The shortlist for the second annual Penguin Random House Canada MFA Prize provides “a compelling look at the quality and range of work our students produce,” said 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 journalistic investigation, personal memoir, historical nonfiction 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 includes $2,500 and a consultation with a Penguin Random House Editor, as well as an offer by Westwood to represent the author.
“These nominees form an impressive showcase of writing talent, breadth of experience, and originality. Their stories, whether personal or investigative or a combination of both, gripped us, and their well-developed proposals indicate an understanding of the publishing marketplace. Well done, all!” said Diane Turbide, publishing director of Penguin Canada.
Added Hilary McMahon, executive vice president of Westwood Creative Artists: “There was a remarkably diverse range of interests and perspectives across the submissions. In the challenging process of selecting the shortlist, we ultimately rewarded the entrants that combined a well-honed narrative voice with a complex exploration of a subject, and were aimed at an identifiable audience.”
“Penguin Random House Canada and Westwood Creative Artists are valuable partners in our program, and we are delighted to have them celebrate the work of our graduates and alumni,” Pittaway said.
There were more than 20 submissions, which were judged by a jury consisting of a Penguin Random House Canada nonfiction editor, a representative from the King’s School of Journalism and an agent from Westwood Creative Artists.
The winner will be announced in June.
The 2020 finalists are:
- Sheima Benembarek: Unveiling—Intimate Stories of Muslim Women in North America narrates the sex lives of Muslim women living across the continent as they try to reconcile faith and sexual freedoms. Their experiences range from female genital cutting, forced abstinence, and hidden same-sex relationships to sex work, healthy BDSM rapports, and liberated casual sex. These stories come from niqabi women and westernized ones, successful career women and housewives, the queer and the virginal. Says Benembarek: “Unveiling not only gives an unparalleled look into the lives of these women, it gives them a voice—one that is rarely heard. Women’s rights have moved to the forefront within the Islamic faith itself. Muslim feminist scholars are challenging the traditional views of Muslim women’s place in the social sphere through new ways of looking at scripture—the very tool that was used against them. Allah is, it seems, not the source of oppression after all. This is the time for accounts of this nature—honest stories about us.”
- Marilyn Carr: Nowhere Like This Place: Tales from a Nuclear Childhood chronicles growing up in the quirky, isolated, company town for Atomic Energy of Canada in the 1960s and ‘70s. It’s Pleasantville meets Stand by Me. Deep River, population barely 4,000, has harboured a Russian spy, spawned a serial killer, and appeared on the resumes of two Nobel Prize winners in physics. It has as much intrigue as Twin Peaks and is as innocuous as a slice of cherry pie. Says Carr: “My memoir is set against the backdrop of the weirdness of a scientific company town in close proximity to four experimental nuclear reactors, with more PhDs per capita than anywhere else on earth. It reflects the excitement of the space race and the promise of the atomic age. It’s steeped in thinly veiled sexism and the searing angst of being an artsy child trapped in a terrarium full of physicists and mathematicians.”
- Margaret Lynch: Transformed: When My DNA Changed, So Did I is Lynch’s memoir of her journey to become a better person after a rare leukemia invaded her body. Following a bone marrow transplant, her sister’s B-negative blood replaced her own A-positive. Over time, her sister’s blood DNA displaced hers. “I became a human chimera, with two sets of DNA and another reason not to feel normal,” Lynch writes. “I was thirty in 1988 when I fought for my life through clinical trials that didn’t work, life-threatening infections, and two grand mal seizures that put me in a coma. The experimental bone marrow transplant was a last-ditch attempt to save my life, a first-of-its-kind in Canada. I beat the eight percent odds of survival and vowed to transform myself, to make the most of my second chance.” Transformed explores the question of what it means to be “normal” in a world that values sameness. Who gets to decide? What do we sacrifice when we try to fit in? What price do we pay for adapting? And if we’re not fully ourselves, do we truly even exist?
- Moira MacDonald: I Was a Math Class Dropout: How I Kicked Math Failure and Learned Why Math Matters takes the reader on MacDonald’s midlife adventure as an adult student and education journalist to confront the math demons that foiled her as a teenager. In the process, she goes toe-to-toe with the myth that only a select club can call themselves “math people,” testing it in the most personal way. Recording her experiences as she works her way from Grade 9 academic math to Grade 12 calculus in just over two years, she uses her math memoir as an engaging launching point to explore broader and topical questions: Why do so many of us struggle with math? Why do we fight so much about it? Why does math even matter? What kind of math matters (do we really need to learn long division?)? And, what does joyful and effective math learning look like, regardless of where it’s happening in the world?
- Bernard Wood: In The Petawawa Paradox, Wood rediscovers Canada, and its hidden stories, through the window of one spectacular place. As we confront injustices in our history, this book asks whether and how we can still be proud of our country. The distinctive name of Petawawa resonates with millions as the home of Canada’s first great army camp through a turbulent century of wars and peacekeeping abroad. But Wood has also found the deeper stories of this beautiful, unforgiving place at the heart of the upheavals and struggles in this land, from pre-history to today’s headlines. At this crossroads, we witness as the land and its First Peoples feel the impact of alien explorers, fur traders, loggers, and settlers. Then the soldiers and their families mirror Canada’s tests in the world as well as its crises and transformations at home. It is a splendid and terrible story – of the best and the worst of this country and its people – and of the reckonings facing the nation today.
Penguin Random House Canada, the country’s largest book publisher, aims to nourish a universal passion for reading by connecting authors and their writing with readers everywhere. The company publishes over 500 new original titles per year in the North American market across nineteen distinct imprints and distributes another 10,000 titles in Canada on behalf of Penguin Random House publishers in the U.S. and the U.K., and many clients. It has also developed its own Toronto-based audiobook program, and runs an in-house recording studio. Visit penguinrandomhouse.ca for more information.