Books

André Alexis, Jenny Heijun Wills among Writers' Trust literary prize winners

The Writers' Trust of Canada gave out seven prizes in recognition of the year's best in fiction, nonfiction and short story, as well as mid-career and lifetime achievement awards
The 2019 Writers' Trust Awards winners from left: André Alexis, Angélique Lalonde, Jenny Heijun Wills, Stephen Collis, Susin Nielsen, Olive Senior and Rawi Hage. (CBC)

Toronto novelist André Alexis and Winnipeg memoirist Jenny Heijun Wills took home the two biggest awards of the night at the annual Writers' Trust Awards ceremony in Toronto on Nov. 5, 2019.

The Writers' Trust of Canada gave out seven prizes in recognition of the year's best in fiction, nonfiction and short story, as well as mid-career and lifetime achievement awards.

Alexis won his second Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, a $50,000 award, for his novel Days by MoonlightThe book follows a botanist who takes a tour of the bizarre world of southern Ontario in search of an obscure poet.

The jury praised Alexis for his "funny, moving and wholly original take on the quest narrative." 

He previously won the prize in 2015 for the novel Fifteen Dogs.

Wills won the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction, a $60,000 award, for her debut book Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related. Over a series of powerful vignettes, Wills describes reuniting with her birth family in Korea after being raised by a white family in Canada.

The jury described the memoir as "finely observed, meticulous and candid."

Angélique Lalonde received the $10,000 Writers' Trust McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize, which recgonizes the best short story published in a Canadian literary magazine, for her short story Pooka.

Four writers received $25,000 awards for mid-career and lifetime achievements.

Rawi Hage was awarded the Writers' Trust Engel Findley Award, which is annually awarded to an accomplished mid-career fiction writer.

Susin Nielsen won the Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People, which is awarded annually to children's book author their body of work.

Olive Senior was recognized with the Matt Cohen Award, which is given to a writer who has dedicated their entire professional career to writing and celebrates their body of work. 

Stephen Collis received the Latner Writers' Trust Poetry Prize, which is given annually to a mid-career poet who has "mastered the art of poetry."

Keep reading to learn more about each of the winners.

Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize: Days by Moonlight by André Alexis

Days by Moonlight is a novel by André Alexis. (Coach House Books)

In Days by Moonlightbotanist Alfred Homer agrees to go on a research road trip with Professor Morgan Bruno, an old friend of Alfred's deceased parents. As the sun sets, the two depart in search of an obscure, possibly dead poet named John Skennen and encounter a host of oddities in the gothic underworld of southern Ontario. 

Days by Moonlight is the fourth book in Alexis's quincunx, which includes Fifteen DogsFifteen Dogs won the 2015 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, Canada Reads 2017 and the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

"With the dream-like touch of a magical realist, Alexis carries us away on a profound and hilarious drive through small-town Ontario as it's never been seen before in search of a mysterious poet named Skennen. It's a journey where the spiritual meets the commonplace and the bizarre, the underworld comes up for air when you least expect it, and the Divine patiently watches over all. Days by Moonlight is a funny, moving, and wholly original take on the quest narrative that liberates the imagination with a loud whoop of joy," said the jury, comprised of Dennis Bock, Michael Kaan and Suzette Mayr, in a press release.

Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction: Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related. by Jenny Heijun Wills

Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related is a memoir by Jenny Heijun Wills. (McClelland & Stewart)

Jenny Heijun Wills was born in Korea and adopted as an infant by a white family in southern Ontario. In her late 20s, Wills traveled to Seoul to look for her first family. She chronicles this emotional, rocky reunion in her memoir Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related.written as a series of vignettes and letters.

Wills is an associate professor at the University of Winnipeg. Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related. is her first book.

"Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related. is a poignant story of the untidy family life that unfolds when Jenny Heijun Wills travels from Montreal to Seoul to find the biological parents who gave her up for adoption in her infancy. Braving heartbreak and the risk of forever losing her way, Wills journeys through the emotional terrain of home, bonding and belonging with exceptional poise. Finely observed, meticulous and candid, this memoir offers its subjects no easy redemptions, only the chance to grow together toward greater understanding. Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related. captures Canada at its richest, deeply rooted in home while also very much part of the world," said the jury, comprised of Ivan Coyote, Trevor Herriot and Manjushree Thapa, in a press release.

