Alberta Writers Rule the Giller

But who is this elusive Alberta Writer?

By Marina Endicott

In case you haven’t heard, last year the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canadian fiction’s richest literary honour, was won by Lynn Coady for her book of short stories Hellgoing. The year before that, Will Ferguson took the Giller home for his novel 419. And in 2011, Esi Edugyan won for Half-Blood Blues.

Three Alberta writers in a row. Alberta rules the Giller!

Only what does that mean, exactly—Alberta writers? Believe me, it’s not that I don’t want Albertans to have an edge on the Giller, this and every year. But few contemporary fiction writers situate their work in the province they come from. Cochrane’s Fred Stenson leaps to mind as one whose writing springs from the landscape he knows and loves; David Adams Richards dips straight from the Miramichi; you could make a case for Gail Anderson-Dargatz writing out of the BC Interior. But the idea that art derives from place has lost some of its force. Or has expanded, perhaps, as our places have expanded. Hardly any of us come from just one locale now, which makes it difficult to figure out what a local writer might be.

Who are we? Are we, as writers, extensions or relaters of the places we are from? That’s Golden, BC, for me. Of the places where we first begin to think and imagine and dream in words? I started in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. Where we finish school? Toronto. Where we start work? Toronto again, then London, England. Where we find our true work? I found mine in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (where I also found my husband—the marriage bed being another place writing rises from). Where we had the hardest life? I’d probably have to say Mayerthorpe, Alberta, but there’s some competition…. Is it the landscape we love the best, or simply the place we’ve lived the longest?

Every writer is a local writer, writing from his or her own location. Whether those bones are placed in Alberta or Tibet.

Of course the answer is yes. Yes to all. We write from where and who we are. But the answer is also no—there is no longer such a thing as a regional writer. Some writers draw from their own geography, but they’re not limited by provincial boundaries, and they’re not provincial.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when Canadian literature was constructing itself as an idea, publishers celebrated regional differences. Books such as Ernest Buckler’s The Mountain and the Valley, Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook, Sinclair Ross’s As for Me and My House and Mordecai Richler’s Duddy Kravitz were celebrated partly because they gave the rest of Canada a useful glimpse of life in Canada’s regions: not just geographic detail, but their cultural and religious landscapes.

But the necessary progress of the country in the last few decades has blurred regional differences. Greg Hollingshead once said, “The three sorts of geography that affect my work most are tract development and strip mall suburbia, the open prairies and the Canadian Shield.” Strip malls are now identical from coast to coast, and for too many of us tract development has replaced ravines and riverbanks as the general landscape of childhood.

I don’t think we can write regional books anymore. Or at least, the regions have narrowed down so far that they are our own peculiar, individual regions: our own bodies. The outer landscape we inhabit certainly informs our ideas; it offers a grounding, a stage for our characters. But we write from the inner landscape, from the closest, most closed, most individual part of ourselves. Every writer is a local writer, writing from his or her own exact location, the bone castle we peer out of as we work. Whether those bones are placed in Alberta or Tibet.

Just how Albertan are those last three Giller winners?

Esi Edugyan was shortlisted in 2011 for the trifecta of Canadian fiction awards: the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Writers Trust Fiction Prize. Half-Blood Blues, her reconstruction of jazz musicians riffing in the shadow of Nazi Germany, went on to win the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award (a US prize honouring books that make important contributions to the understanding of racism) as well as the Giller, and was shortlisted for the UK’s main event, the Man Booker Prize.

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Esi Edugyan, author of Half-Blood Blues; Giller Prize winner, 2011.

But Edugyan wasn’t up for Alberta’s Georges Bugnet fiction award, even though she was born in Calgary, because she’s no longer an Alberta resident. Eligibility varies from prize to prize, and each prize must draw the line somewhere. Even the newest award, England’s Folio Prize, which will consider any work of fiction published in English in the UK regardless of the writer’s country of residence, has found a way, via a three-stage judging process, to cull the field.

Edugyan didn’t win the Folio—doubtless only because it hadn’t yet been instituted in 2011. After Calgary, she has lived a peripatetic life, holding fellowships in the US, Scotland, Iceland, Germany, Hungary, Finland, Spain and Belgium; she now lives in Victoria, BC, with her husband, the writer Steven Price, and their young daughter, an ornament of the literary festival circuit.

Will Ferguson lives in Calgary now with his wife Terumi (whom he met in Japan, where he spent five years) and their two sons; he’s written thoroughly, even exhaustively, about what it is to be Canadian, but hasn’t had as much to say about being specifically Albertan. Maybe Katimavik shook the Alberta specificity out of the boy and replaced it with national wilderness.

His novel 419 links a Calgary family with a Nigerian email scammer and two other Africans living in an area where religious violence and hardship would have made research travel foolhardy. Ferguson could draw on his Alberta experience to write about Calgary, but to make the Nigerian sections vivid and believable, he did the ordinary legwork that fiction writers do: research, reading. Because we don’t only write about where we’re from.

Lynn Coady is from Ontario these days, although she may still have an Alberta Health card. Just before her Giller win she went to Toronto to do the prestigious television-writing course at the Canadian Film Centre; she’s now writing for the smash-hit clone-riddled conspiracy thriller Orphan Black. Coady was raised in Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia, at the tail end of Cape Breton. She has lived and worked in Ottawa, New Brunswick, Banff, Vancouver and lately Edmonton. Nova Scotia claims her, and several of her books are set there; while at UBC in her early career she was a west-coast writer; lately she gets called Edmontonian. Some of the short stories in Hellgoing are set on the prairies, some—naturally—on the way to hell in a handcart. But Coady always writes from the innermost cavern of the self.

