IVA and the politics of the Scotiabank Giller Prize

 

It is almost as though winning a prize is the only truly newsworthy thing a cultural worker can do… in this context it is the prize, above all else, that defines the artist” (English, 2008).

 

Publishers submit books for consideration to literary award bodies and are thereby responsible for determining which authors are valued in the cultural economy (Bourdieu in Lash, 1993). The issue of diversity in publishing or the lack of it rather has been sung from the mountain tops and it rears its head once more when discussing awards particularly those considered to be the most prestigious. In this paper, I will argue that the Scotiabank Giller Prize also known as the holy grail of awards in Canadian publishing has found its match in the newly created Indigenous Voices Awards (IVA). Regardless of the commercial success the Giller Prize brings to authors and publishers alike, the Indigenous Voices Awards (IVA) have been created at a politically charged time making them impossible to ignore. It is my belief that the IVA will eventually occupy an equal amount of space in the cultural economy.

Because of its ability to command the attention of the nation and the media whilst turning the publishing industry on its head annually, the Scotiabank Giller Prize is what Michael Warner (2002) would label a “dominant public”. The Governor General’s Award and the Roger Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize are both revered but from what I have seen do not command the level of attention and glitz the Giller does. Therefore, using Warner’s theory, I am going to position the Indigenous Voices Awards as the most direct counterpublic to the “dominant” Giller.

  • Firstly, counterpublics are “continually at odds with the ‘dominant’ public” (Alice F, 2016). “Their members are understood to be not merely a subset of the public, but constituted through a conflictual relation to the dominant public” (Warner, 2002). Bearing in mind that it is in its flagship year and winners are yet to be announced, the Indigenous Voices Awards are at ideological war with the very Canadian Giller.  The Giller Prize is focused on the nation-state and finding the “best work” (Scott, 2007) within those borders. As Gillian Roberts (2011) mentions, however, Canadian national literature depends upon nation-state borders overridden by colonial logic. The Indigenous Voices Awards make it explicit that they are searching for emerging talent in “lands claimed by Canada” (ILSA, 2017) disregarding the “national-border”.

Gregory Younging who kindly spoke to the M-Pub cohort a few weeks ago stated in an interview with Quill and Quire that we should not forget that the current times are still colonial albeit not as “intense” as before (Carter, 2017) which explains why in the 23 years that the Giller Prize has existed an Indigenous writer has never won the prize. (Because of the serious questions surrounding his identity, Joseph Boyden who won in 2008 is not representative). Writers like Eden Robinson have been shortlisted but have never made the plunge into victory which brings me back to the quotation used at the start of this paper. Whether we like it or not, literary prizes determine the value and importance of a writer. The fact that an Indigenous writer has never won the most prestigious prize raises questions about whether Indigenous writing is recognised as being of equal merit in Canada. The creation of the Indigenous Voices Awards is, therefore, an act of autonomy where Indigenous cultural workers are saying “you do not need to recognise us, we do not need your validation, we can validate ourselves”.

Earlier this year I argued that the counter prizes which were dedicated to recognising people of colour were in danger of marginalizing/ further segregating the people of colour they wanted to represent. But in the case of Indigenous writers in lands claimed by Canada and based on what I heard from Gregory Younging, this is not the case here. It is not to be directly assumed that Indigenous writers are a part of Canada; they are from their own nations and this prize gives them an opportunity to not be thrown under one umbrella but to be recognised in their own right.

As mentioned previously one of the reasons that the Giller Prize is “the most prestigious literary award” in Canada is because of its monetary value. Since it was founded, it has been “the largest purse for literature” (“Who We Are”, 2017) in the country. The prize wields economic weight and subsequently has become a household name that ensures commercial success for winners, nominees and their publishers alike. The prize is worth $100 000 CAD and its main sponsor is Scotiabank, a corporation.

