The shortlist for the third annual Penguin Random House Canada MFA Prize offers “a window into the quality and range of work our students produce,” says Kim Pittaway, executive director of the University of King’s College’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction.
The five shortlisted projects include works of personal memoir, journalistic investigation, contemporary issues and more.
The prize, established by the generosity of Penguin Random House Canada in partnership with Westwood Creative Artists literary agency, celebrates excellence in creative nonfiction and is awarded for the best nonfiction book proposal prepared by a student in their graduating year, or by an alumnus. The proposal includes sample chapters and sections describing the book’s marketability.
The prize is $2,500 and a consultation with a Penguin Random House editor, as well as an offer by Westwood to represent the author.
“The shortlist this year displays an impressive range of place names, from the metal-rich area of the James Bay Lowlands to Haida Gwaii forests, from digital nomads working in Bali to fjords in our national parks to a kitchen in Trinidad,” said Diane Turbide, publishing director at Penguin Canada. “But even more impressive is the level of skill on display as the writers employ different narrative forms and techniques to explore their subjects. It was truly invigorating to read these entries, each offering unique insights into a corner of the world. It will be tough to pick a winner!”
Added Hilary McMahon, executive vice president of Westwood Creative Artists: “This is a contest that judges proposals. We needed writers to convince us of the audience for their work, and effectively highlight competitive titles and angles for publicity, marketing and sales. The writers we chose for the shortlist demonstrated original ideas and engaging writing within that strong proposal framework. Honing these skills is an essential step in developing an idea and setting it on the path to publication.”
“I’m delighted to see the strength of our graduates’ projects shine through in these proposals, and as always, impressed by the range of topics and the skill with which they have been tackled,” added Pittaway. “We also value the contributions of time, insight and resources by our partners in this prize at Penguin Random House Canada and Westwood Creative Artists Limited.”
Submissions were judged by a panel including representatives of Penguin Random House Canada, the King’s School of Journalism and Westwood Creative Artists.
The winner will be announced in May.
The 2021 finalists are:
- Gloria Blizzard: Black Cake, Turtle Soup and Other Dilemmas. “I am an award-winning writer, a Black Canadian woman of mixed heritage, surrounded by European culture, living on the Indigenous lands of the Americas. Two transatlantic journeys before the age of 13 mimic the middle passage of some of my ancestors and add to a particular flavour of disorientation, a craving to re-assemble aspects of self. In my collection of essays, Black Cake, Turtle Soup and Other Dilemmas, I clamber out of the deep waters of dislocation to find balance and meaning in the spaces where art, music, spirit, ecology, race and culture collide. Using traditional narrative essays, hybrid structures and the tools of poetry, I negotiate and revel in the complexities of culture, location and language in an international diasporic romp.”
- Virginia Heffernan: Settlers in the Wetlands: The Story of the Ring of Fire Discovery is about a metal-rich area in the James Bay Lowlands named after that famous Johnny Cash song of raging lust. In this tale of prospectors and politics, a valuable discovery under the second largest temperate wetland in the world and in the traditional lands of the Cree and Ojibway casts light on the growing global conflict among resource development, environmental stewardship, and Indigenous rights.
- Melinda Jacobs: Out of Office. Before February 2020, few desk workers had gone a full week or month, let alone a year, without entering an office. Remote work was the domain of young people, contractors and some entrepreneurs. The pandemic changed that. Out of Office is a memoir of life among the digital nomads who go to work on a beach or in the mountains—wherever they open their laptop—and an exploration of how working remotely has made a seismic shift from niche-lifestyle to a mainstream personal and management choice.
- Amanda Leslie: Wild Places: Exploring Our Connection to Canada’s National Parks showcases the national treasures—mountains, glaciers, fjords, waterfalls, icefields and cultural sites—of our national parks. Leslie takes readers on a coast-to-coast journey through remote and iconic landscapes to reveal the connection between people and nature that has become even more important in our increasingly urbanized lives.
- Aaron Williams: On the Hillside: Working with the Last Loggers. “Two months after graduating high school I stood on a dock with my dad waiting for a float plane. We were in Prince Rupert, B.C. and the plane was taking us to a logging camp on Haida Gwaii, an island chain 100km offshore. Thirty years earlier my dad had done the same thing. His dad, my grandfather, was off to camp by the time he was 15. When my experience that summer didn’t live up to my expectations, I remember telling my dad, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this.’ ‘Of course you don’t, Buddy,’ he said. ‘You shouldn’t.’ On The Hillside tells the story—my family’s story and more—of a town, a job and a culture in the twilight of existence.”
Banner photo of Ickworth House, Servants’ Quarters, Estate Office with desk and Remington typewriter by Elliott Brown