Writers' Trust Engel/Findley Award: Rawi Hage

Rawi Hage is the author of Beirut Hellfire Society. (CBC)

Rawi Hage was born in Lebanon and immigrated to Canada in 1992. The Montreal-based writer's first novel, De Niro's Game, won the 2008 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, one of the world's biggest prizes for a single work of fiction. His other books include Cockroachwhich was defended on Canada Reads 2014 by Samantha Bee, and most recently the novel Beirut Hellfire Society.

"Rawi Hage is as clear-eyed and fearless a writer as this country has known. Book after book he descends into the darkness, returning with a story we require," said the jury, comprised of Peter Behrens, Paul Seesequasis and Alissa York, in a press release.

Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People: Susin Nielsen

Susin Nielsen is a Canadian writer of YA, middle grade and picture books. (Tallulah Photography)

Susin Nielsen lives in Vancouver. She is the author of seven books, including the middle-grade novel The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, which won the 2012 Governor General's Literary Award. Her books have been nominated for prizes all over the world, including the YA novel We Are All Made of Molecules (longlisted for the Carnegie medal) and Optimists Die First (longlisted for the UKLA Book Award).

"Nielsen celebrates the amazing resilience of young people as well as the adults around them as they face such trials as mental health issues, bullying, homelessness and the deaths of siblings and parents. Few writing today can match her ability to make even peripheral characters memorable through a wonderful distillation of dialogue and details," said the jury, comprised of Glen Huser, Kyo Maclear and Susan Perren, in a press release.

Matt Cohen Award: Olive Senior

Olive Senior is an award-winning writer of poetry, fiction and children's books. (Caroline Forbes )

Olive Senior is the author of 18 books, including poetry, fiction, nonfiction and children's literature. Her collection Over the Roofs of the World was shortlisted for the 2005 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry. Her collection Gardening in the Tropics was in both the International baccalaureate syllabus and the CAPE syllabus for Caribbean schools. Her latest book is the children's picture book Boonoonoonous Hairwhich was illustrated by Laura James.

"Through her poetry, fiction and nonfiction, Olive Senior has been devoted to ensuring that the voices of women, especially those of the Caribbean diaspora, have continued to be heard. 'I've been meandering across borders all my life,' she has said, and that cross-cultural perspective is what gives her work its refreshing, eye-opening relevance," said the selection committee, comprised of Patsy Aldana, Graeme Gibson, Wayne Grady and Don Oravec, in a press release.

Latner Writers' Trust Poetry Prize: Stephen Collis

Stephen Collis is a poet from B.C. (Writers' Trust of Canada)

Stephen Collis lives in B.C. and teaches at Simon Fraser University. His poetry books include The Commons, DECOMP, which was co-written with Jordan Scott, and On the Material, which won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. He's also written criticism and nonfiction, like Dispatches from the Occupation and Phyllis Webb and the Common Good.

"Through six collections of poems, Stephen Collis has achieved something remarkable: an invigorating body of work that convincingly addresses both the urgency of the present moment and the long echoes of our historical and lyrical past," said the jury, comprised of Hoa Nguyen and Margo Wheaton, in a press release.

Writers' Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize: Pooka by Angélique Lalonde

Angélique Lalonde is a short story writer of Métis and Québécois heritage. (Writers' Trust of Canada)

Angélique Lalonde grew up in Ktunaxa territory and now lives on Gitxsan territory. Her story Pooka, published by Prism International, tells the story of a carpet collector who fails at achieving online fame. She is currently working on a collection of short fiction.

"Angélique Lalonde's Pooka is a contemporary classic. After a failed attempt at online fame, Pooka, a carpet collector and sculptor, must reconsider his artistic practice and its relationship to his mental health. Deftly weaving explorations of identity, isolation and displacement with colourful and unexpected imagery, Lalonde tells a powerful story of life on the precipice. There is fear here, and an inescapable loneliness, but there is also a celebration of resilience that utterly defines this moment in literature, and society in general. Told in clean, efficient prose, Pooka's story is both universal and deeply personal, with surprising twists and moments of dark humour that make it truly unforgettable," said the jury, comprised of Carleigh Baker, Catherine Hernandez and Joshua Whitehead, in a press release.

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