TORONTO – An emotional Miriam Toews won the $25,000 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for “All My Puny Sorrows” Tuesday night, saying she hopes the heart-wrenching and personal novel about a writer dealing with her suicidal sister will help spark dialogue about such issues.
“I feel now if I can use any opportunity at all to talk about the things that I write about in the book – the subjects of mental illness, mental health, the psychiatric care profession and the way that it’s broken, I think, the idea of suicide, of assisted suicide, of the ‘good death,’ of who decides for us how we’re going to live and how we’re going to die – is it up to the individual, is it up to society as a whole, is it up to the Supreme Court, is it up to the federal government?” she said in an interview.
“I think that all of these questions are being asked now, not just by me, but by lots and lots of people, and that conversation is starting and is ongoing and is really gratifying.
“And if my book can be one tiny, tiny little part of that and help to facilitate that, then I’m grateful.”
The Knopf Canada title, which is also on the short list for the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize, mirrors Toews’ relationship with her older sister and father – both of whom committed suicide.
Toews choked back tears as she accepted the Writers’ Trust honour at the Glenn Gould Studio, noting it’s a “book that’s a little bit difficult to celebrate.” Her thank-you speech included her partner for teaching her “how to be fearless in her writing,” her children, her mother for teaching her “how to be brave” and “how to live,” and her late sister.
“My late sister, Marj, who’s witty and elegant and a loving spirit and never leaves me,” said a tearful Toews. “She’s fought a lot of battles for me … in the past and I hope that this book fights one for her.”
Toronto-based Toews beat out four other finalists for this year’s Writers’ Trust award – the same prize she won in 2008 for her novel “The Flying Troutmans.” In 2004, she made the Giller short list for “A Complicated Kindness,” which won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction.
“All My Puny Sorrows” follows a writer and mother of two as she travels from her Toronto home to her childhood province of Manitoba to provide solace to her suicidal sister.
Toews’ sister committed suicide 12 years after her father took his life, and the author has acknowledged using her personal life as inspiration for the novel. The Steinbach, Man., native punctuated the story with the humour she’s known for writing.
“Toews manages to marry humour and grief so expertly that the most unbearable sadness is tempered by laughter,” Writers’ Trust jury members Neil Bissoondath, Helen Humphreys and George Murray said in a statement.
“Reading ‘All My Puny Sorrows’ is an unforgettable experience.”
Toews was one of several authors honoured at the Writers’ Trust of Canada event, which handed out a total of six prizes totalling $139,000 to Canadian writers.
The four finalists on the fiction short list – Andre Alexis, Steven Galloway, K.D. Miller and Carrie Snyder – each received $2,500. The jury chose the short list from 127 books submitted by 52 publishers.
Other big winners included Toronto’s Ken Babstock with the inaugural $25,000 Latner Writers’ Trust Poetry Prize in recognition of a body of work.
“To be the first is extra special,” he said. “But I’m just glad that the prize is part of the Writers’ Trust prizes and is there now for the poets coming down the road.”
Joan Thomas of Manitoba won the $25,000 Writers’ Trust Engel/Findley Award and Susan Musgrave of Haida Gwaii, B.C., got the $20,000 Matt Cohen Award: In Celebration of a Writing Life.
The $20,000 Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People went to Cary Fagan of Toronto, while Tyler Keevil of Vancouver took the $10,000 Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize.
The Writers’ Trust is the first of three major literary awards to be handed out this year.
The others are the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which will be awarded next week, and the Governor General’s Literary Awards, set for Nov. 18.