Books

John Vaillant and Christina Sharpe among finalists for $75K Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction

Five writers shortlisted for literary prize which annually celebrates the best in Canadian nonfiction.

The shortlist also includes Jamal Saeed, Angela Sterritt and Emily Urquhart

two headshots of two writers: one middle-aged white man with grey hair and blue eyes, one Black woman with a bald head and dark brown eyes.
John Vaillant, left, and Christina Sharpe are among the five finalists up for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction in 2023. (John Sinal, Christina Sharpe)

John Vaillant and Christina Sharpe are among the five writers shortlisted for the 2023 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

The $75,000 prize is awarded annually to the best in Canadian nonfiction. It is the largest prize for nonfiction in Canada. 

The other three nominated titles are My Road from Damascus by Jamal Saeed and translated by Catherine Cobham, Unbroken by Angela Sterritt and Ordinary Wonder Tales by Emily Erquhart.

Vancouver writer and 2023 finalist, John Vaillant, has previously won the Hilary Weston award in 2005 for his book The Golden Spruce. His novel The Tiger was championed by Anne-France Goldwater on Canada Reads in 2012.

The jury is comprised of Canadian nonfiction writers Eve Joseph, Michelle Porter and Dan Werb. They have selected the finalists, and eventually the winner, from 99 titles submitted by publishers.  

"This year's shortlist has something for everyone. The range of subjects is remarkable, as are the approaches taken by these talented authors," said Charlie Foran, executive director of Writers' Trust, in a statement, "What all the books share is great passion matched by great prose."

Jury member Dan Werb won the award in 2022 for his book The Invisible Siege.

Other past winners include Tomson Highway, Elizabeth Hay and Jessica J. Lee.

The Writers' Trust of Canada is an organization that supports Canadian writers through literary awards, fellowships, financial grants, mentorships and more. 

It also gives out seven prizes in recognition of the year's best in fiction, nonfiction and short story, as well as mid-career and lifetime achievement awards.

The Writers' Trust has given out a nonfiction prize since 1997. Hilary Weston has sponsored the prize since 2011. As of 2023, the prize has increased to $75,000. Each remaining finalist will receive $5,000. Translators will also be given a portion of the prize money.

The winners will be announced at the Writers' Trust awards gala on Nov. 21, 2023.

Get to know the Hilary Weston 2023 finalists and their books below.

My Road from Damascus: A Memoir by Jamal Saeed, translated by Catherine Cobham

My Road From Damascus by Jamal Saeed. Illustrated book cover of a small dagger piercing a flower in a blue colour pallette. Portrait of the male author.
My Road From Damascus is a memoir by Jamal Saeed. (ECW Press, Rufaida al-Khabbaz)

Jamal Saeed sought refuge in Canada in 2016 after being imprisoned three times for a total of 12 years in his native Syria. Imprisoned for his political writing and his opposition to the regimes of the al-Assads, Saeed spent years in Syria's most notorious military prisons. My Road from Damascus tells the story of his life as he chronicles the sociopolitical landscape in Syria since the 1950s, and his hope for the future. 

"This memoir examines the human psyche under extreme conditions of torture and finds poetry, hope, love and freedom," stated the jury. "Saeed's gift for storytelling and his deeply moving prose allows the reader to follow him wherever he goes."

The Kingston, Ont.-based Saeed spent 12 years as a prisoner of conscience in Syria before being invited to Canada in 2016. He continues to raise awareness about Syria's ongoing civil war and humanitarian crisis through his work as an activist, editor, visual artist and author. 

Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe

Book cover of purple and pink sunset. Close up of a Black woman's face, smiling with red lipstick.
Ordinary Notes is a book by Christina Sharpe. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Christina Sharpe)

Ordinary Notes is Christina Sharpe's latest work of nonfiction which explores the complexities of Black life and loss through a series of 248 notes which intertwine past and present realities. Through her literary form, Sharpe writes of the influence of her mother, Ida Wright Sharpe and combines multiple voices on the many ways to experience Blackness.

"Readers are invited to witness the ordinary joys and sorrows of Black lives and how they are transformed within the everyday reality of systems of racial supremacy," said the jury in a statement. "To read this book is to turn toward a voice and listen as if our lives depend on it — and risk being changed in the process."

Sharpe is a Toronto-based writer, professor and Canada Research Chair in Black Studies in the Humanities at York University. Her previous book, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, was named one of the best books of 2016 by The Guardian, and a nonfiction finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award.

LISTEN | Christina Sharpe on The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers:
Christina Sharpe talks to Shelagh Roger about her book, Ordinary Notes.

