News and Interviews

"We Hunger for the Real" The 2018 Weston Prize Finalists on the Power of Non-Fiction

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The Writers' Trust of Canada has been going from strength to strength in recent years, with their prizes and programs increasing in impact and profile every year (the 2018 Writers' Trust Awards ceremony, where the majority of the Trust's literary awards will be announced and which is happening tonight, November 7, is already completely full, for instance, though there will be a live stream available for book lovers to watch from home). 

One of the crown jewels of the Writers' Trust programming is the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction, which has become the preeminent prize in its genre. This year's list is an exciting one, with a strong memoir presence showing a focus on storytelling. There is a lot of crossover in the finalists' talents this year, nominees Will Aitken and Elizabeth Hay both being novelists as well as non-fiction writers (Hay is in fact a past Giller Prize winner), and nominee Terese Marie Mailhot holding an MFA in Fiction. Jurors Michael Harris, Donna Bailey Nurse, and Joel Yanofsky selected the shortlist from over 100 submissions from publishers across the country.

Will Aitken is nominated for Antigone Undone: Juliette Binoche, Anne Carson, Ivo Van Hove, and the Art of Resistance (University of Regina Press); Elizabeth Hay for All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir (McClelland & Stewart); Terese Marie Mailhot for Heart Berries: A Memoir (Doubleday Canada); Judi Rever for In Praise of Blood: The Crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (Random House Canada); and Lindsay Wong for The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family (Arsenal Pulp Press).

The winner of the $60,000 prize will be announced as part of tonight's Trust Awards event, but today we are thrilled to welcome all five finalists to Open Book to discuss what being nominated feels like, what non-fiction means to them, and some of their own favourite non-fiction reads. 

We hear which nominee started writing at a "squishy point" in their life, who ended up bleeding and bruised upon news of their nomination, and most importantly, exactly how each finalist views the reach and purpose of non-fiction. 

Open Book:

How did your nominated book begin for you? What drew you to your subject matter?

Will Aitken:

Antigone Undone began with Anne Carson inviting me to the European rehearsals and premiere of her translation of Antigone, starring Juliette Binoche and directed by Ivo van Hove. I had intended to write about it for a Canadian newspaper - that fell through. The experience of watching the play five times in three days left me bewildered and disturbed: eventually it occurred to me try to untangle that by writing about it.

Elizabeth Hay:

It began as a collection of autobiographical stories, a number of them about my mother and father, and it became much too long. My editor at McClelland & Stewart, Martha Kanya-Forstner, suggested that I structure the book as a memoir about the end of my parents’ lives. Martha was the one who saw the book’s essential shape and I am incredibly grateful to her. What drew me to the material? I wanted a break from writing novels, for one thing, and for another, my parents were great characters who drove me nuts and meant the world to me.

Terese Marie Mailhot:

The book began in a hospital, and I didn’t know it would be a book. I knew I was writing about my experiences committing myself to figure out my diagnosis, and get on medication. I had an impulse to end my life, and it was so strong that I couldn’t function. I was given a composition book in the hospital where I wrote, "I am stuck in something feminine and ancestral in its misery." I knew I wasn’t brave enough to write nonfiction yet, so I fictionalized my experiences there to write a short story called "Indian Sick," and then a few years later I was strong enough to return to those passages and tell the truth of my life for the sake of truth and story. I believed I could help women like myself by giving us something artful and aesthetically interested in pushing against stigma and uncovering the realities we struggle with.

Judi Rever:

The story began more than 20 years ago in Congo. I went there as a young journalist. It was what I thought journalists were supposed to do: go where others have not been and tell an important story. Except that I got more than I bargained for during that trip. I saw first hand what happened after Rwandan forces invaded Congo. I met victims of that war, which was backed by the West. Bearing witness to that changed the course of my life, and my worldview.

So the ideas for my book began in a state of enquiry, almost a state of moral confusion.  What I saw in an ancient forest in Central Africa haunted me for years. The dominant narrative of history did not make sense to me. It was a narrative that had been damaging to millions of people, a narrative that had gone unquestioned that I needed to examine.  The narrative I’m referring to was what happened during the Rwandan genocide. I got clues in Congo that what had happened in Rwanda in 1994 was not the full story, at all. I had to understand the story beneath the story. So that’s when the second part of my journey began…which was the research.

