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How Jenny Boychuk wrote the story that won the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize

The winner of the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize discusses how the death of her mother and grandfather inspired her essay Slow Violence.
Jenny Boychuk is the author of the essay Slow Violence. (Dean Kalyan)

Jenny Boychuk is the winner of the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize for Slow Violence. As the winner, Boychuk will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and a writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Her story was published on CBC Books, you can read it here.

In her own words, the Victoria-based writer discusses how she wrote her winning story.

Breaking the cycle

"I don't think my mother's story is typical, in terms of what people think when they hear about mental health issues or addiction. My hope is that my story will offer a glimpse into how difficult it is to break the cycles of generational violence and trauma and how it truly can affect anyone. It can affect people who seemingly have it all, with successful careers, a solid family life and have what appears to be solid foundations in place."

Balancing reconciliation and compassion

"My mother had just passed away by the time I went to go visit her father. He was days from passing away himself. I was still working through a lot grief from losing my mother. Because she battled addictions and mental illness for so long, there was a lot to unpack. I had all these ideas about how I was going to address my grandfather, who I knew had contributed to a lot of her pain and suffering. Then of course, as he lay there in the bed, all of these ideas that I had about how I was going to speak to him and how I was going to address him for the last time went out the window.

My hope is that my story will offer a glimpse into how difficult it is to break these cycles of generational violence and trauma and how it truly can affect anyone.- Jenny Boychuk

"I wanted to make sure that I showed compassion to both my mother and my grandfather. People are complicated. My grandfather wasn't all bad. He did a lot of bad things, but he had also done a lot of good things. Similarly, my mother had done a lot of terrible things and had made some choices that I wish she hadn't made, but she also helped hundreds of people through her work as a nurse and she could be a wonderful person. Wrestling with the complexities of being human was one of the more challenging parts of trying to fit everything into a couple of thousand words."

A different conversation

"We have these ideas about what mental illness or an addict looks like, and they are quite damaging. There is no one picture or character sketch of mental illness or addiction. I would like to see the conversation centre more around compassion. We feel so compelled to talk about blame, what systems are in place and what's lacking. I think it's easy to look at my grandfather in a story like this and see him as the villain, but blame and ridicule are not what heal us.

Wrestling with the complexities of being human was one of the more challenging parts of trying to fit everything into a couple of thousand words.- Jenny Boychuk

"Forgiveness is the thing that helps us push past all of that, even though it may not feel possible every day. Ultimately it's what allows us to let go of all of that excess baggage in the end."

Storytelling through a poetic lens

"Being a poet absolutely influences the way I write in other genres. I feel like a poet first and foremost. I believe that no matter what you're reading, whether it's nonfiction or fiction, that prose is the heart of all literature. Things like imagery and the lyric are important to me. My training in poetry makes it easier to cut down paragraphs, maybe even a bit obsessively."

Jenny Boychuk's comments have been edited for length and clarity. You can read more interviews in the How I Wrote It series here.

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