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2021 Trillium Book Awards
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2021 Trillium Book Awards

By 49thShelf
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Ontario Creates presents the finalists for the 2021 Trillium Book Awards, the province’s most prestigious literary prizes. Also a finalist for the poetry prize is Jody Chan, sick, Black Lawrence Press

Stars. Fractured star-sprays and burning constellations . . . galaxies radiating like spokes on a wheel, their epicentres—the suns—dancing pinpricks of kaleidoscopic brightness.

Then: Black.
The steady trickle of salt water dripping in a sea-cave. Lurking behind it: the hiss of a serpent sidewinding over wet rocks.
“Uh . . . hwwwuuugnnh . . .”
. . . you were born into dread, my son . . .
A fairytale giant has collected my blood in a glass globe he wears strung round his neck. The giant laughs, his paving-stone teeth flashing, as I beg for my blood back . . .
A sudden, buzzing pinworm of pain corkscrews through me. The wire cools. It is someone else’s pain now. I’m only holding onto it. Far off, the giant is still laughing.
Snap to with a snort.
I’m suspended upside down, belted into the passenger seat of our car. A Volvo: boxy, brooding, Swedish. Snow is piled against the windshield; cold granules of sunlight petal through the shattered glass. Gravity pulls my knee-caps down; my feet are wedged beneath the glovebox and my wrists bent back against the roof upholstery.
“Dan . . .”
The airframe sparkles with powder from the deployed airbags. The Volvo has an embarrassment of them—a  number that struck me as farcical in the austere showroom. Now the interior is draped with deflated alien spore-bags, satiny-white, and my lips are caked with xenomorph eggs. There’s an acid burn in my sinuses—did I throw up? No: that’s antifreeze. I’ve been at enough accident scenes to recognize the smell. It must be trickling through the vents with its greasy, burnt-animal stink.
I try turning my head—a wire buzzes with such intensity that it shocks a strangled scream out of me. In the rearview I catch sight of something inverted in the backseat like a little hangman. A pocket-sized executioner with a white hood over his face. A cold lunar silence weeps from the driver’s side. I can think of no good reason to look directly at that ghastly quiet next to me—Why, when it would be so easy? a sharp-toothed voice urges. Just turn your head a smidge and . . .
When I move my left arm, the pain is mammoth. I reach cross-body with my right hand to unlock the seatbelt. My fingers are senseless pegs riveted to my palm. I thumb the button but nothing happens. The lock’s jammed.
The hangman in the backseat emits a consumptive snuffling like a Pekinese with a sinus problem. He broods back there—in every un-noosed neck he sees an opportunity lost.
The belt is cinched tight across my shoulder. My entire body feels like it’s resting on one fragile joint. There’s a Leatherman in the glovebox. I try to heel off my boot before realizing it’s already gone: both boots must’ve been flung off in the . . . my knee brushes the stereo knob and the cab fills with the insane screech of the Doodlebops, their helium voices turning cat-yowly before cutting out.
With one big toe, I pop the latch. The glovebox jars open, spilling oil-change receipts and the Leatherman, which strikes my incisors and floods my mouth with the taste of rolled nickels. I retrieve it from the roof and fumble the blade open. Blood pools in my skull; the pressure must be turning my face as red as skinned meat.
It’s taxing work cutting through the belt. The wire buzzes hotly until the severed strap hisses through the belt’s eyelet. I complete a graceless backwards somersault and in that frictionless second, my head swivels to force a confrontation with the scene I’ve been avoiding.
