Everything you need to know about the 5 finalists for $60K Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize
The award, named after Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson, recognizes the best Canadian fiction of the year
Books by Emma Donoghue, Amanda Peters, Michelle Porter, Kai Thomas and Thomas Wharton have been shortlisted for the 2023 Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.
The annual $60,000 award recognizes the best novel or short story collection by a Canadian author.
"This year's finalists are testament to the generational vitality of fiction in Canada," said Charlie Foran, executive director of Writers' Trust in a statement. "From debut to mid-career to a former winner, the 2023 shortlist offers the sweep and range of a literary culture alive with vital, complimentary voices."
This year's jury is composed of celebrated Canadian fiction writers francesca ekwuyasi, Alix Hawley and MG Vassanji.
The shortlisted writers were selected by the jury from 127 titles. Each finalist will receive $5,000.
The 2023 winner will be announced on Nov. 21 at the annual Writers' Trust Awards ceremony at CBC's Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto.
The prize is funded by businessman and philanthropist Jim Balsillie. Balsillie is the former co-CEO of Research in Motion.
The Writers' Trust of Canada has awarded an annual fiction prize since 1997 and it was renamed in honour of Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson in 2021.
Atwood and Gibson were among the five co-founders of the Writers' Trust of Canada, alongside fellow writers Pierre Berton, Margaret Laurence and David Young.
Neither Atwood nor Gibson were ever nominated for the prize that now bears their name.
The Writers' Trust of Canada is an organization that supports Canadian writers through literary awards, fellowships, financial grants, mentorships and more.
It gives 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.
Last year's winner of the Atwood Gibson Prize was P.E.I. writer Nicolas Herring for his novel Some Hellish.
Other past winners include katherena vermette, Austin Clarke, Alice Munro, Lawrence Hill, Miriam Toews, André Alexis and David Chariandy.
Get to know the 2023 finalists and their books below.
Learned by Heart is a riveting account of the boarding school romance between Anne Lister, a brilliant and headstrong troublemaker, and Eliza Raine, an orphaned heiress banished from India to England. The novel draws on Lister's secret journal and extensive research to craft the two womens' long-buried stories.
"In the, maybe, 30 years that I've been fangirling about her, Anne Lister has come to be better known, but she's still a totally obscure figure," Donoghue told Q's Tom Power.
[Anne Lister's diary] should have been published centuries ago in multiple volumes, but because of all the lesbian sex, it wasn't.- Emma Donoghue
"She was a rule-breaking, self-educated, brilliant gender nonconforming Yorkshire woman — 1791 to 1840 — who left behind possibly the longest diary in the English language. About five million words, about 15 per cent of that is in a secret code she devised to cover anything that she felt a bit private about…. It's this astonishing document, which should have been published centuries ago in multiple volumes, but because of all the lesbian sex, it wasn't."
Donoghue is an Irish Canadian writer known for her novels Landing, Room, Frog Music, The Wonder, The Pull of the Stars and the children's book The Lotterys Plus One. Room was adapted into a critically acclaimed film starring Brie Larson.
My dear Lister,
Last night I went to the Manor again. I open the door here — I don't delay even to pick up a cape — and step out across the village green. My shoes write inscrutable, fleeting messages on the dewy grass. When I reach the moon-marked road, all I have to do is follow it. In less than a quarter of an hour, at the walls of York, where Bootham Bar has been arching for 800 years, here's that antique hodgepodge, King's Manor, hiding our school behind its redbrick face.
Jury citation: "Donoghue offers readers a profoundly unique, riveting, fiercely emotional, and compelling novel about two girls in love and its effect on the rest of their lives. Masterfully and inventively plotted, Learned by Heart is a story of rebellious love and rebellious women in a dangerous time."
Masterfully and inventively plotted, Learned by Heart is a story of rebellious love and rebellious women in a dangerous time.- Atwood Gibson Prize jury
In The Berry Pickers, a four-year-old girl from a Mi'kmaq family goes missing in Maine's blueberry fields in the 1960s. Nearly 50 years later, Norma, a young girl from an affluent family is determined to find out what her parents aren't telling her. Little by little, the two families' interconnected secrets unravel.
