Prize jury makes non-fiction books by Indigenous authors ‘shine’


This year’s five finalists for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Award are changing the face of the decades-old award. Three native writers and a black writer made the cut.

“It’s about putting the whiteness aside. It is important to center the stories of this land which was formed by the indigenous and black peoples who were exploited to develop this land, ”said Terese Marie Mailhot, one of the three jurors.

Mailhot is from the Seabird Island First Nation in British Columbia. She now lives in Indiana where she teaches at Purdue University. Her Heart Berries memoir was a 2018 Hilary Weston Award finalist.

“For me, being able to try to decenter whiteness as a judge and focus primarily on art and what transforms it is like having a real elective power to pay attention to books that can be overlooked generally because people do not understand the cultural references and they do not understand the indigenous identity; and when people write about it, what is artistic and what is testimony. It’s really good to be on the other side of things and to feel that you have a real agency to change things, ”said Mailhot.

The three shortlisted Indigenous writers are Tomson Highway for Permanent Astonishment: A Memoir (published by Doubleday Canada); Jordan Abel for Nishga (McClelland & Stewart); and Darrel J. McLeod for Peyakow: Reclaiming Cree Dignity, A Memoir (Douglas & McIntyre).

For the three award-winning writers, this is their first Weston Prize nomination, despite being Highway’s fifth non-fiction work. McLeod’s first memoir, Mamaskatch, received the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction in 2018.

Since the inception of the Weston Prize in 1997, it has only been awarded once to an Indigenous writer and a handful of non-white writers. In 1998, Stolen Life: A Journey of a Cree Woman, a collaboration between Yvonne Johnson and non-Indigenous writer Rudy Wiebe, won the award. The book is Johnson’s autobiography.

It took 15 years for another Indigenous author to be a finalist. In 2013, Thomas King was selected for The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. In 2014, her novel won the RBC Taylor Prize, awarded to the best Canadian work of non-fiction.

Four years later, award-winning journalist Tanya Talaga secured the first of two places in the top five with Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death and Hard Truths in a Northern City (2017). All Our Connections: Finding the Way Forward was nominated in 2019.

Mailhot is disappointed with the limited representation of Indigenous writers in Hilary Weston’s portfolio.

“We have been writing ever since, literally, that literature began! ” she said.

“The conversation about performance is very complex because it’s not like performance fixes things, but if we don’t encourage these books by making them shine, they aren’t made, that’s all the interest. Publishers don’t care if they’re not up for the big Canadian prizes.

She points to the lack of representation of women writers in this year’s finalists, acknowledging that people will be “upset.” However, it also highlights the list of 107 titles from 64 publishers that were under review.

“I think it’s the submission process. There is a lot of disparity in terms of representation because these are the top five publishers (who) usually end up in the final round of any type of book award. The big editions really need to take it up a notch and publish more texts written by women of color, ”she said.

The eligibility criteria allow publishers to submit two non-fiction for review. However, publishers with more than 10 qualifying non-fiction titles can add one book for every 10 additional qualifying books, up to a maximum of five.

“There is a disparity in everything in publishing, down to who has events and who has representation in terms of agents who can actually fight for the book and get it what it deserves in terms of care and consideration and also money, ”Mailhot said.

She credits the support she’s received from other female writers using their platforms and careers to get Heart Berries on the New York Times bestseller list.

“I don’t think it was a publication issue because I honestly don’t think they were looking for memoirs of aboriginal women, let alone 100 page memoirs. I think they already were, but I think they didn’t know that once it was released, it would resonate particularly with women because it’s about trauma, ”he said. she declared.

Mailhot also notes the disparity in the Weston awards ceremony. The year she competed as a finalist, she was accompanied by an Anishinaabe friend.

“We felt like the only people of color throughout the award ceremony. We were trying to take selfies in our seats and I was like, ‘No, there’s a sea of ​​white behind us, we can’t take a selfie,’ “she said.

“I was able to get… Weston that they need to make the event itself more inclusive so that the nominees aren’t the only people of color there.” Lindsay Wong, of Asian descent, was also a finalist that year.

Mailhot says she understood two things about her job when she was a finalist at Weston: that it would set her up well for her next book and that she wasn’t going to win.

“I am a native woman and I wrote a very Indian text. I think they weren’t going to understand why it was fragmented and they weren’t going to get the references to intergenerational trauma or what I was trying to do on the page. I think they would understand art, but I think my position made them doubt my talent because it’s really about craftsmanship. When people judge, they think they are mainly focusing on literary art, but in reality they don’t know their biases, ”she said.

Mailhot is only the third Indigenous writer to be nominated for the award, following in the footsteps of James Bartleman (2012) and Helen Knott (2020).

Mailhot says she and the other two jurors, Kevin Chong, of Asian descent, and Adam Shoalts, had good discussions about the submitted books and did not have an argument.

“It was the first time that I was a judge and I was so respected and I got to express my opinions and part of that is my maturity now as an artist that I was able to say, ‘I don’t ‘not like this, I think we should do this.’ I think having this autonomy sets me very well to be a judge, has made it easier to be a judge now than at the beginning of my career, ”she said.

Judging was not easy, she said, adding that she wished she could select 10 books.

“What I’m looking for is work that transcends genre and pushes form in terms of art, and memoirs are the best place for that because in journalism and history writing, it doesn’t there’s not much you can do to push the shape or make it new, ”she said.

The jury’s comments on the three memoirs by Indigenous authors are laudatory.

About Abel’s Nishga, they say, he “defies the boundaries and traditions of memories to achieve something singular and necessary.”

About Permanent Astonishment, “While he didn’t skimp on the abuse he and others suffered, Highway makes a bold personal choice to accentuate the wonder of his school years, resulting in a book that shines. of the fundamental sparks of adolescence: innocence, fear and astonishment. “

About Peyakow, “McLeod’s vibrant prose renders the world lovingly and competently. Her deep book is full of love and trouble you won’t soon forget.

The other two finalists are Disorientation: Being Black in the World (Random House Canada) by Ian Williams, and On Foot to Canterbury: A Son’s Pilgrimage (University of Alberta Press) by Ken Haigh.

“There are so many Indigenous women (writers) that I love and if there had been a book like this I would have fought for it,” Mailhot said.

“I hope next year there will just be more work published (by women writers). We can’t solve all publishing problems in one literary cycle, but I think the chances are good enough that these books will shine and also that next year will be better.

The winner will receive $ 60,000 and each of the finalists will receive $ 5,000.

The winner will be announced on November 3.

By Shari Narine, reporter at the Local Journalism Initiative,,

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