Lindsay Wong:

The Woo-Woo is about growing up in a Chinese-Canadian family that doesn’t believe that mental illness exists, and blames all their problems on The Woo-Woo, Chinese ghosts. It’s my own personal journey, but it explores how my family ignored depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia, while overcoming issues of diaspora, language barriers, and extreme poverty.

I’ve always been drawn to writing about my genetic tribe -- it seemed like a necessary means to cope with whatever weirdo events or disasters were happening around me, particularly when I attended the undergraduate creative writing program at UBC, where professors were always saying, write what you know. In 2008, my aunt had a public suicide attempt, and it was then that I had to fully acknowledge the intergenerational effects of undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. Family is something that constantly defines you, whether you want them to or not. You can’t get rid of them because it’s sometimes like amputating one of your appendages. Essentially, what began as short character sketches at UBC became a book-length thesis when I attended Columbia’s MFA program.

Open Book:

Where were you when you received news of your nomination? What was your reaction?


That’s a very personal question.

I had heard of the Writers’ Trust, but hadn’t realized there was a separate category for non-fiction, so was surprised and happy to find myself short-listed.


I was in the Bella Bella airport, a one-room building on the outskirts of Bella Bella (pop. 1400) on the central coast of British Columbia. I had been out of touch for nine days, so when I turned on my iphone, I received a lovely flood of congratulatory emails, and that’s how I knew. It was wonderful.


I was on my bed checking Twitter and Alicia Elliott congratulated me there. I checked for myself multiple times, because I couldn’t believe it.

I felt an immediate pull to my homeland when I found out about the nomination, because being seen in Canada means a lot. I left Canada under duress and always felt like, as an Indigenous woman, I was not seen, but the recognition shifted my esteem.


I was at home, having breakfast when I received an email from my publicist. It took me a few minutes to digest what this nomination meant. Then suddenly it occurred to me, that the stories of many people long buried, the more inconvenient truths that have been largely hidden, might be finding their way into the mainstream. Their stories had broken through a barrier. So that was a moment of great joy, and astonishment.


I was still asleep at 6:30a.m. when I heard my phone ding. I saw that my publisher, Brian Lam, had tagged me on Facebook. I have never heard of the Hilary Weston Prize before, so I went back to sleep.

At 6:40a.m., I received another phone notification, and it was Brian again, but this time he had sent an email with the name of the prize in the subject line. I was like, does Brian know that his account is sending spam??? I was going to delete it, but moments after, there were rapid-fire emails from my publicist, my agent, and Mary Osborne from The Writers Trust, who wanted to set up a phone call. I thought this might actually be important, so I tumbled out of bed, Googled the prize, assumed it was all a huge mistake, especially since my book wasn’t out until Oct 1 and it was only Sept 19.

I was highly skeptical, and didn’t believe it was happening.  Of course, I’m thrilled. As someone who was rejected multiple times, being nominated is quite an honour but also a tremendous shock!

Open Book:

What unique experience or benefit does non-fiction provide for readers in your opinion?


I guess we’re all just looking for a voice we can trust.


The reader of non-fiction is on real rather than invented ground, which is very satisfying to anyone as literal as I am. The parents in my book really were my parents. I wonder if the lure of non-fiction has to do with the urge to preserve, whereas fiction flows from the freedom to invent. Non-fiction shows our everyday earth to be larger and more vivid and more dramatic than we think. It adds to our wonder and interest in the human condition and all living things. We hunger for the real, I think, and never seem to get enough of it in our own lives.


I believe it is the genre with the highest stakes. To read our work is to be invited into our lived experience and the art we’ve cultivated from it. Some nonfiction is intellectually driven, and some is heavy with emotionality and difficult truth we fought to impart to you. You make a personal investment when you pick up nonfiction, and it’s like sitting with the author as you’re moving through the text. There’s something intimate about nonfiction that requires some delicacy and personal investment.


I think non-fiction can shake people from a state of indifference, or confusion or ignorance. It can also deepen our knowledge of ourselves, and establish our sense of place in the world. I see it from the perspective of a journalist who has worked for a news organization that relies on an insane 24-hour news cycle that has to justify itself and compete in real time.  Whether we realize it or not, this news cycle depends on institutions and governments to create sweeping, historical narratives. The truth gets distorted. A dominant narrative can bury a lot of people; it can silence. I think books are a powerful corrective to this injustice. They can uncover the bodies and voices underneath.