In the 1960s and 1970s publishers celebrated regional differences: not just geographic detail, but cultural and religious landscapes.

Tao Lin, in an essay about reality and abstraction, phenomenon and noumenon, called novels “the most comprehensive reports humans can deliver, of their private experiences, to other humans. In these terms there is only one kind of novel: a human attempt to transfer or convey some part or version of their world of noumenon to another’s world of noumenon.”

Sometimes that noumenon, that innermost cavern, involves the land we live on, an artistic vision so grounded that it can’t be separated from a specific place. Sometimes, as in the case of Annie Proulx, writers relocate from place to place and write about the world they’re beginning to understand—Newfoundland for The Shipping News, Wyoming for Close Range and other books. Sometimes place is a political or religious idea of country, like Mark Helprin’s Israel in Refiner’s Fire, or Miriam Toews’s Mennonite community in Canada or Mexico. Sometimes it’s just not important, because the writer has other concerns. It doesn’t really matter which ocean Yann Martel’s Pi floats over or in which small town horror writer Susie Moloney (note: recently relocated to Edmonton) plays out her delicious mayhem.

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Will Ferguson, author of 419; Giller Prize winner, 2012.

This summer I was on a panel with Heather Birrell, a Toronto writer who is now working on a novel partially set in Cuba. I asked how she liked Cuba, and she said she’s never been. “I’m going, I’m going,” she said, quick to defend the choice. “But I want to go after I’ve finished the first draft—I don’t want to be too influenced by the real place, to have Cuba confuse the story before I know what it is.”

It’s a reasonable decision for a writer to make: to put place in its place. For me, it seems useful to go to where I’m writing, to walk the ground and smell the air, but maybe I’m kidding myself. Will Ferguson managed without travel to convey Nigeria’s northern Sahel, Lagos in the Yoruba west and the Niger Delta region in the east—by working, reading and imagining.

Ferguson didn’t take the Georges Bugnet award in Alberta the year 419 won the Giller. He was eligible, and he was shortlisted along with Alberta Views’s own Naomi K. Lewis. Unaccountably (since juries are not accountable to anyone but themselves), the jury chose another book, Richard Van Camp’s Godless But Loyal to Heaven. In case you are wondering, Richard is from the Dogrib Nation near Fort Smith, NWT, but now lives in Edmonton.

The year Hellgoing won the Giller, Coady didn’t take the Bugnet either—it went to Ali Bryan, a Calgarian, for her comically sad first novel, Roost. Every jury is different, every jury has quirks and foibles. Juries are always wrong, in fact. When your book doesn’t win, of course they’re wrong; when it does win, you realize exactly how crazy wrong they are. (Just take the prize and say thank you.) Sitting on a literary jury, you discover how cockeyed the conversations can get; you know the moment where you fail in eloquence in defence of a beautiful book or are feebly swayed by the snake-oil charm of another juror.

Given the whimsicality or pigheadedness of juries, prizes are always a crapshoot. Therefore it is kind of interesting (although entirely unattributable to the writers’ province of residence) that the dice have turned up Alberta three times in a row.

Connie Gault, whom I refuse to call a prairie writer (although her luminous novel A Beauty, which comes out in 2015, roams the Saskatchewan map), was asked at a conference in Mexico to define a Canadian short story. She said that question made her wonder “whether there is such a thing—or if there are only stories written by Canadians.”

Like Gault, I don’t believe “Canadian” books must or should have anything in common. “Our writing is influenced by our cultural inheritance, by our gender and our place,” she said. “But the problem of discussing Canadian writing is that we are a population scattered across a huge continent, with landscapes and histories so diverse it sometimes seems the only way we can define ourselves is by who we’re not… Even when our definitions and our theories come from wide reading and knowledge, our writing comes from a deeper place.”

Alberta will continue attracting writers from elsewhere for university jobs, or for the joys of the Banff Centre for the Arts, or for our sheer land-based beauty; we will continue sending off citizens to work elsewhere while maintaining some tenuous link to here. We’re all Albertans! But it’s equally the case that we are all ourselves. (In the University of Calgary’s engineering department, where I was a writing coach for a few years, a snowflake poster read: “Always remember that you are unique. Just like everybody else.”)

I say, let the unalloyed bounty continue. Good luck to all the Alberta writers who may be up for awards this fall. I’d love to see recognition go to any number of them, such as Padma Viswanathan, an Edmonton-raised writer now living in Kentucky, for The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, which bravely tackles the Air India bombing; or Peter Norman, who lived in Calgary for several years, for his teasing intellectual gothic, Emberton, about an illiterate man working for a dictionary publisher.

Or Fred Stenson, that genuine, rooted, Alberta-all-the-way-down writer whose new novel Who By Fire came out this fall: It moves from the arrival of a sour gas plant on the edge of a southern Alberta farm in the early 1960s to a present-day oil company manager in Fort McMurray who struggles to reconcile work, love and money with his conscience.

Okay, that’s an Alberta book—or at least, that’s the kind of book that makes people talk about “Alberta books.”

Marina Endicott‘s novel Good to a Fault was a finalist for the Giller Prize in 2008. She writes and teaches in Edmonton.

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