Books

Jessica J. Lee wins $60K 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.
Two Trees Make a Forest is a book by Jessica J. Lee. (Hamish Hamilton, Paul Capewell)

Jessica J. Lee has won 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.

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.

On Wednesday, Jessica J. Lee won the $60,000 Writers' Trust Hilary Weston Prize for Literary Non-Fiction, for her memoir, Two Trees Make A Forest: In Search of My Family's Past Among Taiwan's Mountains and Coasts. She joins us to discuss the connection between family, nature and her ancestral homeland of Taiwan. 16:09

"I'm trained as an environmental historian, and I realized that the language gap for me wasn't about Mandarin, necessarily, and it wasn't about filling all the gaps in my grandparents' stories. It was about finding the thing we have in common, and that was this connection to place," she told The Sunday Magazine's host Piya Chattopadhyay.

"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. 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 jury said in a statement.

The jury was comprised of  writers Helen Knott, Sandra Martin and Ronald Wright. 

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: www.cbc.ca/1.5729728 27:16

"Growing up, I was a voracious reader of nature writing, but I so rarely saw stories like my own. In recent years, I've seen that changing and to be a small part of that shift is incredible. Writing Two Trees was an exercise in finding overlap between a migration story and a nature story. I've been so grateful to see it find its readers," Lee said in her acceptance speech. 

"I'm frankly astounded to join a list of authors that I've long looked up to."

The other finalists were Through the Garden by Lorna Crozier, Reaching Mithymna by Steven Heighton,  Shame on Me by Tessa McWatt and The Way Home by David A. Neel. They each received $5,000.

Last year's winner was Winnipeg writer and academic Jenny Heijun Wills for her memoir  Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related.

The $50,000 Writers' Trust Fiction Prize was also given out: Toronto writer Gil Adamson won for her novel Ridgerunner.

The Writers' Trust of Canada is an organization that supports Canadian writers through literary awards, fellowships, financial grants, mentorships and more.

The organization was founded in 1976 by Margaret Atwood, Pierre Berton, Graeme Gibson, Margaret Laurence and David Young.

It also gives out seven prizes in recognition of the year's best in fiction, nonfiction and short story, as well as mid-career and lifetime achievement awards.

Their 2020 emerging writers prizes were handed out in October. The recipients of the 2020 mid-career and lifetime achievement awards will be announced on Dec. 2.

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