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Canadian author David Chariandy, one of two winners in this year’s fiction category, is the fifth Canadian recipient.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

At first, he thought it was a nasty practical joke. David Chariandy was in the archives at the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine, Trinidad, conducting research for his next novel. He was reading about 19th-century sugar cultivation when an e-mail arrived from the Windham-Campbell Prizes, asking him to call about some good news. Chariandy brushed it off as a prank. But two or three hours later, the curiosity got the better of him and he made the call.

That was when the author from Scarborough found out that his body of work had earned him this year’s Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction, one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards and one of its richest – each recipient is awarded US$165,000, nearly a quarter-million dollars in Canadian money.

"Offering a vision at once entirely humane and immensely tender, David Chariandy lays bare the ways that gestures and details articulate the revelations of grief as well as the intimacies found within fraught and fraying social spaces,” the citation reads.

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The Windham-Campbell Prizes are surprise unrestricted grants. Writers do not apply and are unaware they have even been nominated. The news is delivered only after the decision has been made. The prize was established in 2013 with a gift from writer Donald Windham, in memory of his partner, Sandy Campbell. Campbell died in 1988, leaving his estate to Windham. They had talked, over their many years together, about creating a prize to support writers. The result, the Windham-Campbell Prizes, are administered by Yale University. They are open to English-language writers anywhere in the world who have published at least one book or had a play professionally produced.

It is a three-stage selection process, beginning with an invited group of nominators whose identities are not revealed. They are generally writers, critics, academics, booksellers, librarians, editors, theatre producers and directors. Their choices then go to jurors in each category, and the finalists’ names go to the prize selection committee.

Chariandy's second novel, Brother, won the 2017 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the 2018 Toronto Book Award, and is a contender for this year’s Canada Reads on CBC.

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Chariandy, one of two winners in this year’s fiction category (along with Irish writer Danielle McLaughlin), is the fifth Canadian recipient, after Lorna Goodison, Hannah Moscovitch, André Alexis and John Vaillant.

Chariandy, 49, was born and raised in Toronto and lives in Vancouver, where he is a professor of English literature at Simon Fraser University. His debut novel Soucouyant, published in 2007, was nominated for 11 literary awards, including the Governor General’s Literary Award. His second novel, Brother, won the 2017 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the 2018 Toronto Book Award, and is a contender for this year’s Canada Reads on CBC.

Most recently, he published a memoir, I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You: A Letter to my Daughter, which deals with race and family history. His parents were immigrants from Trinidad – his mother is black and of African ancestry and his father is South Asian. Chariandy is now working on a novel involving three different stories that explore complicated relationships between people of African and South Asian descent. “It’s the story of my parents, in a certain way,” he says.

That day in the archives, he was researching the role of newly emancipated black people and indentured South Asian people in the sugar industry, when he learned he had won the prize. “Afterwards, I honestly still didn’t believe it. I thought oh, okay someone could go to the next level [of the prank], which was just give me a [phone] number. So I half believed it and half didn’t.”

About a week later, he received a formal letter, which included the dollar amount.

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“I was dumbstruck,” says Chariandy, who is not generally at a loss for words. “Utter, utter shock. Because what that figure translates into is time that one can spend on writing. And to someone who is wholly dedicated to writing, that’s a gift of unspeakable importance.”

Chariandy is in discussions with SFU about his schedule, so that he can get the time he needs to work on the novel. “My imagination is filled by this next novel and I would love more than anything else in the world to get to it in a really concentrated and sustained way,” says Chariandy, who has been working on it since 2017. “This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And I really want to make the most of it.”

Chariandy will participate in the 2019 Windham-Campbell Prizes Literary Festival Sept 18-20 at Yale. All events are free and open to the public.

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