I think creative nonfiction has the benefit of giving readers that added layer of vulnerability and honesty between author and reader. What I especially love about the memoir tradition is that it allows you to apply fictional techniques, such as voice and humour, to make sense of and shape tragic or bizarre circumstances in art form. I think Mary Karr said it best when she said: "My idea of art is, you write something that makes people feel so strongly that they get some conviction about who they want to be or what they want to do." That’s what I feel that creative nonfiction can achieve -- it appeals to the very raw, fundamental core of our identities.

Open Book:

Tell us about a favourite non-fiction book you've read.


Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney’s Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History (2002), had a profound effect on me. I was researching a Young Adult novel called My Life Burning in the Moonlight, set in Japan during the Second World War, and stumbled on this book about how the cherry blossom itself was gradually militarized so that thousands of young men - tokkotai, or kamikaze, were pressganged into having lives as brief as cherry blossoms as they piloted their air torpedoes into American warships. The book is full of heartbreaking passages from the diaries of 18- and 19-year old kids.


I’m rereading Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow (1962). I loved it twenty years ago and love it now. Stegner subtitles his book “A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier.” Fiction and non-fiction coexist in the same book and amplify each other, cheer each other on, if you like. They aren’t relegated to separate bookshelves. After all, what we most want, readers and writers alike, are books that reach deep, however they do it.


I really love The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, because it’s a memoir with a lot of risk. There is a chapter that’s all run on sentences, and it’s not written for the sake of the risk. It had to be in first-person plural, and it had to run that quickly into itself and rove on the page. I like that she uses her natural voice in the work, and it’s beautiful.   


One of the most fascinating and disturbing books I’ve read in years is The Janowska Road, Survival in a Nazi Death Camp. It was written by Leon Weliczker Wells. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so lucid about what it means to be fully human, as this book, which was published in 1963. The images that Wells shares with the reader are so profound and vivid that I think about them every day.  I think about him. It’s a book about the moral imperative of testifying, how the act of telling stories is a moral act. It’s also about the small shafts of light, of human decency and courage amid the darkness.


Such a tough question! I have trouble choosing just one, but I was largely inspired by Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts when I was a creative writing student. She rendered Chinese mythology, superstition, culture, and of course, talk of ghosts, into a very intricate, multi-faceted narrative. It was one of the first times that I read a nonfiction account of being first-generation Chinese that I could wholly relate to, which helped me contextualize my own ghost-filled childhood in words.


Will Aitken for has written three novels – Realia, A Visit Home, Terre Haute – and the non-fiction book Death in Venice: A Queer Film Classic. He lives in Montreal.

Elizabeth Hay is the author of the #1 nationally bestselling novel Alone in the Classroom, the Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning novel Late Nights on Air, as well as other highly acclaimed works of fiction, including His Whole LifeA Student of WeatherGarbo Laughs, and Small Change. Formerly a radio broadcaster, she spent a number of years in Mexico and New York City before returning to Canada. She lives in Ottawa. 

Terese Marie Mailhot is in the creative writing faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where she graduated with an M.F.A. in fiction. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles TimesThe RumpusCarve MagazineThe OffingThe ToastYellow Medicine Review and elsewhere. The recipient of several fellowships--SWAIA Discovery Fellowship, Vermont Studio Center Fellowship, Writing by Writers Fellowship and the Elk Writer's Workshop Fellowship--she was recently named the Tecumseh Postdoctoral Fellow at Purdue University. She resides in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Judi Rever is a freelance print and broadcast journalist who started her career with Radio France Internationale before working for the wire service Agence France-Presse, reporting from Africa and the Middle East. Her reporting on Rwanda has been featured in seven front-page stories in the Globe and Mail over the past three years, and she has been named a country of origin information expert on Rwanda by the Rights in Exile Programme, which promotes the legal protection of refugees. Her work has also appeared in Foreign Policy JournalLe Monde DiplomatiqueHumanosphereDigital Journal and the Africa Report.

Lindsay Wong is the author of the memoir The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family, finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust of Canada Prize for Nonfiction. She holds a BFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and an MFA in literary non-fiction from Columbia University in New York. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in No Tokens, The Fiddlehead, Ricepaper, and Apogee Journal. She is the recipient of many awards and fellowships, including from The Studios of Key West, Caldera Arts, and the Historic Joy Kogawa House. She lives in Vancouver.