Governor General’s Literary Award 2014: part 2

Spotlight on winners of the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Award, a judge, and the CEO of Canada Council for the Arts, produced in partnership with the Canada Council for the Arts.

Interview with Thomas King, winner of the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction

By Mary Newman

Photograph courtesy of the Canada Council for the Arts
Thomas King. Courtesy of the Canada Council for the Arts

Interview with Simon Brault, director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts

By Mick Gzowski

Photograph by Maxime Côté
Simon Brault, director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts. Maxime Côté

Interview with Michael Harris, winner of the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction

By Hadani Ditmars

Author photograph by Hudson Hayden; book jacket courtesy HarperCollins Canada
Author Michael Harris; The End of Absence. Author photograph by Hudson Hayden; book jacket courtesy HarperCollins Canada

Hadani Ditmars: Tell me about the process of writing this book, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. How inspired were you by fellow Vancouver scribe Douglas Coupland, who wrote in his biography of McLuhan and in one of his novels about a future world where people speak in “text” language that eventually devolves into caveman-like gestural gibberish?

Michael Harris: I was certainly inspired by Coupland, McLuhan, Neil Postman, and Alberto Manguel, but also by Elizabeth Eisenstein. She came after McLuhan and cleaned everything up. He had the crazy ideas and she did the work. She was the one who wrote about the printing press as an agent of change.

The Walrus was actually part of the book’s genesis, via an assignment to write about gay hook-up culture. There is something fundamental that disappears when we have instant access. Eros demands distance: you cannot desire that which you have. This idea of solitude being dismantled by our technologies was eventually incorporated into the book.

The book was stupidly ambitious. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just kept on talking with geniuses trying to download their brains. The book works because it synthesizes smart people’s ideas by running them through my personal experience.

Hadani Ditmars: What was it like to go “off grid” with technology? You write about stimulus withdrawal factor and being excited by things like getting mail and cutting your toenails. Ultimately, was it a kind of luxury cleanse for the mind?

Michael Harris: Absence is what makes things matter. I became the best boyfriend in the world. You don’t love something unless you are denied it, so it made him matter more.

Digital detox is a luxury. Spending all day at home reading and writing. When I went back online, it was like an addict getting his high. I went back into it full throttle and it twinged all my ego-driven things. We had a fight that first night.

Taking a month off doesn’t cure you. The only thing that it does is remind you what the difference is, and then you can make conscious decisions each day.

Hadani Ditmars: How is your life now that you’re back “on grid”?

Michael Harris: I’m forced to have more control when I’m in public and people know that I wrote that book.

Hadani Ditmars: So in a way your book became a self-policing tool?

Michael Harris: Yes, in a way it did. But at the same time I have been more pressured to be connected than ever before because of all the media attention the book has garnered. I hope I showed how it’s not a technology problem but a human problem. Our obsession with connecting is very primal; in the same way McDonald’s capitalizes on our body’s desire to hoard sugar and fats.

Hadani Ditmars: How did it feel to win the GG?

Michael Harris: I was grateful and surprised. I got the phone call and it was almost cinematic. I dropped down on the floor and punched the air. I wanted to exult in the moment before I told my boyfriend. So I bought my favourite chocolate bar and went for a walk through High Park in Toronto.

Hadani Ditmars: What was it like to be honoured in Parliament?

Michael Harris: Although we were all staying at the same hotel [for the ceremony in Ottawa], the English and Francophone writers ended up hanging out with their own language groups—very “two solitudes.” But when we went on our tour of Parliament together, there was a feeling of solidarity. We walked into question period and the MPs were in the middle of arguing about the price of food in Nunavut. We GG winners and a group of Canadian soldiers were in the balcony above. Suddenly we were asked to stand up, and all the MPs stopped arguing and cheered us. It was a genuine moment in a normally cynical place.

Hadani Ditmars: What is your next project?

