Saturday, November 1, 2014
Q&A: SALEEMA NAWAZ
Every year the Writers’ Trust / McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize is awarded ‘to a new and developing writer of distinction for a short story published in a Canadian literary publication’. Prior to the Prize three finalists are announced and a diverse anthology of notable stories is selected by three acclaimed jurors. The Journey Prize Stories 26 (McClelland & Stewart) was released on October 7th. This year’s finalists are Tyler Keevil for “Sealskin”, Lori McNulty for “Monsoon Season”, and Clea Young for “Juvenile”. The winner will be announced on November 4.
I asked juror and Journey Prize 20 winner Saleema Nawaz (Mother Superior & Bone and Bread) to give us a hint about what goes on behind the lauded book.
- Brad de Roo, who almost neglected to mention that he’s first read many of Canada’s many celebrated short fiction writers, like Lee Henderson, Rebecca Rosenblum, Neil Smith, Doretta Lau, Anna Leventhal, and Saleema Nawaz in Journey’s bustling pages.
Can you talk a little about the process of selecting this year's anthology?
All the jury members have several months with the stories. I read all the stories several times and made detailed notes. The others, I’m sure, did the same. Then I submitted a longlist, which was compiled by McClelland & Stewart along with the longlists of the other jurors and sent out to each of us. Altogether, this gave us a list of around 30 stories – around a third of the total number of stories that had been submitted and read.
Once we had each been sent that list, we went back and re-read all of those stories, including our own initial selections. I know I did a lot of careful evaluating and reassessing at this stage, and my own sense of the relative merits of the pieces definitely shifted and evolved as I spent more time with them.
A number of our choices overlapped, but we didn’t find out which ones until several weeks later when we got together. It was only at that point that it was revealed which juror(s) had selected each story.
How much discussion was there between the jury, which this year also included Craig Davidson and Steven Beattie?
There was a full day of discussion between the jury members. We went methodically through the list of 30 stories, spending as much time as necessary in order to achieve consensus – even if the consensus was that we were not all in agreement and needed to return to it later. Generally, one of the jurors who had included a story on the longlist began by discussing that story’s merits and the conversation would go on from there.
We all tried to be open about our preferences and blind spots (as much as we were aware of them, I suppose!), and it was a really productive and interesting deliberation. I think we did each engage in a little bit of strategizing and horse-trading (e.g. it would make sense to let go of a favourite that the other two didn’t like nearly as much, in order to make a stronger case for another that might have more traction), but what I liked most about the process was that it was truly collaborative, respectful, and non-combative. I fully support all of the stories we ended up selecting, and I think the other jurors would say the same thing.
I think it is also worth mentioning that the process was completely anonymous until all the decisions had been made. The system is even more stringent than I had guessed, as I thought we might find out who the authors were once we were all assembled to discuss our longlist. But we had no idea who had written the stories or which journals had published them until afterwards.
Was the process of sequencing stories at all comparable to how you assembled your own collection, Mother Superior? Or does the flow of the anthology take a backseat to selecting the right stories?
For the Journey anthology, I can definitely say the flow took a backseat to the selection. The selection process took most of the day, and the sequencing came at the end and it happened quite quickly. I actually don’t remember very much about the sequencing decisions except for a basic desire to space out the funnier pieces.
For Mother Superior, there were fewer stories to contend with. I placed the novellas last because it felt most natural, due to their length, and the title story first, for similar conventional reasons. As for the ones in the middle, I’m afraid no longer have any memory of what factors may have come into play!
Besides, the Journey Prize Anthology, where's the best place to find Canadian stories these days?
If you take a look at the Table of Contents of the Journey anthology, it will give you a good idea of some of the excellent journals you should be reading: The New Quarterly, The Fiddlehead, Prairie Fire, etc.
Occasionally, I've seen literary prizes described as devaluing individual artistic expression by putting it in competition? Do you see any truth in this criticism? If not, why are prizes important?
I think prizes celebrate, not devalue, artistic expression. But it’s true that sometimes a jury is forced to compare apples and oranges. Depending on who wins, maybe the oranges or the apples will feel devalued that year. But overall, I think the dissatisfaction with prizes comes from the premium placed upon them in the culture. If you’re a writer, it’s easy to feel as though everything hinges upon your novel being shortlisted for the Giller. And given how hard it can be to get the public to notice a book in the first place, it’s hard to blame anyone for feeling that way.
The sad truth is that there are many worthy titles that come and go without ever managing to attract public attention. That being said, I don’t think eliminating prizes is the answer. Prizes put much needed funding in the pockets of writers and bring welcome attention to their books. I’m all for celebrating the hard work of writers – it’s important in such a solitary vocation in which one can rarely expect very much in the way of external rewards.