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Inside the 75th anniversary of the Governor General’s Literary Awards: An interview with Robert Sirman

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Governor General's Literary Awards

On November 24th, 2011, the Governor General’s Literary Awards celebrated their 75th anniversary with a gala honouring this year’s winners. Created in 1936 by Lord Tweedsmuir, Canada’s 15th Governor General since Confederation and a known writer and lover of literature, the awards were established to encourage the growth of a “truly Canadian” literature. No monetary value was associated and the awards only honoured two authors a year for strictly English-language works (soon after an award for poetry/drama was included). When the Canada Council for the Arts took over the administration of the awards in 1959, a monetary prize was attached to the award and French language works were included in their own categories. Since their conception, the Governor General’s Literary Awards have evolved into one of Canada’s most prestigious awards honouring authors and illustrators in seven categories in both English and French languages: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, children’s literature (both text and illustration) and translation. Past winners include such literary greats as Mordecai Richler, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro, Timothy Findley and Robertson Davies.

The finalists are announced in advance of the annual gala and the winners are awarded a $25,000 cash prize. You can find a list of this year’s winners here. They are a great example of the diversity that Canadian literature has come to be known for since the country has blossomed into a multicultural pastiche.

We recently spoke to Robert Sirman, Director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts, about this year’s awards, the past 75 years and what the future holds for the Governor General’s Literary Awards.

Open Book:

Happy anniversary! What does 75 years of the Governor General's Literary Awards mean to the Canada Council for the Arts?

Robert Sirman:

It’s an important anniversary for us at the Canada Council. Our role is to support the arts and enrich the lives of Canadians, and these awards are one of the ways we do that: by celebrating literary excellence and encouraging Canadians to read great Canadian books.

The GGs are Canada’s national literary awards. They were the very first book prizes in Canada and they are the only awards that honour the best of Canadian literature in a wide range of categories – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, children’s literature (text and illustration) and translation – in both official languages.

The 75th anniversary gives Canadians the opportunity to reacquaint themselves with past winning books (see cumulative list of winners), by authors like Michael Ondaatje (tied with Hugh McLennan for the most wins, with five), Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, Mordecai Richler, Alice Munro, Nino Ricci, Dany Laferrière, Marie-Claire Blais, Gabrielle Roy, Anne Hébert and more. These artists move us, inspire us, provoke thought and provide insight into our unique culture.

OB:

What do you think Lord Tweedsmuir, founder of the awards, would think of today's Governor General's Literary Awards?

RS:

I believe he would be very proud. Lord Tweedsmuir, also known as the writer John Buchan, worked steadily to promote literacy and to instill a sense of Canadian identity. He wanted to celebrate Canadian books and encourage the development of a truly Canadian voice in literature. Seventy-five years later, we can say without a doubt that this goal has been achieved. Canadian literature has grown and evolved, as he wished it would.

I also think he would smile at the involvement of his descendant, Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk, with the awards. Dr. Thirsk brought award-winning books in space in 2009: Airborn by Kenneth Oppel (2004) and Deux pas vers les étoiles by Jean-Rock Gaudreault (2003). You can watch a video of Dr. Thirsk talking about his favourite book on the Canada Council website.

Lord Tweedsmuir introduced a prize for fiction and non-fiction, but I think he would be delighted to see that this prize has evolved and has been extended to include broad representation of books, writers and readers in Canada today.

OB:

The Canada Council for the Arts has been administrating the GGLAs since 1959. What have been some of the changes that the Council has implemented?

RS:

The Canada Council for the Arts has been financing and administering the Governor General’s Literary Awards for over five decades. One of the first changes we implemented, in 1959, was to give out the awards in both official languages. Some categories were also added and others changed names over the years. For example, Poetry and Drama used to be one and the same category. They were divided into two separate categories in 1981. The Children’s Literature (text and illustration) and Translation categories were added in 1987.

At first, there was no monetary prize. Winners received medals. A $250 prize was introduced in 1951 by the Canadian Authors’ Association, who managed the awards at the time. Now, each of the 14 winning authors receives $25,000. Their publishers are given $3,000 each to promote the winning books. All other finalists are awarded $1,000 for their achievement. The total value of the Governor General’s Literary awards is now close to $450,000.

OB:

Can you tell us a bit about some of this year's winners and their books?

RS:

The books selected this year by the Canada Council’s peer assessment committees reflect the diversity and depth of contemporary Canadian literature. I have to say that our peer assessment committees had their work cut out for them. Close to 1700 books were submitted in this year’s competition. They selected 68 finalists, from which they drew the 14 winners.

Eleven of the 14 winners received the Governor General’s Literary Award for the first time. Non-fiction winner Charles Foran won for Modecai: The Life and Times, a book about a former GG winner, Mordecai Richler (1968, 1971).

A first since the Translation category was created: the French-language non-fiction winner, Georges Leroux, is also the author of the original French version of the Translation category’s winning book, Partita for Glen Gould, translated by Donald Winkler.

This year marked Donald Winkler’s second GG in the Translation, French to English, category (1994, 2011), and Normand Chaurette’s third (French language Drama, 1996, 2001, 2011). Christopher Moore received his second GG this year, but it was his first in the Children’s literature – text category. He won his first award in the Non-fiction category in 1982.

Fiction winner Patrick DeWitt was nominated for all the major literary awards this year. He mentioned at the winners’ announcement in Toronto that a $12,000 Canada Council grant saved him – it allowed him to finish writing the winning book, The Sisters Brothers. The peer assessment committee called his prose “ingenious” and said that it “conveys a dark and gentle touch”.

Phil Hall, the winner in the Poetry category, said he had always dreamed of winning a Governor General’s literary award. He spoke eloquently about this when he accepted the award for his book Killdeer. If you think that poetry isn’t for you, this book will prove you wrong.

For authors and publishers, winning the award almost always means increased sales. Beyond that, it means the public will remember the author when his or her next books get published. The impact is tremendous. Once you win a GG, as Christopher Moore said at the awards ceremony at Rideau Hall, “You are a Governor General’s award winner forever. It is a wonderful thing”.

OB:

What do you foresee for the Governor General's Literary Awards in the next 25 years?

RS:

The GGs are Canada’s oldest and most prestigious literary awards for English- and French-language Canadian literature. It is a tradition that is deeply rooted in the high standards of literary achievement. One of our core values at the Canada Council is to stay current by being in touch with our communities and responsive to the changing arts environment. The Governor General’s Literary Awards will undoubtedly keep evolving, and will continue to recognize Canadian creative excellence to their 100th anniversary and beyond.

You can find images from the awards ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa here.

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