Ondaatje makes it five
Fiction prize for Divisadero lifts him to same total as Hugh MacLennan
Michael Ondaatje matched Hugh MacLennan’s record for winning Governor General’s Literary Awards yesterday when he walked away with the 2007 GG for fiction, bringing his total to five (three for fiction, two for poetry).
On the podium at the La Grande Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, he thanked the fiction jury, made up of Austin Clarke, Eden Robinson and Rudy Wiebe, for appreciating his Divisadero, a “fugitive” novel that experimented with structure.
“These are writers whose work I’ve admired for a very long time,” he said. “And to receive this award from them meant so much to me. And it was an honour to be in the company of Barbara Gowdy and M.G. Vassanji as well as two new and very talented writers, David Chariandy and Heather O’Neill.”
Ondaatje praised the GGs for taking risks with edgy works, calling to mind that he was only 27 when he won his first GG for The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. “Which led to the trauma of buying my first suit,” he recalled.
In addition to the usual thank-you list of friends and editors, Ondaatje expressed his gratitude toward the fictional characters in Divisadero, “who kept me company on a daily basis for the last five years.”
After the ceremony was over, Ondaatje returned to the stage briefly to take questions from the floor. Yes, he’s pleased to hear his name connected with that of Hugh MacLennan. When he first came to Canada, he said, novels were mainly British and movies American. Then he discovered the works of MacLennan and Leonard Cohen. “Those writers, they’re still with me,” he said. And, no, he hasn’t started his next novel yet.
Another CanLit icon, Margaret Atwood, fared not so well as Ondaatje. Her poetry collection The Door: Poems lost out to All Our Wonder Unavenged, by a relatively unknown Cape Breton-born poet, Don Domanski, who carried his Buddhist prayer beads with him onstage.
Domanski gave a strikingly eloquent speech on the ephemeral nature of all things. Atwood did not attend the ceremony, nor did most other nonwinning finalists. The winners had been tipped off about a month ahead of time, Domanski said.
The French-language fiction award went to Sylvain Trudel of Quebec City for his La mer de la Tranquillité.
Karolyn Smardz Frost took the English-language non-fiction GG for her I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad.
Montrealer Nigel Spencer won his second GG for translating a work by Marie-Claire Blais into Augustino and the Choir of Destruction.
The English-into-French duo of Lori Saint-Martin and Paul Gagné won their second translation GG for Dernières Notes (Last Notes and Other Stories, by Tamas Dobozy).
Two French-language awards went to writers based outside Quebec: The GG for non-fiction in French went to an Ontario author, Annette Hayward of Kingston, for her scholarly study of Quebec literature, La querelle du régionalisme au Québec (1904-1931): Vers l’autonomisation de la littérature québécoise. And Moncton’s Serge Patrice Thibodeau took the French poetry award for Seul on est.
Quebec-born, Toronto-based playwright Colleen Murphy won the English-language drama award, for The December Man (see story at right), while Daniel Danis won his third GG for his play Le chant du Dire-Dire.
Children’s literature awards went to Iain Lawrence of Gabriola Island, B.C., for Gemini Summer and, in French, to Montrealer François Barcelo for La fatigante et le fainéant.
The awards for illustration in children’s literature went to Duncan Weller of Thunder Bay for The Boy from the Sun, which he also wrote, and Geneviève Côté of Montreal for La petite rapporteuse de mots, with text by Danielle Simard.
Nine of this year’s 14 GG winners are first-timers. As of this year, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Canada Council for the Arts, the awards are worth $25,000, up from $15,000.
The honours will be officially handed out by Governor General Michaëlle Jean on Dec. 13 at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.
English-language fiction: Divisadero
Non-fiction in French: La quérelle du régionalisme au Québec (1904-1931)
Illustration, children’s literature in French: La petite rapporteuse de mots
French-language drama: Le chant du Dire-Dire