In the prologue to Kate Harris' 2019 RBC Taylor Prize award-winning piece of non-fiction, we meet the Canadian author and her travelling companion on the Silk Road, using the cover of darkness to try and slip past a militarized checkpoint into Tibet.
The moment is tense. Their bikes, carefully packed for the 10-month journey, tossed in a ditch as they escape the sweep of flashlights that'll lead Harris, she suspects, directly to a Chinese prison cell. Her home in Canada couldn't be further away. Disoriented, she looks to the sky where the stars “refused all their usual patterns."
The reader barely inhales as the stars come into focus; a familiarity — or sense of home — Harris seems to be searching for throughout Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road (Knopf Canada).
“So much of it was searching for how to be at home in a world that feels like a world of diminished possibilities in a lot of ways but still is full of amazement, wonder, and wildness if you know where to look," says Harris, moments after winning the $30,000 RBC Taylor Prize for her travel memoir. “I made my home through the process of (writing) it."
Out of Bounds on the Silk Road was selected from more than 115 non-fiction submissions, and a shortlist made up of Bill Gaston for Just Let Me Look at You, Ian Hampton for Jan in 35 Pieces, Elizabeth Hay for All Things Consoled and Darrel McLeod for Mamaskatch.
As the jury wrote: “From her vantage point of a student of the history of science, explorer and adventurer, Kate Harris presents a rare and unique vision of the world, and explores the nature of boundaries."
"Like the late Charles Taylor, we believe that true stories well told can connect us to and deepen our understanding of one another," says Vijay Parmar, president, RBC PH&N Investment Counsel. "The arts play an important role in enriching our communities and our cultures and at RBC Wealth Management, we have a long-standing priority of investing and supporting the arts in all its forms"
After being named the winning author at a gala luncheon in Toronto, Harris shared her thoughts on the role of non-fiction in elevating Canadian voices. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Congrats on the win, Kate, have you had a chance to read the other titles?
Yeah! Just astonishing stories from astonishing writers coming from such different places and a mutual love of language and discovery – the only kind of discovery that matters, which is figuring out yourself and your place in the world and how you work, in whatever small ways, towards a better world.
With an adventure like yours, how are you balancing being there, and experiencing it, while still looking inwards?
I think it's more in the reflection, those quiet moments of the trip where I could sift through what I'd seen and figure out what it meant to me. You're so bombarded with sensation when you travel, everything's new and everything's unfamiliar and it all seems amazing at the moment. It's hard to know until a bit of time has passed what will stay with you and what changes your life, changes how you see things – and the book was very much that process.
Do you feel the reasons that compelled you to write this story pushing you towards something else?
Definitely. When I finished this book it took everything out of me, there was so much self-doubt along the way. I knew I could write sentence after sentence about what we lived but I didn't want to just write that kind of book – we went here and did this and saw this. I wanted to write something that aspired to be art and to say different things to different people … to speak to larger things like our place in the scheme of things as people on a tiny planet in the middle of a universe we haven't even begun to map.
Kind of like the trip itself, you just wanted to do something a little different, full of all these unknowns.
It's a very different feeling than just going for two weeks and you know you're going to come back to your usual priorities and concerns and to-do lists. It's similar to a book project. It's this deep immersion and long commitment to sussing out something new about the world or yourself that you weren't aware of before and you can only access if you commit to it at that level. When I finished writing the book, I was like 'never again'. But now I'm really craving that kind of searching on the page.
You likened your time writing in the cabin you and your partner call home in Atlin, B.C., as a self-imposed MFA.
It took me five years to write the book but three of those years were finding my voice as a writer and learning what the story actually was. I thought I'd be done in a year. I wrote in the way I knew how to write, which was start at the beginning and go to the end and it was just lifeless. I didn't want my name on it. Someone told me: you only get one first book. I didn't want to write a book for the sake of writing a book. I wanted to write a book I could stand by.
And what's the relevance of having an award like this?
In a way, I'd like to think validation doesn't matter but it does. Especially with a travel book about something like the Silk Road that I think your average literary reader probably wouldn't pick up. The power of an award like this both in what it says to me and hopefully what it says to other people is it's more meaningful than what people might get at first glance. I just expected it to sink like a stone to the bottom of a pond. You just do your best work as a writer. And for it to actually speak to this kind of jury and audience is a thrill.
What role does non-fiction play in elevating Canadian voices?
It's hugely important. I was listening to Darrel speak at an event recently. He's written this heart-rending, beautiful book but you just ache for what he had to go through, the difficult lives of so many people in this country, especially indigenous people. And for him to put that on the page and put that out into the world is an incredible gift. It speaks to people that have normally been ignored by literature and makes them feel the possibility of healing.
Let's talk about non-fiction as an open forum.
We need a diversity of voices, everyone's story is valuable … there's something you can get from non-fiction, the fact that it rings true, that this happened in the real world. I like the idea that maybe younger women will pick up my book and see they can do things they didn't think were possible. I like the thought of people picking up Liz Hay's book and feeling like they're not alone in navigating the difficult relationships of family and parents and having to say goodbye. Same with Bill Gaston's book. These are such valuable heart-to-hearts you get to have in non-fiction with individual writers and it expands life.