Shadowing the Best of CanLit

Featuring the Shadow Giller

Congratulations to Souvankham Thammavongsa on winning the Giller Prize for 2020. As you know the Shadow Giller chose How to Pronounce Knife as their winner as well and we couldn’t be more thrilled that the Giller jury felt the same as we did!

On her wonderful win Thammavongsa said, “36 years ago I went to school and I pronounced the word knife wrong but I didn’t get a prize.

Jurors hailed the book as “a stunning collection of stories that portray the immigrant experience in achingly beautiful prose.

Born in the Lao refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand, and raised in Toronto, Thammavongsa has earned acclaim for her four poetry books and her writing has been featured in publications including Harper’s Magazine, the Paris Review and The Atlantic.

We look forward to reading more of what Thammavongsa writes in the future. Congratulations!

That’s a wrap for this year’s Shadow Jury! It has been a great honour to work together reading through the books chosen for this great literary prize.

A unanimous decision was easily and quickly concluded by the Shadow Giller jurors for their 2020 winner.

We are pleased to announce we have chosen How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa as the winner of the Shadow Giller 2020.

The stories that make up How to Pronounce Knife focus on characters struggling to find their bearings in unfamiliar territory, or shuttling between idioms, cultures, and values. In a taut, visceral prose style that establishes her as one of the most striking and assured voices of her generation, Thammavongsa interrogates what it means to make a living, to work, and to create meaning (Taken from the Goodreads description). This collection was the first choice for all jurors, with rankings of the remaining finalists falling into similar if not exact order. But there was no denying this story collection was the winner here.

Of all five finalists,  Elana Rabinovitch, Executive Director, Scotiabank Giller Prize has said that, “Nowhere is the need for reflections on the human condition more pressing than now. This year’s shortlist is bursting with stories of belonging, relationships, dislocation, economic ruin and rites of passage. 2020 will go down in history not just as the year of COVID but the year Canadian writers hit their literary stride.” The Shadow Jury felt that the book that best reflected the human condition most powerfully was How to Pronounce Knife. Here is what the Shadow Giller jury had to say about it:

Kate:  I found this read so simplistic yet heavily loaded with aspects of (or can imagine) being a new immigrant or 1st generation Canadian and just how well the author captured subtle moments with everything from grace, sadness and giggles. I thoroughly enjoyed how she crafted her writing as it has deliciously packed my brain with visuals that allowed me to travel with her through her stories. So, so much pride and I’ll be honest, suffering a bit post read as I enjoyed it so much.

Lindy: These quiet stories, told with compassion and humour, feature Laotian refugees and immigrants. They are bus drivers, beauticians, farm labourers and factory workers—hard-working, self confident people. People who carry a sense of home within themselves. People who know the power of laughter. There’s a lovely porous quality to Thammavongsa’s writing: it holds the sense of possibility in all that is unsaid and unnamed. 

Naomi: I’m not surprised by our unanimous decision to choose How to Pronounce Knife as the Shadow Giller winner. We’ve been gushing about it all along – it was going to take a pretty special book to come ahead of this one, in my mind. The stories in this collection have stayed with me – the images seared into my mind. Powerful, emotional, eye-opening, and yet so easy to read.

Penny: These stories have remained on my mind months after reading. The emotion, depth, and humour told in each one have all left long-lasting impressions on me. It was always my top pick of the bunch.

If the 2020 Giller Prize jury announces How to Pronounce Knife as their winner as well, it would mean Thammavongsa’s collection is the 5th time a short story collection has won the prize. 1998 and 2004 went to Alice Munro for The Love of a Good Woman and Runaway, followed by Vincent Lam’s 2006 win for Bloodletting and Other Cures and in 2013 Lynn Coady won for Hellgoing.

The Shadow Giller was active during the time when Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing won the Giller. It was not the Shadow Giller’s pick (that went to The Orenda by Joseph Boyden). Here is what the Shadow Giller jury had to say about Hellgoing when it was announced as the winner of the 2013 Giller Prize.

Do you think the Giller jury will feel the same as we do? We’re looking forward to finding out on Monday evening!

When Shani Mootoo’s novel, Polar Vortex was longlisted for the 2020 Giller Prize it then meant that four of her five novels had received nominations for the Scotiabank Giller Prize!