"My dad and his family, the Peters family, used to go to the berry fields of Maine to pick berries in the summer," Peters said on The Next Chapter.
"When my dad found out that I loved writing and that I was taking it seriously, he said that I should write about the berry pickers. And I said, 'I don't write nonfiction, I write fiction — I make things up.' But he was determined. So we went on a father-daughter road trip to the berry fields and he showed me where they lived, stayed and picked berries, and the story just started coming to my head."
I have a friend who says that stories are given to you from ancestors, so I'm assuming they put it there for a reason. I just started writing and it started unfolding.- Amanda Peters
"I have a friend who says that stories are given to you from ancestors, so I'm assuming they put it there for a reason. I just started writing and it started unfolding."
- A dark family mystery unravels as one woman searches for the truth in Amanda Peters' novel The Berry Pickers
Peters is a writer of Mi'kmaq and settler ancestry living in Annapolis Valley, N.S. She is the winner of the 2021 Indigenous Voices Award for Unpublished Prose and a participant in the 2021 Writers' Trust Rising Stars program.
The day Ruthie went missing, the blackflies seemed to be especially hungry. The white folks at the store where we got our supplies said that Indians made such good berry pickers because something sour in our blood kept the blackflies away. But even then, as a boy of six, I knew that wasn't true. Blackflies don't discriminate. But now, lying here almost 50 years to the day and getting eaten from the inside out by a disease I can't even see, I'm not sure what's true and what's not anymore. Maybe we are sour.
Jury citation: "Written in crystalline clear prose and brilliantly descriptive of a time and place, The Berry Pickers tells a moving story especially relevant to our times. The telling itself is compassionate, and the reader is left to mull on the events, the lives, and the society depicted."
Written in crystalline clear prose and brilliantly descriptive of a time and place,The Berry Pickerstells a moving story especially relevant to our times.- Atwood Gibson Prize jury
A Grandmother Begins the Story follows five generations of Métis women as they work to heal themselves and the land.
"These characters... you could lay them on sort of a skeleton of my family tree," Porter said in an interview on The Next Chapter. "But again that's about all you could really do. I think I find the tension of creating something new, imagining new stories on a sort of a scaffolding of parts of [my] family tree was incredibly spirit-giving to me."
The tension of creating something new, imagining new stories on a sort of a scaffolding of parts of [my]family tree was incredibly spirit-giving to me.- Michelle Porter
"I told stories that present this emotional truth about what it is like to survive and live through intergenerational trauma. The kind that that you get as a result of the kinds of loss of land, the social tensions, the racism experienced by Métis people throughout the decades, and then living through times of erasure to get to the time now when we're actually all encouraged to say yes, we can be Métis and we can be proud of our culture and we can be very open about it."
Porter also wrote the memoir Scratching River, the nonfiction book Approaching Fire, which was shortlisted for the Indigenous Voices Award in 2021 and a book of poetry, Inquiries, which was shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. She lives in Newfoundland and Labrador. Porter made the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize longlist for her story Fireweed. Before that, she'd also made the 2017 CBC Poetry Prize longlist for Slicing Lemons in April and the 2016 CBC Poetry Prize longlist for Between you and home.
Mamé's afterlife is a fiddle
I had my choice down there, didn't I? Eve, she chose the apple. That's the story they tell, the story they told us all. At the school and at the church on the Sunday that was oh so holy. I didn't want the apple, no. I went and I chose him, the one with the fiddle, the man who put all his restless self into his songs and who made people's feet dance in their moccasins on the dirt floors and in their fancy shoes on the dance hall's wooden floors, move in ways they'd never before, step so quick and light they'd wonder who it was that had touched their feet. It was him. Every time.
Jury citation: "This novel's five Métis generations intertwine in wild, thrilling patterns, like the music that sustains them. Beautiful and daring, this book carries the weight of history lightly, and is full of surprises and shifts. The story's striking voices resound long after the final page."
