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Madeleine Thien ‘Overwhelmed’ by Governor General’s Literary Award Win

TORONTO — Madeleine Thien’s remarkable run of critical accolades continued on Tuesday with the Montreal-based author winning the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction for “Do Not Say We Have Nothing.”

“I was quite overwhelmed. The GG is very, very special,” the Vancouver-born Thien said in a phone interview with The Canadian Press.

“The list of nominated books and GG winners, it’s the canon of our literature…. It’s sort of set the tone for how we imagine Canada in literature, in fiction, in poetry, in so many forms — French and English.

“It was very meaningful for me. I was quite emotional.”

Thien’s novel had the chance to score a rare literary double win, as it was also in contention for the prestigious Man Booker Prize being handed out on Tuesday. But the award was given to American author Paul Beatty for “The Sellout.”

“This has been one of the most intense days of my life, I think, and it was magical from beginning to end,” Thien said from London following the Man Booker Prize ceremony.

“The dinner, being with the other writers, the excitement around it, the opening it gives us to talk about what we want from literature, what are the freedoms available to us from literature — that’s been very powerful.”

Set in China before, during and after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, Thien’s novel has skyrocketed to the top of the bestseller list and emerged among the most acclaimed titles of the season. “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” (Knopf Canada) has also been shortlisted for the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize being handed out next month.

Michael Ondaatje remains the only Canadian author to receive both the Governor General Literary Award and the Man Booker Prize in the same year, receiving the dual honour in 1992 for “The English Patient.”

Saskatoon’s Bill Waiser received the Governor General’s Literary Award in the non-fiction category for “A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905” (Fifth House Publishers), which explores the early history of Saskatchewan through an aboriginal and environmental lens.

Montreal-based Lazer Lederhendler was honoured in the translation (French to English) category for the Giller-nominated “The Party Wall” (Biblioasis) written by Catherine Leroux.

Rounding out the list of winners are:

— Poetry: “The Waking Comes Late” by Steven Heighton of Kingston, Ont.

— Drama: “Pig Girl” by Colleen Murphy of Toronto

— Young people’s literature (text): “Calvin” by Martine Leavitt of High River, Alta.

— Young people’s literature (illustrated books): “Tokyo Digs a Garden” by Jon-Erik Lappano and Kellen Hatanaka (Guelph, Ont./Stratford, Ont.)

“2016 is an excellent vintage for the GG Awards — full-bodied, nuanced, and sure to satisfy the palates of a discerning public eager to discover new and meaningful worlds,” said Simon Brault, director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts.

Commemorating its 80th anniversary, the Governor General’s Literary Awards have celebrated more than 700 works by more than 500 authors, poets, playwrights, translators and illustrators.

When the awards launched in 1936, only fiction and non-fiction titles were honoured. The inaugural fiction prize winner was Bertram Brooker for his debut novel “Think of the Earth.” The first non-fiction award was given to Thomas Beattie Roberton for “T.B.R. Newspaper Pieces.”

In the years since, some of the most legendary figures in Canadian literature have been among the award recipients, including Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood and the late Carol Shields, Pierre Berton and Mordecai Richler.

The Canada Council for the Arts administers the awards, which include nearly $450,000 annually in prizes. Each winner, chosen by peer assessment committees, receives $25,000. The other finalists are each awarded $1,000.

In celebration of the 80th anniversary, the exhibition “People, Places, Things: Reading GG Books” will be on display at Ajagemo art space at 150 Elgin St. in Ottawa until next February.

The awards will be presented by Gov. Gen. David Johnston in a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Nov. 30.

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