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Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction 2020 Finalists
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Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction 2020 Finalists

By kileyturner
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The Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction shortlist is fantastic this year, comprising five finalists.
Shame on Me

Shame on Me

An Anatomy of Race and Belonging

Interrogating our ideas of race through the lens of her own multi-racial identity, critically acclaimed novelist Tessa McWatt turns her eye on herself, her body and this world in a powerful new work of non-fiction.

Tessa McWatt has been called Susie Wong, Pocahontas and "black bitch," and has been judged not black enough by people who assume she straightens her hair. Now, through a close examination of her own body--nose, lips, hair, skin, eyes, ass, bones and blood--which holds up a mirror to t …

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“What Are You?” 
The ducklings liked the new island so much that they decided to live there. All day long they follow the swan boats and eat peanuts. 

Eight years old, I am sitting near the back of the room in the grade-three classroom of my suburban Toronto elementary school. My desk is close to the window, and I am easily distracted by the birds; one particular bird preens itself on a branch, its feathers shuttering up and down. I am not paying much attention to what the teacher is saying. We’ve been reading a book out loud together and I haven’t been asked to read. I feel off the hook, set free to daydream. A few minutes into daydreaming, I feel a change of tone in the teacher’s voice and the class goes quiet. I snap out of my reverie. There’s a question in the air. I look around at my classmates, who are looking at each other in search of an answer.

“Anyone know what that word means?” the teacher says. 

Oh, I think, I’d better pay attention because there’s a new word and I will need to know it.

“Does anyone know what Negro means?”

Good question, I think. What does that mean? I continue to look around at my classmates to see if anyone is going to come up with the answer or even a guess. The teacher seems anxious; this word has weight. Kenneth Percy puts up his hand. The teacher invites him to speak.

“Yeah, Tessa,” he says, as he points towards me at the back of the room.

Everyone in the class turns to face me. I freeze, my mind goes blank and all that is going on in my body is a low fizz like a misfiring electric circuit.

As I now realize, my teacher tries to rescue me from something she herself sees as a slur, a word that is fine in a book but not in person. “Oh no, not Tessa,” she says, to comfort me and all who might worry about what is in their midst. The other kids continue to stare at me.

Doing her job as the class’s moral compass, she thinks fast: “No, Tessa’s something else.”

The misfiring electric circuit spews shocks through my cheeks, my arms and my legs, which begin to shake.

“What are you, Tessa?”

What am I?
I have no idea what she’s asking. I feel as if I’ve failed a major test. I should have been paying attention, I should know how to answer this.

“You know, people are certain things,” she says, still trying to help, but wounding me deeper and deeper with every second she allows the class’s eyes to remain on me. “Things like, say, Mexican . . .” She waits, but I have nothing. “Brazilian . . . Filipino . . .” she carries on, offering possibilities she sees in my face, but in that moment I hear only words that describe all the things that everyone else in the room isn’t.

She waits, the circuit hums and it becomes so unbearable that I fold my arms on the desk and put my head onto them. I go away, deep inside myself. I don’t remember where I go or for how long, but when I look up again everyone in the class has gone to recess and the teacher is wiping the board. She doesn’t try to speak to me as I get up from my desk and leave the room, heavier now, saddled with something corrosive.

There, with my head in my arms, I learned that I could disappear; I could become invisible. I wondered why the teacher had not asked anyone else in the class the question, why my best friend didn’t have to answer it. I kept these questions and my invisibility to myself.

I understood, without being able to articulate it, that language had the power to change me completely with the utterance of one word. I had known what black was—our extended family and friends were an array of shades—and I had known where I was from, but that wasn’t what I had been asked. Negro was a word like species, a scientific word that clever people knew, but I didn’t. I began to pay attention to the power of words. In being asked what I was and realizing I did not know, I set off to find out. I believe it was the moment I became a writer. 

