"It Means Going Back to Bronwen Wallace’s Work" RBC Bronwen Wallace Award Nominees on Writing, Genres, & Being Seen
The Writers' Trust's RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers is a closely-watched prize, with its knack for identifying interesting and innovative writers early in their careers. Founded by writer Carolyn Smart to honour the life of her dear friend, it celebrates Wallace, who was an acclaimed poet before her death from cancer at just 44 years old. As well, Wallace's posthumously published collection of short fiction, People You'd Trust Your Life To, is considered a stunning example of the form. Though her career ended long before it should have, the prize that carries her name now identifies writers poised to have long and exceptional literary paths.
In the past, the award alternated between poetry and short fiction, the two forms Wallace was known for; this year, both genres are being honoured, with three finalists in each form. They are Jamaluddin Aram for "This Hard Easy Life" (short fiction); nina jane drystek for "c:ode" (poetry); Omer Friedlander for "Palestinian Still Life" (short fiction); Leah Mol for "Six Things My Father Taught Me About Bears" (short fiction); Zoe Imani Sharpe for "Selection from [CA$H4GOLD]" (poetry); and Alexa Winik for "Selections from Winter Stars Visible in December" (poetry).
We are thrilled to speak to all six of the finalists today, who tell us about their nominated pieces, quote a little Tina Turner, and tell us what it means to be recognized in this way.
The two winners (one in each genre) will each receive $10,000; the remaining finalists will receive $2,000 each in recognition of their excellent work. Tune in to the Writers' Trust virtual awards ceremony (emerging writers edition) on October 21 at 2:00m ET to find out who wins.
Tell us about the piece for which you were shortlisted, and when it was written.
I’m a slow writer. Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez—in his later years—a paragraph of six to ten sentences is considered a good day of work for me. But then there are days, though extremely rare, that I can write the first draft of a whole short story in a single session. "This Hard Easy Life" is one such story. I wrote it one early afternoon in a café in about two hours shortly after Qasem Soleimani’s assassination in early January. Beyond the immediate themes of displacement and familial relationships, the story contemplates the temporality of things, a concept so persistent in all facets of human life yet so largely undiscussed in the modern world that one often has to revisit Omar Khayyam’s poems to stay in touch with the reality.
nina jane drystek:
the pieces in my submission were written over the course of about a year, from winter 2019 to winter 2020, and were all conceived in different spaces. they were all written as stand-alone pieces, though there are threads throughout which connect them. they cover a range of experiences from office work, to sitting in a driveway, lying on a bedroom floor in Montreal, and watching two wine glasses on a table.
"Palestinian Still Life" draws on my background in visual art. Before I started writing, I wanted to be a painter. I spent many hours sketching still life: a bright lemon peel, the red seeds of a pomegranate, a rotten pear. When I began writing, I found that it required a similar form of intense concentration – focusing the attention on a specific detail like, for example, the fuzz on a peach. The attention to detail is so important to both art forms.
In his acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize, Milan Kundera spoke about the novel’s ability to transcend boundaries, as a territory where everyone has the right to be understood. I write in a part of the world where politics is unavoidable, my characters exist in a political sphere, whether I consider myself a political writer or not – but for me, story is first and foremost.
I wrote this story because I came up with the title while walking to work one day, and I loved it so much that I had to stop walking and scribble it on a scrap of paper. I just wanted desperately to do something good with it. I tried different things over a few years—poems, more experimental fiction—but this story ended up being the form that fit the title best.
I think this story is the most hopeful thing I’ve ever written. It’s a story about a lot of scary things, but I really wanted it to be about people who are trying their hardest, people who support each other however they can.
Zoe Imani Sharpe:
"[CA$H4GOLD]" is a long poem. It might also be a birth, if we think of birth as a series of contractions and expansions. Last year, I was reading a lot of Emily Dickinson, and some of Simone White’s new work on trap music, when it clicked that both poets are doing something extremely inventive with compression. This awareness partially answered what I then perceived as the “problem” of my poetic line, that is, its refusal to extend further than a few words. I see now that when I could not go on any longer, the text began to tighten and oscillate in time.
For me, the "aboutness" of the poem is a question of composition and relates directly to the way language lay spatially on the page. My body is "about" the poem, as is money, itself compressed value travelling across space. These are questions of training the eye, and of care.
Of course, there is the pressing notion of inheritance functioning as a kind of contract; a thought that touches as much as disturbs me. The poem’s white space could be inhalation. Or perhaps it is the moving potency of another’s intellectual labour, which is not, nor ever was, invisible to me. Silence has many meanings in an epistle.