Michael Harris: I’m exploring a project on the relationship between solitude and creativity and how that plays out in a world that wages war against solitude. My other project is to take the ideas in my first book and try to fictionalize them, making them more Orwellian.

Spotlight on Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, winner of the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Award for French-language non-fiction

By J. B. Staniforth

Photograph by Ben Powless
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, author of Tenir Tête. Ben Powless

During the 2012 Quebec student strike, which grew into a wider range of anti-austerity protests generally known as the Maple Spring, student leaders frequently complained that their voices were being shut out of media reporting and political discourse. The only narrative to which the public had easy access, they said, was the provincial government’s talking points about necessary austerity measures, often repeated as fact by much of the French and English media.

For that reason, the recent choice by the jury of the Governor General’s Literary Awards to give this year’s award for French-language non-fiction to Tenir Tête—a blow-by-blow memoir of that spring of protest penned by student leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois—came as a vindication for many.

“One of the main reasons I decided to write the book was when the movement ended, I was happy,” Nadeau-Dubois says, “but I was kind of frustrated that, travelling around Quebec, I realized how much the media’s story that was told about the movement was so different from what I saw in the street and in the general assemblies.”

As co-spokesperson for the leaderless student union CLASSE (Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante), the articulate, photogenic, and unwavering Nadeau-Dubois was easily the most public face of the six months of unrest. He was a fixture on news and talk shows debating the tactics of Jean Charest’s government (notably the passage of the draconian anti-protest “special law”), and the union’s pressure was a major force behind the premier’s decision to call an election that his Liberal party went on to lose.

By the end of the movement, Nadeau-Dubois had become an internet meme modelled on “Feminist Ryan Gosling,” and was saluted on Radio-Canada’s New Year’s program with a “Gangnam Style” parody called “Gabriel Nadeau Style” (Sample lyric: “I’m the chic version of Che Guevera . . . I represent the anger of the populous / If you think I’m exaggerating, I’ll raise my finger in your face.”)

Though the protests through 2012 were divisive, they also tied into the province’s rich history of social unrest that began with the Quiet Revolution. For that reason, says Nadeau-Dubois, even those who opposed the students’ campaign seem interested to learn more about what it was and why it happened.

“People are beginning to reflect on what that movement meant for Quebec society,” he says, “and I think it’s one of the reasons why my book has been read as much as it has. Even if they were not very sympathetic to the movement, [people are] curious to understand what was happening inside, and what were the real motivations of the students who were protesting.”

Though he stresses that the movement was materially successful in turning back the increase to tuition fees proposed by the Charest’s Liberal government, Nadeau-Dubois is also quick to note that, “The party was short, that’s what we can say.

“The bigger picture is much more complicated,” he continues. “I’m one of the many Quebeckers that are not happy that the Liberal Party of Quebec is back in power, obviously. We see now with all the austerity measures put forward by that government that even if, for the moment, accessibility to education is not under attack, probably all of the other public services are.”

For those reasons, Nadeau-Dubois seems poised to remain a central figure of the Quebec left for years to come: immediately following the GG announcement, he made the news again by donating his $25,000 in prize money to support efforts against the Energy East natural gas pipeline, whose projected path runs through his home province.

Spotlight on Arleen Paré, winner of the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry

By J. B. Staniforth

Jacket photo courtesy of Brick Books
Brick Books

flint-dark far-off
sky on the move across the lake
slant sheets closing in

sky collapsing from its bowl
shoreline waiting taut
stones dark as plums

—from “Distance Closing In”

In Lake of Two Mountains, Arleen Paré’s Governor General’s Literary Award–winning collection of poetry, the titular lake—located just west of the island of Montreal—is in fact not a lake at all, but rather part of a delta between two lumps of land that hardly qualify as mountains. If the body of water is symbolic of the “two solitudes” of Quebec’s linguistic divide, the book warns readers that these are neither real solitudes nor really two. Around the shoreline, post-contact history begins with three basic groups, including the original Mohawk occupants of the land, and sprawls to include the complex histories of immigrants arriving from different European cultures.

