Everything you need to know about the 5 finalists for $75K Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction
The winner will be revealed on Nov. 21, 2023
Books by Jamal Saeed, Christina Sharpe, Angela Sterritt, Emily Urquhart and John Vaillant have been shortlisted for the 2023 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.
The $75,000 prize is awarded annually to the best in Canadian nonfiction. It is the largest prize for nonfiction in Canada.
The jury is comprised of Canadian nonfiction writers Eve Joseph, Michelle Porter and Dan Werb. They have selected the finalists, and eventually the winner, from 99 titles submitted by publishers.
"This year's shortlist has something for everyone. The range of subjects is remarkable, as are the approaches taken by these talented authors," said Charlie Foran, executive director of Writers' Trust, in a statement, "What all the books share is great passion matched by great prose."
Jury member Dan Werb won the award in 2022 for his book The Invisible Siege.
Other past winners include Tomson Highway, Elizabeth Hay and Jessica J. Lee.
The Writers' Trust of Canada is an organization that supports Canadian writers through literary awards, fellowships, financial grants, mentorships and more.
It also 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.
The Writers' Trust has given out a nonfiction prize since 1997. Hilary Weston has sponsored the prize since 2011. As of 2023, the prize has increased to $75,000. Each remaining finalist will receive $5,000. Translators will also be given a portion of the prize money.
The winners will be announced at the Writers' Trust awards gala on Nov. 21, 2023.
You can learn more about the shortlisted books and authors below.
Jamal Saeed sought refuge in Canada in 2016 after being imprisoned three times for a total of 12 years in his native Syria. Imprisoned for his political writing and his opposition to the regimes of the al-Assads, Saeed spent years in Syria's most notorious military prisons. My Road from Damascus tells the story of his life as he chronicles the sociopolitical landscape in Syria since the 1950s, and his hope for the future.
The Kingston, Ont.-based Saeed spent 12 years as a prisoner of conscience in Syria before being invited to Canada in 2016. He continues to raise awareness about Syria's ongoing civil war and humanitarian crisis through his work as an activist, editor, visual artist and author.
I knew from the 12 years I'd spent in half a dozen Syrian prisons that the presence of many soldiers meant that one, or perhaps all of us, were about to be taken to meet an important army officer. They bound our hands, covered our eyes, and roughly stuffed cotton wool in our ears to make sure we couldn't hear what was being said unless they wanted us to. Suddenly, I was being dragged along the floor, pulled tripping up a flight of stairs, then jerked to a stop. The cotton wool was yanked from my ears, and I heard what I assumed was an officer's voice.
Jury citation: "This memoir examines the human psyche under extreme conditions of torture and finds poetry, hope, love and freedom. Saeed's gift for storytelling and his deeply moving prose allows the reader to follow him wherever he goes."
Saeed's gift for storytelling and his deeply moving prose allows the reader to follow him wherever he goes.- Weston Prize jury
Ordinary Notes is Christina Sharpe's latest work of nonfiction which explores the complexities of Black life and loss through a series of 248 notes which intertwine past and present realities. Through her literary form, Sharpe writes of the influence of her mother, Ida Wright Sharpe and combines multiple voices on the many ways to experience Blackness.
"I think that the word 'note' gives us the kind of sonic, textual, haptic things about memory. Things about encounter, about attending to and listening to. It was a logic through which I could think about Black life," she said in an interview on The Next Chapter.
I felt like 'note' spoke to memory, it spoke to a kind of experience that could bind people together and provide some other sense of being in the world.- Christina Sharpe
"The title also really comes from something that I noted from Toni Morrison's Beloved. It really comes from that scene in Beloved with Paul D on the chain gang in Alfred, Georgia and those notes given in the morning and in the evening to end the kind of violence of the white men with the rifles who guard them. I wanted to think about how his ordinary notes don't stop the violence, but they do turn it in another direction and they do provide the means by which the men come to trust each other. So I felt like 'note' spoke to memory, it spoke to a kind of experience that could bind people together and provide some other sense of being in the world."
