If there could be such a thing as a grudge match in Canada's genteel literary world, it was fought yesterday in Ottawa when Miriam Toews's novel A Complicated Kindness had a rematch against Alice Munro's short-story collection Runaway for a major Canadian literary prize. Last Thursday, Munro took home the Giller Prize, her second, winning over books by Toews, a sentimental favourite to many, and the four other authors on the shortlist. Yesterday, however, the Winnipeg writer's book proved triumphant in the contest for the Governor-General's Literary Awards.
"It's hugely gratifying and astonishing," said Toews yesterday morning after the official press conference announcing the awards. She was quick to praise the talents of all the finalists, adding that she was a bit stunned that her book was selected over Munro's, an author who has won three G-Gs previously.
"That's kind of a weird one," she said. "She's an amazing, incredible writer. I need to process that a bit."
A Complicated Kindness is the story of Nomi Nickel, a teenage girl living in a strict and dreary Mennonite community of East Village, Man. Abandoned by her mother and sister, faced with a future that leads to work at the local chicken-processing plant, Nomi struggles to make sense of her life with the angst and biting humour of any modern adolescent.
The G-G jury, consisting of poet and Globe columnist Lynn Crosbie and novelist Kathy Page, praised Toews's voice, calling it "electrifying, exciting and exact.
"Her Nomi, a wannabe hip New Yorker in a small town that seems allergic to desire, is hilariously cynical and sweetly compassionate," the jury citation continued. "An unforgettable coming-of-age story, this novel is melancholic and hopeful, as beautifully complicated as life itself."
Also nominated for the English-language fiction category were the debut works of three writers: Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis, Norman Bray, In the Performance of His Life, by Trevor Cole; and Some Great Thing by Colin McAdam.
Toews's win was hinted at a few hours before the official announcement by a story in The Winnipeg Free Press yesterday after tracking down the author at an Ottawa hotel Monday night. Toews says she asked the enterprising reporter not to tell anyone she was in Ottawa and refused to confirm that she had actually won the prize.
"It's so annoying," said Toews. "It sounded as though I had told him don't tell anyone I had won, and I never told him that I had won."
The winner of the prize for English-language non-fiction was former lieutenant-general Roméo Dallaire, of Quebec City, for Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. Dallaire led a UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda during the nineties, and his book is an eyewitness account of the 1994 genocide that saw the slaughter of 800,000 Hutus while his repeated requests for aid went unheeded. The jury called his work an "essential book, that in speaking of the Rwandan tragedy, points to some of our greatest failings as a civilized society."
A humble Dallaire said he was "quite overwhelmed" to have won the award: "All this is so out of context with what the aim of the book was, which was telling the story from the entrails of a person who was part of the decision-making process, and as a story that people might want to refer to."
"But the response has been absolutely incredible, from people from all walks of life and from all ranks in the military."
He added: "[Winning the award]maintains an aim I gave myself, which was to keep the Rwanda genocide alive, and this is certainly keeping it in the forefront." Dallaire said he "would never be pretentious enough" to suggest that Shake Hands With the Devil might in some way help prevent future genocides, pointing out that the situation in Sudan's Darfur region appears to be repeating the events in Rwanda 10 years ago.
"It looks like we are going through the same song and dance with innocent people dying and suffering while political and diplomatic pirouettes are going on without any solutions," he said.
Also nominated for the non-fiction prize were I'll Tell You a Secret: A Memory of Seven Summers, by Anne Coleman; Acquainted with the Night: Excursions through the World after Dark, by Christopher Dewdney; Dark Age Ahead, by Jane Jacobs; and Wisdom & Metaphor, by Jan Zwicky.
The winner of the G-G for French-language fiction was Le cercle parfait by Pascale Quiviger, while the winner of the award for French-language non-fiction went to Jean-Jacques Simard for La Réduction: l'Autochtone inventé et les Amérindiens d'aujourd'hui.
In the poetry category, Toronto's Roo Borson won for Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida, inspired by the work of 17th-century Japanese poet Basho as well as her own trip along the River Torrens in South Australia. Borson, who emigrated from the United States in 1974, has twice been a finalist for the Governor-General's Award, in 1984 for The Whole Night, Coming Home and in 1994 for Night Walk: Selected Poems. Montreal's André Brochu won in the French-language poetry category for Les jours à vif.
Morris Panych, of Vancouver and Toronto, won the G-G for English-language drama for his play Girl in the Goldfish Bowl, a quirky farce about a young girl hoping a mysterious boarder might help save her parents' crumbling marriage. Emma Haché, of Montreal, won the French-language drama category for L'intimité.
In the French-to-English translation category, Judith Cowan of Trois-Rivières, Que., won for Mirabel, her interpretation of Pierre Nepveu's Lignes aériennes, about the construction of Montreal's troubled international airport. Nepveu's original won a G-G last year in the poetry category.
In the English-to-French translation category, Ivan Steenhout of Racine, Que., won for Les Indes accidentelles, his interpretation of The Accidental Indies by Robert Finley.
All the winners were celebrated last night at a reception and prize-giving ceremony followed by a gala dinner at Rideau Hall. Tonight, each winner except Dallaire will read from their works at a special public reading at Library and Archives Canada. Dallaire has pre-recorded a reading that will be run in place of a live reading.
In addition to a $15,000 cash prize, each Governor-General's Literary Award-winner receives a specially bound copy of his or her book created by Pierre Ouvrard. The publishers of the winning books receive $3,000 to promote the book, while each finalist receives $1,000.
Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire's book Shake Hands With the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda was in part an account of the 1994 genocide of 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus in Rwanda. Incorrect information appeared Wednesday in Review.