What you need to know about the 5 books up for the $60K Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction

The Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize is the country's richest literary award for nonfiction and will be awarded on Wed., Nov. 3.
The 2021 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction finalists. (Writers' Trust of Canada)

Five writers have been nominated for the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction, an annual $60,000 award that's also the richest literary award for nonfiction in Canada. The winner will be announced on Wed., Nov. 3.

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.

"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.

Last year's winner was Jessica J. Lee for her memoir Two Trees Make a Forest

Read more about the 2021 finalists 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 Jordan Abel. In the book, Abel grapples with his identity as a Nisga'a writer and intergenerational residential school survivor, 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.

"It's a book about intergenerational trauma, Indigenous dispossession and the afterlife of residential schools. But it's also a book about sexual and physical violence, lateral violence, depression, suicide and self-harm. And so I think depending on where you're at at any given moment, you know, this might not be the book for you at this particular time," Abel said in an interview on As It Happens.

"I also wish that somebody else had written this book, you know, so that I could have read it earlier in my life and understood my own life better. That didn't happen. But hopefully that can be a thing and a moment that other people have," he said.

"I really hope that the people who need this kind of book find their way to it."

I really hope that the people who need this kind of book find their way to it.- Jordan Abel

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.

From the book: I remember being outside of a Broadway restaurant on a slushy night in Vancouver for a staff Christmas party. I wasn't really invited to the party, but my friend had insisted. So my friend and I were outside smoking, and some of his friends from work were there, and some of their friends too. We were talking and laughing. The food had been excellent and there was more than enough booze to go around. At some point, one of the friends of friends turned to me. She said, "Where are you from?" I told her that I was from the mountains. I had been living in the interior for a few months now, and since I no longer felt like a Vancouver resident, it made sense to me as an answer.

"No, no," she said, "Where are you from?" 

I told her that I was from Vancouver.

"No, I mean, you're Indigenous, right?" 

I told her yes.

"So where are you from?" 

I can't remember if I had known what she was getting at, or if I was just waiting for her to clarify what she meant. But now I knew the answer she wanted to hear.

Hilary Weston Prize jury citation: "Nishga defies the boundaries and traditions of memoir to achieve something singular and necessary. Instead of striving to process information for the reader, Abel conscripts us into his endeavour by making central what is usually kept behind the curtain: research, found documents, even notes. The result is an active reading experience that conveys the stakes with a power that sticks to the bones. This work fully realizes the complexity of the self and home, and the way atrocity reverberates through generations."

LISTEN | Jordan Abel discusses Nishga:

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 late 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.

"The origin of the trip was something my father and I were going to do together.... Unfortunately, he died before we could set off, so we never did make the trip together. It wasn't until a few years later that I revisited the idea. With my wife's encouragement, I decided to do the trip anyway as a way to honour my father and sort out things going on in my own life," Haigh said in an interview with CBC Books.

"Opening up to other people is very uncomfortable. I resisted that a bit. But ... the books I enjoyed were ones where the writers were really honest about what was going on — so I owed it to the reader to be a bit more forthcoming."

I decided to do the trip anyway as a way to honour my father and sort out things going on in my own life.​​​- Ken Haigh

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

From the book: The Mole has inspired a number of poets. This is mostly due to its curious habit of disappearing under the ground for a spell and then reappearing further downstream. Spenser, in The Faerie Queene, wrote:

Mole, that like a nousling mole doth make
His way still underground, till Thames he overtake.

Milton and Pope both refer to the Mole as "sullen" because of this habit of hiding underground. 

Nevertheless, my problem with the Mole is not how to celebrate it in poetry, but how to cross it.

Hilary Weston Prize jury citation: "On Foot to Canterbury is a beautifully written and eloquent story that skillfully weaves historical anecdotes into a journey through rural England, leaving the reader with practical, sage advice on how to deal with loss and depression, but most of all, on how to live. Haigh's eye to detail is a delight to read, as are his frequent musings on landscape and history. This subtle, moving story stays with you long after the book is finished."

