Earlier this month, the Canada Council for the Arts announced the finalists for the 2017 Governor General’s Literary Awards. 70 titles were chosen from the 1,475 that were submitted in both English and French. As one of the longest-standing literary awards in Canada, the Governor General’s Literary Awards have celebrated over 700 works by writers, poets and translators in its 81-year history. This year, of the 70 titles selected, 11% have ties to Canada’s Atlantic provinces.
The Governor General’s Literary Awards is a nice list to be on, and not just for the winners. While there is something to be said for the acknowledgement, the fame and the publicity, the winners also receive $25,000, with another $3000 going to the publisher of each winning book to support promotional activities. Even the finalists who don’t make it all the way to the winner’s circle each receive $1,000. The Canada Council for the Arts, who has funded, administered, and promoted the literary prizes since 1959, award $450,000 annually.
“The announcement of the finalists for the Governor General’s Literary Awards is always an enticing and powerful invitation to discovery through reading because the bold choice of topics and literary approaches, together with evocative illustrations and dazzling translations, attract, delight and entrance all kinds of readers,” said Canada Council Director and CEO Simon Brault. “Our culture depends on our literature, which does us proud around the world.”
Here are the Atlantic Canadian works that made the 2017 shortlist:
We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night
Fiction – English
Joel Thomas Hynes (St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador)
Scrappy tough guy and three-time loser Johnny Keough is going a little stir-crazy awaiting trial for an alleged assault charge involving his girlfriend, Madonna, and a teapot. Facing three to five years in a maximum-security prison, Johnny knows this might just be the end of the road. But when Madonna doesn’t show up for court due to a fatal accident, shell-shocked Johnny seizes his unexpected “clean slate” as a sign from above and embarks on an epic hitchhiking journey across Canada to deliver her ashes to a fabled beach on the outskirts of Vancouver.
Johnny’s wanderings see him propelled in and out of the driver’s seat of stolen cars, knocking heads with cagey cops, nearly decapitated by a moose, coming face-to-face with his incarcerated biological father in a Kingston jail, and finding surprising connections with strangers on the lonely road west. But most of all, he revisits the choices and mistakes of his past—his relationships with his adoptive father and a cousin who meant the world to him, and his first real chance at love with the woman who is now lost to him.
We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night is the story of one man’s kicking-and-screaming attempt to recuperate from a life of petty crime and shattered relationships, and somehow accept and maybe even like the new man emerging from within, the one he so desperately needs to become.
All the Names Between
Poetry – English
Julia McCarthy (Upper Kennetcook, Nova Scotia)
All the Names Between is Julia McCarthy’s third collection. Grounded in the experience of presence in which the external and internal meet, a crossroads of consciousness where “a language without a name / remembers us” and the poem is a votive act, All the Names Between reflects the shadow-light of being, of what is and what isn’t, of the seen and the unseen, the forgotten and the remembered; here “every elegy has an ode at its centre / every ode has an elegy around its edges.”
The Colony of Unrequited Dreams
Drama – English
Robert Chafe (St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador)
Playwrights Canada Press
Based on the classic novel by Wayne Johnston, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is a fictionalized portrait of Joseph R. Smallwood, the controversial political figure who ambitiously led Newfoundland into Confederation with Canada, and became its first premier.
Spanning two decades, Smallwood’s story is anchored and propelled by one of Johnston’s most memorable creations: the fictitious Sheilagh Fielding, a caustic newspaper columnist whose own battles with the past and alcohol addiction find full vent and expression in her tireless dogging of Smallwood’s climb to power. At its heart, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is the story of a man whose career is buoyed and sometimes sunk by his unresolved feelings for a woman he never allowed himself to love. It is also the story of Newfoundland’s final years as a country, the end of one cultural and political trajectory, and the beginning of another.
L’isle Haute en marge de Grand-Pré
Poetry – French
Serge Patrice Thibodeau (Moncton, New Brunswick)
Fascinated by history, maps and aerial photographs of the Acadian cultural landscape, Serge Patrice Thibodeau’s book is bold: poetic prose maintains an impromptu dialogue with narrative and archival documents, anecdotes and science, archeology and the marvelous.
In L’isle Haute: en marge de Grand-Pré, the poet constructs a fragmented landscape, seen from the sky, inspired by a photo of Grand-Pré taken from the International Space Station.