"Selections from Winter Stars Visible in December" is an extract from a longer, hybrid sequence of poems and lyric essays that spiralled out of trying to write about prolonged grief: its excesses, and deprivations, its hauntings and transference. I began writing the sequence in November 2019 when I attended the At Sea Writers’ Residency in Margate, England and suddenly found myself hermited away beside a moody North Sea. The residency was an incredible gift, and in the extreme solitude of that time, I began experimenting with textual rearrangements from a set of handwritten notes I’d found in a drawer while visiting my parents over the summer.
The notes themselves were tucked in an envelope labelled 'Winter Stars Visible in December' and described various astral events, all with a precision and poetic sensibility that was fascinating to me, and deeply moving. My mother shared that she thought their author was my maternal grandmother, and during this residency I began to feel that I might write something back to her, or to the memory of her. I was processing a lot of grief in my life at that time and I think working with these fragments permitted me to approach some difficult emotional terrains more obliquely. What emerged was a multiplicity of forms and voices – many of which still feel somewhat mysterious to me.
What do you love most about writing in the genre you were nominated for? What does the form (poetry or short fiction) mean to you?
There are many reasons I enjoy writing short fiction, but the two essential ones are poetry and form. I grew up around poetry. Some evenings after saying her prayers, my mother would sit with a book of Rawnaq’s poems and read it aloud to herself. It was also there in the folk music that my father listened to on his cassette player on the weekends. Then from when I was about seven to about fifteen, my brothers and I wove carpet before and after school, sometimes late into the night. (This was during the 1990s when Afghanistan’s economy had been destroyed by the civil war and later the Taliban.) So we worked to help my parents with the household expenses. We worked with silk and impressively intricate patterns and designs. As you can see, very early on in life, I was exposed to a very fundamental way of working with form. At one point, I tried my hands at writing poems, but they weren’t any good. I turned to the short story. I found it to be the closest thing to poetry. Because I believe it demands of the writer a certain control, a pellucidity of thought, and an intimacy with the language and the material that a serious poem might demand of a serious poet. When you look at the short story that way, every sentence, every word, every element of punctuation becomes crucial and equally important. So it’s safe to say I try to write prose with the precision of a poet.
poetry as a form offers a lot of freedom and play. it offers me a space to explore my thoughts and ideas conceptually and spatially on the page, and then if you sound it out, read and perform it aloud you get a whole other dimension. poetry offers many different kinds of encounters. i’ve always loved that there are gaps which allow for association, for filling in or embracing, which make it an engaging and sometimes confusing form. while i am pretty sure i got into writing through stories, poetry has always been there as a way to work things out and it remains a form where i am continually finding new ways of meaning, thinking and making.
I never liked the word 'fiction', because I think it’s misleading. I am telling a story, not a lie, or an invention. Sometimes, a story – which is not necessarily grounded in day-to-day reality – can evoke a deeper truth than the facts of a newspaper article. What I love most about writing stories is the intimacy that can be created between a writer and a reader, and the feeling of being completely immersed in a world other than your own.
My favourite thing about writing short fiction is being able to focus intensely on voice. There’s so much opportunity to get to know a character. With a novel, you need to get from one place to another somehow. But writing a short story is often pure character and voice for me.
My favourite thing about writing in general is coming up with those lines that hit you in the gut. Coming up with a really good line or phrase is such an amazing feeling that it can cancel out months of thinking everything you write is garbage. For me, a really great short story is a perfect collection of those lines.
Well, there are one’s perceptual temperaments and their accompanying imperatives. What’s love, or genre for that matter, but a second-hand emotion?
I love the alternative modes of thinking – the otherworldliness – that poetic language makes possible. Along these lines, writing poetry is often, for me, a return to feeling.Not feeling as in sentimentality but in that embodied sense of awakening or becoming porous – sensitised, attentive, connected, concerned. I’m thinking here of Aracelis Girmay’s line, “& so to tenderness I add my action.” It’s been wild and heartening, for instance, to see poetry become a gathering point for so many communities of care and solidarity over the last few months.
Of course, poetry is not a panacea, and like any art form can be co-opted in injurious ways. But in certain hands, I see poetic language bypassing linguistic control mechanisms. I see it refusing the givens of unjust power structures, especially structures whose survival depends on short-circuiting human feeling – its fullest range of anger, grief, pleasure, rage, joy, etc. With its ability to accommodate paradox, artifice, disruption, and refusal, I think poetry as an art form can, in this way, invoke and disturb new worlds into being. It assures me that transformation, on personal and collective levels, is still possible.
