The shortlisted authors were beamed live into the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize broadcast from various locations – mostly their living rooms, sitting on couches next to a spouse or friends. The host, superfamous Canadian actor Eric McCormack, had prerecorded his bits at the Vancouver Public Library. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it kind of didn’t. But the fairy-tale ending was worth every awkward transition, every slightly cringe-y moment.
“Thirty-six years ago, I went to school, and I pronounced the word ‘knife’ wrong, and I didn’t get a prize. But tonight, there is one,” said Souvankham Thammavongsa from her Toronto apartment, moments after winning the Giller for her debut work of fiction, How to Pronounce Knife.
She was a little breathless in her acceptance speech – from the emotion of winning the prestigious $100,000 award, of course, but also from the live-on-camera race to open the front door for the masked woman waiting in the apartment building hallway to hand over the (newly designed) glass statue.
“I’m so thankful to my fellow nominees … your brilliance is why this means so much,” Thammavongsa said in her speech.
Like everything else this year, it was not business as usual for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It became evident in the spring that it would be impossible to proceed with the annual gala. Organizers began planning for an online event instead.
There would be no hotel ballroom, no downing of free drinks, no jockeying for a moment with Margaret Atwood. This year, we wore slippers.
My cat was my date as I watched the proceedings from my laptop. Pad thai – the President’s Choice – was on the menu, liberated from my freezer. Who was I wearing? Joe. Joe Fresh.
As host, McCormack – sporting a slightly distracting moustache – did his droll best to make up for the live audience and cancelled canapés. “You can feel the excitement in the room tonight,” he joked from the empty VPL central branch. There would be no Champagne popping or hobnobbing, he noted. “It’s just me, in a library, in a tux, much like any other Monday.”
McCormack, the star of Will & Grace, is living in Vancouver again now that the series has ended. “We’ve taken a break from the Margaret Atwood novel unfolding south of the border,” he said, in one of his funnier lines.
The opening monologue had some poignant moments, too. “It’s been quite a year since we last got together to celebrate Canadian storytelling,” the actor said. “But has there ever been a better time to get lost in a good book?”
One of the best things about the event was the decision to put front-line health care workers in the spotlight by having them perform the readings from the shortlisted books. Each talked about the importance of literature, especially now.
“Books are a major escape because it gives us the opportunity to block out our world that we’re living in for a period of time and get immersed in the story and the characters,” said Janet Pilgrim, a nurse manager with Toronto Western Hospital, before reading from Shani Mootoo’s Polar Vortex.
(I could have done, however, without the images that accompanied the readings – waterfalls, striking cloud formations, horses in the landscape; for me, it was a little too reminiscent of those videos they play at karaoke.)
The masked woman at Thammavongsa’s door? It was Seema Marwaha, the St. Michael’s Hospital physician who had read from her book earlier in the broadcast.
When it was time to announce the winner, last year’s Giller recipient Ian Williams joined McCormack – both wearing tuxes – in the stacks. The bit was obviously prerecorded (“so many people had to sign NDAs this year it was crazy,” Giller executive director Elana Rabinovitch told me earlier in the day) – and a little stiff. But sweet.
As is tradition, Williams first recited prize founder Jack Rabinovitch’s annual plea to guests and viewers: “For the price of dinner in this town, you can buy all the books. So eat at home.”
The short stories in How to Pronounce Knife chronicle the day-to-day lives of immigrants, including unforgettable characters such as a former boxer turned nail-salon superstar and an immigrant housewife who develops an infatuation for the country star Randy Travis (something that earned some positive attention from Travis’s people, Thammavongsa told me earlier this year).
The title story was based on something that happened to Thammavongsa when she attended elementary school in Toronto – mispronouncing the word “knife” the way her father had told her it was pronounced: “kahneyffe” – with the “k” pronounced rather than silent.
In her long list of thank-yous, Thammavongsa listed her editor Anita Chong three times. “Not bad for two girls who were in ESL.”
If Thammavongsa’s short stories are amazing – and they are – so is her life story. Born in a Lao refugee camp in Thailand, she moved to Canada with her parents when she was 2, sponsored by a family in Mississauga. They lived in that family’s basement for two years before moving to Toronto.
On Monday night, Thammavongsa’s parents were not watching the broadcast.
“I didn’t tell them to watch because it made me too nervous,” the author explained in a phone call, minutes after the announcement.
She said she hoped she could now buy a home, but noted that the prize is about much more than the dollar value.
“It means that a writer can look like me,” she said. “A writer can have a difficult name to pronounce like mine. And that my stories are Canadian because I am Canadian.”
I feel certain that Jack Rabinovitch, who died in 2017, would have been delighted.
And really, who needs a glitzy red carpet and a three-course meal featuring herb-crusted beef tenderloin and whipped celeriac chive potatoes in a peppercorn jus to make the Giller feel special? Really, it’s about the stories.
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