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Toronto writer and poet Souvankham Thammavongsa wins the coveted 2020 Giller Prize

The richest prize for Canadian fiction goes to Souvankham Thammavongsa for her short story collection How to Pronounce Knife.

Thammavongsa won for her first work of fiction, How to Pronounce Knife

Souvankham Thammavongsa accepts the 2020 Giller Prize for her collection of short stories, How to Pronounce Knife, at her home in Toronto Nov. 9, 2020. (Nathan Dharamshi)

Toronto writer and poet Souvankham Thammavongsa has won the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her short-story collection How to Pronounce Knife, the writer's first work of fiction.

Thammavongsa was revealed as the winner of the $100,000 literary prize Monday night, during a virtual awards ceremony hosted by actor Eric McCormack and featuring musical guest Diana Krall. 

"Thirty six years ago I went to school and I pronounced the word knife wrong and I didn't get a prize," she said referencing her early education in ESL classes. "But tonight there is one." 

Jurors hailed the book as "a stunning collection of stories that portray the immigrant experience in achingly beautiful prose."

WATCH | Fun, ferocious moments at centre of Giller Prize-winning book: 

Fun, ferocious moments at centre of Giller Prize-winning book

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3 months agoVideo
9:15
Giller Prize winner Souvankham Thammavongsa says she wanted to have fun again while writing and that her short story collection is 'built out' from her many years of writing poetry.   9:15

Born in Thailand, raised in Toronto

Born in the Lao refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand, and raised in Toronto, Thammavongsa has earned acclaim for her four poetry books and her writing has been featured in publications including Harper's Magazine, the Paris Review and The Atlantic.

The other four finalists for this year's prize will receive $10,000 each. They are:

  • Toronto-based writer and poet Gil Adamson, nominated for the novel Ridgerunner, the follow-up to her bestselling debut novel The Outlander.
  • Winnipeg novelist and short story writer David Bergen, a past Giller-winner nominated again for his short story collection Here the Dark.
  • Ontario-based writer and visual artist Shani Mootoo, nominated for her novel Polar Vortex.
  • New York-based Canadian writer Emily St. John Mandel, nominated for her novel The Glass Hotel.

Thammavongsa joins such past Giller winners as Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, Alice Munro, Madeleine Thein, Esi Edugyan and Ian Williams, who received the prize last year for his debut novel, Reproduction.

The five-member jury panel for this year's prize consisted of Canadian authors David Chariandy, Eden Robinson and Mark Sakamoto (jury chair); British editor and critic Claire Armitstead; and Canadian-British author and journalist Tom Rachman.

Canada's richest award for fiction

The Giller Prize was founded in 1994 by businessman Jack Rabinovitch in memory of his wife, the literary journalist Doris Giller. 

As established by Rabinovitch, who died in 2017 at the age of 87, the annual prize recognizes excellence in Canadian fiction, both long format and short stories.

The prize began with an annual purse of $25,000, which has increased over the years to $140,000 currently, making it Canada's richest literary award for fiction.

Since its inception, the prize has endowed more than $750,000 to Canadian writers across the country, according to the Giller website.

With files from CBC Books

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