“I did all of that on purpose, because I think, at least in the reality that I live in, things aren’t as they always seem, and are identified as they aren’t necessarily,” says Paré, reached by phone at her home in Victoria. “I was also grappling with the issue of who belongs in this place. Especially as a child who once was there, once was in Quebec, once belonged to the lake and the lake belonged to her, then moved away entirely to the other side of the country—Victoria. Is this still her place? ”

Paré, who was born and raised in Montreal’s West Island suburbs and spent childhood summers on Lake on Two Mountains, pays particular attention to the tensions around Kanesatake Mohawk territory, adjacent the francophone community of Oka—scene of a land dispute that pitted Mohawk protesters against Quebec police and Canadian soldiers during the summer of 1990.

Preparing to write the collection, Paré returned to Kanesatake with her sister and drove through it. One of the poems deals with her feeling that she had to turn back immediately, because she felt she didn’t belong there.

She says that humbling experience was not because of what was happening, but rather, “because of what I’d understood and read. No one was imposing this on me; these were my reactions.”

Yet the impetus for the book was much less politically loaded. It began as a simple celebration of a lake that Paré felt instinctively connected to, “in [her] bones, at [her] cellular level.” To that end, the collection adopts the long tradition of the pastoral in Canadian poetry, ranging from Archibald Lampman to A. J. M. Smith to Margaret Atwood to Michael Ondaatje. More recently, the poets who’ve inspired Paré have been Nova Scotian Don Domanski (himself a former Governor General’s Literary Award winner) and Prairie-born Victorian Tim Lilburn—both of whom, she notes, deal with pastoral imagery in a personal context.

“We live in this huge country that has so many lakes and rocks and mountains,” she says. “Given that we’re surrounded by trees and rocks and lakes, perhaps this is a very Canadian concern.”

In this sense, Paré’s poetry was driven by a most Canadian inspiration: “I was looking at the lake, because as a child I believe I fell in love with it. I wouldn’t have known how to phrase that as a younger person, but when I look back, that’s true. I love this lake, in the way that we all love our early geographies, if we’re lucky. The initial impetus was the lake itself. I wanted to get closer to the lake.”

Spotlight on Raziel Reid, winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for children’s literature

By J. B. Staniforth

Photograph by Ash McGregor
Raziel Reid. Ash McGregor

Gay marriage has been legal in Canada for nearly a decade; gay characters are commonplace in popular culture. Yet how many gay Canadians can admit to the full-throated lust that the heterosexual majority takes for granted—or even to having experienced such lust in their teens?

Raziel Reid’s young adult novel When Everything Feels Like the Movies, winner of this year’s Governor General’s Literary Award for children’s literature, is a piece of rebellion at a time when being gay is embraced by society, but healthy gay desires can still be considered shocking.

“Most people these days who are somewhat cultured and read are pro-gay,” says Reid, “but they don’t want to hear about a fifteen-year-old gay boy’s sexual fantasies. That’s too gay. That’s taking it too far.”

That enthusiastic sexuality is a central part of the novel, which follows Jude, a flamboyant teen who uses the strength of his personality to defend himself from a world of suffering and trauma. Home is a brutal mix of addiction and domestic abuse; school is a gauntlet of homophobic bullying. Defensive narcissism seems Jude’s only means of protection.

“He’s angry that people are trying to clip his wings, so he hits them with his wings,” Reid says. “He beats the shit out of them with his wings.”

Throughout the novel, Jude obsesses over imagined fame among his peers, which Reid identifies as endemic and potentially toxic. “There’s a cultural disease happening with my generation, where everyone wants to be famous or thinks they are famous. I think it plagues insecure gay guys more than any other group. There’s a lot of gay people who want validation from the world. Jude is a representation of all of them.”

Reid is sensitive to the deep connection between the desire for validation and the suffering that fuels it. As the writer of a pop culture and gay news blog for Xtra, he says he’s constantly reminded of the trauma inflicted on so many young gay people.