Exercice de l’oubli – Emma Haché
Drama – French
(Sainte-Marie-Saint-Raphaël, New Brunswick)
A woman visits her husband daily. His memory is ravaged by the aftermath of a serious accident. He remembers only one thing: his love for his wife. But when one no longer shares anything of social, sexual, cultural, intellectual life, is love still enough? The story is both tender and terribly lucid in descriptions of a dying memory, of the willingness to continue sharing an intimacy broken by routine, of what it takes to maintain the dwindling flame of a transparent love.
Town Is by the Sea
Young People’s Literature (Illustrated Books)
Joanne Schwartz / Sydney Smith (Toronto / Toronto)
A young boy wakes up to the sound of the sea, visits his grandfather’s grave after lunch and comes home to a simple family dinner with his family, but all the while his mind strays to his father digging for coal deep down under the sea.
With curriculum connections to communities and the history of mining, this beautifully understated and haunting story brings a piece of Canadian history to life. The ever-present ocean and inevitable pattern of life in a Cape Breton mining town will enthrall children and move adult readers.
All the Beloved Ghosts
Fiction – English
Alison MacLeod (Brighton, UK)
Penguin Canada / Penguin Random House Canada
In 1920s Nova Scotia, as winter begins to thaw, a woman emerges from mourning and wears a new coat to a dance that will change everything. A teenager searches for his lover on a charged summer evening in 2011, as around him London erupts in anger. A cardiac specialist lingers on the cusp of consciousness as he awaits a new heart—and is transported to an attic room half a century ago. In an ancient Yorkshire churchyard, the author visits Sylvia Plath’s grave and makes an unexpected connection across time. On a trip to Brighton, reluctant jihadists face the ultimate spiritual test. And at Charleston, Angelica Garnett, child of the Bloomsbury Group, is overcome by the past, all the beloved ghosts that spring to life before her eyes.
Precise, playful and evocative, these exquisitely crafted stories explore memory, the media and mortality, unfolding at the line between reality and fiction. Written with vigorous intelligence and delicate insight, this collection captures the surprising joys, small tragedies and profound truths of existence.
Lost in September
Fiction – English
Kathleen Winter (Montreal, originally Newfoundland)
Alfred A. Knopf Canada / Penguin Random House Canada
From one of Canada’s most exciting writers comes a gripping, compassionate and stunning novel that overturns and rewrites history. Enter the world of Jimmy–a tall, red-haired, homeless thirty-something ex-soldier, battered by PTSD–as he camps out on the streets of modern-day Montreal, trying to remember and reclaim his youth. While his past is something of an enigma, even to himself, the young man bears a striking resemblance to General James Wolfe, “Conqueror of Canada” and “Hero of Quebec,” who died on the Plains of Abraham in 1759.
As a young soldier in his twenties, the historical James Wolfe (1727-1759) was granted a short and much longed-for leave to travel to Paris to study poetry, music and dance–three of his passions. But in that very year, 1752, the British Empire abandoned the Julian calendar for the Gregorian, and every citizen of England lost eleven days: September 2 was followed by September 14. These lost eleven days happened to occur during the period that Wolfe had been granted for his leave. Despondent and bitter, he never got the chance to explore his artistic bent, and seven short years later, on the anniversary of this foreshortened leave, he died on the Plains of Abraham.
Now, James is getting his eleven days back . . . but instead of the salons of 18th century Paris, he’s wandering the streets of present-day Montreal and Quebec City, not as “the Hero of Quebec” but as a damaged war veteran wracked with anguish. Much like George Saunders in Lincoln in the Bardo, award-winning author Kathleen Winter takes a brief, intensely personal incident in the life of a famous historical figure, and using her incomparable gifts as a fiction writer, powerfully reimagines him. Here is a wrenching, unforgettable portrait–like none you have ever seen or read–of one of the most well-known figures in Canadian history.
While not officially east coast authors, two more books were published by Fredericton based Goose Lane Editions The Water Beetles – Michael Kaan (Winnipeg) and Uncertain Weights and Measures – Jocelyn Parr (Montreal).
The full list of winners is being unveiled online Wednesday, November 1st, 2017. The awards themselves will be presented at a ceremony on November 29th by Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada at the Governor General’s Literary Awards at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.
Readers are invited to meet with the French-language winners of the Governor General’s Literary Awards on Wednesday, November 29th, 11:45 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., and the English-language winners on event Thursday day, November 30th, 11:45 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., for public readings and book signings at the Canada Council, 150 Elgin Street, Ottawa.