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Books Joshua Whitehead, Miriam Toews among finalists for Governor-General’s Literary Award

Jonny Appleseed, the titular protagonist of Joshua Whitehead’s debut novel, is a self-styled “Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer NDN glitter princess” who engages in webcam cosplay to earn money. He’s the compelling and fiercely smart narrator of a debut about the co-existence of love and pain; a debut that is assured, colourful and sex-fuelled, and by turns very funny and arrestingly sad. Jonny Appleseed was named this morning as one of five finalists for the Governor-General’s Literary Award for English-language fiction. The novel was also longlisted for this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Jonny lives in the city but is preparing to return to the rez to attend his stepfather’s funeral. He shares his life story in a fluid narrative that flows in time to braid scenes from his childhood and adolescence on the rez with his life in the city: his loves, his sexual encounters, his exploration of his identity and his tender love for his kokum (grandma). It’s a novel about home, both going back and moving forward. The Globe and Mail’s reviewer said the book “feels like a milestone, with revolution nestled beneath every sentence.”

If the novel has a role to educate, inform and develop empathy in its readers, the books on this year’s Governor-General’s fiction short list are all essential reading. Whitehead is joined by two authors who appeared with him on this year’s Giller Prize long list: Paige Cooper, whose debut story collection Zolitude features a cast of powerful women, and Rawi Hage. Hage’s Beirut Hellfire Society, which is also shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, is a funny and tragic story of love and death set in war-torn Beirut, which the author describes as “a book of mourning for the many who witnessed senseless wars, and for those who perished in those wars.”

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Miriam Toews’s Women Talking, which was notably absent from other short lists this season, and Sarah Henstra’s The Red Word complete the list. Both highly regarded novels ask questions about rape culture and sexual assault, and feature women gathering to take control.

With Canada’s “big three” fiction short lists now revealed, only two writers are in contention for multiple awards: Rawi Hage for the Governor-General’s and Writers’ Trust, and Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, which is shortlisted for both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. This year’s field is otherwise wide open, demonstrating both that no two juries will all love the same books, and that Canadian readers are spoilt for choice when it comes to really great books.

Literary-award watchers will spot a newly familiar name among the Governor-General’s nominees for translation from French into English. Peter McCambridge’s translation of Eric Dupont’s La fiancée americaine (Songs for the Cold of Heart), was one of the bigger surprises on this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize short list, which was announced on Monday.

Dupont’s publisher, QC Fiction, has a second title on the translation short list: Explosions: Michael Bay and the Pyrotechnics, Aleshia Jensen’s translation of Mathieu Poulin’s Des explosions. This continues the remarkable streak of success for the Montreal imprint, which has published just seven books since launching in 2016 (QC Fiction is an imprint of Baraka Books, which was founded in 2009).

Nominated in the English-language non-fiction category are Dead Reckoning: How I Came to Meet the Man Who Murdered My Father by Carys Cragg; Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot, which is also shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for nonfiction; Homes: A Refugee Story by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah with Winnie Yeung; Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age by Darrel J. McLeod; and The Wife’s Tale: A Personal History by Aida Edemariam.

The five English-language poetry finalists are Joshua Mensch for Because: A Lyric Memoir, Jason Stefanik for Night Became Years, Dionne Brand for The Blue Clerk, Billy-Ray Belcourt for This Wound Is a World, which was awarded the Griffin Poetry Prize earlier this year, and Cecily Nicholson for Wayside Sang.

Short lists were also announced in the categories of Drama, Young People’s Literature (Text) and Young People’s Literature (Illustrated Books). In total, the Canada Council for the Arts has announced short lists for 14 awards (seven each in English and French), recognizing a total of 70 Canadian nominated books.

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The winners, who each receive $25,000, will be announced on Oct. 30 and celebrated at an awards event in Ottawa in November. The Governor-General’s Literary Awards program has an annual value of $450,000, presented as $25,000 to each winner, $1,000 to each non-winning finalist, and $3,000 to the publisher of each winning book.

Editor’s note: Editors' note (Oct. 3, 2018): A previous version of this article stated that only one writer was in contention for multiple awards this fall. In fact, both Rawi Hage and Esi Edugyan are short-listed for multiple awards.
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