Inuk author from Edmonton wins $25K Governor General’s fiction prize

"Tainna: The Unseen Ones, Short Stories" by Norma Dunning, published by Douglas & McIntyre. Credit: Douglas & McIntyre

A mother of boys, Norma Dunning says she likes to think of her books as her “girls,” even using the pronouns “she” and “her” to refer to her works.

One of her girls, Tainna: The Unseen Ones, has given the Inuk writer a whole lot to be proud of as the 2021 winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction.

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Dunning said she didn’t know the book of short stories had been submitted for the $25,000 prize until she opened her inbox last month to find out Tainna had been named as a finalist.

The Edmonton author, academic and grandmother said the win affords her a level of visibility that she’s often denied as an older Indigenous woman.

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“For someone who’s been a lifelong writer, it’s a validation of the work that I put forward,” Dunning, 62, said by phone ahead of the awards announcement on Wednesday. “It’s just a beautiful reward at the end of it all.”

While she’s been writing since youth, Dunning said she hadn’t considered pursuing her passion at a professional level until her sons started having children of their own.

“Everything I’ve done has been late,” she said. “I started to think… I should have others reading this. It’s not just for me anymore.”

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Dunning enrolled in university at age 50, focusing her scholarship on native studies and education sciences, while honing her craft in creative writing courses.

As she rose through the ranks of academia, eventually becoming an instructor at the University of Alberta, Dunning continued to balance research and fiction.

She wrote Tainna while working on her PhD dissertation in Victoria. The short story collection, published by Douglas & McIntyre, centres on the experiences of modern-day Inuit living outside their home territories.

“I wrote a lot about the expectations of others when it comes to Inuit,” Dunning said, noting that the stories touch on issues such as racism and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

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Dunning said she hopes the Governor General’s prize introduces new readers to Tainna.

“I love her, and so therefore, I want everyone to read her,” she said. “It’s a group of stories that really make all of us think about our own perceptions of what Inuit people are or should be.”

The Governor General’s Literary Awards, which are administered by the Canada Council for the Arts, handed out honours across seven categories in both English and French.

Read more: Guelph professor’s book makes finals for Governor General’s Awards

Kingston, Ont.-based poet Sadiqa de Meijer received the non-fiction prize for alfabet/alphabet: a memoir of a first language, published by Anstruther Books, which explores her transition from speaking Dutch to English.

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Tolu Oloruntoba of Surrey, B.C., prevailed in the poetry category for The Junta of Happenstance, also from Anstruther Books.

The drama award went to Halifax’s Hannah Moscovitch for Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, published by Playwrights Canada Press.

In young people’s literature, Philippa Dowding of Toronto took the text prize for Firefly, published by DCB, while Winnipeg writer David Robertson and Vancouver artist Julie Flett shared the illustrated books award for On the Trapline, published by Tundra Books.

The French-to-English translation winner was Erin Moure of Montreal for This Radiant Life, published by Book*hug Press, based on Chantal Neveu’s original work, La vie radieuse.

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Each winner receives $25,000, while the publisher of each winning book receives $3,000 to support promotional activities. Finalists each receive $1,000.

There are separate French-language categories for francophone writing.

Founded in 1936, the Governor General’s Literary Awards give out a total of about $450,000 annually.

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