The story's striking voices resound long after the final page.- Atwood Gibson Prize jury
In The Upper Country, young Lensinda Martin is summoned to interview an old woman who shot a slave hunter dead on his own land. The woman, who recently arrived in Dunmore, Alta. via the Underground Railroad, refuses to confess but instead proposes a deal: a story for a story. Through these stories, the interwoven nature of Indigenous and Black histories in North America become apparent and Lensinda's destiny could be changed forever.
"The centrality of the Black characters' relationships to Indigenous characters is a historical relationship that I personally hadn't seen depicted almost at all in fiction and I was finding ample evidence of it in the history books," Thomas said in an interview on The Next Chapter.
"In my lived experience, I have ample evidence of Black and Indigenous people connecting and having relationships and political alliances. It was important to bring that historical relationship into the novel in meaningful ways."
It was important to bring that historical relationship into the novel in meaningful ways.- Kai Thomas
"I tried to represent these characters who are marginalized or oppressed as powerful agents of their own experience and who are capable of all of the things that the humans inflicting violence on other people are."
- Kai Thomas's novel In the Upper Country is a fresh take on Black Canadian history and the Underground Railroad
Thomas is a writer, carpenter and land steward. Born and raised in Ottawa, he is of Black and mixed heritage descended from Trinidad and the British Isles. CBC Books named Thomas a Black writer to watch in 2023.
The thick smell of hay gave the jail cells the feel of stables. Fittingly, perhaps, the only seat in the hall was an old milking stool. When I took it, and blinked in the half-light cast by the high, barred window, I saw the old woman rise from her corner and regard me closely. She approached in a prowling way that threw me; for a moment I was unsure of where, or rather, on which side of the bars I had moored. I was still tired from the lack of sleep, and my head ached.
Jury citation: "In this exceptional debut, Thomas deftly and compassionately braids deeply engrossing stories within stories. He immerses us in the novel's compelling landscape where, despite an honest depiction of the effects and consequences of enslavement for Black and Indigenous peoples in Canada, hope remains palpable."
In this exceptional debut, Thomas deftly and compassionately braids deeply engrossing stories within stories.- Atwood Gibson Prize jury
The Book of Rain is a sci-fi novel about a new lucrative energy source that disrupts time and space. The town is evacuated and cordoned off, but the former residents of the mining town can't seem to stay away.
"For me as a reader, primarily, I love books that after I've read the book and I set it down, it has changed my way of looking at things in some way," said Wharton in an interview on The Next Chapter. "I go out into the world and whatever the book was about, I see it with new eyes."
I also hope that someone, after they've finished this book and put it down, might go outside and maybe pay a little more attention than they usually do to a bird or the natural world out there.- Thomas Wharton
"So that's something I value as a reader. And that was what I was hoping to do with this book. It's got a thriller aspect and I hope it tells an exciting story, but I also hope that someone, after they've finished this book and put it down, might go outside and maybe pay a little more attention than they usually do to a bird or the natural world out there."
Edmonton author and professor Wharton has written several books, including his first novel, Icefields, which won the 1996 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book in Canada and the Caribbean. Icefields was a finalist for Canada Reads 2008, when it was defended by Steve MacLean. His novel Salamander, was shortlisted for the 2001 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction and was also a finalist for the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize the same year.
After a few minutes Alex can see the wire of the fence that borders the Park shining faintly in the dim light. When they reach it, Michio crouches and creeps along the fence line, then stops.
"This is the place," he says.
Alex can't see any break or gap. Michio walks forward, and an instant later he's on the other side, looking at Alex through the wire mesh.
"Just walk straight toward me," he says.
Alex does. The mesh goes hazy for a moment, as if he's too close for his eyes to focus on it. Then he's through.
"How could you tell that was the spot?" he asks.
"You learn, if you come here often enough. And survive."
Jury citation: "Wharton's writing is clear and elegant, yet the story continually startles readers with the turns it takes as its characters seek what has been lost. He accomplishes this with precision and grace. The Book of Rain shimmers with imagination, depth, and optimism."
Wharton's writing is clear and elegant, yet the story continually startles readers with the turns it takes as its characters seek what has been lost.- Atwood Gibson Prize jury