Shani Mootoo is a novelist, poet, and visual artist. Her novels include Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab, long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and short-listed for a Lambda Literary Award; Valmiki’s Daughter, long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize; He Drown She in the Sea, long-listed for the Dublin Impac Award; and Cereus Blooms at Night, short-listed for several prizes including the Giller Prize, and long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

The Shadow Jury was not surprised to find Polar Vortex shortlisted, and Lindy could very well be pulling for this one to win the whole thing? We’ll find out what the Shadow Giller says just before the winner of the prize is announced on November 9th.

The Giller Jury’s Citation: “A keen meditation on the complexities of identity and desire, Polar Vortex is the unsettling examination of a failing marriage… Memories cascade and clash as Mootoo masterfully dismantles the stories the narrators tell themselves in language as unsparing as winter.”

Naomi is waiting for her copy of it to arrive so we’ll hear back from her shortly we’re sure.

Lindy has said, “The underlying unease—all that‘s unspoken between two women who‘ve been married six years and also between two longtime friends—made for a suspenseful read. I love Shani Mootoo‘s nuanced exploration of a complex character, a South Asian lesbian artist from Trinidad who emigrated to Canada after attending university in Toronto. Bonus: insights into experiences of immigration.

Penny’s feeling on Polar Vortex are a little more complicated, but she wasn’t surprised to find it on the shortlist, and is fine with it being there. For her the ending was the strongest part of the book, knew the direction it was headed toward and was wholly satisfied with its ending. She said, “I am quite conflicted (and was sometimes bored) by this read and I think there were too many narrative styles or techniques and threads introduced that didn’t fully come together for me. Mootoo tries to create an unreliable narrator and then switches the points of view half way through – leading me to believe she was trying to build a suspense-styled story but I don’t think it took us all the way there. Therefore, I struggled with where my focus was meant to be drawn. I found Mootoo’s Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab to be a far more moving story about many of the topics she writes about here in Polar Vortex.”

Will Shani Mootoo take the Giller Prize next Monday? We’re keen to find out!

Looking through the archives of previous winners of the Giller Prize, I found out that the Giller and the Shadow Giller both chose the same winner in 2009. The prize went to, The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre.

This book is an absolute favourite of mine and it’s one I continue to tell everyone to read.

What a pleasure it was to read the Shadow Giller’s quick choice of it as their winner: The Shadow Jury decision was both quick and unanimous — all three jurors had this book at the top of their list. We certainly found the other shortlisted titles were worthwhile, but MacIntyre put it all together.

The official Giller jury remarked:

“The Bishop’s Man centres on a sensitive topic – the sexual abuses perpetrated by Catholic priests on the innocent children in their care. Father Duncan, the first person narrator, has been his bishop’s dutiful enforcer, employed to check the excesses of priests and, crucially, to suppress the evidence. But as events veer out of control, he is forced into painful self-knowledge as family, community and friendship are torn apart under the strain of suspicion, obsession and guilt. A brave novel, conceived and written with impressive delicacy and understanding.”  

I found The Bishop’s Man to be remarkable. The characterization inside, the examination of the loneliness and isolation Father Duncan feels and the stunning title that comes together so fully just had me loving my time with this book. Duncan’s character just leaped off the page, as cliched as that sounds. His growing crisis of conscience and complicity… I have since collected every book written by MacIntyre. I have read others by him (Punishment is another favourite!), but still need to read the rest of this trilogy (The Bishop’s Man is #2 in the Cape Breton Trilogy) as well as his others.

Indeed, I’m even going to share here my silly fan girl moments when I’ve had the opportunity to see him in person. I was in Halifax for work when he appeared at the Halifax Public Library for a reading of Punishment. What luck! What timing! Had I known I would have carted copies of the books I owned for him to sign! Instead I purchased his memoir for his signature, Causeway: A Passage from Innocence, since it was the only book I didn’t own by him at the time. The other time was when my bookish bestie Jennifer (@Booktrovert) and I attended a Giller event actually in Toronto! We had the great opportunity to hear from the shortlisted authors in 2015 (Andre Alexis, Samuel Archibald, Rachel Cusk, Heather O’Neill and Anakana Schofield. It was an exciting night!) MacIntyre was attending as well and I practically squealed when I saw him in the lobby. Like I said, complete silly fangirl behaviour! haha I don’t understand my reactions myself!

Anyway, seeing these posts about past Giller winners and in particular about The Bishop’s Man has me craving reading the others in his Cape Breton Trilogy: The Long Stretch and Why Men Lie.

