A new chapter in Canadian Jewish literature was opened on Sept. 29 as the inaugural Vine Awards for Canadian Jewish Literature – featuring five literary prizes, each worth $10,000 – were handed out at a posh luncheon for authors, publishers and the media at the Four Seasons Hotel on Yorkville Avenue in Toronto.
The awards were hosted by the Koffler Centre of the Arts and funded by a generous donation from the Norman and Lillian Glowinsky Family Foundation. Although the Koffler had placed an embargo on publicizing the names of the winners until after the event, most people in the room seemed to know. There was plenty of excitement, but little suspense as each award was handed out to rousing applause.
First to be named was David Bezmozgis, who won the fiction prize for his novel The Betrayers (Harper Collins). Bezmozgis did not hide the fact that he already knew who the other winners were and graciously heaped praise on them. He said he read all the shortlisted books in the fiction category. “It’s a rare instance that I’ve read all of the …books and I’m good friends with some of the writers,” he said. “I recommend all of their books.” *
Mark Celinscak won the non-fiction prize for Distance from the Belsen Heap: Allied Forces and the Liberation of a Nazi Concentration Camp (University of Toronto). In his remarks, he paid tribute to the Centre for Jewish Studies at York University and said he “would not be standing here today” but for the Centre, which he described as “an engaging intellectual environment and a constant source of support.”
The Holocaust also figures largely in Beverley Chalmers’ book Birth, Sex and Abuse: Women’s Voices under Nazi Rule (Grosvenor House), which took the history prize. (The same book won the Holocaust literature prize at the Canadian Jewish Literary Awards last fall.)
Daniel Goodwin won for poetry for his collection Catullus’s Soldiers (Cormorant). “It’s a tremendous surprise just to be nominated,” the Calgary-based author told The CJN. “This is my first book of poetry, and poetry is not necessarily the most popular genre. Any award that brings attention to poetry is always welcome.”
Also the author of a novel, Goodwin added: “Poetry and fiction are very different. Poetry is like running a 100-metre dash, whereas fiction is like running a marathon. My poetry often makes use of narrative and my fiction, I like to think, sometimes rises to the level of poetry. It’s a bit like being ambidextrous.”
The award in the children/young adult category went to Emil Sher for Young Man with Camera (Scholastic), which the jury described as “a new creative approach to telling a story to a young audience capturing the voice and angst of a youth amid a myriad of social pressures.”
Pierre Anctil, an Ottawa history professor and one of three jury members, told The CJN that he looked at close to 100 books that were submitted representing the years 2014 and 2015. (The Vine Awards, previously known as the Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Awards, took a hiatus last year as they were being reorganized). The other jury members are Devyani Saltzman and Laurence Siegel.
“It’s a very enriching experience to be a jury member, because you get to read all the books that are produced in Canada in the English language involving Jewish history and fiction and other categories,” Anctil said. “Of course, you also have to come to a conclusion about the books within a reasonable amount of time.”
The newly reconstituted Vine Awards seem modelled on the annual Giller Prize ceremony, which generates media buzz by giving out a large annual literary prize at exclusive events for publishing-industry insiders.
“The Giller is very large, very formal, very showy, but also very effective,” Cynthia Good, former Penguin president and publisher, and a recent addition to the Koffler board, told The CJN.
“Any time a book wins an award, it does receive wider attention,” she said. “Awards have a big effect on sales, media, and readers. My hope would be that these awards get people talking about books – and not necessarily because they are associated with a particular culture.”
Koffler executive director Cathy Jonasson and board chair Tiana Koffler Boyman both welcomed the assembled guests.
Koffler Boyman also noted that the “founding momentum of the awards came from professor emeritus Adam Fuerstenberg” who started the former Canadian Jewish Book Awards in 1988 and who died last January. “His life was dedicated to Jewish literature and culture,” she said. “Through the perpetuation of these awards, his legacy continues.
* Correction: An earlier version of this story said David Bezmozgis read all of the winning entries. In fact, Bezmozgis said he had read all of the shortlisted books (in the fiction category), not all of the winning books in the 2016 Vine Awards. The CJN regrets the error.