Unbroken: My Fight for Survival, Hope, and Justice for Indigenous Women and Girls by Angela Sterritt

On the left is a black and orange book cover with a drawing of a woman who is holding up a feather. There is another woman standing beside her. There is white and orange white text overlay that is the book title and the author's name. On the right is a headshot photo of a woman who is smiling at the camera and wearing a black blazer with a yellow-coloured shirt.
Unbroken is a book by Angela Sterritt. (Greystone Books, CBC)

In her memoir Unbroken, Angela Sterritt shares her story from navigating life on the streets to becoming an award-winning journalist. As a teenager, she wrote in her notebook to survive. Now, she reports on cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, showing how colonialism and racism create a society where Indigenous people are devalued. Unbroken is a story about courage and strength against all odds.

"Unbroken balances intergenerational trauma with hope that is authentic, hard-earned, and very, very real,"said the jury. "With the heart and instinct of a practiced storyteller, as well as the research skills of a seasoned reporter who leaves no stone unturned, Angela Sterritt offers her own story as a light that shines on one of the darkest ongoing episodes in modern Canadian history."

Angela Sterritt is a journalist, writer and artist. She has previously worked as a host a reporter with CBC Vancouver. Sterritt is a member of the Gitxsan Nation and lives on Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh territories in Vancouver.

LISTEN | Angela Sterritt talks about Unbroken with On The Coast:
CBC reporter Angela Sterritt is a speaker, former community worker, mother, and artist. Now she's also the author of her memoir Unbroken: My Fight for Survival, Hope, and Justice for Indigenous Women and Girls.

Ordinary Wonder Tales: Essays by Emily Urquhart

The book cover is an illustration of green and beige forest with a path in the middle leading to a small house in the background. On the grass path are a set of footprints that turn from animal prints into human footsteps.
Ordinary Wonder Tales is a book by Emily Urquhart. (Emily Urquhart, Biblioasis)

Ordinary Wonder Tales is an essay collection about finding magic in the everyday. Writing about everything from death and dying, pregnancy and prenatal genetics, psychics, chimeras, cottagers and plague, Emily Urquhart carves out the truth from our imaginations, combining her curiosities as a journalist and a folklorist. 

"Ordinary Wonder Tales delights in the knowledge that the world can be both real and imagined," said the jury in a statement. "As we read, we discover that no trauma in a person's life ever sets them fully apart. Rather, human tragedies are endlessly absorbed and transformed by the wonder tales we share to bring us back to the fullness of life."

Urquhart is a writer and folklorist currently living in Kitchener, Ont. She is also the author of Beyond the Pale and The Age of Creativity

LISTEN | Emily Urquhart speaks about her book Beyond the Pale on The Next Chapter:
The folklorist and author talks about how her daughter's albinism set her on a quest to understand the condition. The result is her book, Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of Our Hidden Genes.

Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast by John Vaillant

A composite of author and book cover.
Fire Weather is a nonfiction book by John Vaillant. (Knopf Canada, John Sinal)

Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast, published as Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World in the U.K., delves into the events surrounding the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire, the multi-billion-dollar disaster that melted vehicles, turned entire neighbourhoods into firebombs and drove 88,000 people from their homes in a single afternoon.

"Fire Weather reveals to readers a character as ruthless, creative, and destructive as any in modern literature: fire itself," stated the jury. "Through dynamic prose, deep research, and a profound sense of the stakes on a planet beset by climate change, John Vaillant traces how Canada's geological and economic history have converged to transform fire from a useful tool into an existential threat to our way of life."

John Vaillant is a Vancouver-based freelance writer, novelist and nonfiction author. His first book, The Golden Spruce, which told the story of a rare tree and the man who cut it down, won the 2005 Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction. Vaillant's second title The Tiger, a book about a man-eating tiger that terrorized a village in Russia in 1997, was a national bestseller and was a contender on Canada Reads in 2012, defended by Anne-France Goldwater.

LISTEN | John Vaillant on Alberta's wildfires on The Current:
Canadian writer John Vaillant says climate change is creating the perfect conditions for devastating wildfires, like the ones ravaging parts of Alberta right now. He talks to Matt Galloway about his new book Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast. Then, scientists have unveiled a pangenome, based on genetic sequences from 47 people of diverse ethnic backgrounds. We hear whether this more accurate and inclusive edition of our genetic code could be a step towards personalized medicine, treatments tailored specifically to you and your precise health needs. Plus, the federal government has announced measures to tackle poor governance at Canada’s national sport organizations, after years of calls for action on abuse in amateur sport. We discuss the measures with Adam van Koeverden, parliamentary secretary to Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge — and ask him why yesterday’s announcement didn’t include a public inquiry. And Anishinaabe chef Gerry Brandon wanted to bring Indigenous, English and French flavours together in his northern Ontario restaurant L'Autochtone Taverne Américaine. But now he’s selling up after losing his sense of smell to COVID-19.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story wrote that Angela Sterritt currently works for CBC Vancouver. Sterritt is not currently working at CBC.
    Sep 21, 2023 1:06 PM ET

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