Thinking about entering the 2023 CBC Nonfiction Prize? Past juror Jenny Heijun Wills has some advice for you
The 2023 CBC Nonfiction Prize is open for submissions until Feb. 28, 2023 at 11:59 p.m. ET
Jenny Heijun Wills is a Canadian professor, writer and author of the memoir Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related. She was also a judge for the 2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize, alongside M.G. Vassanji and Tim Cook.
The CBC Nonfiction Prize recognizes works of original, unpublished nonfiction up to 2,000 words. The winner will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, a writing residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point, a cultural hub on Toronto Island and have their work published on CBC Books.
The 2023 CBC Nonfiction Prize is open for submissions until Feb. 28, 2023 at 11:59 p.m. ET.
Wills knows what it takes to win big literary prizes: her debut memoir Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related. won the 2019 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction, the biggest nonfiction prize in Canada.
Before we talk about the CBC Nonfiction Prize, I would love to hear from you about your book. What story is being told?
Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related. came out in 2019 with McClelland and Stewart, and it's being released in paperback on Feb. 16. I'm excited about that. It's a memoir. It's written in lyrical prose, so it's a bit unconventional. It's about my reunion with my Korean biological family. I was raised in southern Ontario, in Canada, near Toronto, and was adopted as a baby. But back in 2009, I returned to Seoul to meet my mom, my dad, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, et cetera.
I think the thing that's particularly unique about my reunion story is that my Korean parents, who had been separated since I was placed in an orphanage, reunited when I went back to Korea, and got back together as a couple. I wanted to write about that. Filtered within that are conversations about community and belonging, loneliness, isolation...and I think that's the message that I'm trying to get across — that we all have difficult, complicated pieces of kinship, but that we're in this together somehow.
How did you approach writing your story and structuring it in this unique way?
In my academic writing, I had been researching international adoption and transracial adoptions. Writing this book is a huge departure, in terms of genre, in terms of structure, where to start, what to do, what's the audience. Because it's obviously different, I started off by jotting down memories.
They came out as poems because I read a lot of poetry. I read a lot of lyrical prose and those are the writers I admire. I was on sabbatical and at some point I was like, "OK, I'm not working on this academic book. I need to show something for this time away from class." So I said, "You know what? This could be a longer text." Then it was a matter of reorganizing those thoughts and putting them into something more cohesive, like a long text.
LISTEN | Jenny Heijun Wills on All in a Weekend
I think that is fascinating, being very fluid with the genre of nonfiction. How do you define nonfiction?
I am someone who likes to push against boundaries of genre, but I'm also not a gatekeeper in terms of what constitutes a kind of representation. For the CBC Nonfiction Prize, people can submit memoir, like I wrote, but also biography, essay, humour writing, personal journalism, travel writing, all sorts of things.
One of the things that I'm often asked is, "What informs the idea of nonfiction?" I think it's that we talk differently about ethics and truth-telling. It's differently achieved and represented in these genres than elsewhere.
Where does that pushing against boundaries come from and how does it manifest in your writing?
Maybe it's because I've always felt a little bit like the odd one out. I don't necessarily fit in, and people are always going to be looking at me as something that's a little bit different. So I'm going to do it on purpose so I can pretend that's the reason that people are looking.
Nonfiction allows us to think about how the ideas of agency and authority circulate in our society.
I didn't necessarily want to write a chronological memoir. I used a fragmented and shattered structure of short vignettes because I thought that reflects the way that I'm trying to piece together a sense of identity now. I use structure and I use style to create parallels to content and theme.
LISTEN | Jenny Heijun Wills on The Next Chapter
What do you think nonfiction allows a writer to do that fiction doesn't?
That's an interesting way of putting it, because usually people ask the question the other way around. Nonfiction allows us to think about how the ideas of agency and authority circulate in our society. There are certain assumptions that are coded in the way we communicate with each other that register as knowledge having.
When we're working in nonfiction, we have to think about the literary ways that those things are transmitted. How do we feel closeness? How do we create intimacy? How do we evoke a feeling of authority in our text? What kinds of speakers, what kinds of characters evoke that kind of confidence in a reader?
Read a lot, read as much as you can on the topic that you're writing about and think about how you want to enter that conversation.
We know that some people in our societies are always up against this barrier, that we're considered to be without authority, without knowledge.
So Black, Indigenous, people of colour, women, queer and trans people, disabled people, young people, are often discounted as unauthoritative. Nonfiction allows us to question why is that and what can we do to change those assumptions.
For those thinking about entering this competition, what advice would you have for them?
Think about character. Even when we're doing nonfiction, our speaker is always a character. Think about what they're saying, but also how they're saying it, because that also feeds into characterization. Read a lot, read as much as you can on the topic that you're writing about and think about how you want to enter that conversation.
Then the advice that I always give all of my friends is to drink water, eat some fruit, take care of your body while you're writing, because we tend to hunch over when we write. It's important to take care of ourselves.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.