Books

Norma Dunning wins 2021 Governor General's Literary Award for English-language fiction

The Governor General's Literary Awards are among Canada's oldest and most prestigious prizes for literature. There are seven categories, awarded in both French and English, with $25,000 going to each winning book.
Norma Dunning is an Inuk writer and a professor with a doctoral degree in Indigenous people's education. (Submitted by Norma Dunning)

The 2021 Governor General's Literary Award winners have been announced, with Edmonton writer Norma Dunning taking home the English-language fiction prize for her short story collection Tainna: The Unseen Ones.

The Governor General's Literary Awards are among Canada's oldest and most prestigious prizes for literature. There are seven categories, awarded in both French and English, with $25,000 going to each winning book.

The seven categories are: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, translation, young people's literature — text and young people's literature — illustrated books.

Dunning is an Inuk writer, scholar and assistant lecturer in the University of Alberta's faculty of education.

Tainna: The Unseen Ones is comprised of six stories, each centred on a modern-day Inuk character living in southern Canada. Their circumstances range widely — from homelessness to extravagant wealth, young to old, alive to dead — but their experiences of isolation echo from story to story.

"Being awarded the GG is a validation of my writing, my art and my place inside of the Canadian literary scene," said Dunning in a comment provided to CBC Books by the Canada Council for the Arts.

"I'm older, I'm female and I'm Indigenous and all of those things make my visibility even harder. I am so honoured. I am so humbled. And yes, I've cried everyday since I found out."

One of Dunning's previous books, 2017's Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award for best debut short fiction collection.

Winnipeg writer David A. Robertson and Vancouver illustrator Julie Flett won their second Governor General's Literary Award in the young people's literature — illustrated books category, this time for the picture book On the TraplineThe book follows a boy on a trip with his Moshom (grandfather) to his family's trapline. The pair won the same award in 2017 for When We Were Alone.

Halifax playwright Hannah Moscovitch won the drama category for Sexual Misconduct of the Middle ClassesThe play tracks the troubling power dynamics in a relationship between a star professor and one of his 19-year-old students.

Kingston, Ont.'s Sadiqa de Meijer won the non-fiction award for her book alfabet/alphabet: a memoir of a first language. The book explores the cultural nuances of language, as de Meijer transitions from speaking Dutch to English.

Surrey, B.C. writer Tolu Oloruntoba received the poetry prize for his debut collection, The Junta of HappenstanceOloruntoba, a doctor originally from Nigeria, writes about medicine, immigration, family dysfunction and economic anxiety in his award-winning book.

Toronto writer Philippa Dowding took home the prize in the young people's literature — text category for FireflyThe middle grade novel follows a girl named Firefly, who is taken away from her abusive mother to live with her Aunt Gayle, the owner of a costume shop.

Rounding out the English-language winners is Montreal writer Erín Moure, who won the translation category for the long poem This Radiant LifeOriginally written in French by Chantal Neveu, the book is a call to let go, even just a bit, of individuality in favour of working in collaboration with one another.

The French language winners are:

  • Fiction: Faire les sucres by Fanny Britt (Montreal, Que.)
  • Poetry: Pendant que Perceval tombait by Tania Langlais (Gatineau, Que.)
  • Drama: Copeaux by Mishka Lavigne (Gatineau, Que.)
  • Non-fiction: Du diesel dans les veines by Serge Bouchard and Mark Fortier (Montreal)
  • Young people's literature — text: Les avenues by Jean-François Sénéchal (Saint-Lambert, Que.)
  • Young people's literature — illustrated books: À qui appartiennent les nuages? by Mario Brassard and Gérard DuBois (Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, Lanaudière, Que./ Saint-Lambert, Que.)
  • Translation (from English to French): Poèmes 1938-1984 translated by Marie Frankland from The Collected Poems by Elizabeth Smart

Read more about the French language winners on Radio-Canada.

The Governor General's Literary Awards were created in 1936. 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. The winners of each category are chosen by a jury of two or three writers.

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

Fiction winner: Tainna: The Unseen Ones by Norma Dunning

Tainna: The Unseen Ones is a short story collection by Norma Dunning. (Emily Weisz Studios, Douglas & McIntyre)

Tainna: The Unseen Ones is a collection of six stories, each focusing on a contemporary Inuk character living in southern Canada. Though their lives are markedly different — running the gamut in terms of wealth and poverty, old and young age — each of their stories explores home, displacement and isolation.

"If you're living off-reserve or you're Inuit living in a city, you have to spend most of your life trying to authenticate yourself," said Dunning, who grew up in Quebec not knowing about her Inuit roots, in an interview on The Next Chapter.

