Dionne Brand (left) and Farzana Doctor
The Dayne Ogilvie Award, presented to an emerging queer writer, went to local light Farzana Doctor and The Griffen Poetry prize was awarded to the gifted Dionne Brand.
The Griffin Prize is the way bigger of the two - with its hefty $65,000 payout - but the Dayne Ogilvie Award shows its big vision in a different way.
The award is an offshoot of the Writers Trust, which has increased its presence dramatically since it upped its cash prizes for its autumn awards.
Usually when you hear the words "emerging writer" associated with an award, you assume that the winner will be a 20something writer with a low profile. But Doctor, this year's recipient is different. She has been a therapist for over 15 years, an anti-racist and queer activist for about as long and, since she became a novelist, has helped program the excellent Brockton Writers Series. She's got a high-profile in her community.
Better still, the word "emerging writer" is totally accurate in her case. Her first novel Steal Nazreen (Innana) is a good read, with characters exploring sexuality and difference and connecting in unusual ways. Her description of an office building cleaner and his feelings of invisibility typifies her sensitivity to marginalized people. (Read review of Stealing Nazreen)
Emerging is not an adjective, it's a verb in Doctor's case - her second novel, Six Metres Of Pavement (Dundirn) takes a big leap, from the point of view of craft. The story, about a man still traumatized 20 years after leaving his 2 year-old to die in a steaming car, is a powerful one, told in clear-eyed prose. And that he's able to learn from younger queer characters makes the book a great addition to the gay canon.
As for Dionne Brand, she's much better known - a Governor Generals award winner in the poetry category, winner of the Harbourfront Festival Prize for her career as novelist and poet and, currently, the city of Toronto's poet laureate.
But what makes Brand rock is her passionate radicalism. Ever since she published her first volume of poetry - with the glorious in-your-face title No Language Is Neutral (McClelland & Stewart) - she's been writing politically pointed works about identity, power and the yearning for political change and justice.
The novel-length Ossuaries (McClelland & Stewart), the book honoured this year by the Griffin jury, tracks a woman whose past actions force her to stay on the move, crossing borders all the time. Like all of Brand's work, it's supremely vivid, and passionate without being ideological. (For a 1999 cover story of Brand, go to page 43 of the issue)
You could argue, as did Plato, that all poets are dangerous, but it's precisely Brand's ability to make big ideas seem less scary that makes her more of a danger to the status quo than most writers.
I feel like I spend a lot of time and space complaining about literary prize juries - not this time.