Get to know the finalists for the 2020 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction

The winner of the $60,000 nonfiction award will be announced on Nov. 18.

The winner of the $60,000 nonfiction award will be announced on Nov. 18

The winner of the 2020 Hilary Weston Writers Trust Prize for Nonfiction will be announced on Nov. 18. (Submitted by the Writers' Trust of Canada)

Five titles have been shortlisted for the 2020 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. 

The $60,000 prize is awarded annually to the best in Canadian nonfiction. It is the largest prize for nonfiction in Canada.

The winner will be revealed on Wed. Nov. 18.

Here's everything you need to know about the 2020 finalists.

Through the Garden by Lorna Crozier

Lorna Crozier is the author of Through the Garden. (Lorna Crozier, McClelland & Stewart)

Lorna Crozier is one of Canada's most beloved and accomplished poets, as was her long-time partner, Patrick Lane. They met in 1976 and built a life together, publishing more than 40 books between them along the way. But in 2017, Lane became ill and their life changed forever, and eventually Lane died in 2019. Crozier writes about their relationship, their personal and creative partnership, and comes to terms with her grief, in the memoir Through the Garden.

Crozier is a Governor General's Literary Award-winning poet who has written more than 15 books. Her poetry collections include The House the Spirit BuildsGod of Shadows and What the Soul Doesn't Want.

From the book: Directly across the road from our driveway is Coles Bay park. Close to nine acres, it's a stand of trees growing on two sides of a deep ravine that drops about twenty feet to the ocean. The trees are second- or third-growth cedars and firs and Garry oak along with younger maples, all of them shrouded in English ivy, an invasive plant some idiot settler brought from the Old Country a cen­tury ago and let loose in the wild. Carpeting most of the forest floor, it's impossible to eradicate, but before he fell ill, Patrick headed out with secateurs twice a week to cut through the vines and free the trees from choking. I started to go with him. It was three years of hard, dirty work; when we hacked through a stem then yanked at the ivy that towered above, all kinds of debris — insects, dust, chunks of bark, twigs, needles, and sticky sap — fell on our heads. Some of the vines were as thick as a linebacker's thigh and Patrick had to use a bow saw to slice through their grip. I found it difficult to keep my footing. Logs I thought would hold me turned out to be punky and collapsed with my weight. Countless times I slammed onto my bum into a well of deep, wet foliage and had to grab a root to pull myself upright. We both laughed at my clumsiness. This was one way to learn the secrets of trees.

Jury citation: "Lorna Crozier's Through the Garden draws us into a rich and intimate portrait of the tender, turbulent lives of two writers who shared a love affair with words, cats, the world, and each other for some 40 years. As Crozier's husband, writer Patrick Lane, is overtaken by illness and she by grief, this book reminds us that memory, like history, makes us who we are and outruns death.

Through the Garden drills deep into the personal while ranging outward to confront the storms and mysteries of life.- 2020 Weston Prize jury

"Elegantly written and searingly frank, Through the Garden drills deep into the personal while ranging outward to confront the storms and mysteries of life."

Stephen Lewis, Lorna Crozier and Joseph Heath join Michael to discuss why there's no poetry in our politics.

Reaching Mithymna by Steven Heighton

Reaching Mithymna is a book by Steven Heighton. (Mary Huggard, Biblioasis)

In 2015, writer Steven Heighton made a sudden decision: he would travel to Greece and volunteer at the frontlines of the Syrian refugee crisis. Once there, he found himself working in a transit camp offering support to refugees who recently made the harrowing journey across the sea from Turkey, and alongside the refugees and the aid workers stationed there, finds himself overwhelmed. Heighton shares this story in the memoir Reaching Mithymna.

Heighton is a novelist, short story writer and poet from Toronto. His other books include the poetry collection The Waking Comes Latewhich won the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry, and the novel The Nightingale Won't Let You Sleep.

