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Kai Thomas has won the $60,000 Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize for his debut novel, 'In the Upper Country,' about two Black women at the northern end of the Underground Railroad.Brooke Bridges/The Canadian Press

Debut novelist Kai Thomas said he was struck by “surreality” when Margaret Atwood announced he had won the top fiction prize at the Writers’ Trust Awards on Tuesday evening.

Thomas, who is from Ottawa, won the $60,000 Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for In the Upper Country, published by Penguin Canada, at a ceremony in Toronto.

The book tells the story of two Black women at the northern end of the Underground Railroad.

“It’s all new to me,” Thomas said after the ceremony. “To be able to step into this career and have the work be recognized on this stage is wild. I just feel very, very honoured.”

In his acceptance speech, Thomas thanked his family, his editors and his publisher.

“I've obviously never done this before and having guides like you all is fantastic,” he said.

Thomas’s wife and their two young children were in the audience, along with his parents and their partners, who jumped to their feet when his name was called.

Thomas’s novel was also shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction and the 2023 Amazon Canada First Novel Award.

Writers’ Trust jurors praised the book as a “mesmerizing, lyrical testament to the power of storytelling.”

“Thomas deftly and compassionately braids deeply engrossing stories within stories that explore a little-known aspect of Canadian history,” they wrote in their citation.

Meanwhile, Christina Sharpe won the top non-fiction award of the night for her book Ordinary Notes, which explores questions about loss and the role it plays in Black life.

Sharpe won the $75,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for the book, which was also shortlisted for a National Book Award in the United States.

She is the Canada Research Chair in Black Studies in the Humanities at York University in Toronto, where she lives.

Jurors praised Ordinary Notes as creating “a new narrative space at once intimate, deeply informed, and uncompromising.”

“To read this book is to turn toward a voice and listen as if our lives depend on it – and risk being changed in the process,” they said in their citation.

The Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ2S+ Emerging Writers, which is worth $10,000, went to Anuja Varghese for her short story collection Chrysalis, which also won this year’s Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction.

At the top of the show, host Rachel Giese encouraged the winners to use their time at the podium however they saw fit.

Several chose to acknowledge the ongoing conflict in the Middle East and call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war.

After thanking those who helped her along the way, Varghese said her heart was with Palestinians “in their fight for peace and for freedom.”

“I know it’s easy to feel powerless in these times,” she said.

“But I really believe there is power in storytelling as a means of resistance. There is power in all of our pens. Let us not be made afraid to use them.”

Such open talk of the war came a little over a week after anti-Israel protesters upended the televised Scotiabank Giller Prize, and were booed as police escorted them out.

The Writers’ Trust also handed out several awards recognizing writers’ careers at the Tuesday ceremony.

The Latner Griffin Writers’ Trust Poetry Prize, which goes to a mid-career poet and is worth $60,000, was awarded to Laisha Rosnau, whose poetry collections include Our Familiar Hunger and Pluck.

Helen Humphreys, author of Rabbit Foot Bill, won the $25,000 Matt Cohen Award: In Celebration of a Writing Life.

The $25,000 Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People went to Kyo Maclear, who predominantly writes children’s fiction but whose memoir Unearthing won this year’s Governor General Literary Award for non-fiction.

Finally, the Writer’s Trust Engel Findley Award, which is worth $25,000 and goes to a mid-career author of predominantly fiction, was awarded to Anosh Irani, author of The Parcel.

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