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In 2015, Steven Heighton travelled to Greece, to the front lines of the Syrian refugee crisis, to work in a transit camp.

Harrison Smith/The Globe and Mail

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Personal stories that speak to critical issues dominate the short list for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction, Canada’s richest non-fiction literary award. The finalists, announced on Wednesday, include Lorna Crozier, Steven Heighton, Jessica J. Lee, Tessa McWatt and David Neel.

Crozier – an award-winning, veteran Canadian poet who was born in Saskatchewan and now lives on Vancouver Island – is nominated for Through the Garden: A Love Story (with Cats). The memoir tells the story of her life partnership with fellow poet Patrick Lane, and his battle with a mysterious and ultimately deadly disease. The jury calls the book “a rich and intimate portrait of the tender, turbulent lives of two writers who shared a love affair with words, cats, the world, and each other for some 40 years.”

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In 2015, Heighton – an award-winning poet and fiction writer who was born in Toronto and lives in Kingston – travelled to Greece, to the front lines of the Syrian refugee crisis, to work in a transit camp. He tells the story in Reaching Mithymna: Among the Volunteers and Refugees on Lesvos. “Combining his poetic sensibilities and storytelling skills with a documentarian’s eye, he has created a wrenching narrative,” the jury says.

Jessica J. Lee, originally from London, Ont., discovered letters written by her immigrant grandfather, leading her to travel to Taiwan.

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Lee, originally from London, Ont., discovers letters written by her immigrant grandfather, leading her to travel to Taiwan. Now based in Berlin, Lee writes about this in Two Trees Make a Forest: Travels Among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts in Search of My Family’s Past. “She sets a speedy narrative pace, like a trained guide with nightfall looming, but she knows the value of slowing her stride so readers can absorb the luscious vistas she is describing and the familial tragedy she is mourning,” the jury citation reads. “This book will haunt you.”

Lorna Crozier – an award-winning, veteran Canadian poet who was born in Saskatchewan and now lives on Vancouver Island – is nominated for Through the Garden: A Love Story (with Cats).

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In Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging, McWatt examines racism – through the lens of her body and her mixed-race heritage. McWatt, who was born in Guyana and moved to Canada at the age of three, now lives in Britain. The book previously won the 2018 Eccles British Library Award and the non-fiction category for the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature in 2020. “Through broad research and powerful storytelling, she travels through space and time to unravel false colonial narratives and reconstruct the stories of her grandmothers,” the jury says.

The fifth finalist is Neel, a Kwakwaka’wakw carver, jeweller, painter, printmaker, photographer – and writer. In The Way Home, Neel recounts his struggle to connect with his culture after decades of separation, after the death of his father, who was also an artist, when Neel was just an infant. The jury calls the book “spellbinding” in its citation. “Neel’s memoir is written with the same calm mastery he brings to all his art. This is a wise, eloquent, and deeply moving book.”

The jury – poet Helen Knott, former Globe and Mail journalist Sandra Martin and author Ronald Wright – selected the finalists from 107 submissions. The prize, sponsored by Hilary Weston, will be awarded Nov. 18. The winner receives $60,000; finalists receive $5,000 each.

In 'Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging', Tessa McWatt examines racism – through the lens of her body and her mixed-race heritage.

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