From the book: "This way," I call out, waving my hand. As if I pass for a trained guide — a legitimate authority who knows the town and our destination beyond it — the densely packed group follows without hesitation. They walk resolutely, almost marching, as they did after disembarking from the rescue ship. Their various clothes — long tunics, scarves, jeans or slacks, ragged blazers, hoodies, parkas — are mostly dark. A few of them sport thermal blankets like shiny superhero capes. Anyone not in a hijab has some kind of winter hat now. Their belongings they lug over the shoulder in black garbage bags, and each family has at least one, while the single men carry either a daypack or nothing at all.

Jury citation: "We know Steven Heighton as an award-winning poet and novelist. With Reaching Mithymna, he emerges as an indelible nonfiction writer. Combining his poetic sensibilities and storytelling skills with a documentarian's eye, he has created a wrenching narrative from the front lines of the Syrian refugee crisis. In 2015, Heighton travelled to Greece, his mother's homeland, equipped with a duffel bag, a notebook, and a conscience. 

Combining his poetic sensibilities and storytelling skills with a documentarian's eye, he has created a wrenching narrative from the front lines of the Syrian refugee crisis.- 2020 Weston Prize jury

Reaching Mithymna is a heart-rending story of humanity and sacrifice by a writer who put his own life on hold in a desperate and often futile attempt to help shipwrecked strangers find a safe and secure future for themselves and their children."

In her memoir Two Trees Make a Forest, Canadian writer and environmental historian Jessica J. Lee returns to her mother's homeland of Taiwan to understand the landscape that shaped her family - and in turn, shapes her. The book intertwines her grandparents' histories, the political history of Taiwan and the island's geological history. She speaks with Chattopadhyay about home, multiplicity and belonging. For more, visit:

Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee 

Two Trees Make a Forest is a book by Jessica J. Lee. (Hamish Hamilton, Ricardo A. Rivas)

Two Trees Make a Forest is an exploration of how geographical forces are interlaced with our family stories. A chance discovery of letters written by her immigrant grandfather leads Jessica J. Lee to her ancestral homeland, Taiwan. There, she traces his story while growing closer to the land he knew. Throughout her adventures, Lee uncovers surprising parallels between nature and human stories that shaped her family and their beloved island. In the memoir, she also turns a critical eye onto colonialist explorers who mapped the land and named plants, and both relied on and often erased the labour and knowledge of local communities.

Lee is a British Canadian Taiwanese author, environmental historian, and winner of the RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Author Award. Her first book, Turning, was longlisted for the Frank Hegyi Award for Emerging Authors.

From the book: I was 27 when I went to Taiwan for the second time, my first visit since I was a baby. It was 2013. Gong had returned there and died a few years earlier, and my mother and I had gone to visit his remains. He had died alone, his memories wasted. It felt, to us, an irrevocable betrayal, though we'd had no say in what had happened and we couldn't have changed it. 

Jury citation: "Two Trees Make a Forest clears a path into the geographical wonders of Taiwan, a country best known for its fractious relationship with the People's Republic of China. Jessica J. Lee shares her knowledge of linguistics and environmental history as she hikes the fault lines of her own family's story in sentences that make you gasp in admiration. Hers is a tale of political disruption, civil war, displacement, environmental ravages, and intergenerational trauma.

Hers is a tale of political disruption, civil war, displacement, environmental ravages, and intergenerational trauma.- 2020 Weston Prize jury

"She sets a speedy narrative pace, like a trained guide with nightfall looming, but she knows the value of slowing her stride so readers can absorb the luscious vistas she is describing and the familial tragedy she is mourning. This book will haunt you."

The novelist Tessa McWatt on her award-winning memoir Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging

Shame on Me by Tessa McWatt

Tessa McWatt is a Guyanese-born Canadian writer based in London. (Christine Mofardin, Random House Canada)

Tessa McWatt was born in Guyana and came to Canada when she was three years old. She grew up in Toronto and spent years living in Montreal, Paris, Ottawa and London. Her heritage is Scottish, English, French, Portuguese, Indian, Amerindian, African and Chinese. Shame on Me is a memoir about identity, race and belonging by someone who spent a lot of time trying to find an answer to the question, "Who are you?" and who has endured decades of racism and bigotry while trying to figure out who she is and where she belongs.