Sharpe is a Toronto-based writer, professor and Canada Research Chair in Black Studies in the Humanities at York University. Her previous book, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, was named one of the best books of 2016 by The Guardian, and a nonfiction finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award.
I've been thinking about what beauty as a method might mean or do: what it might break open, rupture, make possible and impossible. How we might carry beauty's knowledge with us and make new worlds.
We lived in a town that used and hated and feared its Black population. I grew up in Wayne, Pennsylvania, at a four-way intersection: rich white folks in three directions and a small Black neighborhood in the other. One bright, sunny summer day when I was eight or nine or ten years old, police from at least two townships, but I think three, descended on and laid siege to my neighborhood. Multiple police cars blocked our streets because a white woman had reported that she saw a Black man driving a station wagon through the centre of Wayne with a shotgun visible in the back. The Black man was named Chicki Carter—and he was really a boy, seventeen or eighteen years old. He was a friend of my brother Stephen. The rifle was a rake, part of the set of tools that Chicki used for the yardwork he was doing that summer in order to earn money. We gathered in our front yards, on the sidewalks, and in the road; we ran after the police cars; and we witnessed and insisted loudly that Chicki had done nothing wrong. That day, at least, although there was harm done, it was not immediately fatal harm.
Jury citation: "Readers are invited to witness the ordinary joys and sorrows of Black lives and how they are transformed within the everyday reality of systems of racial supremacy. To read this book is to turn toward a voice and listen as if our lives depend on it — and risk being changed in the process."
To read this book is to turn toward a voice and listen as if our lives depend on it — and risk being changed in the process.- Weston Prize jury
In her memoir Unbroken, Angela Sterritt shares her story from navigating life on the streets to becoming an award-winning journalist. As a teenager, she wrote in her notebook to survive. Now, she reports on cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, showing how colonialism and racism create a society where Indigenous people are devalued. Unbroken is a story about courage and strength against all odds.
"Those drawings and those words [in my teenage notebook] were illustrations of my pain," she said in an interview on The Next Chapter. "And I think when you're in pain — as a teenager, for me, I was freshly abandoned and bruised and hurt — and you don't really know that at the time, right? It's just like, 'I'm in this awkward position and I'm just feeling what I'm feeling.'"
What I was feeling then is that I hope my situation changes and I hope I survive. And I hope that there's better days to come than where I'm at right now.- Angela Sterritt
"Looking back at the drawings, they're really weird to be honest, I'm like, 'What was I thinking?' But really beautiful, but very emotive, and talking a lot, to be honest, about what I hoped for the world and that feeling of strength and power and hope and a desire of something better in the world. It's really where I still stand today. What I was feeling then is that I hope my situation changes and I hope I survive. And I hope that there's better days to come than where I'm at right now."
Angela Sterritt is a journalist, writer and artist. She has previously worked as a host a reporter with CBC Vancouver. Sterritt is a member of the Gitxsan Nation and lives on Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh territories in Vancouver.
Despite my ancestors' best efforts to preserve their land, our grease trails were covered with and intersected by railways, logging roads, bridges, mills, bars, and roadways, and the ancient trade route was eventually destroyed. My ancestors watched the lush forests slowly become well-trafficked roads.
I've travelled the highways from Vancouver to Prince George and then through my home territory many times since I was a baby, but more often as an adult. In 2016, while conducting research for this book and going to visit my cousin, then the mayor of Hazelton, I drove westward from Prince George and then north along Highway 16. Haunting plywood billboards plastered with pictures of the faces of young missing women jumped out from the side of the highway, every 10 to 20 kilometres. Posters stuck to gas station receptacles and on store windows made it hard to forget the reality that dozens of women and girls have gone missing from or been murdered here since the 1970s. And all that made me think not only of my family's history of being removed from this land, but also about my own vulnerability—memories of travelling alone, hitchhiking along dark highways, and being among those who could easily be ripped away.
Jury citation: "Unbroken balances intergenerational trauma with hope that is authentic, hard-earned, and very, very real. With the heart and instinct of a practiced storyteller, as well as the research skills of a seasoned reporter who leaves no stone unturned, Angela Sterritt offers her own story as a light that shines on one of the darkest ongoing episodes in modern Canadian history."