"I will say that when I'm sitting down writing a story, I don't have any particular message in mind. I have a story in mind. So it's not like I'm sitting there with some great moral revelation that I'm going to put on a page."

Dunning currently lives in Edmonton. She is also the author of the short story collection Annie Muktuk and Other Stories and the poetry collection Eskimo Pie: A Poetics of Inuit IdentityAnnie Muktuk and Other Stories won the 2018 Danuta Gleed Literary Award, which recognizes the best debut short story collection of the year.

"Tainna: The Unseen Ones is an explosive force of sadness, anger, humour and beauty, full of moments that surprise and pummel and still provide hope," said the jury, comprised of Kristen den Hartog, Chris Eaton and Suzettte Mayr.

"This collection is both vivid and raw but infused with a sparkling poetry and the wisdom of the old ways. Like the spirits Norma Dunning describes in these stunning and original stories, this is a book that will never leave you."

Norma Dunning talks to Shelagh Rogers about her book, Tainna: The Unseen Ones, Short Stories. 12:24

Non-fiction winner: alfabet/alphabet: a memoir of first language by Sadiqa de Meijer

alfabet/alphabet is a memoir by Sadiqa de Meijer. (Palimpsest Press)

Sadiqa de Meijer is a poet who grew up in the Netherlands and immigrated to Canada. alfabet/alphabet is a collection of essays that chronicle her transition from speaking primarily Dutch to speaking primarily English. The essays also explore language, migration, culture and storytelling.

De Meijer is a writer who was born in Amsterdam and is currently living in Kingston, Ont. Her other books include the poetry collections Leaving Howe Island and The Outer Wards.

De Meijer won the 2012 CBC Poetry Prize for Great Aunt Unmarried.

"Language as the mother of bond and breach is beautifully storied in Sadiqa de Meijer's poignant and provocative memoir, alfabet/alphabet," said the nonfiction jury, made up of Sarah de Leeuw, Amanda Leduc and Evelyn C. White.

"This is a book that dreams of transforming migration, citizenship, families, nationhood and the very utterances upon which each is built. A deeply hopeful narrative about language itself, a singular exploration of the way that words build a home."

Poetry winner: The Junta of Happenstance by Tolu Oloruntoba

The Junta of Happenstance is a poetry collection by Tolu Oloruntoba. (Franctal Studio, Palimpsest Press)

The Junta of Happenstance is the first poetry collection from Nigerian Canadian writer Tolu Oloruntoba. The Junta of Happenstance is an exploration of disease and dis-ease, both medical and emotional. It explores family dynamics, social injustice, the immigrant experience, economic anxiety and the nature of suffering.

Oloruntoba is a writer from Nigeria who now lives in Surrey, B.C. He practiced medicine for six years, and has harboured a love for writing poetry since he was 16. His first chapbook, Manubrium, was shortlisted for the 2020 bpNichol Chapbook Award. He's also the founder of the literary magazine Klorofyl. 

"Tolu Oloruntoba's voice in The Junta of Happenstance is at once thoughtful and authoritative, metaphorically rich and lyrically surprising," said jury members Kaie Kellough, George Murray and Anna Marie Sewell.

"Oloruntoba's language travels through history and myth to speak to today and engage with a future transformed by new understanding. The combination of craft and spirit cuts a fine place for this debut work, expanding our literary view."

Drama winner: Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes by Hannah Moscovitch

Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes is a play by Hannah Moscovitch. (Playwrights Canada Press, Alejandro Santiago)

Hannah Moscovitch explores the power dynamics of a student-professor relationship in her play Sexual Misconduct of the Middle ClassesJon's a popular professor and author facing the end of his third marriage. He's an emotional wreck when his eye is caught by a student in a red coat — Annie, a 19-year-old student and admirer of his work. When Annie is locked out of her house, just down the road from Jon, their relationship quickly escalates under his control.

"It's a topic that's been dealt with a lot in all narrative and in theatre in particular, but rarely from the point of view of a female author," said Moscovitch in an interview on The Sunday Edition.

"It felt like it was time for a woman to write one of these pieces about abuse of authority from a woman's perspective."

Moscovitch is a playwright, TV writer and librettist based in Halifax. She's received many honours over her career, including the Trillium Book Award, Nova Scotia Masterworks Arts Award and the Windham-Campbell Prize. She's been nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award for drama twice before — in 2019 for What a Young Wife Ought to Know and in 2009 for East of Berlin.

