Former Globe and Mail foreign correspondent Graeme Smith has won the third annual Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for excellence in non-fiction, at $60,000 Canada’s richest annual award for non-fiction. Mr. Smith, 34, received the prize on Monday evening at a ceremony in Toronto for his recently published memoir The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan.
Mr. Smith’s book prevailed over those of four other finalists. In its citation, the five-member jury described The Dogs Are Eating Them Now as a “painfully detailed, eyebrow-raising account of what [Mr. Smith] saw during his [2006-2009 stint] reporting for The Globe and Mail on [the West’s] effort” to bring what he calls “the whole basket of civilization to Afghanistan: peace, democracy, the rule of law.” For the jurors, Mr. Smith’s text – which begins with the sentence, “We lost the war in southern Afghanistan and it broke my heart” – presents “a tragic mix of cultural ignorance, miscommunication, greed, brutality and naiveté that no amount of individual courage and dedication could ultimately overcome.”
In a brief interview after receiving the award, Mr. Smith dedicated the prize to “a few brave young men who decided to become translators instead of joining the gold rush of opportunists after 2001. I can’t use their names in public because it’s dangerous for them, but I’m going to bring this back to them.”
Mr. Smith, who also worked for The Globe and Mail in Moscow, Delhi and Istanbul, remains in Afghanistan, serving as senior analyst for the Kabul-based International Crisis Group, which offers “non-partisan analysis and advice” to governments and intergovernmental agencies on conflict prevention and resolution. In 2009, he won an Emmy in the “new approaches to news and documentary” category for his six-part 2008 multi-media series Talking to the Taliban. He also is the recipient of three Canadian National Newspaper Awards for reporting.
He said he is happy the book is making “some noise” about Canada’s legacy in Afghanistan.
“The whole world is turning away from Afghanistan. When was the last time we saw an Afghanistan story on the front pages? I come from a small town in Southern Ontario [New Hamburg] where “you break it, you buy it” is pretty much the rule,” he said. “We should have a lingering sense of responsibility about the mess made over there,” he said. “For me, to make some noise is to keep it on the agenda, which is so desperately needed right now.”
The other finalists for this year’s Weston Prize, each of whom received $5,000, were: Thomas King (for The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America), J.B. MacKinnon (The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be), Andrew Steinmetz (This Great Escape: The Case of Michael Paryla) and Priscila Uppal (Projection: Encounters with my Runaway Mother).
The prize’s namesake, Hilary Weston, who served as Ontario’s Lieutenant-Governor from 1997 to 2002, presented Mr. Smith with his award.