In the opening paragraph of Shashi Bhat’s story Mute, the narrator, a graduate writing student, feels “as though [she] had ascended into this world where writers were real people you knew.” For rising literary star Bhat, whose story has just been named the winner of the $10,000 Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize, a known writer is increasingly what she’s becoming herself.
The Journey Prize was one of seven literary awards announced on Wednesday at the annual Writers’ Trust Awards ceremony, at which more than $260,000 was presented to Canadian writers.
Mute – a minutely observed tragicomedy with a chilling conclusion – appears now in the prestigious The Journey Prize anthology, which in its 29-year history has provided an early career boost to Canadian writers including winners Yann Martel, Saleema Nawaz and Sharon Bala, and nominees Heather O’Neill and Kevin Hardcastle. Bhat, who published a debut novel in 2013, is also included in the just-released Best Canadian Stories 2018.
Nominees Greg Brown (Love) and Liz Harmer (Never Prosper) each received $1,000. The Dalhousie Review, which originally published Bhat’s story, received $3,000.
“The whole thing feels surreal,” Bhat said. “I feel like something like this [prize] can really open doors. I’ve been reading the Journey Prize anthology for over a decade now and didn’t really think I had a chance of winning.”
Winning the prize is “a vote of confidence. To even be in the same room with some of these people is amazing.”
Nineteen years after winning the Journey Prize herself, Alissa York was another of the night’s big winners. York was presented with the $25,000 Writers’ Trust Engel/Findley Award for a writer in mid-career. In a phone interview, York recalled the “leaping-off feeling” of winning the Journey Prize.
Now, almost two decades further into her career, and with a collection of stories and four critically acclaimed novels to her name, she says experience has taught her that writing “becomes more and more about process” – the circle of ideas, research, writing and engaging with readers “that is actually what sustains you.”
How has she changed as a writer? “I would say maybe I’m calmer now, because I don’t fear as much that it’s something that I can lose.”
Kathy Page was awarded the $50,000 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Her novel Dear Evelyn, a deeply moving and intimate portrait of a marriage that spans much of the 20th century, was praised by the jury as a “timeless, page-turning masterpiece.”
Page, whose previous novels include The Story of My Face and Alphabet, beat out fellow nominees Craig Davidson (The Saturday Night Ghost Club), Esi Edugyan (Washington Black), Rawi Hage (Beirut Hellfire Society) and Jen Neale (Land Mammals and Sea Creatures), who each received $5,000.
“It’s astounding to feel that people you don’t know have read your book and liked it this much,” she said in accepting the award on stage.
Dear Evelyn was inspired by the war-time correspondence between her parents, whose letters she used in the book with her father's permission. "I think they would be incredibly proud and delighted for me," she said in an interview after the ceremony.
What does the money mean for her? “The $50,000 means a great deal. I’m not in a very affluent position at the minute … this will really take the weight off my mind and let it open up into more creative thoughts.”
The night’s biggest cash prize was for the year’s best book of non-fiction. Elizabeth Hay, known to many readers as a novelist, won this year’s $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction for All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir. Hay’s first work of memoir in more than 25 years was praised by the jury as “a lesson in how meaning can emerge from grief.”
Hay beat out fellow nominees Will Aitken (Antigone Undone: Juliette Binoche, Anne Carson, Ivo Van Hove, and the Art of Resistance), Terese Marie Mailhot (Heart Berries: A Memoir), Judi Rever (In Praise of Blood: The Crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front) and Lindsay Wong (The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family). The non-winning nominees each received $5,000.
“It was such a great break from writing novels to work on this book,” Hay said. “I thought what I was doing in the beginning was putting together a collection of short stories and they were mostly first-person, mostly autobiographical. A lot of them were about my parents. And it was my wonderful editor Martha [Kanya Forstner] who said ‘the really successful material that coheres is the material about your parents. So start with that.’ ”
As for the prize money, Hay said “my husband has been trying to learn how to play jazz piano for about 14 years on a piano that’s not very good. So I think we can get him a new piano.”
Three further awards, each with a value of $25,000, were presented to writers for their body of work.
Awarded to a Canadian writer dedicated to writing as a primary pursuit in recognition of a lifetime of distinguished work, the Matt Cohen Award went to David Bergen, whose novels include The Matter With Morris, Stranger and The Time in Between.
The Latner Writers’ Trust Poetry Prize, awarded to a mid-career poet in recognition of their body of work so far and in anticipation of future contributions to Canadian poetry, went to Jordan Scott, whose collections include Silt, Blert and Night & Ox. In his acceptance speech, Scott dedicated the award to his mother, "who came to Canada as a refugee and filled our house with poetry – who every day slipped poems into my lunch bag.”
For a body of work for young readers, the Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People was presented to Christopher Paul Curtis. Reached by phone ahead of the award ceremony, Curtis was, as one might hope of a young readers’ author, surrounded by the laughter of his children.
“I’m very grateful,” he said of his reaction to the news. “I told my wife and we hugged each other and were very happy about it, and then I went back to work writing, which is what my life is.”
In total, the Writers’ Trust awards more than $500,000 every year to Canadian writers through programs including these awards for writers working in various genres and at all stages of their careers. York likens her selection as a career-award recipient to “a great transfusion” of support from the literary community. Curtis puts it more simply: “It helps to sustain you,” he says. “It’s good to hear.”