Ottawa writer Kai Thomas and Toronto academic Christina Sharpe were among the honourees at the 2023 Writers’ Trust of Canada Awards, an annual event that recognizes the country’s best writers and books of the year.
The Writers’ Trust of Canada gave out seven prizes totalling $322,000 in recognition of the year’s best in fiction, nonfiction and short story, as well as mid-career and lifetime achievement awards.
WATCH | The 2023 Writers’ Trust Awards:
The awards were given out in an in-person ceremony in Toronto on Nov. 21, 2023 hosted by Globe and Mail editor Rachel Giese. The evening’s acceptance speeches touched on several topics in the news lately, including the Israel-Hamas war — with several winners, including Kyo Maclear, Anuja Varghese and Kai Thomas, using their speeches to call for a ceasefire.
Other notable topics touched upon by winners included addiction and overdose, reconciliation with Indigenous people, colonial violence, conflict and recent book bans. The full speeches can be seen in the awards ceremony replay.
The organization, founded in 1976 by Margaret Atwood, Pierre Berton, Graeme Gibson, Margaret Laurence and David Young, supports Canadian writers through literary awards, fellowships, financial grants, mentorships and more.
Thomas, Sharpe take home top book prizes
Thomas’ novel In The Upper Country won the $60,000 Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction prize recognizing the best novel or short story collection by a Canadian author.
In In The Upper Country, young Lensinda Martin is summoned to interview an old woman who shot a slave hunter dead on his own land. The woman, who recently arrived in Dunmore, Alta. via the Underground Railroad, refuses to confess but instead proposes a deal: a story for a story. Through these stories, the interwoven nature of Indigenous and Black histories in North America become apparent and Lensinda’s destiny could be changed forever.
“The centrality of the Black characters’ relationships to Indigenous characters is a historical relationship that I personally hadn’t seen depicted almost at all in fiction and I was finding ample evidence of it in the history books,” Thomas said in an interview on The Next Chapter.
“In my lived experience, I have ample evidence of Black and Indigenous people connecting and having relationships and political alliances. It was important to bring that historical relationship into the novel in meaningful ways.”
It was important to bring that historical relationship into the novel in meaningful ways.– Kai Thomas
“I tried to represent these characters who are marginalized or oppressed as powerful agents of their own experience and who are capable of all of the things that the humans inflicting violence on other people are.”
The Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Prize jury praised Thomas for his “exceptional debut” which “deftly and compassionately braids deeply engrossing stories within stories that explore a little-known aspect of Canadian history.”
“Thomas immerses us in the novel’s compelling landscape where, despite an honest depiction of the effects and consequences of enslavement for Black and Indigenous peoples in Canada, hope remains palpable,” said jurors francesca ekwuyasi, Alix Hawley and M.G. Vassanji in a statement.
Thomas is a writer, carpenter and land steward. Born and raised in Ottawa, he is of Black and mixed heritage descended from Trinidad and the British Isles. He currently lives in New York state. CBC Books named Thomas a Black writer to watch in 2023.
Thomas spoke of the strange juxtaposition of being part of such ceremony while conflict was happening elsewhere.
“I take this moment as an opportunity to make the pledge to continue to believe that storytelling, that writing that this type of art has to increase our capacity for empathy, increase our capacity for creating peace, harmony and increase our capacity for ceasefire, increase our capacity for all these things,” he said.
The four remaining Atwood Gibson Prize finalists will each receive $5,000. They are Emma Donoghue for Learned by Heart, Amanda Peters for The Berry Pickers, Michelle Porter for A Grandmother Begins the Story and Thomas Wharton for The Book of Rain.
Last year’s winner was Nicholas Herring for his novel Some Hellish.
The Next Chapter13:02Kai Thomas on Upper Country
Sharpe’s memoir Ordinary Notes won the $75,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Award for Nonfiction, the largest prize for nonfiction in Canada.
Ordinary Notes explores the complexities of Black life and loss through a series of 248 notes which intertwine past and present realities. Through her literary form, Sharpe writes of the influence of her mother, Ida Wright Sharpe and combines multiple voices on the many ways to experience Blackness.
Sharpe is a Toronto-based writer, professor and Canada Research Chair in Black Studies in the Humanities at York University. Her previous book, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, was named one of the best books of 2016 by the Guardian and was a nonfiction finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award.
“I think that the word ‘note’ gives us the kind of sonic, textual, haptic things about memory. Things about encounter, about attending to and listening to. It was a logic through which I could think about Black life,” she said in an interview on The Next Chapter.
Eve Joseph, Michelle Porter and Dan Werb of the Weston Prize jury commended Sharpe for creating “a new narrative space at once intimate, deeply informed and uncompromising.”
