Writing in worried times: GG Award winners share their anxieties

They may be successful writers, but that doesn't mean the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award winners are immune from worry about the world around us. Five authors share some brand new work on that theme, and explain how they grapple with the cultural issues that make them most anxious. Presented by IDEAS and CBC Books, with the Canada Council for the Arts.
(Mark Makela/Getty Images)

They may be successful writers, but that doesn't mean the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award winners are immune from worry about the world around us. Five authors share some brand new work on that theme, and explain how they grapple with the cultural issues that make them most anxious. Presented by IDEAS and CBC Books, with the Canada Council for the Arts. **This episode originally aired December 13, 2016.

Each year, the Governor General's Literary Awards honour the accomplishments of Canadian authors. It's a happy occasion, of course -- and yet, writers often create their books from a troubled place, exploring themes and issues that they seek to bring out of darkness and into the light. That writerly impulse -- as well as the steady thrum of global disquiet in 2016, from racism to war -- led to this episode.   


Writers featured in this episode: 

Steven Heighton is a novelist and poet based in Kingston, Ontario. His collection The Waking Comes Late won the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award for Poetry in English.

Completing the book, Steven Heighton felt frustrated by his tendency to "sleepwalk" through a world full of crisis. He felt driven to do something serious -- off the page. So he travelled to Lesvos, Greece, to try and concretely help the Syrian refugees landing on the shores of the island.

"[Aid groups on Lesvos] were so desperate for volunteers that you just got thrown in anywhere. At one point I had to be a paramedic for a woman who lost consciousness while the others ran off desperately seeking actual doctors… I wasn't equipped to do it, but there was no one else there."

The Waking Comes Late
is published by House of Anansi Press.

Martine Leavitt is an Alberta-born fiction writer living in Vermont. Her novel Calvin won the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award for Young People's Literature - Text, in English.

Martine Leavitt did extensive research on mental health for her fiction. She discovered a worrying fact: that many in prison suffer from untreated mental illness. That led her to revisit a supporting character in Calvin, her harrowing, hopeful novel about teen who suffers a schizophrenic episode. She gets a lesson in her own assumptions via a fictional letter called Hi from Prison.

"I read that an enormous percentage of people who are in prisons are there because of something related to their mental illness. And of course if you consider that the DSM includes addiction as mental illness, it goes up to 70% of the inmate population…"

Calvin
is published by Groundwood Books.

Bill Waiseris a historian in Saskatoon. His book A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905 won the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award for Nonfiction in English.

Bill Waiser on anti-Indigenous racism in Saskatchewan:
"Has anything really changed? Why can't we get along?...People continue to ask that question, and my answer to them is go back to the pre-1905 history when we did get along. I'm not saying it was necessarily a wonderful relationship, but there was a working relationship..."

Bill Waiser's essay Why Can't We Get Along considers the death of Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old Cree man shot after driving onto a rural property in Biggar, Saskatchewan last August. The farmer involved was charged with murder, prompting an ugly stream of racist vitriol on social media. Waiser reflects on that, and the imperfect but more integrated relations he found in the province's past, detailed in his book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905.  

A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905 is published by Fifth House.


Madeleine Thien is a Montreal fiction writer, and the author of the novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing. It won the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction in English.

"To see the binaries and the extremes that have become such a natural part of our discourse -- so natural we fail to see it even in ourselves -- has left me very worried for the future, and worried for the ways we communicate."

Madeleine Thien imagined history on a human scale in Do Not Say We Have Nothing, her novel set against China's cultural revolution. But she has been haunted by history's echoes, and by the way that humanity seems to -- again and again -- cause "catastrophic harm" despite our desire for good. Her essay Human and Wilderness wonders at how our ability to accumulate knowledge and create art may not be enough to save us from ourselves.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is published by Knopf/Penguin Random House Canada.


Colleen Murphy is a playwright based in Toronto. Her play Pig Girl won the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award for Drama in English.

Colleen Murphy on drama and death:
"On stage, death is a very powerful and compelling subject matter...to which certainly I as a dramatist am drawn. And  so the notion that the dead are living is a very powerful concept in theatre...Theatre is a place of oxygen. It's live. We are always breathing that oxygen together."

Colleen Murphy returns to a character from her visceral drama, Pig Girl, to feel out what life is like for a woman who still has no answers about a missing relative. "Sister" does not know what has become of her troubled, beloved sibling...who has been missing, and presumed murdered, for more than a decade. Colleen explores an aftermath of uncertainty and damage in a monologue about speaking to the dead, called Live for Me.

Pig Girl is published by Playwrights Canada Press.



**This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.

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