  • On the other hand, The IVA was created this year as an act of defiance after media executives shamelessly called for the creation of a “cultural appropriation prize” (CBC Radio, 2017). Toronto based lawyer, Robin Parker, set up a crowdfunding campaign which raised over $141 000 CAD to create the prize. Unlike the Giller, the Indigenous Voices Awards (IVA) are currently dependent on the financial support of the public at large. This takes the patronage out of the hands of corporations only and allows the average individual to contribute to the prize. I believe that this model is inclusive and represents another form of diversity, one found in how capital is raised. This also aligns with the IVA’s focus on community. Their mandate states that “the awards [as they are more than one] are intended to support Indigenous artistic communities and to resist the individualism of prize culture” (ILSA, 2017).This instance further shows why the IVA is a direct counterpublic to the Giller.

Looking at the Giller juries since 1994, I noticed that they were almost exclusively white and that when a person of colour was on the panel they were usually a former winner of the prize themselves. Well-known Giller critic Stephen Henighan (2015) argued that the Giller prize was laden with “cozy juries of long-time familiars”, becoming somewhat of a literary Boys Club. Despite the fact that the prize has seen winners of colour such as Esi Edugyan, Madeleine Thien and André Alexis, it is still predominantly Eurocentric and I believe that this is due to the lack of diversity on the judging panel. (I must admit that this year’s prize was an exception).

 

At the beginning of 2017, I did a dissertation titled “African Diaspora Writers and The Politics of Literary Awards”. My main focus was the Nobel Prize in Literature and the veil of secrecy that shrouds it. I argued that institutional racism was at play in the Swedish Academy, masking itself as “liberal egalitarianism/humanism” (English, 2008) which explains why in the hundred plus years since the prize’s conception, only 3 laureates have been Black. I can argue the same in the case of the Giller Prize with regards to Indigenous writers. Mordecai Richler stated that the organizers of the prize

 

“don’t give a damn whether a book has been written by a man or a woman, a black, gay, or Native writer, or somebody whose family has been here for 200 years. What [they’ll] be looking for is the best work of fiction published by a Canadian ” (Richler 1994 in Scott 2007).

 

This statement was made in 1994 and assumed that “Native” people would be placed under the umbrella of Canadianess in assimilation. The Indigenous Voices Awards are turning this on its head by having a jury that is formed of Indigenous academics and writers as well as other people of colour (speaking an array of languages, French and English included).

 

It would be unjust to scrutinize the prize and not the publishers making the wheels turn. A handful of publishers have been responsible for producing the winning Giller books over the years. These are McClelland and Stewart, Doubleday and Knopf Canada, now all part of the newly formed Penguin Random House. Certain independent presses which contributed to the prize in the past and made the shortlist such as Somerville House and Press Gang, have ceased to exist. A fee of $1500 (“Submissions”, 2017) needs to be paid to submit books for consideration eliminating certain small publishers from the running as this is expensive. I believe that smaller publishers are usually the ones responsible for increasing diversity in the industry.

  • The Indigenous Voices Awards counter this by honouring writers both published and unpublished alike. By doing so they are saying that even work that has not been vetted by a large publisher still deserves to be recognised.
  • Indigenous publisher, Theytus Books, has won numerous awards but none of their titles have been recognised by the Giller. It could be that they do not send their books in for consideration but it is curious that they have won international awards but not the Giller (Theytus Books, 2017). Something I read echoes what Theytus publisher, Gregory Younging implied in his guest lecture to us, “Canadian cultural sovereignty operates at the expense of indigenous sovereignties” (Roberts, 2011). Indigenous literature is viewed as some “other”, inhabiting the periphery of society whilst the Giller adheres to “the dominant construction of Canadianness [which] is still [very] white and Anglophone” (Roberts, 2011). The IVA is therefore crucial in giving Indigenous writers their own agency.

