Three-time nominee Toews, debut writer Onyemelukwe-Onuobia among Giller finalists

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TORONTO — Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia says she tried her best to not think about whether her debut novel, "The Son of the House," would make the final cut for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

But after repeated reminders from her publisher, Onyemelukwe-Onuobia said curiosity got the best of her and she decided to tune into the livestreamed reveal of the short list for the $100,000 honour Tuesday.

When she saw her book's distinctive orange cover flash onto the screen, the lawyer-cum-author said she was so "blanked out" she didn't even hear her name being called among the five finalists.

"It took all my words from me," Onyemelukwe-Onuobia said in a video call from Lagos, Nigeria, where she splits her time with Halifax. "(I am) so shocked and thrilled and amazed and astounded that this book has gotten this far."

The Giller short list, announced at a Toronto hotel Tuesday, is dominated by a crop of up-and-coming writers competing alongside Manitoba-bred literary luminary Miriam Toews, a two-time runner-up for the prize.

Giller organizers say the winner will be coronated at an in-person gala on Nov. 8, marking a return to the prize's usual glamour after the COVID-19 crisis forced the red-carpet affair to shift online last year.

The televised ceremony will be co-hosted by "Kim's Convenience" star Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Instagram-famed poet Rupi Kaur.

Onyemelukwe-Onuobia said it's hard to believe her book is in such "hallowed company" after spending four years unsuccessfully shopping the manuscript around to publishers and literary agents.

Published by Dundurn Press, "The Son of the House'' traces the intersecting stories of two Nigerian women divided by class and social inequality.

Onyemelukwe-Onuobia said the story has been "festering in my spirits" for a while. But until recently, the 43-year-old said she could only pursue her passion for writing in her spare time while building a career in law and academia.

"I've always known I wanted to be a writer," said Onyemelukwe-Onuobia, who holds a doctorate in law from Dalhousie University. "So it's been a long time coming."

Angélique Lalonde said earning a nod from the Giller for her first book, "Glorious Frazzled Beings," published by House of Anansi Press, gave her a similar sense of validation about her professional path.

Lalonde said she drew from her experiences in academia and community organizing in crafting the collection of short stories exploring the places we call home.

"Writing is the work that speaks to a broader experience of possibility and telling stories and then shaping worlds as well," she said by phone from Hazelton in northern British Columbia.

"It's the work that feels true for me to be doing and to be learning from."

Other Giller contenders include two sophomore novelists who boast credentials outside fiction.

Ottawa-raised, London-based playwright Jordan Tannahill was nominated for "The Listeners,'' published by HarperCollins Canada, about a mother obsessed by a sound no one else can hear.

Egyptian-Canadian author and journalist Omar El Akkad is in the running for his story of two children caught in the global refugee crisis in "What Strange Paradise," from McClelland & Stewart.

Toews is up for the Giller for a third time with "Fight Night,'' published by Knopf Canada, about three generations of women living under one roof in Toronto. The book is also up for this year's Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.

She was shortlisted for the Giller in 2004 for "A Complicated Kindness,'' and again in 2014 for "All My Puny Sorrows.''

Jurors Zalika Reid-Benta, Megan Gail Coles, Joshua Whitehead, Tash Aw and Joshua Ferris culled the 2021 finalists from a long list of a dozen writers. Among those who didn't make the cut were Kim Thúy, Katherena Vermette and Casey Plett.

The Giller awards $100,000 annually to the author of the best Canadian novel, graphic novel or short story collection published in English, and $10,000 to each of the finalists.

The Giller was established by Jack Rabinovitch in 1994 in memory of his late wife, literary journalist Doris Giller.

Last year's winner was Souvankham Thammavongsa for "How to Pronounce Knife.''

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 5, 2021.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press

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