The first of the fall season’s major Canadian writing prizes—assuming we don’t count the Nobel this year—chose its winner Monday night. The nation’s most lucrative non-fiction award, the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize, went to The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan by Graeme Smith, formerly a reporter there and now a Kabul-based senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, which offers non-partisan analysis and advice to governments and intergovernmental bodies on the prevention and resolution of deadly conflict.
Smith’s intricate and sobering account of good intention gone awry was picked from a shortlist that also included Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian, The Once and Future World by J.B. MacKinnon, This Great Escape by Andrew Steinmetz and Priscila Uppal’s Projection, each of which received $5,000.
Smith was caught off guard by his win—when he reached the microphone he recited a poem by Emily Dickinson, memorized in Grade Eight, “which I always say when I can’t think of anything else to say.”
He wasn’t the only surprised person present. Canadians, like the rest of the world, Smith agreed afterwards, “are absolutely turning their faces away from Afghanistan.” We don’t want to hear about it any more: “I have a house in Kabul where I put up freelance journalists who are still interested in what’s going on there but who can’t find editors who will pay for hotel rooms. It’s not at all like it was in the beginning.” But the unpopularity of the topic didn’t deter the jurors, who praised Smith for his graphic account of “a tragic mix of cultural ignorance, miscommunication, greed, brutality, and political naiveté.”
What effect the prize’s unusual jury structure had on the eventual choice of winner is unknown.
Three original jurors—writers Hal Niedzviecki, Candace Savage (who won last year) and Andreas Schroeder—crafted the shortlist after reading 107 submitted titles. Only then were they joined by two additional jurors, Samantha Nutt, founder and executive director of War Child Canada, and CBC broadcast journalist Evan Solomon. The process seems fraught with conflict potential, but Niedzviecki and Savage agreed it was not just peacable and respectful but actually helpful.
“We were becoming a kind of single melded individual,” says Niedzviecki, a sentiment echoed by Savage, who says “we were starting to trim our opinions to suit each other—this new stage meant a fresh perspective.”
Solomon says he and Nutt were very aware the others had done much more work. “We had to accept the five books as the best on offer and the others had to accept we’d be part of the decision. In the end, Smith emerged from a general consensus.”