Books

Here are the winners of the 2019 Governor General's Literary Awards

These annual prizes acknowledge seven English-language and seven French-language books across several categories. Each winner receives $25,000. 
The winners of the 2019 Governor General's Literary Awards were announced on Oct. 29, 2019. The books above won in the English-language category. (CBC)

Joan Thomas's novel Five Wivesinspired by the true story of five American Christian missionaries who were killed trying to convert a group of Indigenous people in Ecuador, has won the 2019 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction.

The Governor General's Literary Awards, among Canada's oldest and most prestigious prizes, annually acknowledge seven English-language and seven French-language books across several categories. Each winner receives $25,000. 

In addition to Five Wives, the English-language winners are:

The winners will gather in Ottawa Dec. 11 and 12 to receive their awards and give public readings.

Learn about the French-language winners here.

Keep reading to learn more about the English-language winners.

Fiction: Five Wives by Joan Thomas

Joan Thomas is the author of Five Wives. (HarperAvenue, Bruce Thomas Barr)

In 1956, five evangelical Christian missionaries were killed when they ventured into the Ecuador rainforest to convert the Waorani, a group of Indigenous people who had no previous contact with the outside world. Five Wives fictionalizes the story of the women left to deal with the fall-out of their husbands' actions and deaths, which were widely covered by the media.

Joan Thomas is the author of three previous novels. Her novel The Opening Sky was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction in 2014.

"Thomas delivers a compelling and powerful story about an encounter that alters the lives of those involved for generations," said the jury in a press release.

"Set in a world where Indigenous peoples, missionaries and the forces of global capitalism collide, Thomas's tale provides a nuanced examination of Operation Auca — a historical event that took place in Ecuador in 1956. This book raises important questions about religious fervour, autonomy and legacies of violence."

The jury was made up of Aislinn Hunter, Wayne Johnston and Saleema Nawaz.

Nonfiction: To the River by Don Gillmor

To the River is a memoir by Don Gillmor about his brother's suicide. (Ryan Szulc, Random House Canada)

When David Gillmor disappeared more than 10 years ago, his truck and cowboy hat were found at the edge of the Yukon River. His body was recovered six months later, just as his brother Don Gillmor journeyed to Whitehorse to canoe through the waters his brother had departed from. To the River explores how survivors of suicide cope with a loved one's decision to take their own life and examines the larger social, cultural and psychological questions surrounding suicide, especially among middle-aged men.

Gillmor is a Toronto journalist and author of novels and nonfiction books, including Canada: A People's History. He has twice been nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award in the young people's literature — text category for The Fabulous Song and The Christmas Orange.

"In clear, crisp prose, Gillmor has written a book that is searingly honest and heartbreakingly sad, the jury said.

"From the story of his brother's life and death to a larger exploration of white, middle-aged masculinity, Gillmor impresses us with his quiet insights."

In this category, the jury members were: Ross King, Rachel Lebowitz and Marina Nemat.

Poetry: Holy Wild by Gwen Benaway

Holy Wild is a poetry collection by Gwen Benaway. (Book*hug Press, gwenbenaway.com)

The poems of Holy Wild explore the intersection of Indigenous and transgender identities. Benaway writes from a personal place, sharing stories of love and intimacy as well as violence and transphobia. 

Benaway is a poet of Anishinaabe and Métis descent. Her other collections are Ceremonies for the Dead and Passage. She lives in Toronto.

"These confessional yet sometimes difficult poems about the Indigenous trans body are lyrical, rhythmic and fierce," said the jury of the work.

"It was an extraordinary experience reading this burning, honest manifesto."

The members of the jury were Lesley Belleau, Méira Cook and Allan Cooper.

Young people's literature — text: Stand on the Sky by Erin Bow

Stand on the Sky is a young adult fantasy novel by Erin Bow. (Studio J, Scholastic)

In Aisulu's nomadic community, only men have traditionally learned to train eagles. But when her parents take her brother to a distant hospital, Aisulu secretly nurtures an orphaned baby eagle. Stand on the Sky is for readers ages 9 to 12.