Permanent Astonishment by Tomson Highway

Permanent Astonishment is a memoir by Tomson Highway. (Sean Howard, Penguin Random House)

Permanent Astonishment is a memoir by playwright, composer and pianist Tomson Highway. The Cree artist was born the 11th of 12 children in a nomadic caribou-hunting family. Surrounded by his family's love and the vast landscape of his home, Highway spent an idyllic childhood in the remote reaches of northern Manitoba. He recounts his early life, including his years in residential school, in this memoir about family, Cree life and northern adventures.

"I needed to assess my life. It's a good way to assess your life. I think everybody has a story that's worth writing, you know? Who knows what will become of it. It could be a fluke. My first success was a fluke," Highway said in an interview with CBC Books.

"You don't sit down to write a masterpiece. You don't sit down to write a hit; that's the last thing on your mind. You do it just to clean up your mind. It's like housekeeping for your soul or your spirit. You clean out the cobwebs and the dust and ... take your life into stock. Then if you're lucky, and also you have a very good education, it'll get you somewhere eventually with a tremendous amount of patience. And so I decided to write this book because of that."

I needed to assess my life. It's a good way to assess your life. I think everybody has a story that's worth writing, you know?- Tomson Highway

Highway is a 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.

From the book: I was born and raised on the most beautiful location on the face of the Earth, northern Manitoba where it meets Saskatchewan the Northwest Territories, and what, since 1999, has been called Nunavut. Not only has this region of the world been blessed by nature a thousand times, its remoteness ensures its status as the world's best-kept secret. To this day, no one has seen it, and no one ever will, except for those of us who come from there: the Cree, the Dene (pronounced "Day-nay") and the Inuit. And even then so few are we in number that we are almost invisible against such vastness. And vast it is.

This from my sister, Louise, who saw it all … As with all Decembers going back to the 1920s, Cree caribou hunter Joe Highway and his wife, Balazee, are crossing this part of the world by dogsled. The only mode of travel up there at that time of year back then, this ootaa-paanaask ("sled" in Cree) is made of birch, a wood that guarantees the vehicle's lightness and therefore its fleetness. In essence a toboggan some eight feet long with knee-high sidings made of canvas, its prow curls up like a candy cane. Pulled by eight harnessed huskies walking or running in single file, some of them part wolf for, indeed, they look like wolves, it can hold six passengers if some of them are children of which, today, there are three, and still have room for cargo. A rolled-up tent, bedding, cooking appliances, clothes, food, the vehicle is packed. Moving about endless snowscapes with their entire home in tow like this, Joe and Balazee Highway are monarchs of the north, sub-Arctic royalty. 

Hilary Weston Prize jury citation: "Permanent Astonishment is a mesmerizing story rich in detail about growing up in a Cree-speaking family in Northern Manitoba and later in a residential school. Highway's writing delights in tales of eating muskrat tails, speaking Cree (and learning English), preparing for a Christmas concert, and listening to Hank Snow on a transistor radio. While unstinting about the abuse he and others suffered, Highway makes a bold personal choice to accentuate the wondrousness of his school years resulting in a book that shines with the foundational sparks of adolescence: innocence, fear, and amazement."

LISTEN | Tomson Highway discusses Permanent Astonishment:

Author and playwright Tomson Highway joined Tom Power to talk about his new memoir, Permanent Astonishment, which explores the joys of growing up in a Northern Cree community.

Peyakow by Darrel J. McLeod

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

Peyakow is a follow-up to Darrel J. McLeod's award-winning memoir Mamaskatch. The title is the Cree word for "one who walks alone." Peyakow tells the story of his childhood, spent being bullied by white classmates, living in poverty and enduring physical and sexual abuse. But McLeod's story is ultimately one of triumph and resilience, as the writer grows up to become a teacher, the First Nations' delegate to the UN and an executive in the Canadian government. 

