Books

Edmonton author Conor Kerr on what it's like to have your debut novel longlisted for the Giller Prize

Avenue of Champions considers Indigenous youth in relation to the urban constructs and colonial spaces in which they survive.

Avenue of Champions is longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize

Conor Kerr is an educator, writer and harvester living in Vancouver. (Zachary Ayotte)

Conor Kerr is a Métis and Ukrainian educator, writer and harvester. He is a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta and is descended from the Gladue, Ginther and Quinn families from the Lac Ste. Anne and Fort Des Prairies Métis communities and the Papaschase Cree Nation. His poem Prairie Ritual was on the 2021 CBC Poetry Prize longlist

Kerr's debut novel, Avenue of Champions, considers Indigenous youth in relation to the urban constructs and colonial spaces in which they survive — from violence, whitewashing, trauma and racism to language revitalization, relationships with Elders and re-staking land claims. It won the 2022 ReLit Award in the novel category and was a finalist for the 2022 Amazon Canada First Novel Award

Avenue of Champions is one of the 14 books longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. The $100,000 award annually recognizes the best in Canadian fiction.

The 2022 shortlist will be announced on Sept. 27, 2022 and the winner will be announced on Nov. 7, 2022.

Shortly after receiving the nomination, Kerr spoke to CBC's Mark Connolly on Edmonton AM about having his book longlisted for the biggest award in Canadian literature.

Fourteen Canadian authors have been longlisted for the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize. An Edmonton writer's debut novel made the list. Conor Kerr is the Métis and Ukrainian author behind Avenue of Champions.

What went through your mind when you found out Avenue of Champions was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize?

It's funny and this will sound unbelievable but, two nights ago I had a dream that it somehow was on the longlist for the Giller. Of course, everyone's thinking about it and it's in the back of your mind. You pretend you don't care if you're a writer, but you really do care and you really think about these kind of things.

You pretend you don't care if you're a writer, but you really do care and you really think about these kind of things.

I was actually camping at Miquelon Lake and tuned into the live broadcast. It was a very emotional experience. People work toward something like that their entire life. It's pretty exciting that what emerged from a short story from Marilyn Dumont's creative writing course at the University of Alberta became this.

Avenue of Champions is your debut novel. What does it mean for your career to be recognized in this way?

It's hard to know. Fortunately, I have another novel ready to go, that will be coming out in the spring of 2024. It's called Prairie Edge. This will help build up the hype for me. It's centred around Edmonton and people releasing bison in the middle of the city.

What is Avenue of Champions about?

The book centres around the 118th Avenue community and my time going up there and living there in what would be the 2000s. It talks about that Métis experience in an urban landscape and what that looks like for people who've been disassociated from the land they historically called their homelands for generations and generations.

It talks about that Métis experience in an urban landscape, and what that looks like for people who've been disassociated from the land they historically called their homelands for generations and generations.

It also takes into account a lot of the the stories of the dissolution and the illegal surrender of Papaschase First Nation and the descendants of that. They're spreading out throughout the city afterwards and into the rural countryside and going through generations of a family and what their experiences are in the colonial society.

Why was that a story that you wanted to tell?

There's always been an image in my head of my grandmother's grandmother, who was born on the Papaschase First Nation and lived there until she was about 12 years old, when she ended up in the Métis road allowances north of St. Paul. Then she came back to Edmonton as an older lady in the 1950s.

What would that place have looked like to someone who, when she left in the 1880s, Edmonton wasn't anything, really, that time? It was a forest, it was a couple of houses — and when she came back it was a booming urban centre.

That's been an image that stuck with me, and it was something I wanted to explore.

LISTEN | Conor Kerr discusses Avenue of Champions:

Kerr wrote Avenue of Champions as a kind of 'love letter to Edmonton' but one where you're starting to notice the weird stuff. He was inspired to write a first novel based in part on the experiences of his Metis and Papaschase family.

Are you confident that this kind of exposure will give it, give the novel a boost?

It's been doing weirdly well. To be quite honest, I'm pretty surprised about it all. It won the ReLit Award, which is for novels published by independent presses. Then it was shortlisted for the Amazon Canada First Novel Award. Then to be on this longlist! 

It's been exceeding all expectations, I think from from everyone, including myself. That's for sure.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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