Bow is from Kitchener, Ont. Her books for young readers include Plain Kate and The Scorpion Rules.

"In writing that is both evocative and perfectly pitched for young readers, Stand on the Sky tells the heartfelt and gripping tale of a Kazakh girl who, despite cultural barriers, struggles to train a wild eagle," said the jury of her work.

"With its authentic voice, the novel transports the reader to the steppes of Mongolia and opens up a fascinating world where age-old tradition is overturned by one young girl's bravery and determination."

Kagiso Lesego Molope, Kenneth Oppel and Ellen Schwartz made up the jury in this category.

Young people's literature — illustration: Small in the City by Sydney Smith

Small in the City is a picture book illustrated by Sydney Smith. (Groundwood Books, Steve Farmer)

In Small in the City, a young boy is on the hunt for a precious item he has lost on a snowy day in a big city. Along the way, he navigates special shortcuts and and shares secrets about the city he lives in. Small in the City is for readers ages 3 to 7.

Smith is a Halifax-based illustrator. His other books include Town is by the Seawritten by Joanne Schwartz, and Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson. Town is by the Sea won the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award in 2018 and the U.K.'s Kate Greenaway Medal for children's illustration.

"Small in the City is visually stunning. The feeling of winter in the city from a child's perspective is rendered with remarkable feeling and sensitivity," the jury said.

"But the genius of the book turns on the collaboration of the pictures and the text — the voice, the pacing and the gentle but striking exposition live up to the brilliance of the illustrations."

The jury included Shauntay Grant, Jon Klassen and Kathryn Shoemaker.

Translation: Birds of a Kind translated by Linda Gaboriau

Birds of a Kind is a play by Wajdi Mouawad, translated from the French by Linda Gaboriau, above. (Playwrights Canada Press, Josée Lambert)

In Birds of a Kind, a play by Wajdi Mouawad translated into English from the French by Linda Gaboriau, a suicide bombing rocks Jerusalem.

An Israeli-German scientist named Eitan is injured in the attack and slips into a coma. His girlfriend, Wahida, a Moroccan graduate student, sits at his hospital bedside, unsure of how to contact his family, who disapprove of their intercultural relationship. 

Gaboriau is a Montreal-based playwright and dramaturge. She has won the Governor General's Literary Award for translation twice before — in 1996 for Stone and Ashes and in 2010 for Forests. She has been shortlisted an additional six times.

"This translation artfully captures the constantly shifting identities and tones that form the core of this controversial play," the jury said of her work.

"With pitch perfect, evocative precision, Gaboriau once again shows her faultless grasp of the emotional and intellectual complexities and nuances of translating for the stage and, in particular, Mouawad's brilliant, challenging work."

The jury members for this category were Nicola Danby, Wayne Grady and Maureen Labonté.

Drama: Other Side of the Game by Amanda Parris

Other Side of the Game is a play by Amanda Parris about black women fighting against institutions and unjust systems. (CBC, Playwrights Canada Press)

Other Side of the Game tells the story of black women fighting against institutions while supporting their loved ones who have been incarcerated.

Set in Toronto, the play tells the astory of Beverly, a keen young woman who  joins a group of black activists in the 1970s and Nicole, who, four decades later, is stopped by police while on a basketball court with her ex-boyfriend. 

Other Side of the Game is Parris's first play. She is also the host of the arts show Exhibitionists on CBC.

"Other Side of the Game courageously examines the struggles of young black women and their loved ones as they navigate an unjust system," the jury said.

"Parris crafts a portrait of the early years of black activism and parallels it with the present day. Enraging and engaging, this gripping and passionate play challenges dominant narratives to reveal the painful truths of life for marginalized Canadians in our society."

Maja Ardal, Megan Gail Coles and Curtis Peeteetuce made up the jury.

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