David Bergen. What makes David Bergen such a favourite among many Giller jury panels? It seems that each time Bergen is eligible to be on the Giller Long-and-Shortlists he is found there. Indeed, this is now his 4th trip onto the Giller lists? He won the prize in 2005 for A Time in Between (a book that sits on my shelf still unread), he appeared again on the Shortlist in 2010 for The Matter with Morris and was again Longlisted in 2016 for Stranger.

Historically, Bergen’s appeal has not quite reached the Shadow Giller, and this year’s entry is no different. Kevin from Canada talked about the disconnect between the author and the Shadow Giller and shares this thoughts here when Bergen was shortlisted in 2010. I cared not a bit for his Longlisted Stranger in 2016, and was relieved to see it not make the Shortlist that year. For Here the Dark, Lindy was shocked to find it on the Longlist and even more so to find it on the Shortlist. However, both Lindy and Naomi point to the novella, the titular story, as being the most promising aspect of this collection. Lindy says, If this collection of stories hadn’t been on the Giller longlist, I would have abandoned it unfinished. I would therefore have missed the best part, the novella at the end, which is the title story. I remain mystified as to its presence among the other Giller prize contenders.” Naomi wrote that it was “Thoughtful and compelling, I loved this story.”

Therefore, I went into reading this collection with trepidation. However, I did go into it with open expectation and tried to not let previous reviews colour my reading. I’ve since completed two of the short stories and have no intention of completing the remaining ones. I found these two stories to be filled with toxic masculinity. For this collection to appear on a list of finalists in contention for a $100,000 literary prize is deeply disconcerting. I cannot fathom how this is celebrated, especially now as too recently we find many female authors being attacked online for what readers feel to be so distasteful they threaten the lives of these authors. Serious and destructive campaigns of hate and vitriol have been launched, even leading one author to cancel any public appearances planned to read from and promote the book due to vicious death threats she received. Yet toxic masculinity appears to get a pass. Especially if written by a man.

This toxicity brought to mind another Shortlisted Giller title in 2009. Fall by Colin McAdam was such a disgusting piece of work to me (my rating of 1-star was too forgiving), I was deeply disturbed by its content and enraged to see it celebrated on a literary prize list. I read this book when I was taking a course on Masculinity as a part of my Masters degree. This hit on so very many of the points we were reading about toxic masculinity that I literally flung the book at my professor telling him to read this, it truly hammers home everything we had been learning on that topic.

To see another book and one published in 2020, containing content like this pass through onto a Shortlist is deeply upsetting. Clearly, this kind of content is deemed acceptable for literary praise, granted it not be written by a woman.

I may read the novella, Here the Dark, based on my fellow Shadow Juror’s opinions, but I’m not racing to it at this moment in time.

Suffice to say, this collection will sit at the very bottom of my rankings for these Giller Shortlisted titles.

The one book the Shadow Giller unanimously featured on their Shortlist prediction lists was How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa!

What a thrill it was to see it on the list of five finalists. So far, Naomi, Penny and Lindy have had nothing but wonderful things to say about this collection of short stories and we anticipate hearing wonderful thoughts on it from Shadow Juror Kate too:

Naomi: Every story in this collection is strong. The fourteen stories in this book are all, in some way, about the immigrant experience. Many of the characters are parents or children (mainly from Laos), experiencing their new lives in very different ways. The one constant throughout being the desire to belong. She featured quotes from the title story, Randy Travis, Paris, Mani-Pedi, You are So Embarrassing and Ewwrrrkk. When she first read it she said it was “A book that clearly belongs on the Giller prizelist.” You can see her full post about How to Pronounce Knife here.

Lindy called the collection, “An outstanding collection of quiet stories, told with compassion and humour, about Laotian refugees. They are bus drivers, beauticians, farm labourers and factory workers—people with self confidence and integrity. People who carry a sense of home within themselves. People who know the power of laughter. There‘s a porous quality to the writing: the sense of possibility that lies in all that is unsaid and unnamed.” Lindy had a conversation back in July with Jenny on her Reading Envy podcast and talked about how this book wowed her and said then that this book belonged on the Giller Shortlist! You can find her post about How to Pronounce Knife here. How is that for predictive power?!

Penny shows her enthusiasm for this collection with her heavy use of exclamation marks! What an excellent collection of stories! Seriously wonderful stories. In sometimes as little as 6 or 7 pages, each story was packed with great emotion! They are honestly some of the best I’ve read! I can totally see this collection being on the Longlist because of it’s beautiful writing and how each story gives such strong insight into the plights of refugees (here, Laotian), being an outsider, wanting a sense of belonging — really I won’t be able to give you profound words about it – but these all have such heart, emotion, humour and heartbreak. I highly recommend reading this collection! Her favourite of the collection was definitely How to Pronounce Knife saying that Thammavongsa “managed to pack in soooo much heart and soul into 7 pages, it was a deeply affecting story.” You can read her full post on it here.