Ahhhh, breathes the sharp-toothed one. Isn’t that a treat.
A tree limb is spiked through the Volvo’s windshield; the safety glass is crumbled around the hole it made entering our world. The branch pierced the driver’s-side airbag—shreds of white ballistic nylon still cling to its bark—before carrying on into Dan’s . . .
Oh, I remember this tree. I’d seen it lurking within a copse of its brethren just off the unplowed corduroy road. A tree waiting on this very chance with one of its branches projecting at a perfect ninety-degree angle: a straight jab of oak encased in transparent ice, its end whittled by sun and wind until only the hardest stuff remained. The heart-wood, it’s called.
That branch is now married to Dan’s face. His head is tilted back, his throat shorn by the wood running on its unbending plane: his neck and the branch form an inverted capital “T.”
Later, maybe I’ll have an opportunity to lie about how coldly I accept my husband’s death. At the funeral home with Dan’s pale-eyed father, both of us standing over his son’s coffin. I doubt I’ll ever come to grips with it, you know? But before the back of my skull even hits the dome-light I am reconciled to the fact, and moving past it.
I land on the stem of my neck, and my left side explodes in white-hot fireworks. I plant my feet on the windshield and push, snapping off the rearview mirror as I worm between the front seats to the little hangman suspended upside-down in his car seat.
“It’s okay, baby. Mommy’s here.”
Charlie is fastened by a meshwork of straps with his head socked between two fabric bananas. When we drove home from the hospital with him two months ago, Charlie’s head hung at a terrifying cockeyed angle on his neck. Yikes, that looks painful, Dan said. That afternoon he fixed the bananas in place.
My son’s bib has flipped down over his face but when I lift it, his face is unbloodied and his eyes bright. He sits jack-knifed at the hips—he has the shocking elasticity exclusive to babies and Balkan contortionists—his bootied feet folding down to touch his forehead. He’s so quiet it’s easy to believe he’s dead, but infants make you believe they’re either dead or just about to die several times a day. The moment I reach for him blood begins to foam out of his nose, as if my fingertips released it. It bubbles up from the cups of his nostrils and falls the wrong way down his face to collect in his eyes. But my son doesn’t make a sound.
Bracing one hand on his seat’s carry-bar, I stretch my foot up to pop the release catch. The seat falls painfully onto my chest. Wheezing, I thumb one of Charlie’s eyelids open: pupil dilated, the whites wormed with broken corpuscles. I probe his fingers through his tiny mittens, then move up each of his arms. Toes, feet, legs. Okay, okay, okay . . . I loosen the straps so he can breathe freely.
As a paramedic with the Niagara General Hospital, I’ve attended accidents like this. The first thing you learn is that you can’t save everyone. You must cradle a brutal stone of expediency in your heart.
I rest with Charlie on my chest. Now that his nose has stopped bleeding, he roots at my breast through my jacket. Snow is piled at the Volvo’s windows. Above the snow lies a slit of paling winter sky. The dashboard is lit, which means the battery’s not dead. Okay. I thumb the window button; the glass rises into its rubber flap with Swedish precision. I inhale pulverizing, cold air. It’s early December and the world is locked in an arctic freeze.
Digging with my elbows, I shove myself though the window. The snow is the dry powdery kind that falls during a cold snap. Unzipping my jacket, I slip a hand under my shirt. The wing-shaped bone running from my neck to outer shoulder is broken. The break-ends shift against one another to create a nausea-inducing buzz.

