Calgarian Suzette Mayr has won the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize for The Sleeping Car Porter, her sixth novel. The win is worth $100,000 to the 55-year-old author, who was presented a hand-blown glass trophy at a glitzy televised ceremony in Toronto.
Published by Coach House Books, The Sleeping Car Porter tells the story of a queer Black train worker in the 1920s who must contend with the perils of white passengers, ghosts and his secret love affair.
“I think today I’m officially done with any feelings with imposter syndrome as a writer,” Ms. Mayr said in an emotional acceptance speech.
The author then gave a “final shoutout” to anyone lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, and two-spirit who was “still too scared to come out, or cannot come out because to do so would be too dangerous. I see you, I love you and this book is for you.”
Of the winning book, the jury wrote, “Suzette Mayr brings to life – believably, achingly, thrillingly – a whole world contained in a passenger train moving across the Canadian vastness, nearly 100 years ago. As only occurs in the finest historical novels, every page in The Sleeping Car Porter feels alive and immediate – and eerily contemporary.”
The awarding of the most lucrative prize in Canadian literature was witnessed at an in-person gala hosted by actress Sarah Gadon and poet Rupi Kaur, by an invitation-only black-tie crowd of 350 in the ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel.
Attendees included writer John Irving, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario Elizabeth Dowdeswell, CBC personality Ali Hassan, jazz vocalist Denzal Sinclaire and filmmakers Atom Egoyan and Clement Virgo. Past Giller winners present were Margaret Atwood, André Alexis, Madeleine Thien and last year’s prize-taker Omar El Akkad, a former Globe and Mail journalist.
Also on hand were friends and family of the late Toronto businessman Jack Rabinovitch, who started the prize in 1994 to honour his late wife, journalist Doris Giller.
Those with the most at stake were the five shortlisted authors. Up for the award in addition to Ms. Mayr were Tsering Yangzom Lama (for her novel We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies), Rawi Hage (for his short story collection Stray Dogs), Noor Naga (for her novel If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English) and Kim Fu (for her short story collection Lesser-Known Monsters of the 21st Century). They each received $10,000 as runners-up.
In the weeks leading up to the gala, the nominees had taken part in a cross-country tour. The annual Between the Pages series brought the Giller shortlisters to literature-loving audiences in Halifax, Ottawa, Calgary, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Toronto for evenings of readings and discussion. “It was a wonderful opportunity for authors to get to know each other,” Giller executive director Elana Rabinovitch told The Globe and Mail before the gala. “They even travelled to Peggy’s Cove to see the lighthouse.”
The tour also dipped south of the border. A standing-room-only event at the Canadian consulate in New York was hosted by New York Times book critic Alexandra Jacobs.
The victory by Ms. Mayr gains her membership into an exclusive club of 27 Giller-winning authors that includes M.G. Vassanj, Rohinton Mistry, Alice Munro, Austin Clarke, Vincent Lam, Lynn Coady and Esi Edugyan.
Ms. Mayr’s 2011 novel Monoceros was longlisted for a Giller, shortlisted for a Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction and won the ReLit Award, which recognizes Canadian independent publishers. Her comic novel The Widows from 1998 was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book in the Canada-Caribbean region.
The Sleeping Car Porter was chosen as the year’s best by a Giller jury of fellow Canadian authors Casey Plett, Kaie Kellough and Waubgeshig Rice, and U.S. authors Katie Kitamura and Scott Spencer. The book can expect a sales bump. After last year’s Giller win, Mr. El Akkad’s What Strange Paradise jumped onto The Globe and Mail Bestsellers List for Canadian fiction and stayed there for more than two months.