This is an excellent finalist for the Giller Prize. The New York Times featured this collection and here you can read excerpts from the book. Kirkus also reviewed it, calling it, “Moving, strange, and occasionally piercing.” Finally, here is the Giller Prize Jury citation: How to Pronounce Knife is a stunning collection of stories that portray the immigrant experience in achingly beautiful prose. The emotional expanse chronicled in this collection is truly remarkable. These stories are vessels of hope, of hurt, of rejection, of loss and of finding one’s footing in a new and strange land. Thammavongsa’s fiction cuts to the core of the immigrant reality like a knife – however you pronounce it.”

The finalists for the 2020 Giller Prize have been announced! The Giller Prize jury listed five (5) for the Shortlist selecting from a 14 book Longlist. Previous winners of the Prize were on hand to make the announcement.

Here’s where the fun starts for the Shadow Jurors! We’ll be reading through the shortlist and determining our winner. That winner will be announced before the official Giller winner is announced on November 9th.

The Shadow Jury predicted a 6-book shortlist, but it’s only 5 and here they are:

Ridgerunner by Gil Adamson

Here the Dark by David Bergen. This is Bergen’s 3rd appearance on the Shortlist which includes his 2005 winning book The Time in Between.

Polar Vortex by Shani Mootoo. The judges picked Polar Vortex because of its unsettling examination of a failing marriage.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel. The judges calling it a boldly lyrical tale.

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa. A stunning collection of stories that are vessels of hope, of hurt, of rejection, of loss….

How to Pronounce Knife was the only book on each of the Shadow Jurors prediction lists!

What are your reactions to the Shortlist? The Shadow Jury reactions are forthcoming.

The shortlist will be officially announced on October 5th. I’ve now read 5 of the 14 and have started on the 6th. So again my shortlist predictions are going to mainly be complete guesses for most of it. I’m still working with the expectation that the shortlist will be 6 titles, so here’s what I think it may be (or really what I’m maybe hoping it might be?)

1. Clyde Fans by Seth

2. How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

3. Five Little Indians by Michelle Good

4. Dominoes at the Crossroads by Kaie Kellough

5. Ridgerunner, Gil Adamson

6. Consent, Annabel Lyon

Wondering too about things like Annabel Lyon being a finalist in 2009 and a Longlisted author in 2012. Will the jury add her as a finalist over choosing someone that has never been on the list before? So I’m waffling a little on the addition of Consent to the shortlist, but I do hope to see it there. When I started reading Consent, I noticed a few similarities in ways to Lynn Coady’s Watching You Without MeNaomi has included Coady’s on her Shortlist prediction list and I can see it being either Consent or Watching You Without Me maybe eh? (Lindy plans on posting her predictions on Sunday! It will be so interesting to see how all of ours are different or similar.) And then the true fun begins for the Shadow Giller as we dive deep into the Shortlist and predict our winner before the official announcement in November.

I am guessing at some of these titles, it’s shaping up to be more of a wishlist I think at this point. Really, I haven’t read Dominoes at the Crossroads and I don’t think I’ll be able to get it in before Monday’s announcement. Fingers crossed it’s one of the finalists though.

This is definitely tougher to determine!

My initial thoughts as to the winner? Should I even say that right now? No, let’s wait to see who is on the official shortlist first before I start casting that prediction around, because what happens if that book doesn’t even make it on the shortlist!?  I’m completely known for not reading the same books as the official judges and books I think are no-brainers for the shortlist don’t make it there, so my track record isn’t really great here.

Come on October 5th! The anticipation is killing me!

Surprisingly, I feel more confident predicting the books for the shortlist than I did for the longlist. It probably just comes down to the fact that I’m only choosing from a list of fourteen, rather than over a hundred.

I decided to include six books on my list instead of the usual five, because of the fourteen on the longlist instead of the usual twelve. (In no particular order…)

 

(Is it just me, or do the covers go quite nicely together?)

Don’t forget… The real shortlist will be out on October 5th. This year’s shortlist will be revealed by past winners Esi Edugyan, Elizabeth Hay, Sean Michaels, Michael Redhill and Madeleine Thien, and streamed live at www.scotiabankgillerprize.ca/live.

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