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Jillian Tamaki was expecting a call from the Canada Council for the Arts about income tax. What she got was an additional $24,000 – tax-free. Tamaki was announced this morning as one of 14 winners of the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Awards. As a nominee, she was expecting to receive $1,000; as a winner she would now be taking home $25,000.

“I just started laughing,” Tamaki says. “My dad’s a tax accountant so that’s what I think about. I thought [the Canada Council] was going to give me some very pragmatic information, but it was just good news.”

This is Tamaki’s second win in the young people’s literature – illustrated books category, but her first for a solo project, and the first for a kids’ picture book. In They Say Blue, a child contemplates the colours of things seen (her black hair) and unseen (the orange yolk inside an egg) across beautifully illustrated pages.

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The Red Word is a troubling dark horse

Tamaki previously won in 2014 for her illustrations of This One Summer, a graphic novel that was written by her cousin, Mariko Tamaki. “To have one that was just me and a picture book is kind of nice and different,” she says.

Governor General’s Literary Awards are presented in 14 categories: seven each in English and in French. The French-language award for young people’s literature – illustrated books went to Marianne Dubuc for Le chemin de la montagne.

Jillian Tamaki, author of They Say Blue, in Toronto on April 28, 2015.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

Although Jillian Tamaki would not have known it when she received her good-news phone call from the Canada Council, she isn’t the only 2014 winner making a repeat appearance this year.

Playwright, author and filmmaker Jordan Tannahill became one of the youngest ever Governor General’s Literary Award-winners in 2014 when he won in the drama category for Age of Minority: Three Solo Plays. Known for work that focuses on outcasts, Tannahill has found mainstream acclaim once again this year for Botticelli in the Fire & Sunday in Sodom, two one-act plays in which famous historical and mythical figures – the Renaissance artist Botticelli and the biblical Lot’s wife, who became a pillar of salt when she looked back at Sodom – tell an alternate side to their stories.

Widely considered to be one of the most exciting voices in Canada, Tannahill also published his first novel, Liminal, in 2018. The French-language drama award went to Anne-Marie Olivier for Venir au monde.

Sarah Henstra.

Paola Scattolon

For Sarah Henstra, whose timely and well-received campus novel, The Red Word, beat out Paige Cooper, Rawi Hage, Miriam Toews and Joshua Whitehead to win in the English-language fiction category, the news was also unexpected. “I kind of lost it a little bit … I was a little shaky,” she says of receiving the Canada Council’s phone call.

Set in an unnamed Ivy League school in the 1990s, Henstra’s first novel for an adult audience tackles issues of rape culture and gender politics. It has been praised as a timely #MeToo novel, although for Henstra, the work on it began many years before the hashtag.

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“I think that writers’ curiosity digs really deep into the undercurrents of public conversations and looks for what’s not being said or what’s being said with a kind of deep nervousness,” she said in a phone interview.

The French-language fiction prize was awarded to Karoline Georges for De synthèse.

This year’s winner in the non-fiction category is Darrel J. McLeod for his first book, Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age. McLeod is a former chief negotiator of land claims for the federal government and executive director of education and international affairs with the Assembly of First Nations, and his book is a powerful story of resilience and devotion to family that the selection committee described as having a “phoenix-like strength.”

The French-language prize was awarded to Frédérick Lavoie for Avant l’après: voyages à Cuba avec George Orwell.

The award for English-language poetry went to Cecily Nicholson for Wayside Sang, a collection of six extended lyrical sequences about displacement that beat out two past winners of the Griffin Poetry Prize: Dionne Brand and Billy-Ray Belcourt. The French-language award went to Michaël Trahan for La raison des fleurs.

For young people’s literature – text, Jonathan Auxier won for Sweep: The Story of a Girl and her Monster, a middle-grade novel about a Victorian chimney-sweep girl who is saved from a fire by a Golem made of ash and coal. The French-language prize went to Mario Brassard for Ferdinand F., 81 ans, chenille.

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Two prizes are also awarded for translation. This year’s winners for translation from French to English are Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott for Descent into Night, their translation of Edem Awumey’s Explication de la nuit. For translation from English to French, Lori Saint-Martin and Paul Gagné won for Le monde selon Barney, their translation of Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version.

The winning authors, translators, illustrators and publishers will be presented with their awards by Governor General Julie Payette at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Nov. 28. Each winner receives $25,000, with the publisher of each winning book receiving $3,000 and each non-winning nominee receiving $1,000. The prize program has a total value of $450,000.

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