Two memoirs, a humorous look at aging, and two biographies with historical overtones make up the nominees for this year’s RBC Taylor Prize, showing a preference for personal narratives over more academic writing.
Named for Canadian writer Charles Taylor, the $25,000 prize recognizes the best in Canadian literary nonfiction, with a shortlist winnowed down from 121 submissions.
2010 Taylor Prize winner Ian Brown makes the list of nominees for Sixty: The Beginning of the End, or the End of the Beginning? while fellow journalist David Halton receives a nod for a biography of his father, “Dispatches from the Front: Matthew Halton, Canada’s Voice at War”.
Novelist Camilla Gibb is nominated for her memoir, This is Happy, while broadcaster and musician Wab Kinew is on the list for his memoir, The Reason You Walk. Rounding out the nominees is biographer Rosemary Sullivan’s Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva.
Perspectives on aging
Brown, a veteran of memoir writing following his 2010 prize winning The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for His Disabled Son, penned Sixty as he struggled to come to terms with hitting his milestone 60th birthday.
“Once you realize that you’re getting older, there tends to be two different points of view: there’s the ‘death is on its way’ school of thought; there’s not much left and there’s this very finite existence that we live, and it’s the finiteness that makes it valuable,” he says.
“On the other hand, [there’s the] self-help school of thought, that you’re not getting older, that you’re getting better … which is generally speaking delusional.”
For Brown, hitting the fourth quarter of life forced him to confront conflicting realities. On the one hand, he’s an active man who ski mountaineers and sometimes doesn’t feel a day over 35. On the other, he’s facing the obvious signs of physical decay in the mirror, and sometimes feels the fullness of his age.
“I thought what I’ll do is keep a diary so I can track the progress of aging and maybe that way I can sort of slow time down and see what’s happening by paying attention to some of the details,” he says.
The project started out as a social media posting, but it soon became clear there was enough material for something more substantial.
“I think in North America, the figure is there are 10,000 turning 60 every day and there will be for the next 15 years,” he said. “That’s a lot of people.”
A window on our history
For David Halton, Dispatches was also a deeply personal work, shining a light on the life of his father Matthew, the renowned CBC war correspondent. The elder Halton has been compared by many to Edward R. Murrow, but lacks the public profile of the legendary U.S. broadcaster, a point that became clear to David Halton - who followed in his father’s footsteps with a distinguished CBC career – 10 years ago when he returned to Canada after a posting in Washington.
“I discovered that Matthew Halton had become all but a forgotten name for all but a dwindling number of World War II-generation Canadians,” says David. “For that generation, he was a legendary, if not heroic, figure as a CBC correspondent who was very much the voice of the Canadian troops broadcasting back to the home front.”
For David, the exercise was a push against “that Canadian tendency towards amnesia about our history and our high achievers of the past.”
It was also a chance to learn more about his father, who died in 1956 when David was 16, carrying at the time memories of a youth spent largely in London, where his father reported on post-war Europe.
“(The book) is based less on memory than on a kind of a voyage of discovery through archives, through interviews with his contemporaries, and visits to landmark places that marked his career path,” he says.
The chaos of wartime Europe also runs through the pages of Stalin’s Daughter, by veteran biographer Rosemary Sullivan. The author was drawn to the subject matter after reading a 2011 obituary for Svetlana Alliluyeva, the youngest child and only daughter of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin.
“I was just drawn by two phrases,” says Sullivan.” She was quoted as saying that ‘wherever I go, to an island or Australia, I will always be a political prisoner of my father’s name’. And she also said ‘you can’t regret your fate, but I do regret my mother didn’t marry a carpenter.’”
“I really like writing the lives of intensely interesting woman, and what could be more interesting than that?”
Born and raised in the seat of Soviet power, Alliluyeva (who took her mother’s last name after her father died) was hardly free of the horrors that were befalling the rest of her country under Stalin.
When she was six, her mother committed suicide. Later an uncle was executed, and two aunts sent to solitary confinement. At 16, her first love was arrested and sent to the Gulag.
“She understood slowly that it was her father that was doing this to her own family, so how do you recover from that kind of darkness?” said Sullivan.
In 1967, she defected to the United States, leaving her children behind. She returned to Moscow in 1984, but soon was back in the U.S., living out her life under the name Lana Peters.
For Sullivan, the appeal of the subject was matched by the challenge of the research. She received considerable help from Svetlana’s daughter from her third marriage, Olga. “We met and there was an instant rapport,” says Sullivan. “I think of her as a very funky American. Her favorite thing to do is stand-up comedy, not the sort of thing you’d expect from Stalin’s granddaughter.”
An examination of a tough life is also at the heart of Wab Kinew’s memoir The Reason You Walk.
The book is grounded in Kinew’s reconnection with his father in 2012 after his father’s cancer diagnosis. Dropping everything to go to his side, Kinew and his father dealt with both their past difficulties, and with his father’s troubled childhood and abuse at a residential school, ultimately finding reconciliation before his father’s death.
Camilla Gibb’s This is Happy also follows the theme of familial reconciliation, with Gibb exploring her battles with mental illness and search for a stable family situation of her own after her spouse left while Gibb was eight weeks pregnant. Gibb attempted to rebuild her life by becoming more engaged in the lives of those around her, eventually finding new meaning.
The RBC Taylor Prize will be awarded on March 7.
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