It’s bearable. Now get moving.
This voice belongs to an ancient village hag who sleeps on the bones of her enemies.
I can chart the Volvo’s path across the snow in the ashy late-afternoon sunlight: where we’d hit a patch of black ice and began to skip across the snow merrily as a stone over a frozen lake. Dan’s face comes back to me as it had been the instant before impact: mashing the brake pedal, darting a queasy glance at me as if to say, Sorry, babe, have this sorted in a flash. The Volvo must have flipped onto its roof before we slammed into the tree, its hood accordioning—  “Volvos are designed to crumple in zones of lesser consequence,” the dealer told us.
I stand in the two-hundred-foot wake of the crash. Tufts of brown grass poke through the snow crust. Around us, the landscape unfolds in shades of igneous metal: pewter sky, sun lowering behind banks of steel-edged clouds like a Mylar balloon losing air. We’re thirty miles outside Cataract City, my birthplace.

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Why it's on the list ...
English-language Finalist for the Trillium Book Award
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August 2015, New York City

While I scan the sale racks, Zee bumps around the nearby plus-size section yelling, “Mom — this one!” every minute or so. I suppose little kids think all ladies’ sizes are the same. I yell back, “Thanks, but no!” The two of us are probably driving the saleswoman crazy with our bellowing.

I show her a polka-dotted dress with cap sleeves, the sort of thing I might have worn in the classroom on a hot September day. Its asymmetrical hem is whimsical, yet age-appropriate. Most years, I’ve done this shopping while in countdown-to-Labour-Day mode, both anticipating and dreading my return to work at Morrison High School. But I gave my resignation two weeks ago, and the year stretches ahead like a flat and deserted highway.

Last year, when Murtuza and I first considered spending his academic sabbatical in India, I applied for a much-needed unpaid leave while he investigated Mumbai teaching gigs. The same week my request was declined, he received an opportunity to teach the graduate course he’s been designing in his mind for years. Lenore, my vice-principal and mentor, suggested I quit, recover from my burnout, and work for her educational consulting business after Murtuza’s sabbatical. So here we are — Zee and I — searching for a dress I can take on our trip to India.

“Pretty,” Zee assesses, pushing a strand of her short hair behind her ear. Recently she’s begun to have opinions about the clothing I set out for her each day. Last week she rejected half of my choices, so today I’ve encouraged her to make her own selections. She’s wearing a yellow top with an emerald skirt and aquamarine socks, which doesn’t look as bad as it sounds. Me, I’ve matched my beige blouse to a pair of brown shorts. My sandals are a shade in between.

I try on the dress, Zee’s appraising eyes upon me. She cocks her head, her bangs falling into her face. “Mom, it fits, it looks good. But buy it in red, not black.” Her tone is slightly mocking, like a makeover show host’s. The sales clerk rushes to fetch one, taking orders from a girl just turned seven.

Later, on our way to the food court to share an order of Wong’s lemon chicken, Zee stops me at Forever 21. I protest but change my mind when I notice one of my students, Farah, behind the register. She just graduated, and used to walk the hallways like a fashion model. A few months ago, Principal Pereira stopped to scold her for showing too much cleavage. I’d disagreed with the judgment but couldn’t contradict Pereira. Farah reached into her backpack to layer a sweater over her blouse, but it was off again by the time she reached my classroom.

“Mom, look at these!” Zee points out a ten-dollar rack of frilly skirts. “Can I get one? You can get one, too, and we can match!” I call Farah over and she helps us find a size zero that fits loosely over Zee’s straight hips. Not even their largest size, a fourteen, can pass over mine.

“I just bought a size twelve dress at JC Penney,” I complain.

“Yeah, our sizes are super small. Sorry.” Farah shrugs.

“You can still get yours, Zee. It’s a good price.”

“No,” she pouts, “not if you can’t wear a matching one.”

“We’ll look for something while we’re in India,” I console, glad that my daughter still wants to look like me, at least sometimes.

* * *
In the evening, Murtuza and I meet on the couch for the married person’s evening ritual: TV. Along with a nightly bowl of microwave popcorn, we’ve been putting away two episodes of The Mindy Project after Zee is in bed. We guffaw and cringe in the same places; we are diasporic South Asian children of immigrants communing over the embarrassing life of a diasporic South Asian child of immigrants.

While the credits roll, Murtuza leans over, kisses my neck, and says, “Shall we turn it off now, or watch another episode?”

“Sure, Murti, we can turn it off,” I say, sensing his preference. After all, it is Saturday and 9:00 p.m. I’d prefer to hit play, to be distracted by someone else’s awkward world, but I appreciate my husband’s good-natured and consistent initiative-taking. My friends and I talk about our lacklustre sex lives and waning libidos, and I feel like I’m the lucky one amongst us. At least we can say we are still doing it, rather than being in couples’ therapy because we aren’t. Or breaking up because we aren’t. Or having extra-marital affairs because we aren’t.