Tell us a little about where you are in your writing life currently. Personally and professionally, what does being nominated for the award mean to you?
It has been an incredible few months. Thanks to the Writers’ Trust and their initiatives, I’m currently working on the second draft of my first book—a collection of interconnected stories set in Kabul, Afghanistan in the 1990s. I feel very lucky that Michael Christie selected my manuscript for the Writers’ Trust Mentorship Program. I have learned so much from him that it is near impossible to put into words unless you read the book when it eventually comes out. And for the nomination, to be frankly honest, I really needed it. First of all, to be associated with an inspiring social activist, a literary figure, and a woman of Bronwen Wallace’s stature is an achievement in itself. It is humbling and inspiring. I can’t reiterate enough how grateful I am for the professional opportunities it has already brought me and will hopefully continue to bring when I have my manuscript ready. Personally, it has had an even greater impact; it has given me the validation that I’m doing something right.
i am still learning what poetry is, what it can do and what i want to do with it. in the last few years, i've been trying out a lot of things, including performing sound poetry – breaking poetry away from language, expanding language through sound, using a loop machine. i’ve also taken a bit more to concrete and visual poetries which is something else on its own. i think i will always be trying something new, in some way, because that is what making poetry is about to me.
while i have been writing for most of my life, i've approached it in a haphazard way for the most part. last spring, i left my side-hustle working for the Ottawa International Writers Festival with the aim of putting more time towards my writing. i've worked more on editing, reading, and taking workshops with poets outside of my circle to expand my understanding of poetry. this nomination, which i was honestly very surprised to get, shows me that the decision to commit time to my writing in a less haphazard way can help my writing get better and get out there.
I’ve just signed a two-book deal with the wonderful Robin Desser at Random House for a short story collection, The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land, and a novel, The Glass Golem.
I’m also incredibly honoured to be a finalist for the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award. My maternal grandfather immigrated from Montreal to Jerusalem sixty-five years ago, and so he is very happy about this new connection to Canada.
Right now, most of my writing time goes toward novels—I have one that’s nearly done and one that’s still in the very beginning stages. There was a point in early 2018 where I’d basically decided to give up on writing. I’d finished an MFA, and I was working on short stories once in a while, but it all felt so daunting. Everything I wrote, it felt like the last chance I had to publish something, like everything I’d ever written had to be included because I wouldn’t have another opportunity. Then I won the CBC short story prize—I started writing a novel about a month later and had a first draft three months after that. I don’t know if I’d still be writing if not for that contest.
News about the Bronwen Wallace shortlist came at a similarly tough time—I wasn’t giving up on writing, but the year leading up to it was full of rejection. And you get used to that, but after a while, you do start to feel like maybe anything that’s gone well was a mistake. And it’s hard to fight for your work when you’re constantly questioning your own skill. Literary prizes are important because they give you the push to keep going. They open up the future and they make you feel like there will be more opportunities, which lets you step back and make better work because you’re not trying to shove everything you have into this thing you think might be your only chance. Literary awards give you a period of time where anything feels possible, and I can’t overstate how valuable that’s been for my writing.
It means going back to Bronwen Wallace’s work. I’ve recently returned to her Stubborn Particulars of Grace, as well as Two Women Talking, her correspondence with Erin Mouré.
These days I co-host, with the artist Fan Wu, a workshop called POETRY/RACE/FORM. The participants in that group teach me, every week, that writing can be a practice of being with other people.
Right now, I’m living in Edinburgh where I’m working in a bookshop and trying to finish my first full-length manuscript of poems. Amid so much uncertainty, being nominated for the Bronwen Wallace Award means so much to me, especially alongside the bright company of poets like Zoe and nina. Even before the pandemic hit, this last year had been a difficult one, largely due to my father’s diagnosis with ALS in 2017 and its inevitable progression. These circumstances have taken a toll on my family, and there have been times over the last few years when my writing life has felt fragmented at best. To be a finalist within this context was an overwhelming surprise and a tangible, affirmative reminder to persevere in my work. I’m so grateful to the Trust for its support and to the judges for their generous reading that has made all this possible.
If you could recommend one Canadian poem, story, or collection to readers, what would you choose and why?
