Calgary-born novelist Esi Edugyan has prevailed against almost 150 other Canadian novelists to win the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize, worth $50,000.
Clearly taken aback by her triumph, Ms. Edugyan acknowledged her fellow competitors and Patrick Crean of Thomas Allen Publishers, "who saved this book when it most needed saving" following the bankruptcy of Key Porter Books, her original publisher.
A new mother resplendent in a black gown and sparkling silver necklace, Ms. Edugyan offered special thanks to her father, Kweku, an immigrant from Ghana who brought his family to Canada in the 1970s.
"It's a great blessing to be nominated for four awards but there's also a lot of stress," she said, adding that she hoped to relax before attending next week's ceremony to award the Governor-General's Literary Award, for which Half-Blood Blues was also nominated.
It's been just a miraculous year in all spheres of my life – an embarrassment of riches," she said. "I could die tomorrow and everything is wonderful."
Ms. Edugyan's award-winning novel is narrated by a long-retired jazz sideman in 20th-century Baltimore who joins an old friend as they revisit Europe to attend the debut of a documentary film about a legendary German trumpet soloist with whom the pair toured the continent in the 1930s. Sid Griffiths deals with mixed emotions and harsh memories as he recalls the trauma of being a black musician in Hitler's Germany, struggling to make what will become a legendary recording as war descends and fragile trumpeter Hieronymous Falk, the son of a German mother and French colonial soldier, disappears into the maw of the Nazi death machine.
Described by the Giller Prize jury as "a joyful lament," Half-Blood Blues celebrates the persistence of genius even as it catalogues the sacrifices demanded by art, which in Sid's case included a lifetime of guilt and regret.
Born in Calgary to Ghanian immigrants, Ms. Edugyan, 33, has enjoyed an eventful career. Currently teaching creative writing at the University of Victoria, she has also taught at Johns Hopkins University and held fellowships in Scotland, Iceland, Germany, Hungary, Finland, Spain and Belgium.
Ms. Edugyan's first novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, was published internationally to widespread praise in 2004. Its appearance set in doubt by the bankruptcy of publisher Key Porter Books earlier this year, the Canadian edition of Half-Blood Blues was revived from near-death by Thomas Allen Publishers, one of three independent Canadian publishers represented on the six-book Giller shortlist.
Ms. Edugyan won the Giller against an unusually strong list of finalists that included Patrick deWitt's much-nominated and award-winning The Sisters Brothers, along with two other novels that have drawn glowing reviews internationally: Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table and David Bezmozgis's The Free World. Also nominated for the 2011 Giller were Lynn Coady's novel The Antagonist and Zsuzsi Gartner's Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, a short-story collection.
Regarded as Canada's pre-eminent literary prize, the well-promoted and televised Scotiabank Giller Prize routinely transforms winners into bestsellers. Originally published in an edition of a few hundred copies, last year's winner – The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud – went on to become one of the best-selling novels of the year.
This year's prize was awarded by a three-person jury comprised of Howard Norman of the United States, Britain's Andrew O'Hagan and Canadian novelist Annabel Lyon.
Named for literary journalist Doris Giller, the prize was founded and endowed in 1994 by her husband, Jack Rabinovitch, with the intention of drawing greater attention to Canadian literature and stimulating sales. Co-sponsored by Scotiabank since 2005, the prize has so far generated more than $60-million in book sales, according to organizers.