“To read this book is to turn toward a voice and listen as if our lives depend on it — and risk being changed in the process,” they wrote in a statement.
Sharpe was not present to accept the award, and writer Canisia Lubrin read the acceptance speech on Sharpe’s behalf. Lubrin spoke of the power and necessity of writing in difficult times.
“We write to save our lives. We write to try to bring clarity and imagination, clarity through imagination, to bear on the world and on the matter of our living and our dying. We write even when we doubt that writing matters. But writing does matter,” Lubrin read.
The four remaining finalists of the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction will each receive $5,000. They are My Road from Damascus by Jamal Saeed, translated by Catherine Cobham, Unbroken by Angela Sterritt, Ordinary Wonder Tales by Emily Urquhart and Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast by John Vaillant.
Last year’s winner was Dan Werb for The Invisible Siege.
The Next Chapter18:37Christina Sharpe on Ordinary Notes
Anuja Varghese wins prize for emerging Canadian LGBTQ+ writers
Anuja Varghese was awarded the $10,000 Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ2S+ Emerging Writers for her short story collection Chrysalis. The $10,000 award is presented to an emerging Canadian writer who identifies as (but is not limited to) lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or two-spirit for an outstanding debut book in any genre.
Chrysalis is a short story collection that centres South Asian women, showing how they reclaim their power in a world that constantly undermines them. Exploring sexuality, family and cultural norms, this collection deals with desire and transformation.
“I never saw myself in the books I was reading. And I think that’s changing now,” she said in an interview with The Next Chapter. “There’s very rarely that kind of main character energy, especially for brown women, especially for queer brown women.”
Varghese is a Hamilton, Ont.-based writer and editor. Her stories have been recognized in the Prism International Short Fiction Contest and the Alice Munro Festival Short Story Competition and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Chrysalis is her first book and won the 2023 Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction.
Dayne Ogilvie Prize jury S. Bear Bergman, Nicholas Dawson and Sharanpal Ruprai described Chrysalis as “an electric array of queer, feminist and mythical short stories.”
“These are not typical diasporic stories of food, identity and belonging, but rather ones that weave together thematic complexities of the historical horrors of colonialism with queerness and joy,” they said in a press statement.
Varghese used her acceptance speech to encourage queer writers to find their community and keep writing, in addition to her call for a ceasefire.
“If you are a queer writer in the room or watching and you are worried there’s no space for your stories or maybe your family doesn’t support you or your community doesn’t feel safe for you, find your people, find them in person or online. I promise you there is an audience for your work. I think this recognition is proof of that. And don’t give up because we need your voice,” she said.
“I know it’s easy to feel powerless in these times, but I really believe there is power in storytelling as a means of resistance. There is power in all of our pens. Let us not be made afraid to use them.”
The two remaining finalists of the Dayne Ogilvie Prize will each receive $1,000. They are Scenes from the Underground by Gabriel Cholette, illustrated by Jacob Pyne, translated by E.S. Taillon and Body So Fluorescent by Amanda Cordner and David di Giovanni.
Last year’s winner was francesca ekwuyasi for Butter Honey Pig Bread.
The Next Chapter13:48Anuja Varghese’s short story collection sizzles with desire and transformation
Helen Humphreys honoured for writing career
Helen Humphreys received the $25,000 Matt Cohen Award, which celebrates a lifetime of distinguished work.
Humphreys is a novelist and poet. She is a recipient of the Harbourfront Festival Prize for literary excellence and lives in Kingston, Ont.
Her 2015 novel, The Evening Chorus, was nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award. Her memoir, Nocturne, was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award. Previous novels include Coventry, a finalist for the Trillium Book Award; Afterimage, inspired by the life of British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, which won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize; Leaving Earth, which won the Toronto Book Award; and The Lost Garden, which was a Canada Reads selection in 2003, defended by Mag Ruffman.
In her speech, Humphreys spoke about the solitude and community of the writing life, and how it’s essential for writers to remain open, and find light in the darkness.
“The first part [of a writer’s life] is done alone and consists at heart of following a flickering flame into the darkness,” she said. “To do this, a writer has to remain open, has to trust that the flame won’t die and that it will give out enough light to carve a path through the darkness.”
Selection committee Michelle Good, Wayne Grady and Hal Wake applauded Humphreys for her “quiet brilliance” in a press statement.
“In book after book, she has led her many readers into ever new and exciting territory,” they said.
The Next Chapter9:40Helen Humphreys on Rabbit Foot Bill
Anosh Irani wins mid-career prize for ‘indelible mark’ on literature
Anosh Irani took home the $25,000 Writers’ Trust Engel Findley Award, which recognizes the accomplishments of a predominately fiction writer in the middle of his career.