McWatt is the author of several works of fiction. Her novels include Dragons CryVital Signs and Higher Ed. She is also the co-editor of the anthology Luminous Ink: Writers on Writing in Canada. Shame on Me is her first work of nonfiction.

From the book: Eight years old, I am sitting near the back of the room in the Grade 3 classroom of my suburban Toronto elementary school. My desk is close to the window, and I am easily distracted by the birds; one particular bird preens itself on a branch, its feathers shuttering up and down. I am not paying much attention to what the teacher is saying. We've been reading a book out loud together and I haven't been asked to read. I feel off the hook, set free to daydream. A few minutes into daydreaming, I feel a change of tone in the teacher's voice and the class goes quiet. I snap out of my reverie. There's a question in the air. I look around at my classmates, who are looking at each other in search of an answer.

"Anyone know what that word means?" the teacher says.

Oh, I think, I'd better pay attention because there's a new word and I will need to know it.

"Does anyone know what Negro means?"

Jury citation: "Tessa McWatt masterfully explores the intersections of race, belonging, and body in Shame on Me. Through broad research and powerful storytelling, she travels through space and time to unravel false colonial narratives and reconstruct the stories of her grandmothers. She begins by transporting her global heritage of slavery, colonization, and economic migration to an all-white classroom in Toronto, where a mindless teacher demands: 'What are you?' That cruel question is at the heart of McWatt's intelligent and provocative debunking of the economic and social roots of racism.

Tessa McWatt masterfully explores the intersections of race, belonging, and body in Shame on Me.- 2020 Weston Prize jury

"Beautifully written and courageously told, McWatt's memoir stitches together the fractured pasts of her ancestors with her own sense of displacement to create both a fuller understanding of herself and a path forward."

The Way Home by David A. Neel

The Way Home is a book by David A. Neel. (UBC Press)

David A. Neel is from a family of traditional Kwakwa̱ka̱'wakw artists. But his father died when he was a baby and he was separated from his family, and grew up away from his culture and traditions. Twenty-five years later, when he saw a mask made by his great-great-grandfather in a museum, he decided it was time to reconnect with his culture and follow in his father's footsteps and become an artist himself. He also worked on coming to terms with the trauma and abuse he suffered in his childhood. Neel shares his story in the memoir The Way Home.

Neel is a carver, jeweler, painter, printmaker, writer and photographer who is a member of the Kwakwaka'wakw First Nation in British Columbia. The Way Home is his first book.

From the book: When I began to organize the material for this book, it took a great deal of soul-searching to decide what to include and what to leave out. Initially, I thought the book would describe my unusual art practice, which includes woodcarving, hand engraving, photography, writing, painting and printmaking. But I soon realized that an account of how I found my way back to the traditions and culture of my father's people after two and a half decades away was a story worth telling. My people, the Kwakwa̱ka̱'wakw, the traditional inhabitants of the coastal areas of northeastern Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia, have a rich traditional culture that includes masks, dances, canoes, totem poles, stories and much more. My father, an artist, returned to the ancestors when I was an infant, and for many years I lost the connection with that aspect of my life. Shortly after his death, in 1962, my mother and I moved away, and I began a circuitous journey that wouldn't take me back to British Columbia until 1987.

Jury citation: "A spellbinding memoir with universal reach, The Way Home tells how David A. Neel overcame great loss — the early death of his Kwakiutl father and estrangement from his culture — to become one of Canada's finest artists. Neel's story hinges on the chance sighting, while working as a portrait photographer in Texas, of a haunting Northwest Coast mask from the 1890s. Inspired to move home to Vancouver and apprentice himself to leading Indigenous carvers, he discovers only later that the mask which sparked his journey was made by his own great-grandfather.

This is a wise, eloquent and deeply moving book.- 2020 Weston Prize jury

"Beautifully told and illustrated — Neel's work has been shown at the Smithsonian and the Venice Biennale — Neel's memoir is written with the same calm mastery he brings to all his art. This is a wise, eloquent and deeply moving book."

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