Images visit me now as the sun sinks below the north London rooftops in Kilburn, where I sit at my desk, thinking about shame. They come in flashes like newsreels from the past.

There is my Chinese grandmother, running from rape. She is running also because she comes from a family of people who have running away in their DNA. Born to Chinese parents who had arrived in British Guiana from Hong Kong towards the end of the nineteenth century, my grandmother’s family had escaped the Sino-Japanese War, after a different uncle, a dentist, had been strapped to his own dentist’s chair and shot in the head by a Japanese soldier.

When I imagine my grandmother as a young woman, she is running.

My mother gave me the story of her mother’s rape when I was a teenager. “Granny ran away from the countryside,” she said, and nearly whispered the rest. I assumed it was her way of warning me about the perils of being a woman, as she had warned me about so many perils as a child. But it was the running and not the rape that stayed with me. I wanted to run towards something that was mine, like most teenagers do, and I wanted to understand what to do with all the words in constant motion in my mind. My mother often let slip nuggets of family history that were at times uncomfortable, at other times mysterious and poetic, and at still other times so distant and unreachable that they could only become myth. She had no way of knowing that she was feeding a writer, and I had no way of knowing what truths she was avoiding or concocting.

Like most families, mine is steeped in the anecdotes of grandparents and parents who recount their histories through the lens of desire, aspiration, loss and shame. We Caribbean families rely heavily on oral histories because we come from ruptured roots, transplantation and whispered heritages related to slavery and colonialism. For substantial strands of my ancestry, there are no solid family trees or traceable lineages. So there’s no knowing for sure where, when or why my ancestors fled or were forcibly taken, or how they arrived in what officially became British Guiana in 1831. 

Of course there are the grandparents I knew, and many uncles and aunts, both blood-related and not, but I can only imagine those who went before them. I know from stories that my ancestry includes Scottish, English, French, Portuguese, Indian, Amerindian, African and Chinese forebears. And there are rumours of hidden bloodlines—that possible French Jew.

My Indian ancestor’s journey from the subcontinent might be one of those documented in the log books of governors and plantation overseers as they procured indentured labour for the colony. There was a scarcity of women. Slavery had been abolished; she was “precious cargo,” arriving on a boat that carried 244 Indians, 233 of whom were men, six of them children, and only four other women. I imagine she resisted it, but necessity won out, and she was forced to bed the overseer to secure the chance of early freedom from her indenture contract.

Other stories bear the weight of secrets, like smuggled Portuguese lace, and they must never be openly mentioned. But some are playful and dance with the tropical light.

My Indigenous great-great-grandmother was described to me by my mother as a “buck” (“My daddy’s family had buck in dem,” she would say), a word that obscures the proper names of peoples—Arawak, Warrau, Arecuna, Akawaio, Patamona, Wapishana. Buck in the way my mother said it meant a wild thing, a man with a spear, a woman free to roam the jungle. I imagine this woman content, alone in her corial. When I paddle a canoe on a lake in Ontario—bounded only by the earth, sky and water, while wildlife plays and hunts in the shadows along the shore—I am like her.

The Scottish McWatt of my surname and the English Eyre of my mother’s side are my links to Europe. I had once imagined that I was secretly related to the Jane of my favourite book. But names themselves are unreliable. McWatt or Eyre might have been names my ancestors took to anglicize or legitimize themselves in a former slave colony. Whispers and shadows: a longing to belong to the mainstream of a new place after the rupture from their places of origin.

It’s my African ancestor—my great-great-grandmother—on whom I focus my imagination. She is the gap in my family’s storytelling that I need to fill, though I can’t trace her precise roots in Africa. Hers is the story that has been buried deepest, most painfully ignored. Hers is the story that bears such deep shame that it has been erased. But the body is a site of memory. If race is made by erecting borders, my body is a crossing, a hybrid many times over. My black and white and brown and yellow and red body is stateless, is chaos. Her body is stolen territory.