* * *
I’d never cheated in my life, neither on a test nor a time sheet. When my naturopath directed me to eliminate sugar, dairy, wheat, and caffeine last year to improve my immune system’s functioning, I followed her instructions, to the letter, for sixty days.

How to make sense of the affair, then? It was just over four years ago, when Zee was three. Ian, a guy I once slept with, friend-requested me on Facebook. I recall experiencing a twinge of something, a flutter in my belly I could have interpreted as a prescient warning. I brushed away the sensation and thought, Nah, it’s just Facebook, and it’s been ages since we last saw each other. Plus, I’d heard from a friend in common that he’d moved to England. I thought we’d share a few likes, perhaps a little lurking. No problem.

At the time, I couldn’t admit to myself that it was cheating. There were no secret liaisons in two-and-half-star motels we’d paid for in cash. No late-night phone calls. No sexy photos. Leave it me to have an affair without ever really having an affair.

I layered on a thick foundation of denial until Murtuza found out. On a cool autumn evening, I returned home from Fresh Food Mart, lugging two heavy totes. When I saw his pained expression, I dropped the groceries, my fingers refusing to pretend that things were normal. Oranges rolled across the floor and I scrambled to collect them, glad for the small diversion of runaway citrus.

I’d left my computer on, my account open. Normally he wouldn’t have used my laptop, but he’d forgotten his at his office and needed to order a book online. That’s what he told me, anyway. I hope it was nothing more than that. I heard somewhere that eighty percent of betrayed spouses know when something is amiss and ambivalently search for evidence to the contrary. I don’t like to think about Murtuza being a part of that statistical majority. A part of me was self-righteous and indignant about the breach of privacy (“What were you doing snooping around on my Facebook account, anyway?”), but that fell flat when he looked at me beseechingly. “Why?” he asked, tears streaming down his cheeks. I wanted to dry his tears before they dripped off his chin onto the floor.

I sputtered a denial, “Nothing happened!”

He picked up my laptop and read aloud the latest message I’d sent to Ian. I went silent, and Murtuza continued reading, his voice growing louder, my indiscreet sentences to Ian booming and echoing off the kitchen tiles. I still said nothing, couldn’t form words, imagined Murtuza leaving me, our marriage ending over something so stupid. I felt like a failure, to both my husband and daughter.

He stomped down to the basement, and I crept upstairs to check on three-year-old Zee, who was fast asleep despite all the yelling. I watched her breathe and wept for the end of my good life. Then I headed to the kitchen, unfriended Ian, and turned off the laptop. I considered padding down the stairs to talk to Murtuza, but I knew it would be pointless. His questions and thoughts and feelings would swarm around me like angry wasps and I’d be unable to do anything but bat them away.

Murtuza slept on the basement pullout for three days. Each time he emerged to look after Zee or make himself a snack, I attempted impromptu explanations, wishing I was more articulate, had rehearsed a few repentant lines. I’ve never been good at communicating my feelings when overwhelmed. He moved back to our bedroom but wouldn’t talk to or touch me for another three days, despite my pleas and cajoling. Then, at last, on the seventh day, he threatened to end the marriage unless we saw a professional. He quoted facts and figures about infidelity and the importance of seeking immediate help. It was probably Murtuza who told me the statistic about cheated-on partners looking for clues.

Dr. Stanley met us together for the first session, during which Murtuza did most of the talking. I scanned the spacious office, which was mostly outfitted with Ikea furniture. Between nodding at Murtuza’s statements of why we were there, I mentally listed: Malm, Hemnes, Ektorp, Flöng, some of the items that fill our home. For years after we bought our bed, we referred to it as our Brimnes, our private joke. When had we stopped doing that?

