Rawi Hage is no stranger to literary awards season, but this year’s Writers’ Trust Awards ceremony was different. He already knew he was a winner – Hage won the $25,000 Engel Findley Award for a writer in mid-career. The annual event, held at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto and hosted this year by author Catherine Hernandez, is a big night for Canada’s writers, with seven literary awards and more than $260,000 presented.
Reached by phone ahead of the ceremony, Hage joked, “You feel like you are a middle-aged man now, winning an award for mid-career. The good news is that you still have a way to go until the end.”
Hage was in his 40s when he published his first novel, the internationally acclaimed De Niro’s Game. Earlier, while working as a photographer, Hage had been encouraged to write by a curator. “She wanted me to write something for a catalogue,” he recalls. “I wrote something between fiction and non-fiction and I remember her telling me that I have a voice and maybe I should try writing fiction, and I did.”
Four critically lauded novels later, Hage says his next project will be a return to where his craft began. “I’m working on a book of short stories,” he says, “the initial project I never finished.”
Young-adult novelist Susin Nielsen was named the winner of the $25,000 Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People. Now the author of six novels for young adults, Nielsen had a successful career writing for television shows, including Degrassi Junior High before a slow spell in her 40s inspired her to realize her dream of publishing a novel. “I just had this epiphany one morning,” she said by phone. “You’re a writer, you idiot, this is your opportunity.” She sat down and wrote her debut, Word Nerd.
The night’s biggest cash prize went to Jenny Heijun Wills, who took home the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction for her debut, Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related: A Memoir (McClelland & Stewart). Born in Korea, Wills was adopted by a white Canadian family as an infant. She recounts her journey to find her biological family and asks difficult, essential questions about adoption across cultures.
Wills beat fellow nominees Alicia Elliott (A Mind Spread Out on the Ground), Anna Mehler Paperny (Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me: Depression in the First Person), Tanya Talaga (All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward), and Ayelet Tsabari (The Art of Leaving: A Memoir), each of whom received $5,000.
André Alexis was named winner of the $50,000 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for his take on the quest narrative, Days By Moonlight (Coach House Books), part of the “quincunx” of thematically linked novels that includes Fifteen Dogs, which won both this prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2015.
Nominees Sharon Butala (Season of Fury and Wonder), Michael Crummey (The Innocents), Téa Mutonji (Shut Up You’re Pretty), and Alix Ohlin (Dual Citizens) each received $5,000.
Angélique Lalonde won the $10,000 Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize for her short story Pooka, about an artist who finds an outlet for his family’s history in the stories he weaves into his carpets. Lalonde’s story appears in The Journey Prize, an anthology of the stories that made up the long list for this prize.
Shortlisted authors Kai Conradi (Every True Artist) and Samantha Jade Macpherson (The Fish and the Dragons) each received $1,000. PRISM international, which originally published the winning story, received $2,000.
Awarded to a mid-career poet, the $25,000 Latner Writers’ Trust Poetry Prize was presented to Stephen Collis, whose six collections of poetry were praised by the jury as “an invigorating body of work that convincingly addresses both the urgency of the present moment and the long echoes of our historical and lyrical past.” Collis’s collections include On the Material and To the Barricades.
Finally, the $25,000 Matt Cohen Award, presented in recognition of a lifetime of distinguished work by a Canadian writer, was awarded to Olive Senior. Reached by phone ahead of the ceremony, Senior described the closeness between her life and work: “I don’t separate myself as a writer from the life that I live because it’s really what defines me, being a writer,” she says. “It always has.”
The author of more than 15 works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and children’s literature, Senior says she cautions aspiring writers that it will be difficult to make a living from their craft (a 2018 report from the Writers’ Union of Canada found that writers’ incomes had dropped 78 per cent in the previous 20 years, placing many below the poverty line). But she has no regrets. “Writing has given me a good life in so many ways,” she says. “It’s given me the world.”
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