M.G. Vassanji, already celebrated for his fiction, is now a Governor General's Literary Award winner for his evocative memoir, A Place Within: Rediscovering India.
The Toronto-based author — a two-time winner of the Giller Prize for fiction — was named English non-fiction winner of the 2009 Governor General's Literary Awards in Montreal on Tuesday.
Shortly after the announcement, Vassanji remained philosophical about this latest accolade.
"You're never sure know how [readers] might see your work, whether they might find it relevant, or … some people find it confusing. Others find it written well," he told CBC News by phone late Tuesday morning.
"It was my first book of non-fiction so that's a nice thing to contemplate."
A three-member jury hailed the memoir as "an utterly brilliant, evocative memoir that ranges across the landscapes of culture, memory, identity and history."
Vassanji — who was born in Kenya, raised in Tanzania and is of Indian descent — describes his book as a travel memoir researched, in part, during many visits to India to explore his ancestry.
"It's an exploration of myself, in a sense," said the author and former physicist. "Any other book of non-fiction, I wouldn't know how it'd feel like. I suppose I could only do this type of non-fiction — where I'm personally involved."
Nonetheless, he said it was difficult weaving together the history of various Indian states with his own personal story and "to make it coherent and readable."
Novelist Kate Pullinger, originally from Cranbrook, B.C., but now living in the U.K., is the English-language fiction winner for The Mistress of Nothing.
"It's a very emotional thing for me," said the London-based writer. "Being a Canadian is at the heart of my personal identity and at the heart of my writing identity as well. To win this prize is a fantastic affirmation of that, as well as being a complete surprise."
Inspired by the real-life servant of historical figure Lady Lucie Duff Gordon, Pullinger's novel focuses on Gordon's Victorian-era maid Sally Naldrett as the pair embark on a trip down the Nile.
The mystery circumstances of this little known person living in the shadow of the well-known Lady Gordon piqued Pullinger's interest and drove her to research and write The Mistress of Nothing.
"The maid — nothing is known about her after she left Lady Lucy's household," said Pullinger, who along with writing and teaching, has for nearly a decade been exploring online narrative and new digital forms of publishing. "For me, that was what opened it up to me as a novelist.
"Storytelling is a fundamental part of what is human."
Winners in B.C., Ontario, Alberta
Vancouver writers were honoured in the GG categories of English-language poetry and drama, with veteran poet and author David Zieroth winning for his collection The Fly in Autumn and newcomer Kevin Loring for his debut full-length play Where the Blood Mixes, which explores the repercussions of the residential school system.
A young adult book captured the award for English translation, with Calgary's Susan Ouriou honoured for her work adapting Charlotte Gingras' teen coming-of-age novel La liberté? Connais pas.
'It makes me feel so affirmed as a writer. My parents aren't the only ones who think it's good.' —Caroline Pignat, children's literature winner
Colborne, Ont., artist Jirina Marton nabbed the prize for children's literature, illustration, for her textured images for the holiday book Bella's Tree (written by Janet Russell).
The award for children's literature, text, went to Ottawa's Caroline Pignat for Greener Grass: The Famine Years, a portrait of a 19th-century family struggling during Ireland's Great Famine.
Winning "makes me feel so affirmed as a writer," she said. "My parents aren't the only ones who think it's good."
For Pignat, who is also a high school writing teacher, the honour will also serve as part of a future lesson she'll share with students she sees in class and on speaking tours. While digging through her old papers for a speaking engagement just before Greener Grass was released, the author came across a writing assignment about the Irish famine that she had first penned at age 16, having been inspired by a book an uncle gave her.
"I had no idea I had started this idea [back then]," she said. "It was neat that it stayed with me all this time. Your subconscious is always working even when you're not aware of it."
Record win on French side
On the French-language side, the awards registered a first as one book scooped both children's categories (text and illustration) for the first time ever: Harvey, about how a little boy who copes with the death of his father.
Both Harvey's author, Saguenay, Que.'s Hervé Bouchard, and its illustrator, Montrealer Janice Nadeau (a three-time GG winner), will be honoured.
Other French-language winners include:
- Fiction: Le discours sur la tombe de l'idiot, Julie Mazzieri (based in Velone-Orneto, France, but originally from Saint-Paul-de-Chester, Que.).
- Poetry: Thérèse pour joie et orchestre, Hélène Monette (Montreal).
- Drama: Le bruit des os qui craquent, Suzanne Lebeau (Montreal).
- Non-fiction: Pointe Maligne: l'infiniment oubliée, Nicole V. Champeau (Ottawa).
- Translation: Le miel d'Harar (translation of Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb), Paule Noyart (Bromont, Que.).
Each winner receives $25,000, while the other finalists receive $1,000 each.
Governor General Michaëlle Jean will present the 14 winners with their awards at an evening gala at Rideau Hall on Nov. 26.