"I was very young when I lost some of my family. When love works, when it's all there, it is an incredible force and it gives us this life force that will endure whatever else gets thrown at us. And that incredible love came from mom, from mushum, from my sister Debbie and my aunties and uncles," McLeod said in an interview with The Next Chapter

"When I was a baby, we lived with our extended family. I got passed around — from auntie to auntie, uncle to uncle grandma to grandma — because it was just us. And that love, when it happens, it stays with you for the rest of your life and beyond, and hopefully I have enough to to pass on to future generations, too."

When love works, when it's all there, it is an incredible force and it gives us this life force that will endure whatever else gets thrown at us.- Darrel J. McLeod

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

From the book: Someone had moved the yellow cedar ceremonial rattle carved in the shape of an eagle's head that sat usually on a brick shelf over the woodstove. Likely Mosom. Where had he put it?

"How can you ever forgif' me, son? We were sep'rated by this barryer o' language our whole lives. Now I see it so clearly. You can' even talk to Mosom and Cucuum. Hurts so much ta' see the longing in your eyes to speak with them — your grandparents — go deep, and you can't."

Mosom joined us and put his arm around Mother's shoulder. "Mahti poni mato Ndans. Dh'on wh'orih pee happih," he said. Mother glanced at him and forced a smile. Mosom was right. What was the point in worrying? More important to pray.

Hilary Weston Prize jury citation: "Peyakow is more than a story of overcoming adversity; it is a story of personal and political reclamation that explores the pain of living in a world controlled by agendas and priorities that exploit the people and the land itself. Where McLeod finds connection, he also finds obligation. In the end, he discovers that being part of a community is not a passive act. McLeod's vibrant prose renders the world with tenderness and skill. His profound book is full of love and trouble that you won't soon forget."

LISTEN | Darrel J. McLeod discusses Peyakow:

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

Disorientation by Ian Williams

Disoriented is a book by Ian Williams. (Penguin Random House) (Submitted by Writers' Trust Canada)

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 other times 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 10 characteristics of institutional whiteness and how friendship helps protect against being a target of racism and blame culture.

"I had a lot of conflicting feelings and thoughts about race. I needed to clarify what I thought about all of these issues for myself, Williams said in an interview with CBC Books.

"The foundation of this book is that being African American is only one kind of Blackness — there are so many other kinds of Blackness throughout the world, and here in Canada, that need attention. The Black Canadian experience is not identical to the African American experience — much like being a Black Jamaican or a Black Trinidadian or a Black British person have their own different contexts. So what about those stories? And what if your story doesn't involve, say, gun violence or anything like that, but it involves smaller forms of violence and aggression? What can we say about those?" 

There are so many other kinds of Blackness throughout the world, and here in Canada, that need attention- Ian Williams

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.

From the book: My resolution this year is to learn how to swim. It was my resolution last year. And the year before. And, well, let's stop there. I imagine myself falling out of a burning airplane into the ocean like an action hero. I crash into the water, conscious for a hopeful moment, before floundering and drowning. The scenario is illogical, but I have my reasons.

I also have several reasons for why it is taking me so long to learn.

  1. All the pools that I've entered have been unpleasantly cold and I don't like the sensation of cold water on my body, especially my back. I don't like the sound of underwater in my ears. You can feel the current of conversations around race, particularly in America. You're entering an environment that has cast you as rebellious, violent, and troublemaking, if Black, and as blameworthy, racist, and heartless, if white. None of this feels good washing over your head.

Hilary Weston jury citation: "Disorientation is a formally inventive and searing meditation on race and Blackness. Both topical and literary, Williams' essay collection juxtaposes personal stories about racial profiling and microaggressions alongside discussions about the murders of George Floyd and Eric Garner and readings of Black writers like Audre Lorde and James Baldwin. His writing moves, by turn, from tenderness to despair to anger, yet remains clear-eyed and intellectually rigorous throughout. In an age of hot takes and condemnation, Williams' essays reflect, explore, and illuminate."

LISTEN | Williams discusses Disorientation:

Giller Prize-winning author Ian Williams has been reticent to speak his mind on race — until now. He tells us about his new book, Disorientation: Being Black in the World, and diving into some uncomfortable places.

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