During the following week’s one-on-one session that she called an “assessment,” Dr. Stanley wore her steel-grey hair in a single braid down her back, instead of loose, as she’d done during the couples’ session. She recommended that I break off contact with Ian, and I pouted and told her I’d already completed that act of contrition. She might have misinterpreted my stiff embarrassment as lack of guilt because she leaned forward in her seat and spoke loudly, perhaps thinking that her increased volume would help me comprehend the gravity of my situation. She insisted that I commit to owning the cheating, and I imagined it was like an expensive, later regretted, purchase. I understood what she was getting at but couldn’t help protesting, “But I didn’t even kiss him! I didn’t get to do anything! Nothing actually happened between us during those two months of messaging each other!” I was like a snot-nosed kid who’d been caught before tasting a shoplifted candy bar.

“Do you wish you had?” She puckered her lips and nodded, perhaps in an effort to look sympathetic. Had she ever cheated on the bald guy in the portrait on her desk? Maybe she understood my longing?

“Yes and no. I never wanted to hurt Murtuza.” I didn’t meet her gaze and instead focused on the hypnotic blue lines winding their way through her area rug. I wondered what its Ikea name might be. Then my hour was up.

Murtuza had his own individual session that week. I asked him how it went and he said, “Fine. You?” I said my session went fine, too.

A week later, Dr. Stanley began our session with a monologue mostly addressed to my side of the room. She suggested that I was seeking something lost, something left behind that wasn’t literally Ian, but a part of myself that I’d once expressed with Ian. I didn’t know what she was talking about, but my eyes welled up in response.

Murtuza took my hand, and his own eyes moistened, his black lashes made even prettier by his tears. I hated myself for hurting this man with pretty eyelashes. I hated myself for almost sabotaging my marriage to this man with pretty eyelashes.

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Why it's on the list ...
English-language Finalist for the Trillium Book Award
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The Pull of the Stars
Why it's on the list ...
English-language Finalist for the Trillium Book Award
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As Far As You Know

As Far As You Know

also available: Paperback
tagged : canadian, death

From one of the defining poets of his generation, a new collection that plumbs the depth of beauty, history, responsibility, and love.

As Far As You Know, acclaimed poet A. F. Moritz’s twentieth collection of poems, begins with two sections entitled “Terrorism” and “Poetry.” The book unfolds in six movements, yet it revolves around and agonizes over the struggle between these two catalyzing concepts, in all the forms they might take, eventually arguing they are the unavoidable condition …

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How to Pronounce Knife

How to Pronounce Knife
The note had been typed out, folded over two times, and pinned to the child’s chest. It could not be missed. And as she did with all the other notes that went home with the child, her mother removed the pin and threw it away. If the contents were important, a phone call would be made to the home. And there had been no such call.

The family lived in a small apartment with two rooms. On the wall of the main room was a tiny painting with a brown bend at the centre. That brown bend was supposed to be a bridge, and the blots of red and orange brushed in around it were supposed to be trees. The child's father had painted this, but he didn't paint anymore. When he came home from work, the first thing he always did was kick off his shoes. Then he'd hand over a newspaper to the child, who unfolded sheets on the floor, forming a square, and around that square they sat down to have dinner. 

For dinner, it was cabbage and chitterlings. The butcher either threw the stuff away or had it out on display for cheap, so the child’s mother bought bags and bags from him and put them in the fridge. There were so many ways to cook these: in a broth with ginger and noodles, grilled over charcoal fire, stewed with fresh dill, or the way the child liked them best—baked in the oven with lemongrass and salt. When she took these dishes to school, other children would tease her about the smell. She shot back, “You wouldn’t know a good thing even if five hundred pounds of it came and sat on your face!”

When they all sat down for dinner, the child thought of the notes her mother threw away, and about bringing one to her father. There had been so many last week, maybe it was important. She listened as her father worried about his pay and his friends and how they were all making their living here in this new country. He said his friends, who were educated and had great jobs in Laos, now found themselves picking worms or being managed by pimple-faced teenagers. They’d had to begin all over again, as if the life they led before didn’t count.

