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Shakespeare Selfie Challenge, adult category: We have a winner

Our judge, the Governor General's Literary Award finalist Alexi Zentner, has made his decision. We're pleased to announce the winner and honourable mentions in the adult category of the Shakespeare Selfie Challenge.

Before we get to the nitty-gritty, we'd like to share with you our judge Alexi's thoughts on the quality of the entries. (In short, he was dazzled.) "I don't think I've ever enjoyed reading as a judge as much as for this contest. I honestly could have picked almost all of them as winners. Really fun." 

And now, without further ado....

Honourable mentions

The judge's thoughts: "I'm mad as hell—we should all be mad as hell—about the proposed budget cuts. Henry V is calling his troops to action with a sly wit." 

"Lear and the Nigerian" by Camille Atebe
The judge's thoughts: I'll admit to a weakness for Lear. My most recent novel, The Lobster Kings, pays homage to Lear, and this piece captures the king's hubris with a smile toward the modern day. 

"Boarding a Jumbo Jet" by Alan Daniels
The judge's thoughts: Just flat out funny. 

Congratulations to all the honourable mentions! Each of you will be receiving a Shakespeare Selfie messenger bag and a Canada Writes journal.

And the winner is...

The judge's thoughts: "While many writers captured Shakespeare's language to great success, I felt like this piece captured Ophelia herself while riffing on Shakespeare's poetics. I was particularly taken with the way she has Ophelia see how nothing can be everything: 'There doesn't seem to be any significance to rhododendrons—they just grow well here on the West Coast.' One of Shakespeare's gifts was to bestow humanity on all of the characters on the stage, great and small, to understand that no matter how few lines we get to speak, we are always in our own spotlight. I think that's what the author is doing and that seems to get to the heart of a selfie." 

Meet the winner: Our Q&A with Ruth Daniell

We reached Ruth to find out more about her fascination with Ophelia and what it takes to give a voice to "devoiced" characters.

Tell us about yourself.
I am a writer, artist, and performer originally from Prince George, BC. My husband and I now live in Vancouver, where I teach speech arts and writing at the Bolton Academy of Spoken Arts and run Swoon, a literary reading series on love and desire. I’m an MFA graduate from the University of British Columbia and I’ve previously been twice longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize. Some of my most recent writing is forthcoming in Contemporary Verse 2, and Room Magazine. I also love going to the theatre, painting, and downhill skiing. I love snow, nail polish, bright colours, organized binders, and flowers. I also love desserts—especially chocolate desserts, especially ice cream.

How would you describe your writing?
My first love is poetry, but I also write fiction, YA, and literature for children. No matter what I’m writing, though, I’m always interested in the musicality of everyday speech and the positive power of storytelling. I believe that narrative is a powerful tool for explaining our emotions and ourselves to ourselves and to others. Stories that haven’t been told before, or that haven’t been told from different points of view, can help widen what I think of as our emotional intelligences, and I suppose that’s one of my goals, as a writer. I usually write poetry that tries to get at the complexities of emotion, often through narrative of some kind, digging into the major human preoccupations—love, loss, and loneliness.
What made you want to enter the competition?
Well, one of the reasons I wanted to enter the competition is that the dramatic monologue is a form that I think is really useful for understanding character and story. In my current poetry manuscript, I dramatize devoiced women from fairy tales as one way to try and bring readers a deeper understanding of their individual joys and sorrows that otherwise wouldn’t be possible, and shed some new light on what the internal world of those characters might have been like. In fairy tales, we often see women used as objects, or “rewards” for the male characters’ behaviours, and don’t get to hear what they think of their situations, either in a positive or negative way. I saw the Shakespeare challenge as a way to explore a different character, another character whose side of the story hadn’t been fully explored before. While there are some fiercely intelligent, vocal women in Shakespeare’s plays, there are also some whose personal stories remain unexplored (because a different story, not theirs, is being told), and I’m attracted to their enigmatic worlds.

I was also thrilled at the idea of putting a Shakespeare character into a modern setting as a way to understand her character better, to make her more accessible, more relatable. Shakespeare’s plays were contemporary in his time. They’re all about the same stuff that bothers and delights us today, but sometimes just how universal the stories are can get lost if we’re intimidated by the language. I’ve studied Shakespeare for years, and now I teach it, and I love the language, I think it’s beautiful, but I remember when I was 12 and trying to wade through the stuff for the first time—it was mind-boggling. 

I have no idea what my life would look like if I’d let the language of Shakespeare’s plays put me off, if I’d dismissed it as too difficult and irrelevant, as I know so many people are tempted to do. I think that taking Shakespeare characters and placing them in a contemporary setting is a wonderful way to highlight how really ordinary his character’s problems are. That ordinariness is what makes it timeless, what makes it extraordinary. I don’t think that experimenting with contemporary language to make the stories more accessible diminishes the stories and characters at all.
How did you come upon the choice of Opheliaand having her comment on her modest patio gardenfor your entry?
It’s interesting you ask what is it about Ophelia that “spoke” to me—because I think it’s the fact that Ophelia doesn’t really get to speak is what drew me to her. Her lover goes mad and leaves her, her father is killed, and her brother is studying abroad in France—she’s left alone to deal with her grief and we never really get to hear what she thinks about all this, or how she’s coping. In her last moments alive in the play, we see her sing some songs, and hand out flowers, reciting their symbolic meanings, which I think could be one way she is trying to clumsily find some meaning out of the chaos that her life has become. It seemed natural to me that if Ophelia was living in our time, flowers might be the things she turns to in her grief, and I thought that giving her something to do, a purpose, might also give me a window into her internal world. 

I also thought that taking away her royal status would help us look at her as an individual struggling with the same tough stuff that’s common to all human experience. I find that it’s the personal element, the idea that “they’re just like us,” that makes tragedy more moving, not a glamorous, distant celebrity approach. That’s why Ophelia doesn’t have the modern-day equivalent of a castle—why she’s not hanging out in a big house with a grand garden—and why I gave her, instead, a modest little patio garden to worry over.

Zentner cover small.jpg
Congratulations, Ruth! We're also giving you a Shakespeare Selfie tote bag to carry that iPad Mini around in—and a Canada Writes journal to put down those poetic thoughts. And for your interest in Shakespeare's female characters, we're also giving you a copy of judge Alexi Zentner's latest novel, The Lobster Kings, which retells Cordelia's story from "King Lear."


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