Winnipeg author wins $40K national First Novel Award

Winnipeg writer Michael Kaan has won a prestigious $40,000 award for new novelists in Canada.

Past winners of national award include Michael Ondaatje, W.P. Kinsella, Nino Ricci, David Bezmozgis

Michael Kaan received the national award for his novel The Water Beetles. (Goose Lane Editions/Leif Norman)

A Winnipeg writer has won a prestigious $40,000 award for new novelists in Canada.

Michael Kaan received the 2018 First Novel Award for his book The Water Beetles on Tuesday.

The book is loosely based on the diaries of Kaan's own father, Kaan said. It tells story of a family as they look to survive the 1941 Japanese invasion of Hong Kong through the perspective of a child who escapes to the countryside with his siblings to avoid the soldiers.

"It's 90 per cent true," Kaan said. "There's very little in the story that isn't reflective of his [Kaan's father's] experiences."

Published by Goose Lane Editions, The Water Beetles was also a finalist for the 2017 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction.

Kaan said he began work on the book in 2013 or 2014, after his mother showed him his father's memoirs. His father, who passed away 12 years ago, hadn't spoken much about the war in his life, Kaan said. Although he knew the broad strokes of the horrors of the war, reading his father's words startled him.

"It wasn't surprising because I knew what the war was like in general and how awful it was for people," he said. "It wasn't surprising to see that my dad had experienced that. But to really read it in his own words on pages he had typed or written by hand was different."

Before working on The Water Beetles, Kaan said he hadn't written anything. Now, in addition to writing, he runs a clinic for veterans living with PTSD.

"I had always wanted to write. I had never really done it. And I reached a point where I felt I needed to try doing it," he said. "And around that time my mother gave me a copy of my father's memoir, which I'd never seen before, and it clearly would make a great story."

Book shed lights on Asian experience of Second World War

The book alternates between the perspectives of a 12-year-old boy and a much older man, reflecting on how he survived the war, Kaan said.

"I think it's an important part of the story, showing that people do survive all kinds of terrible experiences and that they not only can, but fundamentally want to live a healthy life," he said.

That was something he observed in his own father, he said.

His mother has read the book and said it was accurate, Kaan added. But he said he doesn't know what his father would think of it.

"I don't, actually. I don't, because he never talked about it. He certainly liked to read books, but I don't know if this is his kind of thing," he said.

"I actually don't know what he would say. I could make something up, but in truth it's hard to guess."

​Kaan's book was chosen from a shortlist of six, which included The Boat People by Sharon Bala (McClelland & Stewart), The Bone Mother by David Demchuk (ChiZine Publications), American War by Omar El Akkad (McClelland & Stewart), The Black Peacock by Rachel Manley (Cormorant Books) and Dazzle Patterns by Alison Watt (Freehand Books).

The announcement places Kaan in the ranks of some of Canada's best-known authors who began careers by receiving the award. In its 42-year history, the award has gone to authors including Michael Ondaatje, W.P. Kinsella, Nino Ricci, David Bezmozgis, Andre Alexis and Madeleine Thien.

The prize is co-presented by Amazon and the Walrus Foundation.

This year's panel of judges was composed of writers Irene Gammel, Dimitri Nasrallah and Donna Bailey Nurse.

Kaan said he was stunned when he heard his name read aloud Tuesday evening.

"I'm very pleased about it," he said. "Not just because it's my dad's story, but also because [the book is] about an aspect of the Second World War that most people don't know too much about, namely the Asian experience."

Kaan said he's already working on a second novel, which will also be a work of historical fiction.

With files from The Canadian Press


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