Books

Here are the winners of the 2020 Governor General's Literary Awards

These $25,000 annual prizes acknowledge seven English-language and seven French-language books across several categories.

These $25,000 prizes recognize the best published books in Canada

The winners of the 2020 Governor General's Literary Awards were announced on June 1, 2021. The books above won in the English-language categories. (CBC, Canada Council for the Arts)

The 2020 Governor General's Literary Awards have been revealed.

Among the winners is Cree writer Michelle Good for her debut novel Five Little Indians and renowned Canadian American poet Anne Carson for her original work Norma Jeane Baker of Troy.

The Governor General's Literary Awards are among Canada's oldest and most prestigious prizes. The awards, worth $25,000 each, annually recognize the best published books in Canada.

The prizes are given to seven English-language and seven French-language books in fictionnonfictionpoetryyoung people's literature — textyoung people's literature — illustrationdrama and translation

The seven English-language winners are:

The 2020 prizes were delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2021 awards will be given out in the fall.

The Governor General's Literary Awards were created in 1937.

Past winners include Thomas KingMadeleine ThienMichael OndaatjeAlice Munro and Margaret Atwood.

The Canada Council for the Arts is a partner of the CBC Literary Prizes

Keep reading to learn more about the 2020 English-language winners.

Fiction: Five Little Indians by Michelle Good

Five Little Indians is a novel by Michelle Good. (HarperCollins Canada, Candice Camille)

In Five Little Indians, Kenny, Lucy, Clara, Howie and Maisie were taken from their families and sent to a residential school when they were very small. Barely out of childhood, they are released and left to contend with the seedy world of eastside Vancouver. Fuelled by the trauma of their childhood, the five friends cross paths over the decades and struggle with the weight of their shared past. 

Five Little Indians was on the shortlist for the 2020 Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the longlist for the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Michelle Good is a Cree writer and lawyer, as well as a member of Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. Five Little Indians is her first book.

"Intimate and ambitious, Michelle Good's Five Little Indians is a heart-breaking account of lives shaped and destroyed by the residential school system. Here is powerful testimony, expertly crafted and wisely observed, tragic yet full of redemptive moments. An unflinching, compassionate and moving novel about the struggle to live and love in the wake of deep trauma," the jury said in a statement.

The fiction category was assessed by Anne Fleming, Ariela Freedman and Rabindranath Maharaj.

Michelle Good, who is nehiyaw from Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, wrote about a fictional story about five residential school survivors who stuck together as children but, chart their own difficult paths as young adults. 10:50

Nonfiction: This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart by Madhur Anand

This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart is a book by Madhur Anand. (Karen Whylie, Strange Light)

This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart is the story of poet and ecology professor Madhur Anand's family. Her parents grew up in India. Her father had polio, which gave him a lifelong disability. Her mother loved education and chose it over marriage. They meet, marry and come to Canada after British India was divided into India and Pakistan. Anand grows up in Canada, but is influenced by her parents, their traumas, their values and their lived experiences. This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart poetically weaves all these narratives together to tell one story about truth, resilience, adaptation and love.

Anand is a poet and professor of ecology at the University of Guelph. She is also the author of the poetry collection A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes.

"An innovative, moving account of three generations of a South Asian Canadian family as they negotiate time, history, memory and loss, this book of constant, fleeting juxtapositions is a confluence of the intimate and the objective that blends science, personal narrative and fictional elements to push the non-fiction form into bold new territory. In This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart, Anand challenges the ways we think about memoir and family history," the jury said in a statement.

The nonfiction category was assessed by Deni Ellis Béchard, Helen Humphreys and Sally Ito.

Madhur Anand on her experimental memoir, This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart: A Memoir in Halves. 2:21

Poetry: Norma Jeane Baker of Troy by Anne Carson

Norma Jeane Baker of Troy is a poetry collection by Anne Carson. (New Directions)

Norma Jeane Baker of Troy is a poetry collection that looks at the power of beauty. It brings together the mythology of Helen of Troy and Marilyn Monroe, two women who lived a thousand years apart but whose beauty brought them power and influence, but ultimately undid them.

Anne Carson is one of Canada's most accomplished poets. Her accolades include a Guggenheim, a Lannan Foundation fellowship and a MacArthur "genius grant." She recently won the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature. She won the inaugural Griffin Poetry Prize in 2001 for her collection Men in the Off Hours. She has written several poetry collections, including Autobiography of Red, Antigonick and Red Doc>.

"Norma Jeane Baker of Troy leverages a millennia-old story of beauty and war to animate a history of the male gaze and the nature of power wielded by privilege. Tracing its origins from ancient and modern forms, the book inquires into the history of language and being. It exposes the uncertainty and vulnerability that underpin our desire for 'the precision of command.' The oceanic pull of Carson's poetry uses irreverence to lure and wreck our concepts of time, place and subject," the jury said in a statement.

The poetry category was assessed by David Groulx, Clea Roberts and Johanna Skibsrud.

We revisit Michael Enright’s 2016 interview with renowned Canadian poet Anne Carson. They spoke about her fascination with grammar and syntax ("the secrets of life are embedded in grammar,") and why she calls writing "an attempt at catastrophe." 18:14

Young people's literature — text: The King of Jam Sandwiches by Eric Walters 

Eric Walters is a prolific author of books for children. (Orca Books, Kristina Laukkanen)

The King of Jam Sandwiches is about a unique father-son relationship. Rob is 13 and his father isn't like the other kids' dads. Robbie's dad sometimes wakes him up in the middle of the night to talk about dying. Other times, his dad disappears for days, even a week at a time. When Robbie encounters Harmony, the new girl at school, he comes to realize the value of truth and friendship.