I am the result of the movement of bodies on ships: as captains, as cargo, as indentured servants, as people full of hope for a chance of survival. I also come from people nearly annihilated by those who arrived. Guyana, formerly British Guiana, a territory won by the British from Dutch and French treaties of war in the early 1800s, is the only English-speaking country in mainland South America. It is culturally Caribbean but geographically continental. Its pulsing river arteries connect mountains, savannah, rainforests and coastal plains. It is a land of jaguars, tapirs, giant anteaters, otters, monkeys and capybaras, and it has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world. It is a land fought over for its natural resources, and its colonial history is a story that relies on ships from Europe, Africa, India and China, along with the dug-out corials of the Indigenous peoples. The paddles, the sails, the winches, the shackles. 

My ancestry centres on one crop: sugar. My history pulses with moments of miscegenation, a hybridity that eludes any box I am asked to tick on census papers or job applications.

I am a song of sugar.

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Through the Garden

Through the Garden

A Love Story (with Cats)

A Globe and Mail 100 Best Book Finalist, Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction
A deeply affecting portrait of a long partnership and a clear-eyed account of the impact of a serious illness, writing as consolation, and the enduring significance of poetry from one of Canada's most celebrated voices.

When we ran off together in 1978, abandoning our marriages and leaving wreckage in our wake, I was a "promising writer," Patrick had just won the Governor General's Award. I was so happy fo …

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Patrick’s home from the hospital after a two-week stay that felt like a year—so much has shifted. They let him go not because he’s well but because they don’t know what else to do. He says he’s just waiting for the next catastrophe. Pneumonia still whispering in his lungs, his blood counts low, he moves around the house only with the help of a walker that we borrowed from the place that makes those things available, who knew? It rattles and clanks as he pushes it and his weariness down the hall from room to room, a ghost, a ghost in chains. 
      He has the legs of a ten-year old boy, his arms are smaller than mine. I once wrote a poem about the way he walked—“Even the dead reach for you / as you walk, so beautiful across the earth.” It was a sexy, blue-jeaned, slim-hipped swagger, the assured gait of a man at home in his body and the world. Now it’s a clank, slide, clank, slide, his legs capable of an uneasy balance, not power or confidence. The walker sits by our bed at night so he can make it the short distance from our bed to the bathroom. He uses it to navigate the paths of the garden, and often I see him motionless behind it as if it’s a stubborn aluminum gate he can’t figure out how to push through. I remind myself he’ll get to the other side of it, but it will take time, it will take time. I ache for him.

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Two Trees Make a Forest

Two Trees Make a Forest

In Search of My Family's Past Among Taiwan's Mountains and Coasts

WINNER of the 2020 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize
Longlisted for Canada Reads 2021
One of The Globe and Mail’s “100 favourite books of 2020”
On CBC’s list of “the best Canadian nonfiction of 2020”
An exhilarating, anti-colonial reclamation of nature writing and memoir, rooted in the forests and flatlands of Taiwan from the winner of the RBC Taylor Prize for Emerging Writers
"Two Trees Make a Forest is a finely faceted meditation on memory, love, landscape--and findin …

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Reaching Mithymna

Reaching Mithymna

Among the Volunteers and Refugees on Lesvos

FINALIST FOR THE 2020 HILARY WESTON WRITERS’ TRUST PRIZE FOR NONFICTION • A New York Times New & Noteworthy Book • A CBC Best Nonfiction Book of 2020 • A Globe and Mail Top 100 Book for 2020

“Combining his poetic sensibilities and storytelling skills with a documentarian’s eye, [Heighton] has created a wrenching narrative.”—2020 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction Jury

In the fall of 2015, Steven Heighton made an overnight decision to travel to the frontlines of th …

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Border straits

The only other person aboard the bus, the driver, shakes me awake. I see myself in duplicate in his aviator shades. “Mithymna?” I ask. He nods.