The child got up, found the note in the garbage, and brought it to her father.

He waved the note away. "Later." He said this in Lao. Then, as if remembering something important, he added, "Don't speak Lao and don't tell anyone you are Lao. It's no good to tell people where you're from." The child looked at the centre of her father's chest, where, on his T-shirt, four letters stood side by side: LAOS.

A few days after that, there was some commotion in the classroom. All the girls showed up wearing different variations of pink, and the boys had on dark suits and little knotted ties. Miss Choi, the grade one teacher, was wearing a purple dress dotted with a print of tiny white flowers and shoes with little heels. The child looked down at her green jogging suit. The green was dark, like the green of broccoli, and the fabric at the knees was a few shades lighter and kept their shape even when she was standing straight up. In this scene of pink and sparkles and matching purses and black bow ties and pressed collars, she saw she was not like the others.

Miss Choi, always scanning the room for something out of place, noticed the green that the child was wearing and her eyes widened. She came running over and said, "Joy. Did you get your parents to read the note we sent home with you?" 

"No," she lied, looking at the floor where her blue shoes fitted themselves inside the space of a small square tile. She didn't want to lie, but there was no point in embarrasing her parents. The day went as planned. And in the class photo, the child was seated a little off to the side, with the grade and year sign placed in front of her. The sign was always right in the middle of these photos, but the photographer had to do something to hide the dirt on the child's shoes. Above that sign, she smiled. 

When her mother came to get her after school, she asked why all the children were dressed up this way, but the child didn't tell her. She lied, saying in Lao, "I don't know. Look at them, all fancy. It's just an ordinary day."

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Why it's on the list ...
English-language Finalist for the Trillium Book Award
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also available: eBook
tagged : canadian, love
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You appeared
to a chorus of
old men's cracking knees and backs
as we straightened up out of sajdah
at Friday prayer,
your face unmistakable
in the mosaic patterns
on the walls of the masjid.


Day by day, I stayed there gazing,
longing once again
for the sharp lines of your eyes and mouth.


The imam grinned proudly
mistaking my obsession for piety.Fasted, or maybe just forgot to eat
until like you, I became
a shadow of lines and angles.


I began to inch my way towards you
on memory's dusty beams.






An insignificant thing
lacks the needed weight to attract,
laws state
it will barely inspire a reaction.
An insignificant thing
will always try to accrete,
even if hate is the only available mass.


Let it build
until you collapse alone
beneath your own weight.
Then for a moment
you will become a fire on the horizon,
and impossible to ignore.

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Why it's on the list ...
Finalist for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry in English:
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The Dyzgraphxst

The Dyzgraphxst


Windham-Campbell Prize, Winner
OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, Winner
OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature Poetry, Winner
Griffin Poetry Prize, Finalist
Derek Walcott Prize for Poetry, Finalist
Rebel Women Lit Caribbean Reader’s Awards, Finalist
Governor General's Literary Award for Poetry, Finalist
Trillium Book Award for Poetry, Finalist
Raymond Souster Award, Longlist
Pat Lowther Memorial Award, Longlist
Quill & Quire 2020 Books of the Year: Editor’s Picks
CBC Best Canadian …

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in an infinite series where we approach each oth’r
Jejune, forked in some road that might have
cropped up anyhow to cross us barely ready

or were we unaware that we had cracked I
to save us, split us three ways
as the centuries that made us possible left us

with all possible comprises, we have this one
existence, this so many elsewheres, in others,
I, and in every elsewhere, us both

and so you have arrived, Jejune, and so I
in a million pictures of our face, and still
I was not myself, i am not myself, myself

resembles something having nothing to do
with me and the idea that I would like
a holiday, a whole lifetime from this bend

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