The surprise winner of the 2017 Governor General’s Award for nonfiction

Posted by on Nov 3, 2017 in Books, Brian's Blog, Literary awards | 0 comments

I was impressed when I saw the nonfiction titles short-listed for this year’s Governor General’s Literary Awards. Four of the five were books I had read – or at least heard of – by authors whose names I recognized.

  • Calgary’s Sharon Butala had been nominated for Where I live Now: A Journey Through Love and Loss to Healing and Hope, an affecting memoir about how she dealt with the death of her husband, Peter.
  • Toronto’s Carol Off, well known to listeners as the host of CBC Radio’s As It Happens, was given the nod for All We Leave Behind: A Reporter’s Journey into the Lives of Others, a soul-searching account of how she became involved in the life of an Afghan family after she told their story in a television documentary.
  • Elaine Dewar, also from Toronto, was recognized for The Handover: How Bigwigs and Bureaucrats Transferred Canada’s Best Publisher and the Best Part of Our Literary Heritage to a Foreign Multinational. It revealed for the first time how McClelland & Stewart, once home to many of Canada’s top authors, ended up being sold to a foreign conglomerate.
  • Sarah de Leeuw, from Prince George and Kelowna, was selected for Where It Hurts, an illuminating collection of essays published by Edmonton’s NeWest Press about the difficulties of marginalized people living in small communities in the British Columbia Interior.

All four, I thought, were worthy nominees.

Then came the surprise announcement. The winner was none of the above. The award went to Graeme Wood for The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State, a book described as an “intimate journey into the minds of the Islamic State’s most radical true believers” drawn from interviews with supporters and recruiters.

Graeme Wood

Graeme who? I had never heard of this author, although I have since discovered he has an international reputation as an expert on ISIS.

I looked him up. According to the Canada Council website, he lives in Connecticut and lectures at Yale. He’s a national (i.e. American) correspondent for The Atlantic, and has written for several other publications, mostly American but including The Globe and Mail and The Walrus. For the Globe, which he doesn’t identify as a client on his website, he has contributed two reviews of books about the Afghan war. For the Walrus, which he does list as a client, he wrote one feature from Afghanistan and another from Paraguay.

Mr. Wood grew up in Dallas, received his university education in the United States and Cairo, and worked as a journalist in Cambodia and the Middle East before settling back in the U.S. So how did he qualify for this quintessentially Canadian literary prize?

Plainly and simply, because he’s a Canadian citizen. That, according to the Canada Council guidelines, is sufficient to grant him entry.

I have yet to read Mr. Wood’s book, which seems like a timely and worthwhile contribution to the international conversation about radical Islamic terrorism. But I have looked at some of his pieces in The Atlantic, and he is a fine journalist. He certainly deserves any recognition he receives for his work.

But given his tenuous connection with the literary culture of this country, I have a problem with him receiving one of Canada’s most prestigious national literary awards.

Before this year’s finalists were announced, Mr. Wood’s book was barely noticed in Canada, although it had been reviewed favourably in the United States and elsewhere. I would hope that when Canadian sales of his book inevitably spike because of his Governor General’s Award win that the other nominated titles will see a similar boost in sales. They deserve at least equal recognition.

I would also hope that the organizers of the Governor General’s Awards see fit to revise the guidelines so that eligible authors have a stronger connection to this country than mere possession of a Canadian passport. A minimal residency requirement, such as they have for provincial literary contests, might be one place to start. This is a Canadian award for Canadian writing, not the Man Booker or the International Dublin award.

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