Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Shaughnessy Cohen Prize Series, with Graeme Smith

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Graeme Smith

Graeme Smith has become a familiar name at Open Book: Toronto and throughout Canada after the young author scooped an astounding hat trick of prestigious non-fiction prize nominations, which included winning the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Nonfiction Prize in 2013 in addition to his places on the RBC Taylor Prize and the BC National Award for Canadian Nonfiction shortlists.

His book, The Dogs are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan (Knopf Canada) took the literary world by storm and has been praised since its publication for its unflinching depiction of the complex military, social and economic fallout of the war. This powerhouse of a book has been shortlisted once again, this time for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing.

This year will mark the 14th iteration of the prize, presented annually by the Writers’ Trust of Canada. The prize rewards the year's finest book addressing a political subject of interest to Canadian readers.

The winner of the prize, who will receive $25,000, will be announced at Politics & the Pen on April 2, 2014, a gala that has become Ottawa's hottest ticket over the years. In addition to the finalists, the event draws hundreds of politicians, staffers, diplomats and philanthropists as well as playing hosts to dozens of respected Canadian authors.

Graeme speaks with Open Book about what Canada's involvement in Afghanistan should be now, the desire to draw blood with writing and his work with the International Crisis Group.

Visit Open Book in the lead up to the award announcement in order to catch interviews with all five acclaimed finalists for the 2014 prize!

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted and how the project came about.

Graeme Smith:

This book is a lament for all our lost ambitions in Afghanistan, and a grisly examination of how things went wrong. It's focused on the dangerous south, where I lived as a journalist for three years, and where Canada and NATO fought their biggest battles. To be honest, writing the book was incredibly hard. The introduction describes my process like this: “I keep typing curses into the text, streams of invective that I go back and delete, feeling ashamed of my failure to find better words than f*ck f*ck f*ck. But I also need you to feel the profanity, because there is something profane about the errors we committed in Afghanistan.” I want you to emerge from the book feeling a bit uneasy, perhaps a little tainted, unable to shake off the lingering images of war. You need to read about the days when I got the charred flesh of suicide bombers stuck in the treads of my shoes. You need to hear about the night when Canadian soldiers used human bodies as bait for insurgents — which resulted in the title, The Dogs Are Eating Them Now. Why? Because we don't have clean hands in Afghanistan. It's morally repugnant to declare victory at this point, as the war gets bigger and nastier. But that's the message you're hearing from Western leaders: that the job is finished. Troops are withdrawing and aid money is dwindling. It's all too easy for the international community to switch off, moving along to the next crisis without reflecting back on this awful war — and most tragically, abandoning the Afghan people to deal with an enormous mess. The book concludes with a plea for continued engagement. Our troop surges failed to bring peace and stability, but we need to stay involved with Afghanistan and find better ways of helping the country.

OB:

In your opinion, what qualities or characteristics signify that a book qualifies as political writing as opposed to simply non-fiction?

GS:

That's a great question, and it gets to the heart of what I try to achieve with my work. I want to draw blood. It's not enough to write elegantly, and not even sufficient to get something down on the page that is beautiful and true. Political writing should make changes, or at least engage in the combat of ideas. Almost by definition, that's what makes it political. I haven't done this very often, and not very well, but that's my goal.

OB:

The prize is presented at an evening event in Ottawa called Politics and the Pen. What are you most looking forward to about P&P? Have you attended before?

GS:

I can't attend the event, sadly, because I will be observing the Afghan election for the International Crisis Group.

OB:

If you were to recommend one past finalist or winner of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize to readers, which title would you choose?

GS:

I'd heartily recommend Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang's The Unexpected War. Others have built on their foundation since its publication, but it's essential reading to understand how Canada stumbled into Kandahar.

OB:

If you win the prize, how will you celebrate?

GS:

I'd pay off my mortgage. That sounds boring, but a bit of modest financial security would allow me to take greater risks as a writer and researcher.

OB:

What can you tell us about your next project?

GS:

I won't tackle any side projects for a while, because my new job with the International Crisis Group is demanding, in the best possible way. It gives me the luxury of researching in depth, and writing for an audience that likes footnotes. Another important thing about Crisis Group is that the organization publishes all of its reports at http://www.crisisgroup.org, making some of the world's best conflict research available at no charge to readers. This is great, because it contributes to the public understanding of what's going on.

Graeme Smith covered the Afghan war for the Globe and Mail from 2005 to 2009. He has also been a correspondent for the paper based in Istanbul, Delhi, and Moscow. He recently won the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction and was nominated for the RBC Taylor Prize and the BC National Award for Canadian Nonfiction. Currently based in Kabul, Smith is a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, which offers non-partisan analysis and advice to governments and intergovernmental bodies on the prevention and resolution of deadly conflict.

For more information about the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, please visit the Writers' Trust of Canada website.

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