“This kind of thing is still happening. Let me tell you—I’m consistently writing about gay teen boys who kill themselves. We’ve progressed quite far in cities, I think, but in a small town—a kid who’s not only gay but gender-ambiguous and also really proud of being different—bold, in-your-face, and unapologetic about it—I think kids like that still have a really hard time.”

If it’s surprising to some readers that a young adult novel can so frankly embrace both the anguish of homophobic bullying and the thrill of a gay kid’s first sexual experiences, Reid says that’s because the book has little in the way of a precursor.

“This is not what young adult books are like these days. I feel like I’m trailblazing gay YA. The fact that it was awarded really surprised me, because this is a gay voice that is really raw.”

Spotlight on Jordan Tannahill, winner of the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Award for drama

By J. B. Staniforth

Photograph courtesy of

Jordan Tannahill’s three-play collection Age of Minority, winner of this year’s Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language drama, is explicitly about youthful explorations of identity. The plays, which stretch across geography, culture, and history, are single-voice dramatic monologues. One follows a real-life deserter from the US Army; another a performer of “sissy-boy” videos on YouTube; and the last an East German who is shot dead during an attempt to slip into the West.

“All of the protagonists are what I like to call ‘sublime outcasts,’ ” says Tannahill—a playwright, director, filmmaker, instructor at the National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal, and alternative arts gallerist in Toronto. “They operate on the margins on account of their identity, which might be their sexual orientation, but also the sociopolitical climate they find themselves in. All three are on a journey of self-actualization, and confront extraordinary obstacles on the way that both make and destroy them.”

Adolescence, Tannahill believes, is necessarily a kind of marginal experience, one in which young people watch from the periphery of adult interactions. They try to navigate the chaos of that new world and find a safe footing from which to brave a more grown-up persona.

“In a way, we have to jump in fearlessly,” he says. “Sometimes there are incredible risks involved in that. These plays are about these three individuals jumping into their lives as adults.”

Tannahill, who is entering his late twenties, grounded his process of writing the plays in the desire to reflect the universal challenge of “transcending that barrier, from youth into adulthood, and the complexities that come with it.”

Two of the plays feature embattled characters who make desperate lunges across national borders; the third concerns someone who comes to the border of sexual expression, and must find his place within a community where queer identity is unwelcome.

That last play, rihannaboi95, includes a cross-cultural vocabulary that Tannahill remembers from his schoolyard days in the Ottawa suburb of Beacon Hill. Though it may be a surprising development for readers who grew up in playgrounds where monolithic English and French were the norm, Tannahill says the adolescent argot that blends English with Arabic, Bengali, and Punjabi is entirely true to his own experience.

“These were terms that I and my peers used in suburban Ottawa to dis each other, and to be dissed. In a way, there’s a kind of global language on the playground in the contemporary suburbs of the West. English is not the default.”

With an array of characters so disparate in their backgrounds and experiences, Tannahill’s narrative runs the risk of being accused of voice appropriation. “When dealing with non-fictive source material . . . every playwright is writing a voice that is not themselves,” he says. “But especially when dealing with the lives of real people, I think there’s such a responsibility to do so with integrity.”

It will be up to the others to determine how successfully Tannahill met that challenge. So far, audiences—and the GG jury—seem to be on the same page.

Spotlight on Paul-Émile Borduas: A Critical Biography, winner of the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Award for translation

By Peter Feldstein

Painting by Paul-Émile Borduas/from the collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery
Untitled by Paul-Émile Borduas, 1955. Oil on canvas, 71 x 91 cm. From the collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery

Why should English-speaking readers interested in art history care to discover Paul-Émile Borduas, the pioneering Quebec artist who died more than fifty years ago? Because the abstract painter’s fabulous art endures, and because his austere, lifelong commitment to that art, whatever the costs, is the stuff of legend.

