Canadian writing travelled up the Nile and down the Ganges Tuesday when novelists Kate Pullinger and M.G. Vassanji took top honours at the Governor-General's Literary Awards with books steeped in Eastern themes.
B.C.-born, U.K.-based Pullinger beat favourite daughter Alice Munro to win the English-language fiction award for The Mistress of Nothing, the account of a real-life Victorian noblewoman's sojourn in 19th-century Egypt. Toronto's Vassanji, twice a Giller Prize winner for his novels, took the non-fiction award for a travel book, A Place Within: Rediscovering India.
For Pullinger, a veteran novelist new to the CanLit limelight, the prize rewarded a long struggle that began more than a decade ago, when she first attempted to write a fictional account of the circumstances behind Letters from Egypt by Lucie Duff Gordon, a classic of Victorian travel literature.
"It turned out to be a tremendously difficult book to write for a whole variety of reasons," the novelist said after receiving the award during a ceremony in Montreal. "Indeed I abandoned it a couple times and wrote other books instead. But I always returned to it because there was something about the story that had gripped me and I had to find the right way to tell it."
That way turned out to be a first-person narrative in the voice of Gordon's formerly anonymous maid, Sally Naldrett, who nonetheless went on to beat out the philosopher Aristotle yesterday as the historical figure most popular with Canadian literary juries.
Indeed, yesterday's prize marks the second loss for The Golden Mean, Annabel Lyon's popular tale of ancient Greece, which came to prominence when nominated for three major awards this season. Last year, Rawi Hage's Cockroach was likewise nominated for all three awards, but failed to win any of them.
Non-fiction award winner Vassanji, by contrast, can't seem to stop winning. Having previously collected two Gillers for his novels, the Toronto author was philosophical about yesterday's honour.
"I've said many times and I keep saying it, prizes are nice to win, but there are other books," he said. "This was selected, but maybe another jury would have picked something else."
The novelist's victory in the non-fiction category turns around the results of last week's Giller contest for Canadian fiction, won by journalist Linden MacIntyre, author of The Bishop's Man. But after completing two non-fiction books in one year, including a biography of fellow novelist Mordecai Richler, Vassanji expressed no desire to expand his métier.
"It literally exhausted me - the factual checking and looking up stuff," he said. "I thought I had been in exile when I came back to fiction. It felt like a relief."
The Governor-General's Award for English poetry went to Vancouver's David Zieroth for The Fly in Autumn. The book "addresses our common and defining human fate - the loneliness that is a rehearsal for death - with a tenderness and buoyancy that shows the reader 'how to walk in the dark with flowers,'" according to the jury.
First-time playwright Kevin Loring, also of Vancouver, won the English-language drama award for Where the Blood Mixes , which premiered at last summer's Luminato festival in Toronto and is scheduled to tour nationally as part of the 2010 Cultural Olympiad.
The award for children's literature went to Caroline Pignat for Greener Grass: The Famine Years, while Jirina Marton won for children's book illustration for her work in Bella's Tree .