Katherena Vermette, Tomson Highway among big winners at Writers' Trust

·3 min read

TORONTO — Katherena Vermette was stocking up on supplies at Costco when she got the call informing her that she'd won the $60,000 fiction prize at the Writers' Trust Awards.

As her four-year-old daughter wriggled in the cart, Vermette said she decided to celebrate by adding items to her haul.

"We're just splurging on the water and the pineapple and whatever else," Vermette joked by phone from Winnipeg. "It's a spending spree happening now."

The Red River Métis poet and author was among the Indigenous wordsmiths to sweep the top two Writers' Trust Awards at a virtual ceremony Wednesday, with Cree musician and writer Tomson Highway taking the $60,000 non-fiction prize.

Vermette received the Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize for her intergenerational saga, "The Strangers," published by Hamish Hamilton Canada.

In their citation, the jury hailed the title as "a beautiful, raw testament to those living on the margins."

The book explores the ties that bind the women of the Stranger family even as the forces of inherited trauma, racism and colonialism threaten to drive them apart.

Some of the central characters were first introduced in Vermette's debut novel, "The Break," which was a Writers' Trust finalist in 2016.

A self-described "high fantasy nerd," Vermette said she was inspired by the genre's epic tradition as she continues to build out this narrative world in her next project.

"I love when people create these huge, monstrous cumbersome worlds that you just have to be dropped in and figure out. And I think part of me is really doing that, only it's set in realism in the North End of Winnipeg," she said.

"There's no real magic happening, other than the everyday kind, but I do love the idea of creating a community that people can get to know."

Vermette said she hadn't fully processed her win in an interview ahead of Wednesday's announcement. But she suspected the reality could set in as she prepared to travel to Toronto to be feted as the inaugural winner of the Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.

Organizers renamed the prize for the best novel or short story collection this year in honour of literary power couple Margaret Atwood and the late Graeme Gibson.

Highway received the $60,000 non-fiction award for "Permanent Astonishment: A Memoir," from Doubleday Canada.

The book recounts Highway's coming of age — from early years travelling throughout the North with his family of nomadic caribou hunters to his time in residential school.

The Gatineau, Que.-based pianist and playwright said "Permanent Astonishment" is the first of five books he plans to write about his life.

"I've had an extraordinary life and I'm happy with it," said Highway, who will soon turn 70. "I'd like to leave my two cents' worth behind me."

The Writers' Trust of Canada handed out a total of more than $330,000 in prizes Wednesday, including four career awards worth $25,000 apiece.

Métis author Cherie Dimaline received the Writers' Trust Engel/Findley Award, which is given to a mid-career writer in recognition of their past and future achievements in fiction.

Calgary-born Weyman Chan was recognized with the Latner Writers' Trust Poetry Prize honouring a mid-career poet for mastery of the form.

The $25,000 Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People went to Linda Bailey of Vancouver.

Ottawa-based writer Frances Itani took the Matt Cohen Award celebrating a lifetime of contributions to Canadian literature.

Runners-up for the two top prizes each received $5,000.

The other fiction finalists were Miriam Toews, Alix Ohlin, Rivka Galchen and Guy Vanderhaeghe.

The non-fiction short list included Jordan Abel, Ken Haigh, Darrel J. McLeod and Ian Williams.

The Writers' Trust is the first of three major literary awards to be awarded this month.

The winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize will be named Monday, and the Governor General's Literary Awards will be handed out on Nov. 17.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 3, 2021.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press

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