Bourduas was born in the small town of Mont-Saint-Hilaire near Montreal in 1905. The son of a cart driver, he was not fated to become a radical. Quebec at the turn of the century was highly conservative, with most aspects of life pervaded, if not dominated, by the Catholic Church. There was no Canada Council for the Arts, no public body with a mission to “foster and promote the study and enjoyment of, and the production of works in, the arts.” Professional outlets for young Quebecers with artistic talent could be summed up in one word: teaching.

While the rest of Canadian painting was in thrall to the regionalist landscape styles made prominent by the Group of Seven and some of their bolder Quebec counterparts, the Montreal art scene was deeply conservative. Dull realism ruled the roost, while modern art was mocked, if mentioned at all. Today, with abstract art a lesson long absorbed—with the likes of Pollock and Warhol the subjects of Hollywood biopics—it can be a stretch to mentally teleport ourselves back to pre-modern times.

But iconoclasts have to come from somewhere, and why not a place where icons cry out for smashing? In Borduas’s case, a stroke of serendipity led to a job as a church decorator, then to a scholarly sojourn in 1920s Paris. By 1942 he had made a bold leap into pure abstraction, and founded a group of artists known as the Automatistes, for their attempts to rely on the dictates of the unconscious rather than preconceived pictorial concerns. This move, it should be noted, came in total isolation from the contemporaneous radicals in New York.

More importantly for his legacy, Borduas’s radicalism did not stop at the edges of the canvas. With the 1948 manifesto, Refus global, he and the Automatistes took square aim at church orthodoxy. The group’s rallying cry—“To hell with the aspergillum and the toque!”—gave notice that it would not be governed by arbitrary social strictures, whether imposed by the religious authorities or by anyone else who kept them from forging their own path. The Automatistes were anarchists operating within an artistic context; they helped set a province mired in conservatism on the road to modernity.

Unfortunately, Borduas had no idea of the forces he was up against. The price he paid for Refus global was exorbitant: fired from his teaching job; excoriated by many of his allies; and forced to live off sales of his paintings at a time when no major museum or gallery would hang them. He saw his health deteriorate and his marriage disintegrate. Soon he was in compulsory exile, where he would remain for the rest of his foreshortened life.

With the publication of Paul-Émile Borduas: A Critical Biography, English readers have a privileged opportunity to explore this life. The original French version of François-Marc Gagnon’s opus has been out of print for years and nothing else has come along. One can only hope the preparation of a new French version based on this thoroughly revised English one will fill the gap.

Spotlight on Hadani Ditmars, one of the jurors for the 2014 2014 Governor General’s Literary Awards

By Hadani Ditmars

The books never stopped coming. They arrived every few weeks by Canada Post: neat cardboard boxes from Ottawa with my name and address printed on them. My neighbours in Vancouver were convinced I was doing something illicit; receiving box after box, spending long hours alone indoors.

Yes, I was a secret GG juror—one of three for English-language non-fiction—sworn to anonymity until the short list was announced.

When an invitation to attend the winners’ ceremony at Rideau Hall arrived, a swell of literary patriotism prompted me to accept. I soon found myself ensconced in the Chateau Laurier, swimming in the art deco pool where Pierre Trudeau used to do the front crawl.

Earlier this year in Ottawa, where I’d gone to meet my fellow jurors—Toronto-based Christopher Dewdney and St. John’s–dwelling Robert Finley—the burden of carrying around the collective unconscious of Canadian non-fiction for so many months forged an instant bond. We had been in the CanLit trenches together.

The three of us, spanning coast to centre to coast, had held so many narratives in our brains that when we sat together and spoke about them, it almost felt confessional. Riveting accounts of dysfunctional hippie childhoods in the wilderness; tales of global warming; the censorship of scientists; rogue mayors with drug habits and underworld connections; residential school horror stories: these were just some of the true stories we’d read.