 

Conclusion

The idea of ranking literature based on the subjective opinions of a handful of people has always been fascinating to me. I know that it is easy to quantify success in sports such as basketball because they are based on point-based systems. But in literature, how can one objectively decide that one piece of work is worth more than another? I ask this but it has been done for centuries and it is not going anywhere. As a raced subject, I recognise my bias in that I almost always side with people of colour and the colonisation of Indigenous people is similar to the colonialism my ancestors and I have faced. It is important for me to point out that I have not resided in Canada for long and that my knowledge of these issues is limited to what I have observed and read in my time here. That being said, I view the strew of Indigenous Voices Awards as the counterpublic to the Giller Prize; they are a platform of cultural autonomy for Indigenous people. I would like to end with a quotation from Sarah Pruys for what we as Indigenous allies can do:

 

“ Just as the Indigenous community walks in two worlds, so to must publishers. We need to learn how to balance the tangible and intangible; and know both how to help preserve, circulate, and archive culture in a respectful and ethical way, and also know when it is time to take a step back” (Pruys, 2017).

 

Power to the IVA, I wish them every success.

 Works Cited

Carter, S. (2017). Q&A: Greg Younging on editing indigenous works, story ownership, and Canadian publishing | Quill and Quire. Quill and Quire. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from https://quillandquire.com/omni/qa-greg-younging-on-editing-indigenous-works-story-ownership-and-canadian-publishing/

F, A. (2016). Michael Warner’s “Publics and Counterpublics”. PUB800. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from https://tkbr.publishing.sfu.ca/pub800/2015/10/michael-warners-publics-and-counterpublics/

Henighan, S. (2015). How a Giller Prize critic got invited to the party. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/how-a-giller-prize-critic-got-invited-to-the-party/article27145924/

Inaugural Competition 2017-2018. (2017). Indigenous Literary Studies Association. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from http://www.indigenousliterarystudies.org/-indigenous-voices-award/

Lash, S. (1993). Pierre Bourdieu (Bourdieu: Critical Perspectives

Pruys, Sarah. (2017). Engagement and Experience: The Other Side of Archiving, Preserving, and Circulating Indigenous Knowledge https://tkbr.publishing.sfu.ca/pub800/2017/09/engagement-and-e…genous-knowledge/ ‎

Roberts, G. (2011). Prizing Literature: The Celebration and Circulation of National Culture (Cultural Spaces). University of Toronto Press.

Scotiabank Giller Prize | Submissions. (2017). Scotiabank Giller Prize. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from http://www.scotiabankgillerprize.ca/about/submissions

Scotiabank Giller Prize | Who We Are. (2017). Scotiabank Giller Prize. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from http://www.scotiabankgillerprize.ca/about/prize-history/

Scott, J., & Tucker-Abramson, M. (2007). Banking on a Prize: Multicultural Capitalism and the Canadian Literary Prize Industry. lib.unb.ca. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/scl/article/view/5813/10702licy, while seeing the Giller Prize as part of a new “cosmopolitan” and free-trade-oriented Canadian cultural policy.

Theytus Books. (2017). Theytus Books. Theytus.com. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from http://www.theytus.com/Awards

Warner, M. (2002). Publics and counterpublics (abbreviated version). Quarterly Journal Of Speech, 88(4), 413-425. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00335630209384388

‘I invoked cultural appropriation in the context of literature and writing only’: Hal Niedzviecki. (2017). CBC Radio. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-may-15-2017-1.4112604/i-invoked-cultural-appropriation-in-the-context-of-literature-and-writing-only-hal-niedzviecki-1.4112618

 

Works Consulted

Bethune, B. (2016). Who wins Canada’s literary prizes — and why – Macleans.caMacleans.ca. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from http://www.macleans.ca/culture/who-wins-canadas-literary-prizes-and-why/

Andrew-Gee, E. (2016). Coach House Books: Life after winning the Giller PrizeThe Globe and Mail. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/toronto/coach-house-books-life-after-winning-the-giller-prize/article27259398/

 New literary prize for Indigenous writers to offer $25K in awards. (2017). CBC News. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from http://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/indigenous-writers-prize-1.4362221

Ostroff, J. (2017). Emerging Indigenous Voices Literary Award Is The Perfect Response To ‘Appropriation Prize’ ControversyHuffPost Canada. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2017/05/17/indigenous-voices-literary-award_n_16670050.html


Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). (2017). Trc.ca. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/index.php?p=4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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