in History at SOAS, University of London in June 2016 before coming to Cambridge this year to study an MPhil in African Studies. Her other interests include fashion, design and illustration and she would like to pursue her interest in visual arts in the future. She also hopes to sign up an agent and continue to write fiction for children and adults. Her time is already much stretched though, between the demands of her MPhil and motherhood.

Of her time so far in Cambridge, Mary said:

“I’ve been bitten by the academic bug. I’m still pinching myself over the fact that I’m at the University of Cambridge and I’ve fallen in love with the University Library! This institution is unparalleled. I’m incredibly honoured to be here. My course is fantastic - challenging as it is. As is Lucy - which is very much a second home.”

Judges said of the winning story Firewater:

“With​ ​the​ ​opening​ ​line​ ​–​ ​‘I​ ​was​ ​born​ ​beneath​ ​the​ ​ocean​ ​waves,​ ​or​ ​so​ ​that’s​ ​what​ ​they​ ​tell​ ​me’​ ​–​ ​​ ​Mary Ononokpono’s​ ​‘Firewater’​ ​draws​ ​us​ ​into​ ​a​ ​world​ ​where​ ​the​ ​line​ ​between​ ​real​ ​and​ ​ethereal​ ​is​ ​immaterial.​ ​And  in​ ​this​ ​enchanting​ ​old​ ​world,​ ​there​ ​are​ ​many​ ​lines​ ​blurring​ ​in​ ​this​ ​world​ ​as​ ​the​ ​community​ ​tries​ ​to​ ​protect itself​ ​from​ ​the​ ​outside​ ​world,​ ​not​ ​realising​ ​that​ ​change​ ​can​ ​sneak​ ​in​ ​even​ ​when​ ​you​ ​try​ ​to​ ​keep​ ​it​ ​out.​ ​The author​ ​succeeds​ ​in​ ​painting​ ​a​ ​world​ ​so​ ​wondrous​ ​that​ ​we​ ​get​ ​lost​ ​in​ ​it​ ​following​ ​this​ ​girl​ ​who​ ​has​ ​no​ ​name,​ ​is drawn​ ​to​ ​the​ ​waters​ ​and​ ​will​ ​be​ ​outside​ ​of​ ​the​ ​fold.”

Mary said:

“I felt stunned as I wasn’t expecting to win. The last few weeks have been somewhat intense, though rewarding. I received the news the day after the Christmas Formal Hall so it very much feels as though Christmas came early for me. It’s very encouraging. I’m now looking forward to commencing the Lucy Cavendish Creative Writing workshop during Lent term.”

Lucy Cavendish College has a long history of supporting and celebrating creative writers. Its annual Fiction Prize is open to the public and it provides a unique opportunity for unpublished female authors aged 21 and over to launch their literary careers. The College will run its first residential Creative Writing course (which is open to the public) in September 2018.

- ENDS –

About Lucy Cavendish

Lucy Cavendish is the only women's college in Europe exclusively for students aged 21 or over, and a unique part of the University of Cambridge. Its undergraduate and postgraduate students come from over sixty countries, and a wide variety of educational and professional backgrounds. Many have changed careers or overcome significant challenges in order to reach University. The College is particularly strong in Medicine, Law, Veterinary Medicine, Psychology, the Social Sciences and English.

Contact information:

Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge – Kate Coghlan, 01223 339243,

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