National Magazine Award honourees headline fall book awards season

Here at the National Magazine Awards we’re humbled to see so many familiar names in line for some of Canada’s most notable literary awards.

Earlier this month, the Governor General’s Literary Awards shortlist was announced, with four former National Magazine Award winners and nominees in the running for one of the country’s most prestigious prizes. They join fellow Canadian authors and poets on the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Writers’ Trust Award shortlists — both of which also boast great work by recent NMA honourees.

Mona Awad has come a long way from her two-week stint on the then-famed Beverly Hills Diet in 1988, at age nine. Her raw depiction of the commonplace pursuit of slenderness, in 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl (Penguin Canada), was shortlisted for the Giller Prize last month. The compilation of short stories follows the tribulations of a young Mississauga girl, struggling with her appearance and self-worth, into womanhood. Back in 2005, Awad’s Maisonneuve piece, “The Shrinking Woman” — which shared a common theme with 13 Ways — was a finalist for a National Magazine Award. The essay ushered the reader through Awad’s journey of growing up with a mother who, despite loving and supportive, couldn’t shield her daughter from an addiction to dieting and weight loss.

“Later on I’m going to be really…beautiful. I’m going to grow into that nose and develop an eating disorder. I’ll be hungry and angry all my life but I’ll also have a hell of a time.”
Mona Awad, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl

Awad has written for numerous publications including McSweeney’s, The Walrus, and Joyland, among others.

Gary Barwin is a Canadian poet, composer and professor at York University. In 2015, his poem Winter, published on Hazlitt was a finalist in the poetry category at this year’s NMAs. His most recent novel, Yiddish for Pirates (Random House Canada), has been shortlisted for both the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award. From the point-of-view of a 500-year-old parrot, the story takes a humorous yet philosophical tone in telling the tale of Moishe, a young Jewish vagabond eager to escape to the sea. S. Bear Bergman, in the Globe and Mail’s Book Review, sang its praises, emphasizing Barwin’s unique and often hilarious use of language(s).

A boychik with big ideas, his kop—his head—bigger than his body. He would travel beyond the scrawny map of himself, and beyond the shtetl. He’d travel the ocean.There were Jews—he’d heard stories—that were something. Not rag-and-bones shmatte-men like his father, Chaim, always following the dreck of their nag around the same small world. Doctors. Court astronomers. Spanish lords. Tax farmers. Learned men of the world. The mapmakers of Majorca. They were Jews.”
Gary Barwin, Yiddish for Pirates

Barwin has written over a dozen books, including writing for children and young adults as well as poetry compilations.

Kerry-Lee Powell got nods from the three big literary awards this year for her debut collection of short stories, Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush (Harper Avenue/Harper Collins). The east coast poet was longlisted for the Giller Prize and shortlisted for both the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction and GG’s Fiction awards. Back in 2011, Powell was a finalist at the NMAs for two poems, “The Lifeboat” and “The Emperor.” The poems — scrawled down one night in a harrowing stupor — were in response to her father’s post-WWII PTSD and ultimate suicide, and her own struggles with mental illness.

“One of the after-effects of working in a busy bar is that you never really leave. It could be four o’clock on a Sunday morning. The pigeons are ruffling their oily feathers on the windowsill and the bedroom pales to a washed indigo as you launch into the slow drift towards oblivion. But it’s no use. The insides of your eyelids burn with visions of Saturday night. It’s a scene from the Inferno. Red shapes beckon and bang their glasses on the bar. They reel into shadows and surge forward again, a many-headed monster throwing punches in the air. The only thing is to wait for them to disappear. Except they never do.”
— Kerry Lee Powell, Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush

In addition to her debut collection of shorts, Powell has also written two poetry collections, Inheritance and The Wreckage.

Michael Helm’s apocalyptic fourth book, After James (McClelland & Stewart), is on the shortlist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Award. The collection of novellas, with three intertwining settings, characters and plots, has been called “genre-defying.” Perhaps a not so surprising feat for Helm, who has served as an editor and contributor for Brick, the beloved Toronto-based literary journal, for over a decade. In 2014, Helm earned a NMA honourable mention for his tribute to esteemed Montreal writer Mavis Gallant. Helm’s short feature — published in Brick (93) — was deeply thoughtful. The reader, regardless of affiliation with Gallant, soon becomes mourner, naturally reflecting on lost loves — literary or otherwise.

And then, a last idea, one she couldn’t suppress. It was that she was still inside the cave. She had fallen out of time, even as she descended through the woods as present in the world as she always had been. In thought, memory, body, she was nearly exactly herself. The feeling began to fade, to seem fanciful, at lower altitude, as her blood became better oxygenated, but she understood that it would never entirely leave her. It was somehow familiar, the idea that she was two places at once, or one place in two overlapping times. She must have read it in a junk novel, seen it in movies, things that everyone consumed without really remembering and that she found it harder and harder even to pretend to believe.
— Michael Helm, After James

Helm’s past bibliography includes: Cities of Refuge (2010), In the Place of Last Things (2004) and The Projectionist (1997).

Steven Heighton has been on our radar at the NMA’s since the late ‘80s when he was first nominated for his poem “Approaches to Lhasa” in The New Quarterly. Now a five-time NMA winner, Heighton holds four gold awards and one silver for both his poetry and fiction, published in the likes of Arc Poetry MagazineThe Fiddlehead, Prism International and The Walrus. His newest collection, The Waking Comes Late (House of Anansi Press), has been shortlisted for the GG Poetry Awards. This much anticipated collection, by critics and fans alike, touches on the themes of contemporary life and death, and what a seemingly troublesome future might hold for us all.

Steven Heighton has written numerous short stories, essays, poetry and novels over the course of his career. He has won or been nominated for over a dozen literary awards.

Rachel Rose was nominated for her first NMA in 2015 for “Three Poems,” published in Fiddlehead. Her fourth collection of poetry, Marry & Burn (Harbour), has been shortlisted for the GG Poetry Award. The poems, all revolving around themes of love and loss (of people and dogs), evoke a correspondingly sad and familiar fond feeling in the reader. In Rose’s newest collection, she explores similar themes with new subject matters, including the devastation of losing a beehive in our current climate, to Canadian racism and the mistreatment of our First Nations.

Rose has won awards for her poetry, fiction and nonfiction works. Her chapbook, Thirteen Ways of Looking at CanLit, was published last year by Toronto-based publisher BookThug.


The GG Literary Award presents $25,000 each to both an English and French finalist. Check the GG’s website on October 25 when the winner will be announced.

The Writers’ Trust Awards, comprised of different categories, with awards funded by various sponsors, will be announced at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto on November 2.

The Scotiabank Giller Prize winner will be awarded $100,000, while finalists walk away with $10,000. You can watch the live stream of the event at CBC Books on November 7.

Read and download hundreds of great short fiction stories and poetry in the National Magazine Awards archive, at magazine-awards.com/archive.

Special thanks to Krista Robinson for contributing to this article. 

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