Suzette Mayr wins $100K Scotiabank Giller Prize for novel The Sleeping Car Porter
Suzette Mayr has won the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel The Sleeping Car Porter.
The $100,000 prize is the richest in Canadian literature.
Mayr is a poet and novelist based in Calgary. She is the author of the novels Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, Monoceros, Moon Honey, The Widows and Venous Hum. Monoceros won the ReLit Award, the City of Calgary W. O. Mitchell Book Prize and made the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist.
Mayr is a past president of the Writers' Guild of Alberta, and has been teaching creative writing at the University of Calgary since 2003.
"I want to acknowledge the importance of the sleeping car porters — the men and the communities around them who are an essential part of Canadian history and whom I wrote about in this book," said Mayr in her acceptance speech.
"And a final shout out to my LGBTQIA2S+ sisters, brothers and siblings, many of whom, like my main character Baxter, are still too scared to come out or cannot come out because to do so would be too dangerous. I love you and this book is for you," said Mayr to a standing ovation.
WATCH | Suzette Mayr on CBC News:
The Sleeping Car Porter, Mayr's sixth novel, tells the story of Baxter, a Black man in 1929 who works as a sleeping-car porter on a train that travels across the country. He smiles and tries to be invisible to the passengers, but what he really wants is to save up and go to dentistry school. On one particular trip out west, the train is stalled and Baxter finds a naughty postcard of two gay men. The postcard reawakens his memories and longings and puts his job in jeopardy.
"It's really important that Black people become part of the fabric of the history of this country. It gets a little tiring when the only time you talk about it is in February, because it's Black History Month. It's every month. It's everywhere," Mayr said in an interview with CBC Books.
Mayr's fellow finalists included Montreal's Rawi Hage for story collection Stray Dogs, Egyptian Canadian writer Noor Naga for novel If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English, Washington-based Kim Fu for story collection Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century and Vancouver's Tsering Yangzom Lama for novel We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies.
This year's shortlist marked the first time the finalist books were all written by BIPOC Canadian authors.
"I wrote it because it was a book I wanted to read that I wasn't finding anywhere at all," Mayr told CBC Books.
"I found that a lot of the stories about the sleeping car porters tended to concentrate on the union organizing and the labour movement and Black rights in general — but I felt like there was a lack there in terms of queer experience. Because I couldn't find that book, I decided that I would be the one to write that book."
Listen | Suzette Mayr on CBC Radio's Q:
The 2022 five-person jury was chaired by Canadian writer Casey Plett and also included Canadian authors Kaie Kellough and Waubgeshig Rice and American writers Katie Kitamura and Scott Spencer.
The jury read 138 submitted books, narrowed it down to a longlist of 14 and then a shortlist of five.
"As only occurs in the finest historical novels, every page in The Sleeping Car Porter feels alive and immediate — and eerily contemporary," said the jury in a statement.
"The sleeping car porter in this sleek, stylish novel is named R.T. Baxter — called George by the people upon whom he waits, as is every other Black porter. Baxter's dream of one day going to school to learn dentistry coexists with his secret life as a gay man, and in Mayr's triumphant novel we follow him not only from Montreal to Calgary, but into and out of the lives of an indelibly etched cast of supporting characters, and, finally, into a beautifully rendered radiance."
This year's televised in-person gala in Toronto, co-hosted by actor Sarah Gadon and poet Rupi Kaur, featured a spoken word performance by Kaur.
Mayr was presented with the $100,000 award by Elana Rabinovitch, the daughter of Jack Rabinovitch, and Scotiabank's executive vice president and chief marketing officer John Doig.
Jack Rabinovitch founded the prize in honour of his late wife Doris Giller in 1994. Rabinovitch died in 2017 at the age of 87.
Past Giller Prize winners include Omar El Akkad for What Strange Paradise, Souvankham Thammavongsa for How to Pronounce Knife, Esi Edugyan for Washington Black and Half-Blood Blues, Margaret Atwood for Alias Grace, Ian Williams for Reproduction and Alice Munro for Runaway.
WATCH | The 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize broadcast: