Ian Williams is the winner of the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize, chosen from a field of six finalists who represented the geographic breadth of the country. The announcement was made at a gala ceremony at Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotel on Monday night, hosted by singer — and bestselling author — Jann Arden.
“You have no idea how special this is for me,” Williams said through tears in his acceptance speech for his book “Reproduction.” “Margaret Atwood, who is sitting right over there, was the first book I bought with my own money. I bought that because I had good public school teachers.
The Aria Ballroom shimmered with all the sequins and sparkles the publishing, business, political and cultural elite could muster to celebrate the 26th annual Giller Prize. But the room erupted when Williams was presented with a cheque for $100,000, along with a statue commemorating the win.
“Reproduction” is set in Brampton and explores the nature of family — both blood relatives and chosen family. The writing, as reviewers expect from Williams, is beautiful — he’s written many volumes of poetry, and been shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry prize in 2013. This was his debut novel, proving he’s an equal master in both forms.
“I’m feeling like all of my past lives are here in this moment,” Williams said afterwards. “When I was a six-year-old boy in Trinidad and a nine year old, a university student — all of these lives are meeting in this moment.”
The other five finalists were: Toronto’s David Bezmozgis, who was nominated for his short-story collection “Immigrant City” (HarperCollins); Newfoundland’s Megan Gail Coles, nominated for her novel “Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club” (House of Anansi); Michael Crummey, of Newfoundland, for his novel “The Innocents (Doubleday Canada); Montreal and Victoria native Alix Ohlin for her novel “Dual Citizens” (House of Anansi); and Victoria’s Steven Price for his novel “Lampedusa” (McClelland & Stewart).
The gala came hot on the heels of a month-long tour of the country — with a sojourn down to New York — that began when the shortlist was announced on Sept. 30. Titled the “Between the Pages tour,” the writers saw six cities in two weeks.
“We don’t usually spend that kind of time with writers unless you’re on a residency or something,” Williams told the Star in an interview leading up to the prize. “It’s also great just to see different cities in Canada come out and be excited about books, that’s really special. To go to Winnipeg, and Vancouver or Toronto, and to see just how books connect the whole country.”
Those who didn’t make that list surprised many as the ranks included Margaret Atwood for her book “The Testaments” and Andre Alexis for his book “Days By Moonlight” — both authors being previous Giller winners and their latest books winning other accolades including, for Atwood, the Booker Prize and, for Alexis, the Rogers Writers’ Trust fiction prize.
Atwood, however, had other reasons to celebrate — it was her 80th birthday, an occasion not missed by organizers of the gala. Arden sang her a version of Happy Birthday.
Last year, the prize celebrated its Silver Giller 25th anniversary. While the intent of the award is still to honour the best in Canadian fiction, it has also seen major changes in the last few years. Its founder, Jack Rabinovitch, died in August 2017 after a “catastrophic” fall at the age of 87. He created the prize in 1994 to honour his wife, Doris Giller, a former books editor at the Toronto Star, who died in 1993. The venue for the gala has changed from the Ritz Carlton back to the Four Seasons in Yorkville, where it was held for many years.
Whenever he spoke at the Gillers, Rabinovitch would say: “For the price of a dinner in this town you can buy all the nominated books. So eat at home and buy the books.” Advice that is reiterated every year.
Besides the cash prize, the winner receives a two-week, self-directed residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.
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