Returning to Theatre Aquarius for the 29th Annual Hamilton Literary Awards felt like coming home. Having run the Awards myself for close to a decade, and after two years of virtual events, the chance to attend the in-person was a welcome change. And I wasn’t the only one feeling this way.
This year’s ceremony at the Norman and Louise Haac Studio was a crowded house with audiences cozying up to vendors, catering tables and Cable 14 cameras. Given the night was a celebration of the best in this year’s Hamilton literary scene, the buzzy crowd was great to see.
With so many guests in attendance, representatives from both the Hamilton Arts Council (HAC) and the Hamilton Public Library spoke of the value of the supporters and sponsors of the Awards. What resonated deeper for me was the statement that nobody ushers a book into the world on their own. Even though, as acclaimed Hamilton-based QWOC (queer woman of colour) writer and editor Anuja Varghes reminded us, writing is so often a solitary and lonely artform. Perhaps it’s because this facet is so deeply ingrained in our identities as writers that the importance of a celebration like the awards is so significant. As Anuja introduced each author to the podium to read from their work, I was reminded of how diverse and disparate our city’s literary community has become.
The three top contenders for Fiction; Gary Barwin, Pasha Malla, and Joe Ollmann all offered different approaches to storytelling. Barwin read with his trademark wit and even sang several choral passages from Nothing The Same, Everything Haunted. He was followed by Pasha Malla, who offered a very funny story of a UofT lit professor who believed the inclusion of a pony named Gary in his Kill the Mall was a metaphor for the rivalry between himself and Barwin… a rivalry that doesn’t even exist. I had to wonder if the belief in such a rivalry means Hamilton’s literary scene has reached some unorthodox level of Canadian notoriety I’m unaware of. And, speaking of unorthodox, Joe Ollmann commented on how progressive it was for his graphic novel (a fancy name for a comic book) Fictional Father to be among a selection of what he called ‘regular books’. Ollmann then read from his work while an accompanying slide-show showed off panels from the work.
The most powerful readings came from the Non-Fiction category as each nominee tackled immediate issues and very personal stories. Acclaimed journalist Denise Davy read from Her Name was Margaret, chronicling the life and death of Margaret Jacobson, a Hamilton woman who fell into poverty due to maternal illness. Davy spoke of how Margaret became a window to her writing about the homeless epidemic. Indigenous author Dawn Cheryll Hill then read a harrowing account of her escape from an abusive relationship in Memory Keeper. Published by Ojistoh Publishing, the book was praised both for Hill’s account of the intergenerational trauma caused by residential schools as well as her inclusion of workbooks to assist readers in processing the difficult subject matter.
The theme of familial trauma continued with Jolie Phuong Hoang’s Three Funerals for My Father, an account of her family’s escape from Vietnam alternating from both her perspective and that of her father’s ghost.
Local literary icon, and consistent Lit Award nominee, Bernadette Rule originally hails from Kentucky. This year, her daughter read from Dark Fire, in which Rule fictionalized a 100-year-old massacre from her home state’s tobacco country. The last reader was researcher and author Margaret Nowaczyk who offered a chapter from her own life story in Chasing Zebras, a memoir of both her journey as a pediatric geneticist and professor at McMaster University alongside her struggles with mental illness.
As we heard readings from the three contenders for the Poetry Book Award, it struck me how singular and focused the act of writing a poem needs to be. Indeed, each author offered only the briefest of remarks on their craft while allowing the poetry to speak for them. Michael Mirolla, freelance editor and publisher of Guernica Editions, read from his collection At the End of the World. Hamilton literary icon John Terpstra recalled his attendance at the first Hamilton Literary Awards (he remarked that was back when the NDP were in government!) before reading from his collection Call Me Home. Finally, author Jaclyn Desforges who also wrote the picture book Why Are You So Quiet spoke of how her collection Danger Flower was written during her time as a new mom so she thanked the many babysitters who helped along the way.
Speaking with the HAC’s Megan Divecha, I noted how exciting it was to see so many established authors alongside more than a few new faces. And that dynamic played out when the winners were announced. Jaclyn Desforge, part of the emerging generation of Hamilton’s literary scene, took home the Award for Poetry. By his own admission, Joe Ollmann has lost a lot of awards in the past but this evening was not one of them as he took home the Award for Fiction. And, finally, Denise Davy scored both the Non-Fiction and the Kerry Schooley Book Award and she thanked both Margaret and her publisher Noelle Allen at Wolsak & Wynn for helping to shepherd the book to life. As a capstone to an evening of celebrating storytelling in Hamilton, Davy said it best when she remarked that this city’s literary landscape is amazing… and is growing every year.
See you at next year’s awards.
Editor’s Note: As part of our values, it is noted that in addition to his role as a columnist for Beyond James, Stephen Near served as an adjudicator for the Kerry Schooley Book Award for the 29th Annual Hamilton Literary Awards.