CBC Literary Prizes

"Whitefish Harvest" by Libby Gunn

Libby Gunn has made the 2017 CBC Nonfiction Prize longlist for "Whitefish Harvest".

2017 CBC Nonfiction Prize longlist

Libby Gunn spent 25 years in Fort Smith, N.W.T., where she worked for Wood Buffalo National Park and lived in a log cabin in the forest near town. (Susan Antpoehler)

Libby Gunn has made the 2017 CBC Nonfiction Prize longlist for "Whitefish Harvest".

About Libby

Libby Gunn grew up in Vancouver, B.C., but spent summers at a lake, where the freedom to explore and spend time with grandparents shaped me deeply. Gunn first went north to work in a logging and sawmill operation and, in 1986, museum work took her to Fort Smith, N.W.T., where local First Nations and Métis helped her develop interpretive programs about hunting and trapping. She spent 25 years in Fort Smith, where she worked for Wood Buffalo National Park and lived in a log cabin in the forest near town. Gunn also spent two years in Deline, N.W.T., on Great Bear Lake.

Entry in five-ish words

Setting net like their fathers.

The story's source of inspiration

"I was moved by the men's adherence to the ways of their fathers — over and over I encountered this theme, the importance of maintaining the links to the past and the deep respect for their fathers. The sheer beauty of it all was part of the inspiration; I have often seen beauty in the skinning and gutting and preparation of food and hides. In this case, the fat silver fish, the dark waters, the knife slicing through the white flesh, the extreme brightness of the summer light reflecting off the ice, down floating away on the breeze as a hunter plucks ducks, the shapes of fish hanging to dry, the knife carefully easing the hide away from the glistening beaver flesh — these are all physically beautiful to me, and I try to paint them with my words as well as capture them with photographs.

"I am also in awe that people developed the knowledge and skill to eat and stay warm in a region that is not forgiving. I've often felt compelled to write about these old ways of living, which fascinate me in ways I can't explain. I feel like I am touching something very deep. Writing about them without appropriating, and without romanticizing, is a fine line; but writing deepens my respect for how fellow human beings have learned when and where and how to harvest food with the resources they had, over many generations. This is my way of honouring what I was privileged to experience. I found that people in Deline were very proud of their story, and of their current practices, and wanted people outside to know about and develop respect for this heritage. I also believe that this knowledge, which seems archaic to some people, is important and relevant today.

"And here I must say something about language; though I only touched on it briefly in the story, the loss of languages throughout the world distresses me, for so many reasons. It has taken me years to begin to understand how knowledge is often inextricably bound to language; many people have expressed more eloquently than me how loss of language leads to loss of knowledge that sometimes took millennia to evolve, and to deep losses at every level of a people's existence. I just have a glimmer of how language contains concepts and world views that are disappearing from the planet. And so I loved hearing people speak their own language, and appreciated when they shared the meaning of place names."

First lines

"For longer than anyone can remember, Sahtúgot'ı̨ne — the people of Great Bear Lake — have harvested lake whitefish each spring.

"— Harvested, a dry word that crumbles in your mouth like a mealy potato, that sounds like a threshing machine, or carrots growing in a line, a word in another language that can't encompass the profound fulfillment, the deep restitution that comes when the net is heavy and fat silver fish slip over the edge of the boat as the dark water rushes by, when the knife cuts into the thick white flesh, scoring it in a familiar rhythm; cannot capture the deep reassurance that comes when fish are drying on a rack in the cold wind off the bay and smoke from the fire below curls over them, gifting them with the taste that speaks of ages; nor the pleasure of the mild white flesh, edges charred on the wire grill over the fire, after months of strong pink trout, that is both an experience of the senses but is also the taste of belonging; it cannot convey the inexpressible rightness, when so much is changing, of setting the net in the same place in the river as your father showed you, so that you are linked in some way that makes you strong like nothing else does."

About the 2017 CBC Nonfiction Prize

The winner of the 2017 CBC Nonfiction Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, will have an opportunity to attend a 10-day writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and have their story published on CBC Books and in Air Canada enRoute magazine. Four finalists will receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their story published on CBC Books


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