I would say Savage Love by Douglas Glover. (And to anyone interested in writing, I equally recommend his nonfiction book The Erotics of Restraint: Essays on Literary Form.)There are few authors whose work when you read, you feel a rare joy, a temptation that invites you to look closely because under the skin of each and every sentence there’s something beautiful going on, an interesting play, or a well-placed secret awaiting discovery. In Savage Love you also get what poet Irving Layton believed distinguished Canadian poetry from English or American poetry: the marriage of beauty and terror, something so deeply inspired by the Canadian nature and landscape, at once breathtakingly beautiful and terrifyingly hostile.
how about one thing that is many things? i'd recommend picking up a copy (or two or three or all of the issues) of the literary magazine Canthius. it is always full of engaging and powerful writing (prose and poetry) and always includes stunning artwork by women, transgender men, nonbinary, two-spirit, and genderqueer/gender non-conforming writers. it's run by a very supportive group of people (who have also supported me in a way that i deeply appreciate) and is a joy to hold and flip through as a book object. the latest issue has been part of my reading life for the last couple of weeks and features the winner of the inaugural Priscila Uppal Memorial Award (judged and thoughtfully introduced by Phoebe Wang) and i’ve enjoyed encountering writers whose work is new to me – w. C. Sy, Qurat Dar and Barbara Tran – as well as pieces by writers whose work i have followed for years.
I would recommend any collection by Alice Munro, but especially Runaway and Dear Life – I think one of the most powerful things about her work is her sense of empathy.
When I read this question, I immediately thought of A Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett. Which is no surprise, because I think about this book at least three or four times a week. (Her novel Little Fish also pops into my head on a regular basis.) Part of that is jealousy—I am incredibly jealous of her writing. And part of it is that her characters are so memorable and real that I sometimes find myself thinking about something and wondering who did or said that thing, and then I realize it happened in one of Casey Plett’s stories. It’s a collection that’s captivating and sarcastic and full of those gut-punch lines that make a great short story. And the voice is perfection.
I can’t end this answer without also mentioning We So Seldom Look on Love by Barbara Gowdy. It’s such a good book that I honestly think just reading it made me a more interesting person.
sybil unrest by Larissa Lai and Rita Wong. Because it’s urgently choral and chorally urgent.
M. NourbeSe Philip, particularly her book Zong!. I’ve only recently read it, but it already feels like one of those books that doesn’t ever really leave you. Zong! devastates in its a negotiation of memory, trauma, and history, taking as its source-text documents from a legal decision regarding the 1781 massacre of 150 African people on-board a slave ship. More than a work of archival poetics, Zong!’s repetitions actively oppose narrative in favour of linguistic disruption, dismantling layers of English text to uncover the voices, and violences, submerged beneath. For me, this book has indelibly altered my understanding of poetry’s invocatory potentials, especially where the sonic and the visual converge. It made poetry feel like a living thing to me again. I can’t recommend it enough.
Jamaluddin Aram is a documentary filmmaker, producer, and short story writer from Kabul, Afghanistan. His short stories have appeared in Numero Cinq and Blood and Bourbon literary magazines and in 2020 was selected as a mentee by Michael Christie for the Writers’ Trust Mentorship Program. Aram is also the associate producer of the Academy Award-nominated film Buzkashi Boys. He has a bachelor’s degree in English and history from Union College in Schenectady, New York and currently resides in Toronto.
nina jane drystek is a poet, writer, and performer. Her poetry has appeared in various journals and her visual sound poem, “the knewro suite,” was published as a chapbook by Simulacrum Press in 2019. She is a member of the sound poetry ensemble quatuour gualuour and writes collaborative poetry with VII. drystek lives in Ottawa.
Omer Friedlander is an Israeli-Canadian writer. His work has appeared in The Common, The Ilanot Review, The Mays Anthology, Paris Lit Up, and others. He was awarded first place in The Baltimore Review Winter Contest and the Shmuel Traum Literary Translation Prize. He has a BA in English Literature from the University of Cambridge and an MFA from Boston University where he was the Saul Bellow Fellow in Fiction. He grew up in Tel-Aviv and currently lives in Brooklyn.
Leah Mol is a writer and editor. Her short story, “Lipstick Day,” won the 2018 CBC Short Story Prize. She holds a Bachelor of Journalism from Carleton University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. Mol lives in Toronto.
Zoe Imani Sharpe is a poet, essayist, and author of the chapbook Sullied. Her recent work has appeared in The Puritan, LemonHound, and Room Magazine, among others. She lives in Toronto.
Alexa Winik is a poet and writer. She holds an MLitt in Women, Writing, and Gender and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of St Andrews. Winik has also served as poetry editor for the online literary journal The Scores. In 2019, she was the poet-in-residence with the At Sea Residency in Margate, England, as well as a finalist of Mid-American Review's James Wright Poetry Award. Winik was born and raised in southwestern Ontario and currently lives in Edinburgh.