"Hannah Moscovitch's play is an articulate, poetic, beautifully written play with characters who are complex and complicated," said the drama jury members, Marcia Johnson, Matthew MacKenzie and Robert Tsonos.

"A superb piece of writing that shines as a play, as a living piece of theatre, and no doubt, literature that will endure."

In the age of #MeToo, #TimesUp, Harvey Weinstein and countless sexual predators, it can be hard to have a nuanced and open conversation about sexual misconduct in all its varieties without people becoming angry or defensive. But that's exactly what one of Canada's funniest and most talented playwrights — Hannah Moscovitch — encourages, with her provocative new play Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes. She'll be Michael’s guest along with the play’s cast — Matthew Edison and Alice Snaden. 31:34

Translation winner: This Radiant Life by Chantal Neveu, translated by Erín Moure

Erín Moure is the translator of This Radiant Life, originally written in French by Chantal Neveu. (Erín Moure, Book*hug Press)

This Radiant Life is a single long poem that looks at the elements that make up our world and the spaces in between. It considers this idea of our individual selves, and how this self is situated in a collective togetherness.

This Radiant Life is the translation of Chantal Neveu's book La vie radieuse.

Erin Mouré is a translator and poet from Calgary, who now lives in Montreal. Her own poetry collections include The Unmemntioable, Kapusta, The Elements and Furious, which won the 1988 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry.

"Moure has crafted a spectacular English poem in conversation with the French — a work channelling science, art, revolution and corporeal movement balanced in stillness and space," said the English to French translation jurors, Jonathan Kaplansky, Aimee Wall and Anne-Marie Wheeler.

"It is a thrilling space where meanings are amplified, beauty reverberates and the reader's expectations are exceeded again and again. Moure advances new possibilities for both Neveu's poem and translation itself."

Young people's literature — text winner: Firefly by Philippa Dowding

Firefly is a book by Philippa Dowding. (DCB Young Readers)

The middle-grade novel Firefly is about the titular character who is looking for a place to call home. Firefly lives in the park — but one day she is forced by social services to move in with her Aunt Gayle, who just happens to own a costume shop. While Firefly gets used to having a roof over her head, she suffers from PTSD and embarks on a journey to find her true identity.

Firefly is for ages 9 to 12.

Philippa Dowding is a Canadian children's author, a poet, musician and copywriter based in Toronto. Her book Myles and the Monster Outside was a nominee for the 2017 Silver Birch Express Award and her chapter book Oculum was a finalist for the 2020 Silver Birch Fiction Award.

"With poetic prose, a memorable character and evocative settings, Philippa Dowding deftly handles challenging subjects in this emotionally honest story," said the young people's literature — text jurors, Aviaq Johnston, Karen Rivers and Ken Setterington.

"Supported by a unique cast of characters, Firefly will shine for readers and resonate long after they close this quietly powerful book."

Young people's literature — illustrated books winner: On the Trapline written by David A. Robertson, illustrated by Julie Flett

On the Trapline is a picture book by David A. Robertson, left, and Julie Flett. (Tundra Books, Amber Green)

David A. Robertson and Julie Flett of award-winning picture book When We Were Alone team up again for On the Trapline. The picture book is a celebration of Indigenous culture and fathers and grandfathers as it tells the generational story of a boy and his Moshom (grandfather). On a trip to the trapline, the boy's imagination is sparked by the land and has him thinking about what life was like two generations ago.

On the Trapline is for ages 4 to 8.

"I'm really proud of this book," said Robertson in an interview with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter.

"The land is the basis through which I've been working through a lot of my literature. It's become more and more important to me as I've gotten older."

Robertson is an author and graphic novelist based in Winnipeg. The multi-talented Swampy Cree writer has published 25 books across a variety of genres, including the graphic novels Will I See? and Sugar Falls, a Governor General's Literary Award-winning picture book called When We Were Aloneillustrated by Julie Flett, and the YA book Strangers.

Flett is a Cree Métis author, illustrator and artist. Flett has illustrated several picture books including Little YouMy Heart Fills with HappinessWe Sang You Home and BirdsongBirdsong was a finalist for the 2019 Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — illustration.

"With its muted palette and gentle text, On the Trapline is quietly profound," said the jurors for the young people's literature — illustrated books prize, Krysten Brooker and Catherine Hernandez.

"Robertson's reflective storytelling coupled with Flett's masterpiece illustrations make this picture book a must-read about the connection to language, family, the land and tradition."

David Robertson talks to Shelagh Rogers about his new kids book, On The Trapline. 15:33

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