Adnan Khan, winner of the 2016 RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award, can admit to an inauspicious start to his writing career, back when the now-accomplished essayist was a 13-year-old student.
“In Canadian history class we wrote a short story about World War II,” the 29-year-old said in a recent interview.
Khan had just watched the World War II epic Saving Private Ryan, and borrowed liberally from the film for his story.
“I remember my teacher just writing down, ‘This is very violent’,” he says with a laugh. But the thrill of writing had its hooks in him.
“I crafted something from my brain, and it’s the same feeling I get now when things start falling together and you get this rush of thoughts and ideas,” he says.
Khan has since moved on from Steven Spielberg films, and has been crafting non-fiction essays and articles over the last three years for publications such as Vice, The Ethnic Aisle and the Globe and Mail, earning a nomination for a National Magazine Award for his Hazlitt essay "Our Brownness Does Not Belong Here."
Now he adds the RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award, after being chosen by this year’s winner of the Taylor award for literary non-fiction, Rosemary Sullivan.
Born in Saudi Arabia to Indian parents, Khan immigrated to Canada at age six, settling in North York, Ont., and harboring few doubts about his calling.
“I always knew that I wanted to write, but I felt after I graduated (from university) that I wanted to read a lot and I wanted to just travel and live and get out of the school system for a bit,” he said.
After earning an undergraduate degree from University of Toronto, he set out to gather ideas the old-fashioned way: by seeing the world. He spent time in Vancouver, and then did a teaching stint in South Korea.
He settled in Australia for two years, where he found his first paid writing gig at Vice Magazine, publishing a piece on racial bias and immigration. It was the first of many pieces for him touching on the idea of cultural identity.
“Identity is a very interesting thing to me, because you can apply it to so many different areas,” he says.
Sullivan, who won the Taylor award for her book, Stalin's Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva, says she was drawn to Khan’s strong and assured voice in his writing, as well as the autobiographical essay style he’s cultivated in many of his pieces.
“What fascinated me was that they’re not confessional, they’re a self interrogation,” she says. “They’re examinations of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of others’ projections of culture identity, national identity. And I just thought that in our environmentally-degraded global culture, he has the gift to become an important voice.”
Sullivan, who has written or edited more than a dozen books, says she’s seen more than enough of ‘confessional’ writing, where the author puts the focus on them-selves, often at the expense of seeing the bigger picture.
“As a biographer, what fascinates me is an individual life in a cultural and political context. I’m interested in a relationship between the person and the powers that shape us, usually unconsciously,” she said.
“So to write autobiographical essays that are self interrogation as well as cultural interrogations I think is very valuable.”
While the Taylor Prize is for non-fiction writing, Khan also writes fiction, and is currently working on both fiction and non-fiction projects. And in whatever time is left in the day, he tends bar and is pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts at Guelph University.
“I kind of view my non-fiction as the blueprint for a lot of my fiction. A lot of thinking that I don’t want to appear in my fiction, because if it appeared it my fiction it would be too didactic, I can play with a lot more in non-fiction,” he says.
“I find them both to be completely half in half, very necessary and just two sides of the same coin.”
Asked about his favorite writers, he names fellow essayist and U.S. journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, along with James Baldwin and Junot Diaz.
“Junot Diaz is huge for me. His novels are a massive influence, his thinking is a massive influence,” he says.
And while acclaim is nice, Khan says he steers away from getting caught up in the reaction to his pieces, both positive and negative, preferring to trust an internal barometer.
“One of my main concerns when I’m writing non fiction is to constantly push myself, constantly make sure I’m not writing the same piece… just to make sure I’m always doing something new for myself, doing something that is just pushing my thinking forward,” he says.
The Taylor award comes with the promise of mentorship from Sullivan, which Khan says is key for the perspective her experience will give on his writing.
It also comes with a C$10,000 prize, which is no small thing for a young man pursuing a career in a business that produces few financial success stories. He says he may spend some of the cash to extend a planned visit to Montreal, but will otherwise use it for additional “time and space” for writing.
“I think like any writer, about once a month I think about quitting, and getting a prize like this makes me think, ‘this is a thing, I’ve been recognized by some people’,” he says.
“That’s a nice feeling.”
This publication has been issued on behalf of Royal Bank of Canada and is for information purposes only. Its contents do not constitute recommendation to purchase any investment product nor does this article constitute legal, investment, accounting, tax or other advice and should not be relied upon in that regard. You are advised to seek independent legal, investment, tax and accounting advice prior to acting upon information contained in this article. The opinions expressed are those of the author alone.