Esi Edugyan of Victoria has won the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel, Half-Blood Blues.

The winner of the $50,000 award for the best English-language novel was named Tuesday evening at a gala in Toronto.

A surprised and overwhelmed Edugyan was barely able to speak as she took the stage. 

"Thank you so much," she said in her acceptance speech. "A prize like this does so much to promote literature in Canada and the world and I’m so honoured and pleased to accept this."

"It’s been the greatest privilege to be one of the nominees and to be shortlisted with such brilliant writers. Patrick deWitt — we’ve been through so much in the past few weeks — David Bezmozgis, Zsuzsi Gartner, Lynn Coady and the great Michael Ondaatje," she added, naming her fellow nominees.


Esi Edugyan shows off her Giller Prize Tuesday evening in Toronto. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Edugyan and deWitt were both nominated for four major literary awards this season — the Giller, the Man Booker Prize, the Writers Trust Award, which deWitt won last week, and the Governor General's Literary Award, which will be given out next week.

She recalled how the book, which took her seven years to write, lost its publisher when Key Porter folded last year and she thanked her new publisher Thomas Allen for stepping in to champion the book.

Half-Blood Blues is the story of four jazz musicians in Nazi-occupied Paris, and moves between 1940s Paris, where the group is trying to record an album, and 1992 Poland, where elderly bassist Sid is tracking down an old friend.

Pop singer Nelly Furtado introduced Half-Blood Blues at the Giller gala, saying the book "proves there's music in her soul."

Edugyan said she listened to the great jazz music of the '30s and '40s as she wrote.

"I'm not at all a musician. I took the obligatory piano lessons as a child and I also took guitar lessons and I took cello lessons a few years ago because I love the sound of the cello, but I'm really abysmal. I'm not a musical person," she said.

The jury praised her "conversational and easy style," comparing it to Louis Armstrong's West End Blues. 

"Imagine Mozart were a black German trumpet player and Salieri a bassist, and 18th century Vienna were WWII Paris; that's Esi Edugyan's joyful lament, Half-Blood Blues.  It's conventional to liken the prose in novels about jazz to the music itself, as though there could be no higher praise. In this case, say rather that any jazz musician would be happy to play the way Edugyan writes," the jury said in its citation. 

Half-Blood Blues is Edugyan's second novel. She teaches at the University of Victoria and also has a two-month-old baby.

The Giller is more than a prestigious recognition of literary excellence. Winning it also guarantees a spike in sales for the winner, often called the "Giller effect."

 Each of the other finalists receives a $5,000 prize. They are:

  • The Free World by David Bezmozgis of Toronto.
  • The Antagonist by Lynn Coady of Edmonton.
  • The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt of Portland, Ore.
  • Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner of Vancouver.
  • The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje of Toronto.

Jack Rabinovitch founded the Giller Prize in 1994 in memory of his late wife, literary journalist Doris Giller.

CBC broadcast the first Giller Prize gala and returned as broadcast partner of the event this year.

The evening, hosted by CBC personality Jian Ghomeshi, opened with a performance by Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang. Jacob Hoggard of Hedley, Bollywood actress and model Lisa Ray, Hockey Night in Canada's Ron MacLean, singer Robbie Robertson and actor Zaib Shaikh each presented one of the nominated books.