“In four remarkable novels, two plays and a collection of stories, Anosh Irani’s bold and courageous choice of subjects challenges us to witness and confront uncomfortable truths,” said jurors Conor Kerr, Michael Redhill and Shauna Singh Baldwin in a press statement.
“Whether he is writing stories about caste conflict, street children, or transgender individuals, Irani’s compassion, imagination and keen eye for the absurd shine through.”
Irani focused on the role of the writer during his acceptance speech, especially during times of conflict and war.
“I’ve always believed that it is the function of literature to provide not comfort but discomfort. The job of literature is to disturb, to challenge our notions of what it means to be alive, to shatter us, to break us open. We, as writers, invite people to not look away,” he said.
“We provide the lens and the focus to do that at this moment in time. What and who we place at the centre of our vision will determine our future. We need to listen to points of view that might be different from our own or simply points of view completely unknown to us. But to do that, both writer and reader must be willing to enter places as yet unimagined, often places of disturbance.”
Irani is a North Vancouver-based novelist and playwright. His novels and plays are all at least partially set in the streets of Bombay, the place of his birth and tell stories of those often marginalized by society.
Irani’s novel The Song of Kahunsha was a Canada Reads 2007 selection where it was defended by Donna Morrissey. His fourth novel, The Parcel, was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language fiction.
The Next Chapter19:13Anosh Irani on “The Parcel”
Laisha Rosnau wins mid-career poetry prize
Laisha Rosnau received the Latner Griffin Award, a $60,000 award given to a mid-career poet in anticipation of her future contributions to Canadian poetry.
“Her expansive body of work addresses personal and global issues in language sometimes woven delicately and other times with necessary force,” said jurors Madhur Anand, Joseph Dandurand and Dina Del Bucchia in a press statement.
“Lines like: ‘We live in a world saturated by symbolism. Sometimes it is best to be direct’ remind us of the power of poetry to be clear-eyed and insistent on the injustices and atrocities of our past, which are still with us in the present moment,” they said.
Rosnau used her speech to share her Ukrainian heritage and dedicated her award to her niece, who Rosnau said struggled with mental health and addiction issues and died recently. “I know that my story and my family story is not unique,” Rosnau said.
“Too many of us have lost loved ones to these struggles. Literature can’t save us. Poetry can’t save our lives. That literature, poetry, and all writing that questions, challenges, pushes against, opens up and shines light can provide recognition, validation, solace, inspiration and ways to realize that everything belongs in one way or another.”
Rosnau is a poet and fiction writer from Coldstream, B.C. She’s written four poetry collections, including Our Familiar Hunger, which won the 2019 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, an award for the best poetry book from British Columbia and Yukon and the 2020 Kobzar Book Award, a biennial award that gives $25,000 to an outstanding book about the Ukrainian Canadian experience. Her latest work is her second novel, Little Fortress.
Kyo Maclear wins lifetime achievement award in children’s literature
Kyo Maclear was awarded the Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People, a $25,000 prize, in recognition of her lifetime achievement in children’s literature.
Toronto-based Maclear is an essayist, novelist and children’s author. Her books have been translated into 18 languages, won a Governor General’s Literary Award and been nominated for the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award, among others. Her memoir Birds Art Life was a finalist for the 2017 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction and won the 2018 Trillium Book Award.
Her latest work is her memoir, Unearthing, which won the 2023 Governor General’s Literary Award for nonfiction. Maclear’s kids books include Kumo, The Big Bath House and Story Boat.
“What makes Kyo Maclear’s stories most extraordinary is that they are allusive, suggestive, a mode of approaching what is vital, but puzzling,” said jurors Deirdre Baker, Andrea Curtis and Itah Sadu in a press statement.
“Instead of giving directions or answers, she invites interpretation and pondering, awakening curiosity, imagination and understanding through unusual imagery,” they said.
Maclear was another one of the night’s winners to call for a ceasefire, and spoke specifically of the children in Gaza being impacted by the conflict.
“It’s difficult not to be thinking of children who must feel themselves frightfully abandoned right now. No child should experience the horror of war and we cannot erase what has been done or the pain these children will carry into the future,” she said.
“But we can lend our voices to the compassionate solidarity building around the world, in the streets, calling for ceasefire, so no child feels the added horror of an indifferent world. So they grew up with a sense of value, of their value, knowing they were not alone.”
The Israel-Hamas war erupted on Oct. 7 after Hamas militants stormed across the border into southern Israel and, according to Israeli officials, killed at least 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and kidnapped some 240 others.
Israel’s retaliatory invasion into the Palestinian territory has left at least 14,000 people dead, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run government.