Unbroken balances intergenerational trauma with hope that is authentic, hard-earned, and very, very real.- Weston Prize jury
Ordinary Wonder Tales is an essay collection about finding magic in the everyday. Writing about everything from death and dying, pregnancy and prenatal genetics, psychics, chimeras, cottagers and plague, Emily Urquhart carves out the truth from our imaginations, combining her curiosities as a journalist and a folklorist.
I drew parallels between the stories of my own life and the stories that I had studied in graduate school as a folklorist.- Emily Urquhart
"I like to say that I'm a journalist on the folklore beat, and there are not a lot of us," said Urquhart in a 2022 interview with CBC Afternoon Drive's Jackie Sharkey. "I know that journalism is fact-driven and folklore is assumed to be fiction, but I find that there is a lot of truth at the heart of these magic tales. And what I did is I drew parallels between the stories of my own life and the stories that I had studied in graduate school as a folklorist."
One summer afternoon, while I was eating lunch in the park with my children along with another neighbourhood mom and her son, my daughter asked me to tell the story of my ghost. My own children were five and nine. My friend's son was eight. We were eating kid food — cheese sandwiches, baby carrots,a orange slices, and crackers shaped like goldfish. We'd planned to buy Popsicles for dessert. I began my story in the usual way, describing the ghost as a turtle named Skipper-Dee, and, encouraged by my children's laughter, emphasized its raspy voice.
Jury citation: "Ordinary Wonder Tales delights in the knowledge that the world can be both real and imagined. As we read, we discover that no trauma in a person's life ever sets them fully apart. Rather, human tragedies are endlessly absorbed and transformed by the wonder tales we share to bring us back to the fullness of life."
Ordinary Wonder Talesdelights in the knowledge that the world can be both real and imagined.- Weston Prize jury
Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast, published as Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World in the U.K., delves into the events surrounding the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire, the multi-billion-dollar disaster that melted vehicles, turned entire neighbourhoods into firebombs and drove 88,000 people from their homes in a single afternoon.
Vaillant told CBC Books that back in 2016, he was at a writer's retreat, working on a novel, when news of the Fort McMurray wildfire first broke. He was inspired to write what would become Fire Weather as a result.
"Like millions of people around the world, I watched in horror and amazement as the entire city disappeared beneath a pyrocumulus cloud 14 kilometres high. For several days, the possibility that the entire city could be lost was real. It was clear to me then that this was a historic event with serious implications — not just for Alberta, or for Canada, but globally," he said in an email.
It was clear to me then that this was a historic event with serious implications —not just for Alberta, or for Canada, but globally.- John Vaillant
"The Fort McMurray Fire was not a freak event; it was a bellwether, and the past six years have borne this out. Since 2016, communities around the world have experienced many of the worst fires, and fire seasons, in human history."
Vaillant is a Vancouver-based freelance writer, novelist and nonfiction author. His first book, The Golden Spruce, which told the story of a rare tree and the man who cut it down, won the 2005 Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction. Vaillant's second title The Tiger, a book about a man-eating tiger that terrorized a village in Russia in 1997, was a national bestseller and was a contender on Canada Reads in 2012, defended by Anne-France Goldwater.
On a hot afternoon in May 2016, five miles outside the young petro-city of Fort McMurray, Alta., a small wildfire flickered and ventilated, rapidly expanding its territory through a mixed forest that hadn't seen fire in decades. This fire, further off than the others, had started out doing what most human-caused wildfires do in their first hours of life: working its way tentatively from the point of ignition through grass, forest duff and dead leaves — a fire's equivalent to baby food.
Jury citation: "Fire Weather reveals to readers a character as ruthless, creative, and destructive as any in modern literature: fire itself. Through dynamic prose, deep research, and a profound sense of the stakes on a planet beset by climate change, John Vaillant traces how Canada's geological and economic history have converged to transform fire from a useful tool into an existential threat to our way of life."
Fire Weather reveals to readers a character as ruthless, creative, and destructive as any in modern literature: fire itself.- Weston Prize jury