Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction

The Boat People has won the 2019 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction! (Yes, THAT Harper Lee). I’m so grateful to Doubleday for putting the book forward and to the jurors who obviously have a very refined literary palate. Also: the University of Alabama School of Law and the ABA Journal who administer and sponsor the prize. These things are a lot of work and labours of love.

Late next month, I’ll be accepting the award at a ceremony at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. (I KNOW. IT’S WILD) In addition to a speech, there will be an on-stage conversation between myself and the jurors. We’ll be talking about To Kill a Mockingbird and my book and probably politics and refugees.

Refugee law, and in particular, the perfectly legal and legitimate process of coming to the border and seeking asylum, is a situation that is woefully misunderstood by the general public. It doesn't help that so many Canadian politicians - many of them lawyers by training - willfully and purposely lie. Fiction can be the antidote, translating the letter of the law into a compelling plot and using imagined characters to show readers the truth. The truth is so important. This is a federal election year and now more than ever we all have a duty to tell the truth. Loudly. And as often as possible. Awards give me and my book a soap box and a megaphone. For these gifts, I’m incredibly grateful.

Springtime in Vancouver

On Tuesday there was a snow day in St. John's and I escaped to Vancouver where it was spring. I was there, of course, for the Incite: New Voices of CanLit event at the Vancouver Public Library. Three cheers to the Vancouver Writers Fest for putting on such a stellar event. I was especially impressed with how well they curated the authors. I had never met Kim Fu, Guillaume Morissette or Djamila Ibrahim before but the four of us had a great chemistry on and off stage. That doesn't often happen. (And we spontaneously colour coordinated with the library's colour scheme...ha!) It was really special to be at the Vancouver Public Library too because in The Boat People's fictional Vancouver, 350 West Georgia is the site of the Immigration and Refugee Board Building. As my editor Anita said: reading in that space was like bringing the story home.

With the teacher at Westside (photo courtesy of  Westside's instagram )

With the teacher at Westside (photo courtesy of Westside's instagram)

My publicists took full advantage of my visit and packed the schedule with interviews and appearances. I began Wednesday with something better than coffee: a taping of Can't Lit with the hilarious, vivacious, sharp- tongued duo of Jen Sookfong Lee and Dina Del Bucchia. (I'll post an update when the episode is live.) I've been listening to Can't Lit for a while so being a guest was a real treat.

Then it was off to Westside School's Miniversity for a reading, Q&A, and another podcast interview. First, Westside doesn't look like any highschool you've ever seen. It's more like the open-plan offices of a start-up company. Second, the students are SMART. They were engaged and asked good, thought-provoking questions. It was my first school visit and Westside set the bar high. Plus, they gave me a mango as a parting gift. Someone clearly did their homework. (Please send mangoes, people)

After taping one of my favourite interviews. (Photo courtesy of Roundhouse Radio and Minelle)

After taping one of my favourite interviews. (Photo courtesy of Roundhouse Radio and Minelle)

While I was in town, The Tyee ran a review of The Boat People. It was a wonderful, hilarious piece by Crawford Kilian but BE WARNED: THERE ARE MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS. If you've already finished the book, you are safe to read the review here. I love the classification of The Boat People as 'political horror.' Yes. It is horrific. Parenthetically, I hadn't actually realized I'd written a political book until quite late in the game. One day, I was walking down the street listening to a podcast where some foolish (male...natch) person was opining: "women don't write political books." And I thought: "don't we? wait a second...I did!"

Saying women don't write political books is idiotic. Everything is political. Austen, Eliot, Gallant, Roy...we are all political authors writing about political things. Second, I suspect that most of us don't go into our projects thinking: "right. This is going to be political." We just write books and because we are thinking human beings, our books end up being about world events or personal traumas or relationships between people and guess what? All that stuff is political. Sex is political. Washing the dishes is political. Culture is political. Refugee law is political. Men don't have a monopoly on politics. /Rant

Back to Vancouver! While there, I also taped an episode of CBC's North by Northwest with Sheryl Mackay and an interview with Joe Planta at thecommentary.ca. Stay tuned for links when both those interviews go live.

And finally, my very last interview was a long chat with Minelle Mahtani for Roundhouse Radio's Sense of Place (available now so go have a listen). They have a segment called "Acknowledgements" where they bring in an author and someone they thanked in their acknowledgements page.

David, me, and Minelle. Photo courtesy of Roundhouse Radio.

David, me, and Minelle. Photo courtesy of Roundhouse Radio.

On our way to Roundhouse, my publicist Laura promised this would be one of my favourite interviews. She wasn't overselling. Minelle is an incredible interviewer. She asks deep, thoughtful questions and knows how to get at the big stuff, the emotional stuff. Plus she listens. I mean really listens. Two thirds of the way through our interview we brought in Lisa Moore. The conversation was wide-ranging. We discussed dialogue, location, language, bigotry, bureaucracy, and found a similarity between my novel and Lisa's February. And bonus: David Chariandy dropped by, unexpectedly, to eavesdrop. Knowing that both Lisa and David were listening in to my chat with Minelle wasn't at all nerve-wracking....nope, not at all! In all seriousness: what a lovely way to cap off my time in Vancouver, speaking with Minelle and Lisa and David and listening to them discuss literature with each other.

And did I mention it was spring in Vancouver, my favourite Canadian city? So lovely. Please invite me back!

ps. The Boat People was #1 on the CBC's Bestseller list last week and #5 on the Globe & Mail's list.


Tolstoy is not a mail-order bride

On Tuesday I spoke at the Status of the Artist legislation announcement. I did so somewhat reluctantly and only because I thought I could use two of my allotted five minutes to say something in defence of literacy, libraries, and the fantastic cultural institutions that are under threat from the provincial government’s make-believe commitment to the arts.

Yesterday, I woke up to find this article in The Telegram riddled with inaccuracies, the worst of which were the misquotes. Let's get something straight. I am NOT a cheerleader for the Status of the Artist legislation. I am NOT a cheerleader for the provincial government. When I was asked to give a reading at the announcement, I very nearly said no.

To his credit, the reporter was mortified when I pointed out all his mistakes and we worked together on the correction that appeared in today’s paper. But it made me decide that it was time to say something more pointed and specific.

There is nothing wrong with legislation that commits to treating artists fairly and professionally. But I am skeptical of a government that lauds culture with empty words while chipping away at it with its actions. A government that supports culture doesn't try to sneakily drop it from the ministry's name. A government that supports culture doesn't attack literacy by closing more than half the province's libraries and slapping a tax on books. And a Minister who is committed to culture doesn't say at a press conference, as Mitchelmore did on Tuesday, that books by mail are just as good as a bricks and mortar library. (No they are not. NO. NO. NO.) The government can crow all they like about the importance of culture but unless they create an environment where books and visual art and theatre are valued and supported, it's just hot air.

This province is running headlong into a capital D Depression. We have massive debts we can't pay back. We are bleeding young working-age people. We are saddled with a boondoggle called Muskrat Falls that will cripple us. Austerity is inevitable. I get it. I know. But I also know it's bullshit to slap a tax on books with one hand and give Ed Martin a $1.4 million dollar parting gift with the other. It's bullshit to threaten to close more than half the libraries, citing lack of funds, and then turn around and pay a private company to write a report on the future and viability of said libraries. If there's money to pay private industry for make-work reports, if there's money to build a massive hydro-electric dam so mining companies can get cut-rate electricity, then there’s money for a library in every town and outport. Private industry, oil and gas, Muskrat Falls, Ed Martin’s retirement, they are not the only ones that rely on government subsidies. The arts need resources too.