His dangling crucifix bears a crudely rendered Christ, the body skeletal, the face large, plump and calmly self-satisfied.

Mumbling thanks, I pick up my bags and step down onto the hot road. No traffic passing, not a living thing in sight. Is it already the siesta hour?

You’d never know this part of the island was thronged with war refugees and that hundreds, thousands more are arriving daily.

The bus stays put, idling, the driver slumped behind the wheel as if already napping behind his sunglasses. Nothing wants to be awake right now. I’ve barely slept in fifty hours—an overnight flight, a second night on a ferry—and as I close and rub my eyes, a montage of pre-sleep psychedelia starts looping.

Across the road, a town of whitewashed houses with terracotta roofs climbs the face of a high crag topped by a crusader castle. On this side of the road, olive groves fall away downhill to a long rank of cypresses, the sea glistening beyond.

I turn onto a dirt lane and let the slope carry me down through the olive groves past a few shuttered houses, gaping worksheds, a weedy lot where the hulks of cars sit rotting. I pass between two cypresses and here is the seafront, a paved road running north-south along a narrow beach of white sand and pebbles. The shallows look tropically turquoise. Orange buoys bob offshore. The sea smells of kelp and something I can’t place at first . . . associations of fear, distress . . . it’s iodine, the intensely stinging stuff my mother painted onto cuts when I was small.

On the low seawall, beside a pack of Greek cigarettes and a half-empty water bottle, there’s a coil of rope, some barbed steel hooks, and a cookie tin full of chicken feet the raw grey-pink of earthworms. Beyond them sits a white plastic pail. I look inside: a glutinous, translucent mass of octopods, motionless, though they give a faint impression of [trembling].

No sign of the fisherman, who might be napping in some nearby shade.

I follow the paved road south along the beach. There are supposed to be hotels and rooms for rent down here. Off-season now they might be cheap, especially for someone who means to stay for a month. But the small places on either side of this T-junction are boarded up. The buildings to my left—two storey hotels, cafés, clubs—are all shuttered. Would they normally be closed at this time of year or has the refugee influx damaged tourism even more than I’ve heard?

Something odd appears up ahead at the waterline. The sun in my eyes, I squint to focus. It looks like an immense sea animal, beached and decomposing, an elephant seal, a small whale.

I drop my bags and walk diagonally down the beach—a matter of a few steps—and continue along the water. As I approach the carcass I step over an orange life vest half buried in wet sand and realize those buoys offshore must be life vests too. Of course. Now my eyes make sense of the wreckage ahead: a half-deflated dinghy, its black rubber snout aground on the beach, stern wallowing in the shallows.

I find the dinghy’s aft section full of oily water. A red parka floats there, arms outstretched, amid empty water bottles, a plastic diaper and a few banknotes, maybe Syrian.

This vessel is no roomier than a large kiddie pool but will have ferried at least sixty people, reportedly the minimum the human smugglers will squeeze aboard.

I walk further. Another dinghy is half-submerged some distance out and drifting shoreward. On the tideline and in the shallows, more life jackets, water bottles, disposable diapers, a saturated hoodie, an infant soother, cigarette butts.

Two sodden workboots, the laces loose and weed-twined.

A map turning to gruel in a plastic sandwich bag.

A green headscarf, the clasp-pin still attached.

A tiny shoe with pink laces tied—surprisingly, since the sea is reputed to loosen and unknot everything, gradually undressing the drowned. Then again, any parent who has laced the shoes of a small child knows that you knot them with special care before embarking on a journey.

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The Way Home

The Way Home


David Neel was an infant when his father, a traditional Kwakiutl artist, returned to the ancestors, triggering a series of events that would separate David from his homeland and its rich cultural traditions for twenty-five years. When the aspiring photographer saw a mask carved by an ancestor in a Texas museum twenty-five years later, the encounter inspired him to return home and follow in his father’s footsteps. Drawing on memory, legend, and his own art, Neel recounts his struggle to reconne …

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