Kathleen Winter's debut novel vies for 3 awards

Montreal-based writer Kathleen Winter vies for a triptych of Canadian literary awards — the Governor General's Literary Award, the Giller Prize and the Writers Trust Award.

Annabel explores duality in novel about intersex child

Kathleen Winter is nominated for Canada's top three literary prizes for her debut novel, Annabel. ((CBC))
Montreal author Kathleen Winter calls her better-known sibling, Michael Winter, "my kid brother" and finds it inconceivable that they would compete in any forum.

So when they both ended up with novels among the finalists for the $25,000 Writers' Trust Award — Michael for The Death of Donna Whalen and Kathleen for Annabel — it was less a competition than a family joke.

"He's my kid brother, my baby brother," she said in an interview. "I can't think of anything to do with Michael but me being his adoring big sister. Any idea of competition doesn't even enter my mind."

Annabel, which is her debut novel, went on to earn nominations for the Governor General's Literary Award and the Giller Prize, a trifecta of Canadian literary recognition that has Winter reeling.

"It's as if you have had a shock and you have to keep reminding yourself of that," she said. "It's made me go from a writer who's going to have 400 people read my book to a writer who's going to have many, many more readers."

Annabel is the story of Wayne, an intersex child — called a hermaphrodite in the 1970s and 1980s, when the novel is set — growing up in a small Labrador town where sex roles are clearly defined. Wayne's father, Treadway, decides he wants to raise him as a boy, but his mother, Jacinta, and her friend, Thomasina — the only other person who knows about his indeterminate gender — fear that part of him may be lost because of this decision.

As Wayne grows older, he begins to feel increasingly ambiguous about his life as a boy and faces a long process of establishing his identity.

"I had not realized that intersex children existed," Winter said. "Any town of 30,000 people has half a dozen of these people walking around in it — that's how common it is. Often they don't know it themselves. Sometimes their body tells them, sometimes they don't know for a long time. So this secret mystery … to do with what is male, what is female — that captivated me."

Winter sees it as a novel exploring judgmentalism and small-mindedness, qualities that Wayne must endure as he grapples with the rigid way sex roles are defined in his small hometown and in St. John's, where he lives after leaving home. It's a subject that Winter, 50, has thought a lot about — especially the many restrictions placed on girls.

"When I was in my early 20s, I tried to stow away on a boat to Europe, and the reason I tried to do that was because this working ship took men passengers who could work for passage. Tthey could sail the seven seas," she said. "They wouldn't take women. When I was a kid, I wanted a job as a gas station attendant, and I was not allowed to do that."

Annabel by Montreal-based, N.L.-raised Kathleen Winter is published by Anansi. ((House of Anansi))
While Wayne is the central character, Winter says she doesn't believe the book is about one character, but rather about all of them. Especially memorable is Treadway, the practical father who struggles to teach his son the hands-on skills of hunting, trapping and fixing things that he believes every man must know.

Treadway is a man who understands the land, but he faces a difficult journey accepting his own child. Winter says she rewrote the final third of the book many times — she even considered killing off the character — before she crafted an ending in which Treadway makes a credible transition.

"It's about many kinds of duality," she says. "I think I learned a long time ago that if I see a person that appears one way, 90 per cent of the time there's another side of that coin .… If there is a person that's shy, then that is an extrovert. If there's a person who's full of sympathy, [there's] a hard cruel person inside. I became really interested in that idea of who we appear to be, and who you can become."

Annabel also explores duality with the city/rural divide, which Winter says played out in her own family. Her father, a man who built a log cabin in rural Newfoundland, and who also taught her the alphabet before she went to school, is the one who loves remote places; her mother was a city girl.

Winter grew up loving reading and says she wanted to be a writer from the time she first could read. She wrote a weekly column in the St. John's Telegram, has written for television and for documentary film, and she published her first book, the short story collection boYs, in 2007. Her descriptions of life in a Labrador town reflect her own feelings about life on the land.

"For many years, I lived very close to natural landscapes. It talks to me. It talks to me in much the way it talks to my character Treadway. A lot of Treadway is based not on men that I know, but on my own relationship with the land, which is a dialogue. Inanimate parts of the landscape are not inanimate at all," Winter said.

Winter wrote Annabel mainly in Montreal, where she has lived for the last two years. But she says she first became familiar with Labrador when she went to the Innu community of Sheshatshui in 1993 to make a film about a local musician.

"Honestly, I didn't want to leave. The plane came to take me, and I cried. I didn't want to leave this powerful northern place. So I went back. I stayed in the tents with hunters and watched them hunt and learned to scrape skins and make moccasins. I kept those memories in diaries."

Winter says she has read all the other books by her younger brother Michael, author of The Big Why and The Architects are Here — but she's waiting for her husband to finish The Death of Donna Whalen so he can underline all the parts about Whalen's stabbing. Then she'll avoid reading them.

"It's about a woman who's stabbed 31 times, and I can't read that without thinking this could happen to every woman I know," she said.

"I can't read this book yet, because it's so brutal, but [Michael] pointed out to me that it's not nearly as brutal as one of the scenes in my book. I can dish it out, but I can't take it."

The Writers Trust Award winner will be announced Nov. 2, the Giller on Nov. 9 and the Governor General's Literary Awards on Nov. 16.