When the woman from the Canada Council finally reached me on my cell phone one afternoon in late July, I was in St. John’s. I’d just completed some interviews for a project I was working on and had begun strolling down Water Street, soaking in a sunny, breezy Newfoundland day and looking forward to the beer I knew awaited me at the Ship’s Inn.
Would I, the woman asked, be willing to serve as a judge in the nonfiction category of this year’s Governor General’s Literary Awards?
I’ve judged plenty of awards competitions in my time: National Magazine Awards, National Newspaper Awards, even an international travel writing awards contest (which offered the delightful—and rare—perk of a trip to New York to present the award to the winner).
Awards judging, I’ve come to accept, is one of those sort-of-solemn duties that come with the territory when you teach writing.
Sure, I said. Why not?
She seemed surprised, and not a little relieved.
Little did I know.
A few days later, seven bulging cardboard boxes filled with books thunked down on my doorstep. A few days later, there was another. And then another. And…
Before the deluge ended, there were 12 boxes containing a total of 222 freshly minted masterpieces that their hopeful publishers had submitted on behalf of their equally expectant authors, each one imagining that hers or his would be chosen the “best book” of nonfiction published in Canada in the preceding year.
Whatever "best book" really means…
I won’t dazzle you with the impossibly illogical logistics of trying to read, and then rank-order, 222 mostly fine and sometimes wonderful books in a little over two months.
But let me take you quickly through the judging process.
After my fellow judges (British Columbia writer Ross A. Laird and Toronto-based filmmaker Nelofer Pazira) and I had read—in our own form and fashion—all the submitted books, each of us had to submit our own top-10-books list to Canada Council officials by mid-September.
Officials compiled the long shortlist of titles, which they then circulated back to us so we could each take a second look at books that had not made our own lists but had obviously caught the eye of one or more of the other judges.
Ten days after that, in late September, the three of is gathered in a boardroom in the Council’s Ottawa headquarters where we spent a full day discussing the relative merits of each of the books on our combined long list, after which we delicately winnowed that list down to five finalists and then chose our winner.
The envelope please.
The winner—M.G. Vassanji’s A Place Within: Rediscovering India—was officially unveiled in Montreal today. He, along with his fellow winners in other literary categories in French and English, will be feted, at Rideau Hall next week. (As with most national awards, organizers kindly invite the judges to the party too but, sadly, their budgets never include the plane tickets that would allow those of us at the farther ends of the country to attend the celebration. Ah, well…)
Of course, I can’t—I’m sworn to until-death-do-you-part secrecy—tell you what we actually said about each of the books behind the closed doors of that Ottawa boardroom that day.
I can tell you the decisions weren’t easy, despite the fact that my fellow judges were a congenial, agreeable and wise lot. There simply were a lot of fine nonfiction books from which to choose, including many that did not even end up as finalists.
I can also tell you that judging the GG’s was an exhausting, exhilarating and, ultimately, rewarding way to spend my summer vacation.
I am happy to have done it but I will know better than to be so quick to say yes another time!
For those of you looking for books to read, may I suggest a worthy title from our eclectic short list of finalists for this year’s Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction.
Randall Hansen, Toronto, Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany, 1942-45. (Doubleday Canada; distributed by Random House of Canada) (ISBN 978-0-385-66403-5) A brave re-examination of a controversial episode in World War II history. Randall Hansen combines meticulous research with an eye for telling human detail to make his case that the Allied bombing campaign didn’t help to win the war, and actually prolonged it. A book that offers lessons for today.
Trevor Herriot, Regina, Grass, Sky, Song: Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds. (Phyllis Bruce Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers; distributed by HarperCollins Canada) (ISBN 978-1-55468-038-2) Like the resilient but vulnerable birds that are its subject, this is a book of great and simple beauty. Trevor Herriot is a wise guide into a vanishing realm, almost invisible at the threshold of human culture. His poetic prose – finely-crafted, urgent and lyrical – reminds us of the entwined spirits of the human and natural worlds.
Eric S. Margolis, Toronto, American Raj: Liberation or Domination? (Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World). (Key Porter Books; distributed by H.B. Fenn and Company Ltd) (ISBN 978-1-55470-087-5) American Raj offers the missing context to the media coverage of current political events. Written from the perspective of the Muslim world, Eric S. Margolis’s fluid narrative is an unapologetic account of the growing mistrust of Muslims toward the West. Powerful and unequivocal writing that shuns easy answers.
Eric Siblin, Westmount (Quebec), The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece. (House of Anansi Press; distributed by HarperCollins Canada) (ISBN 978-0-88784-222-1) A delightfully quirky quest to uncover the three-century-old mystery and magic behind Johann Sebastian Bach’s famous cello suites. Eric Siblin seamlessly weaves together the tale of how Bach’s lost and mostly forgotten manuscript came to be discovered a century later by Pablo Casals, and finally became Siblin’s personal passion.
M.G. Vassanji, Toronto, A Place Within: Rediscovering India. (Doubleday Canada; distributed by Random House of Canada) (ISBN 978-0-385-66178-2) Lyrical, evocative and informative, A Place Within reaches deep into a long, contested past history, and brings it to the surface, to the present, so the reader can see it, and touch it in its fullness. M.G. Vassanji’s prose has a transcendent quality, like the journey itself.