The King of Jam Sandwiches is for ages 8-12.

Eric Walters is one of Canada's most prolific writers for young people. He's penned almost 100 books, including Camp XThe Power of Three and Run. He's reaching more readers than ever: his 2006 novel We All Fall Down came in at #88 on the list of the bestselling 150 Canadian books of the past 10 years

"The King of Jam Sandwiches pulls us into the unforgettable friendship of hard-working Robbie and tough-as-nails Harmony in an exceptionally honest survival story that is also compulsively readable and emotionally gripping. Walters has written a heart-wrenching novel about what it is like to grow up amidst poverty and mental illness, one that speaks to contemporary young readers and offers them hope," the jury said in a statement.

The young people's literature — text category was assessed by Wallace Edwards, Bonnie Farmer and Kyo Maclear.

Eric Walters on creating 'I Read Canadian' Day

Arts and Entertainment

1 year ago
2:44
Children's author Eric Walters says he heard from multiple struggling Canadian authors before he decided to start an annual day to promote them. 2:44

Young people's literature — illustrated books: The Barnabus Project by The Fan Brothers

The Barnabus Project is a picture book by the Fan Brothers. (Tundra Books)

The Barnabus Project features a secret underground lab, genetically engineered creatures and a story about freedom. Barnabus and his friends live in this lab but they are deemed imperfect and might never see the outside world. But Barnabus yearns to be free and decides that it's time for him and his imperfect friends to make the perfect escape.

The Barnabus Project is for ages 5-9.

Eric Fan and Terry Fan are brothers and frequent collaborators on children's books. Their books include The Night Gardener and Ocean Meets SkyThey also illustrated The Darkest Dark by Chris Hadfield.

Devin Fan is an artist, poet and youth worker. The Barnabus Project is his first children's book and marks the first time all three brothers have written and illustrated a picture book together.

"A twisty-turny adventure story that travels from the deep underground to the starry skies, featuring a gang of friends, aka 'Failed Projects,' who show the power of solidarity and non-conformity. This sweet and surreal ode to sticking together radically breaks from typical storylines to deliver a manifesto for mass escape from any system that demands perfection, sameness and compliance. Stunningly and intricately illustrated, this book pays cinematic attention to pacing and detail. Like Barnabus, the Fan Brothers have broken the mold," the jury said in a statement.

The young people's literature — illustrated books category was assessed by Catherine Austen, Cary Fagan and Shenaaz Nanji.

Translation: If You Hear Me by Pascale Quiviger, translated by Lazer Lederhendler

If You Hear Me by Pascale Quiviger was translated by Lazer Lederhendler (pictured). (Biblioasis, Monique Dykstra)

In If You Hear Me, a family must grapple with a devastating accident. After David falls from a scaffolding at the construction site where he works, he goes into a coma. His wife, Caroline, and son, Bertrand, visit him every day. But despite talking to him, it appears they cannot connect. If You Hear Me is a book about this divide, about a family in mourning and about what it really means to be alive.

Pascale Quiviger is a writer from Quebec who now lives in the U.K. Her novel Le Cercle parfait won the Governor General's Literary Award for French-language fiction, while the English translation of the novel (titled The Perfect Circle) was a finalist for the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Lazer Lederhendler is a translator and academic from Montreal. He has been previously nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award for French-to-English translation several times. He won the prize in 2008 for his translation of Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner and again in 2016 for his translation of The Party Wall by Catherine Leroux.

"Lazer Lederhendler has presented challenging subject matter with sensitivity, nuance and elegance. His language is powerful yet limpid, understated yet heartbreaking, and lightly humorous. He delicately navigates complex layers of trauma in the immigrant and the patient, lingering between life and death, dream and reality. The finely drawn characters in this novel wait, as we all do, for release," the jury said in a statement.

The translation category was assessed by Angela Carr, Jo-Anne Elder and Nigel Spencer.

Drama: Kamloopa: An Indigenous Matriarch Story by Kim Senklip Harvey

Kamloopa: An Indigenous Matriarch Story is a play by Kim Senklip Harvey. (Talonbooks)

Kamloopa: An Indigenous Matriarch Story is a play about two Indigenous sisters and a Trickster who are making their way to Kamloopa, which is the largest powwow on the west coast. Along the way, they connect with their ancestors, their culture and each other.

Kamloopa: An Indigenous Matriarch Story won the 2019 Jessie Richardson Award for significant artistic achievement and the Sydney J. Risk Prize for outstanding original play by an emerging playwright.

Kim Senklip Harvey is a Syilx, Tsilhqot'in, Ktunaxa and Dakelh Nations playwright and actor. She had roles in Rez SistersGordon Winter and Children of God.

"The brilliance, the irreverence, the fire of Kamloopa sweeps us into the world of three Indigenous women on a mind-bending quest. The audience is seduced by the love, humour and depth of these matriarchs as they embrace and celebrate who they are in the world and with each other. A play that will encourage you to re-evaluate your relationship with Canada," the jury said in a statement.

The drama category was assessed by Catherine Banks, Andrew Moodie and Kenneth T. Williams.

Syilx and Tsilhqot'in playwright Kim Senklip Harvey tells As It Happens that her award-winning play Kamloopa shows "the power and perseverance and tenacity" of Indigenous Peoples. "Our plight and pain is often what the narratives are structured around, but that's not my life," she said. 11:52

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