My first day back in Ottawa to attend the ceremony, I met a Moroccan photographer who took me around Hintonburg, the blue-collar, west-end neighbourhood turned hipster haven. In a diner run by a Lebanese-Canadian, my guide told me he was still reeling from the recent shootout on the Hill, ramped-up CSIS activities, government security certificates, and the slow dissipation of civil liberties. While we chatted, the outside world entered via news broadcast: the Ghomeshi scandal, Ferguson, war planes in Iraq. It all made the idea of the GGs seem like a quaint, colonial afterthought.

Later, on the evening of the ceremony, I called Robert in Newfoundland to describe the scene from my taxi. The long winding journey along Sussex Drive past the pax americana US fortress, the Saudi embassy gleaming in the dark, and then into the grand stone gateway of Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s residence.

Once inside, I felt like a guest at a wedding. I was a bit forlorn until I found the indefatigable Shelagh Rogers, who quickly took me under her wing. We posed for photographs with guards in beefeater outfits before being ushered into a room with a giant portrait of the Queen. Once we’d been seated in neat Anglican rows, the proceedings began.

A string quartet struck up a tune and the winners walked down the aisle. I felt that familiar frisson again, a pang of literary patriotism as I watched my peers dressed up and beaming. We all sang “O Canada” under Elizabeth’s gaze, and I pondered the thousands of kilometres I had travelled to witness this moment.

Raziel Reid accepted the children’s literature award in the voice of his book’s protagonist, a gay, cross-dressing teenager. “It’s about time the Queen recognized a queen,” he announced from the stage. He couldn’t resist some dark drag humour, linking the deaths of gay youth in Canada to a young black man in Ferguson. At last, I thought, the outside dangers that had been circling for the past few days had penetrated the GGs.

Moving on, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, twenty-five-year-old winner of the award for French-language non-fiction, made an impassioned plea for real democracy: this in a Canada that imprisoned his fellow student protesters during Montreal’s Maple Spring; this is in a Canada where scientists are muzzled by government rule. In a brief hallucinatory moment, I swear I saw Elizabeth’s portrait tremble; my mind went to the poets who’d been arrested on Burnaby Mountain for protesting Kinder Morgan’s pipeline construction. (Afterwards, Nadeau-Dubois donated his prize money to anti-oil tanker activists.)

At the end, standing tall like the cultural giant he is, fiction winner Thomas King delivered a stern warning against ignoring the plight of the environment. “Our legacy will be our example—how we comported ourselves in our communities, how we conducted ourselves in the world,” he boomed, with the voice of an elder statesman. “So as we live our lives we might wish to ask ourselves to ask the question: will that be a story we want our children to hear? ”

The next morning I rose early, and after a thorough frisking by unsmiling guards, took a tour of Parliament. I studied the portraits of Trudeau and Diefenbaker—unlikely neighbours on a shared wall. I was shown the English, French, and Canadian doors to the hall, where only forty-eight hours before, politicians had interrupted a spirited debate to congratulate the GG winners.

I even met our heroic Sargeant-at-Arms, Kevin Vickers, as he posed with a group of school children, steps away from a wall marked by bullet holes. We spoke of his recent trip to Jerusalem and prospects for peace in front of a giant Christmas tree. My MP, Joyce Murray, received me in her chambers and tweeted out a photo of us beneath a portrait of Trudeau.

My time in Ottawa was up. I left the capital listening to Leonard Cohen’s “Un Canadien errant”:

Si tu vois mon pays,
Mon pays malheureux,
Va, dis à mes amis
Que je me souviens d’eux.

Ô jours si pleins d’appas
Vous êtes disparus,
Et ma patrie, hélas!
Je ne la verrai plus!

Non, mais en expirant,
Ô mon cher Canada!
Mon regard languissant
Vers toi se portera . . .

When I arrived back in Vancouver, I took a walk along the seawall and took in the view of seals, herons, and mountains. Back at my tiny flat, the 181 contenders were still there, packed neatly into their cardboard boxes, waiting to welcome me home.