Jordan Abel & Ian Williams among five finalists for $60K Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction

The Hilary Weston Prize is the richest annual literary award for Canadian nonfiction.

The prize is the richest annual literary award for Canadian nonfiction

Jordan Abel (left), and Ian Williams are among the five finalists for the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. (Submitted by Writers Trust of Canada)

Jordan Abel and Ian Williams are two of the five Canadian writers shortlisted for the 2021 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.

Abel, a Griffin Poetry Prize-winning poet, is nominated for Nishga, a personal and autobiographical book that attempts to address the complications of contemporary Indigenous existence.

Williams, who has previously won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, is nominated for Disorientation: Being Black in the World, an essay collection inspired by James Baldwin that explores racism and its impact on racialized people.

The other finalists are On Foot to Canterbury by Ken Haigh, Permanent Astonishment by Tomson Highway and Peyakow by Darrel J. McLeod.

Two of the books, Permanent Astonishment and Disorientation, are not yet available, but both will be published by the end of September 2021.

This year's five finalists were selected by the jury from 107 titles, submitted by 64 publishers. The jury is comprised of Canadian writers Kevin Chong, Terese Marie Mailhot and Adam Shoalts.

The winner will be announced on  Nov. 3, 2021.

The four remaining finalists will each receive $5,000.

"If this past year has proven anything, it is that people need books that speak to our unique circumstance, tell our individual stories, and help us navigate our challenging times," said Hilary Weston, who sponsors the prize, in a press statement.

Weston served as the 26th lieutenant governor of Ontario from 1997 to 2002. 

Last year's winner was Jessica J. Lee for her memoir Two Trees Make a ForestTwo Trees Make a Forest was also championed by musician Scott Helman on Canada Reads 2021.

Other past Weston Prize winners include Elizabeth Hay, Rosemary Sullivan, Naomi Klein and Charles Foran.

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

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.

The Writers' Trust of Canada was founded in 1976 by Margaret Atwood, Pierre Berton, Graeme Gibson, Margaret Laurence and David Young.

Get to know the five finalists for the 2020 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction below.

Nishga by Jordan Abel

Nishga is an autobiographical book by Jordan Abel. (Penguin Random House Canada/Submitted by Writers' Trust Canada)

Nishga is a memoir by Griffin Poetry Prize winner Abel. In it, Abel grapples with his identity as a Nisga'a writer, with being an intergenerational residential school survivor and with his own Indigenous identity while consistently being asked to represent Nisga'a language and culture. Blending memoir, transcriptions and photography, Nishga is an exploration of what it means to be a modern Indigenous person and how both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people engage with the legacy of colonial violence and racism.

"Nishga wades into Indigenous artistry in a colonized space and the brutal history of forced assimilation," said the jury. "Abel takes the most natural path to its end, and in doing so, finds his own winding way."

Abel is a Nisga'a writer from British Columbia. He is the author of the poetry collections The Place of ScrapsUn/inhabited and Injun. In 2017, he won the Griffin Poetry Prize for Injun.

Jordan Abel wants you to know that you don't have to read his new autobiographical book Nishga if you're not ready. The subject matter — residential schools, dispossession and intergenerational trauma — might be too much to handle. But he hopes that readers will find it when they need it.

On Foot to Canterbury by Ken Haigh

On Foot to Canterbury is a book by Ken Haigh. (University of Alberta Press, Submitted by the Writers' Trust of Canada)

On Foot to Canterbury retraces Ken Haigh's journey through south England, as he follows a traditional pilgrimage route from the medieval era. The journey is in honour of his father, and along the way, he contemplates the role of pilgrimages in modern life, his relationship with religion and spirituality and his relationship with his father. He also engages in the works and lives of several prominent English writers, such as Jane Austen, Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens and Geoffrey Chaucer.

"Beautifully written, eloquent, descriptive," said the jury. "A story that skillfully weaves historical anecdotes into the author's journey, leaving the reader with practical, sage advice."

Haigh is a writer, teacher and librarian currently living in Ontario. He is also the author of the memoir Under the Holy Lake.

Permanent Astonishment by Tomson Highway 

Permanent Astonishment is a book by Tomson Highway. (Doubleday Canada, Sean Howard)

Permanent Astonishment is Highway's memoir. Highway was born the 11th of 12 children in a nomadic caribou-bunting Cree family. Surrounded by the love of his family and the vast landscape of his home, he lived an idyllic far-north childhood. But five of his siblings died in childhood, and his parents wanted their two youngest sons, Tomson and Rene, to get big opportunities. Tomson and Rene attended residential school when Tomson was six. This memoir offers insight into the Cree experience of culture, conquest and survival.

"A mesmerizing, funny, joyous story of coming of age in a Cree-speaking family," said the jury. "While unstinting about the abuse he and others suffered, Highway makes a bold choice to accentuate the wondrousness of his school years."

Permanent Astonishment will be available on Sept. 28, 2021.

Highway is a Cree novelist, children's author, playwright and musician. Born in Manitoba, he is a member of the Barren Lands First Nation. His work includes Canadian theatre classics The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, novel Kiss of the Fur Queen and children's novels Caribou SongDragon Fly Kites and Fox on the Ice.

Tomson Highway, is a playwright, novelist and music maker whose writing about life on the reserve brought him international fame, awards, and many accolades.

Peyakow by Darrel J. McLeod

Peyakow is a book by Darrel J. McLeod. (Douglas & McIntyre, Ilja Herb)

Peyakow is a follow-up to McLeod's memoir Mamaskatch. The title is the Cree word for "one who walks alone." Peyakow tells the story of his childhood and youth. He was bullied by white classmates, lived in poverty, endured physical and sexual abuse and lost several people he loved. But the story is one of love and triumph, as McLeod goes on to become a teacher, the First Nations' delegate to the UN and an executive in the Canadian government. 

"Peyakow digs into the complexity of Indigenous identity, including the divisions sewed by colonization and by one's community," said the jury. "This book is a testament to the connections that remain, and the power to repair and reconnect."

McLeod is a Cree writer from Treaty 8 territory in Northern Alberta. Before his retirement, McLeod was chief negotiator of land claims for the federal government and executive director of education and international affairs with the Assembly of First Nations. His first book was the memoir Mamaskatchwhich won the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction

Darrel J. McLeod talks to Shelagh Rogers on Peyakow: Reclaiming Cree Dignity

Disorientation by Ian Williams 

Disorientation is a book by Ian Williams. (Random House Canada, Justin Morris)

In Disorientation, Williams captures the impact of racial encounters on racialized people, especially when one's minding their own business. Sometimes, the consequences are only irritating, but sometimes they are deadly. Driven by the police killings and street protests of 2020, Williams realized he could offer a Canadian perspective on race. He explores things such as, the unmistakable moment when a child realizes they're Black, the ten characteristics of institutional whiteness, how friendship helps protect against being a target of racism and blame culture.

"A collection of structurally innovative, erudite, multifaceted, and nimble essays about race and Blackness," said the jury. "In an age of hot takes and condemnation, Williams' essays reflect, explore, and illuminate."

Disorientation will be available on Sept. 21, 2021.

Williams is a poet, novelist and professor from Brampton, Ont., who is currently teaching at the University of Toronto. His debut novel Reproduction won the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize. He is also the author of the poetry collection Personals, which was a finalist for the 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize.

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