Literary prizes at CBU
Famed writer Mavis Gallant loved Cape Breton.
From her first visit here in the mid-1980s until her death in 2014, esteemed Canadian author Mavis Gallant had a long and cherished relationship with Cape Breton Island.
In fact, she featured a recurring Cape Breton-born character in her work; a gentleman named Chisholm, as a matter of fact, from Inverness County. (I found that out while having my copy of her “Collected Short Stories” signed during one of her frequent visits to the island. I helpfully began spelling my last name for her when she frostily informed me, “I know how to spell ‘Chisholm’”.)
While born in Montreal, Gallant spent most of her life in Paris, France, where she was a regular short story contributor to “The New Yorker”: her total of 114 stories was only exceeded by the even more prolific John Cheever. The many collections of her stories were highly anticipated, lavishly praised, and often award-winning.
During her first visit here, she did several readings around the island: to a packed room in Sydney’s Lyceum and to excited students in Mabou at an event organized by educator and storyteller, Jim St. Clair. The Mabou students’ enthusiasm for her work and for being able to question her about the writing process made a lasting impression on Gallant.
Although major universities and literary scholars were hoping to acquire her archives and other materials associated with her writing, Gallant chose Cape Breton University history professor, Dr. Mary Kay MacLeod, to be her literary executor.
Dr. MacLeod, on behalf of the estate, is presently working to finish Gallant’s last great writing project: an examination of the conspiracy and social forces around the unjust conviction for treason of the Jewish military office Alfred Dreyfus. The estate is also consulting on the upcoming publication of Gallant’s journals.
In 2016, another project initiated by the Gallant estate, along with the Cape Breton University School of Arts and Social Sciences, had CBU students explore the writing craft through scholarly essays in any area of study. It is the only writing award offered by the Mavis Gallant estate.
The Gallant Writing Award offered two prizes of a $1000 each in two categories: one for a first or second-year CBU student, the second prize for a third or fourth year CBU student.
In April of this year, CBU officially announced the winners: Grace McNutt, presently a third-year Bachelor of Arts student with an honours in History, won in the first category, and Erin Bragg, presently a fourthyear Bachelor of Arts student with an honours in English, won in the second category.
McNutt’s winning essay, “Are You OLD Dean Moriarty?”, focused on the work of Jack Kerouac and the impacts of World War II on the American society, while Bragg’s essay, “Fire He Sang”, explored the physical and spiritual effects of creative expression, especially in the Orpheus poem by Denise Levertov.
With over 40 submissions from a range of disciplines to consider, Jan Curtis of the School of Arts and Social Sciences and one of the panel of judges, commented in a CBU media release, that “the other judges and I were impressed by the depth of research, the facility with language and the remarkable energy of these submissions.”
The judges’ panel also named four honorable mentions from the other submissions: Celia Cameron’s study of the similarities between Cape Breton fiddling and Jewish-American Klezmer music; Samantha Ayers-Glassey’s extensively researched argument for choosing Vegan diet as a lifestyle change that benefits both the individual and the environment; Emily Ramsey’s analysis of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and Sheridan Le Fanu’s vampire tale “Camilla” in terms of society’s cruelty to monsters who share and seek the virtues of humanity; and Frank Sinclair’s “profound, closely reasoned study” (in the judges’ words) of understanding symbolism in terms of the rigorous task of interpreting history.
Dr. Curtis remarks, “These papers are striking examples of excellent undergraduate writing of which the authors can be proud.”
The Mavis Gallant writing prize will be offered again in 2018.
Cape Breton University students Grace McNutt and Emily Bragg were announced as the winners of the first Mavis Gallant Writing Prize for excellence in undergraduate writing on a scholarly topic this past April.
Quebec born author Mavis Gallant formed a deep friendship with Cape Breton late in her life. Cape Breton University and the Gallant estate recently announced the winners of the first writing prizes named in her memory.