Governor General's Literary Awards·New original writing

2021 Governor General's Literary Award winners write about connection

Winners of the 2021 Governor General's Literary Awards present new poetry, essays and fiction inspired by the theme of connection.

A special series of original writing presented in partnership with the Canada Council for the Arts

Connection: A series about the not-so-obvious and complicated ways we go about making them. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

The English-language books that won the 2021 Governor General's Literary Awards feature stories that search for connections, both tangible and not, to people, places, things and histories. This is an especially compelling undertaking in an age of isolation, quarantine and lockdown.

CBC Books asked the winners to reflect further on the theme of connection in original works. The all-new literary series explores the not-so-obvious and complicated ways we engage and interact with each other and the world around us.

Canadian authors Norma Dunning, Sadiqa de Meijer, Tolu Oloruntoba, Erín Moure, Philippa Dowding and David A. Robertson have all delivered an original piece of writing — from poetry to nonfiction to a short story — inspired by this theme.

CBC's Ideas will host an episode about this series, featuring Norma Dunning, David A. Robertson, Tolu Oloruntoba and Sadiqa de Meijer. You can listen to the broadcast live or find the podcast on Tuesday, Dec. 21.

This special series is presented in partnership with the Canada Council for the Arts. Read on for links to these pieces.

Katimajut (Meeting) by Norma Dunning

Katimajut (Meeting) is an essay by Norma Dunning, winner of the 2021 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

Norma Dunning published two books during the pandemic, which meant most of her interactions with readers were through Zoom calls and emoji symbols. Dunning wrote an essay about a rare in-person encounter with a woman at breakfast, the morning after her first public reading at the Vancouver International Writers Festival.

"Another older woman is taking off her coat and readying herself to sit down at the table across from me," Dunning wrote. 

"I smile at her, and she smiles back. We give each other the nod of understanding. An unspoken connection between two mature women who always have breakfast alone. We each look away from one another toward the glimmering water. We both begin to do the same thing. Taking our cellphones into our hands and fixating on empty screens. We are working at not having to connect again."

Dunning won the 2021 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction for her book Tainna: The Unseen Ones, a collection of six stories that centres an Inuk character living in southern Canada. Dunning is an Inuk writer, scholar and assistant lecturer in the University of Alberta's faculty of education.

The longing machine by Tolu Oloruntoba

The longing machine is a poem by Tolu Oloruntoba, winner of the 2021 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

Tolu Oloruntoba wrote a poem in five parts that explores the human brain's capacity to yearn. He calls upon the language of biology, astronomy and loneliness in this literary work about the insatiability of longing and connection.

He wrote:

"The longing machine flexes its nautilus coil: the tail 
section of its amygdala. An engine-light loss winks on.

Spring-load twinges convulse the craft with a German 
word for obscure dolor, something like weltschmerz

The hands of the machine reach for another; social fingers 
thumb the peepholes of portals. It murmurs, are you it? 

Are you them? Are you here 
for me?"

Oloruntoba won the 2021 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry for his debut collection The Junta of Happenstance, an exploration of disease and dis-ease through the lenses of immigration, social injustice and family. He's a writer from Nigeria who now lives in Surrey, B.C. His first chapbook, Manubrium, was shortlisted for the 2020 bpNichol Chapbook Award. He's also the founder of the literary magazine Klorofyl. 

Object Permanence by Sadiqa de Meijer

Object Permanence is a poem by Sadiqa de Meijer, winner of the 2021 Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

Sadiqa de Meijer's poem was inspired by a particularly foggy morning at the edge of Lake Ontario. In attempting to describe it, she found herself reflecting on object permanence — the stage of a baby's development where they realize that things outside their sight or hearing still exist. This extended into a meditation on motherhood and being separated from your child.

She wrote:

"Freedom to walk early and be mute, as involuted as a shell.

At the lake, I take on faith that shoreline where the land 
resumes this morning,

frigid hands plunged into coat. A foghorn sounds.
Each exhalation is a vapour in pervasive mist."

De Meijer won the 2021 Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction with her memoir alfabet/alphabet: a memoir of first language, a poetic book that reflects on the writer's journey from switching her primary spoken language from Dutch to English. Born in Amsterdam and currently living in Kingston, Ont., de Meijer has also published two poetry collections: Leaving Howe Island and The Outer Wards.

Untitled by David A. Robertson

David A. Robertson's original untitled essay explores the loss of his father. Robertson was the co-winner of the 2021 Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — illustration with Julie Flett. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

David A. Robertson is one of Canada's most prolific and wide-ranging writers, publishing picture books, YA and middle grade novels, a memoir and comic books. In this untitled essay, the Swampy Cree writer reflected on how many of his most recent projects — picture book On the Traplinememoir Black Water and CBC podcast Kīwew — have all been centred around his father, who died in 2019.

"After Dad passed away, the stories took on new meaning," he wrote.

"They were still about our relationship and how he helped shape my life, but they became about his legacy, a way to honour him. It was more than that. They became a way for me to keep him close to me."

Robertson co-won the 2021 Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — illustration with artist Julie Flett for their picture book On the Trapline. The book follows a young boy's trip with his moshom to the family trapline. This is Flett and Robertson's second time winning this prize together, after receiving the honour in 2017 for When We Were Alone.

The Time Twin by Philippa Dowding

The Time Twin is a short story by Philippa Dowding, winner of the 2021 Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — text. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

Philippa Dowding's fictional short story is about a writer who runs into the same jogger in the local park every day, regardless of the time of day. The story is inspired by Dowding's own encounters on walks during the pandemic.

"We developed an elegant little sidewalk dance," she wrote.

"Whenever we met, we'd nod or one of us would give a shy, low-hand wave or a little smile. On that first pass, he would usually step off the sidewalk and into the park to go around me. On the second circuit, it was my turn to step off the sidewalk and into the park. The third pass, it was his turn, and so on. We alternated, carefully equitable. We made space for each other, a small, welcoming act."

Dowding won the 2021 Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — text for the middle grade novel Fireflythe story of a teenage girl coming into her own after leaving her abusive mother's home. Dowding, who lives in Toronto, is also the writer of books like Myles and the Monster Outside, a nominee for the 2017 Silver Birch Express Award, and Oculum, a finalist for the 2020 Silver Birch Fiction Award.

Sharing Strange Connections by Erín Moure

Sharing Strange Connections is an essay by Erín Moure, winner of the 2021 Governor General's Literary Award for translation. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

Erín Moure reflected on her occupations as a poet, translator and translator of poetry in this incisive essay. The Montreal poet explores the unexpected connections that poetry can inspire when its writers, readers and translators learn to rest with paradox, contradiction and ambiguity.

"We tend to think of connections as linking same to same, or linking things that though different are comfortable when put together," she wrote.

"But not all connections that make up our world are comfortable at first, and some seem to defy what we think of as logic or clarity. We tend to want to quickly suppress these connections, but they are crucial to our web of relationships and our possibilities for thought. And these connections are often held in poetry, perhaps held best in poetry, for poetry does not demand that we resolve or squelch them in favour of comfort, in favour of unknowing …"

Moure won the 2021 Governor General's Literary Award for French to English translation for This Radiant Life, translated from Chantal Neveu's La vie radieuse. Her other books include the collections The Unmemntioable, Kapusta, The Elements and Furious, which won the 1988 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry.

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