André Alexis is one of eight recipients of this year's Windham-Campbell Prizes, becoming only the third-ever Canadian writer to receive one of the richest literary prizes in the world.
Winners of the Windham-Campbell Prizes, which is administered by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, each receive $165,000 (U.S., or approximately $215,000 Canadian).
Alexis described the honour as "unprecedented," "incredibly surreal" and "unexpected."
Unexpectedness is one of the hallmarks of the prize; authors are nominated confidentially, by anonymous judges from around the world, and they do not know they are being considered for the prize unless they win.
Last week, Alexis received an e-mail from prize director Michael Kelleher promising "some good news." Sensing something was amiss – his first instinct was they wanted him to donate money – Alexis admitted that he "was not really inclined to answer." He changed his mind after googling the prize. "I saw what it was, and then it became kind of intimidating, because I thought, 'Okay, that's a lot of money.' Because, in general, I don't believe that anybody would give me that kind of money, I then became afraid that it wasn't for me but for someone I knew."
The prize was established in 2013 in the wake of a gift from the late writer Donald Windham in memory of his partner Sandy M. Campbell. It traditionally awards writers in three disciplines – fiction, non-fiction and drama, although this year, for the first time, poets are among the winners. Past winners include Edmund de Waal, Geoff Dyer, Aminatta Forna, Tessa Hadley, Teju Cole, Pankaj Mishra and James Salter.
Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch received the prize in 2016, while American-born, British Columbia-based writer John Vaillant won in 2014 for non-fiction.
Winners are recognized not for a single book but their body of work. In the case of Alexis, the judges praised Alexis "for astonishingly clear, supple prose that propels readers through the complex philosophical questions – How does an awareness of mortality shape consciousness? What is the relationship, if any, between love and reason? – that have preoccupied him through two decades of work."
Alexis, who was born in Trinidad, raised in Ottawa and lives in Toronto, is a novelist, playwright, short-story writer and essayist who is best-known for his 2015 novel Fifteen Dogs, which won both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, and is one of the contenders on this year's edition of the popular CBC literary-debate program Canada Reads.
The Windham-Campbell Prizes are international in scope – in addition to the United States and Canada, this year's recipients come from Jamaica, New Zealand, Australia and Ireland – but Alexis isn't sure if this will raise his profile outside of Canada.
"I'm not sure what the realistic expectations are," he said earlier this week. "Does it mean Americans will start to look at my work with more interest? Does it mean that there will be more international interest in my work? Or does it mean that I'll get a bit of money and be able to go on for a little bit longer, until the next financial crisis, whatever it should be. I have no way of knowing."