Thursday, February 2, 2023

Near and Now: The Enduring Legacy of the Literary Awards

For the better part of a decade, while I was part of the Hamilton Arts Council, I was deeply involved in the planning and delivery of the Hamilton Literary Awards. The annual event, which returns Monday, December 12th, recognizes local authors and celebrates local stories in a variety of literary genres including fiction, non-fiction and poetry. An important touchstone in the cultural landscape of the city, the Awards are an important reminder that Hamilton is a city with a rich literary tradition that deserves to be celebrated.

Now in their 29th year, the Literary Awards had their start in the 90s under the oversight of what was then known as the Hamilton and Region Arts Council. Archived records reveal some of the first winners in these early years not only included the aforementioned book awards but also non-fiction articles, short stories and individual poems. The names of the early award recipients reads as a tally of some of this city’s most noteworthy storytellers. Authors like John Terpstra, Sylvia McNicoll, Jean Rae Baxter, Susan Evans Shaw, Marilyn Gear Pilling, Gary Barwin, Chris Pannell and Dave Haskins have all shaped the community’s literary landscape and, thereby, influenced the Literary Awards as they are today.

The process of adjudicating the award submissions starts early. “Planning for the ceremony begins in the spring,” says Megan Divecha, the Programs & Community Engagement Administrator for the Hamilton Arts Council. “We work with our valued volunteer committee of literary arts professionals to review and prepare any updated guidelines and criteria for eligible submissions. Once the call for submissions is announced, authors and publishers begin submitting published works, as we bring together an adjudication panel. We have a dedicated twelve-person adjudication panel, with three adjudicators in each category; Fiction, Non-Fiction, Poetry and the Kerry Schooley Book Award. There is a two month period for adjudicators to read and score each book in their category”.

Although past awards recognized shorter format entries, the Awards were changed in 2013 to not only focus on published books in fiction, non-fiction and poetry but to accommodate the addition of the Kerry Schooley Book Award, named in honour of the late Kerry Schooley. As Megan says, “Schooley was a poet, publisher, editor and noir-fiction writer. He helped establish the LitLive Reading Series and assisted with the Kairos Literacy Society and GritLit Festival. An active member of the Tower Poetry Society, Schooley contributed to the foundation for many successful literary arts programs we still have today. The Kerry Schooley Book Award is awarded to the author whose book is most evocative of the City of Hamilton and/or the surrounding area. The award continues to be incredibly relevant and aligned with our continued appreciation to those who have paved the way for Hamilton’s influential and diverse creative communities.” This year, three books are nominated for this Award: Her Name Was Margaret by Denise Davy, Kill the Mall by Pasha Malla, and Chasing Zebras by Margaret Nowaczyk.

The Awards have been held in many venues over the years, but they are perhaps most closely associated with Theatre Aquarius which has been the consistent presenting venue since 2010. As Megan tells me, “our return to an in-person Ceremony this year will be especially meaningful, as the Awards have not been celebrated in-person since December of 2019”. As hosted by local author and arts advocate Anuja Varghese, Megan says the Awards promise “a fantastic evening for community members to interact with the shortlisted authors, hear excerpts from their works and have the chance to interact with local booksellers, publishers and key figures in the literary community,” and adds that the Awards, “create a purposeful and inclusive space to share, listen and celebrate.”

During my time at the Arts Council, the planning and execution of the Awards was a tremendously rewarding project and a highlight of my time with the organization. It’s a sentiment that is echoed by Megan, as well. “As the Program Coordinator, the most rewarding part of working on the Literary Awards is being witness to the community in support of the Shortlisted authors. Bringing people together in the spirit of shared appreciation for literature continues to be one of the most significant impacts for all who attend. As an arts lover, the most intriguing part of the Awards is the opportunity to connect with the authors one-on-one and hear their stories first-hand, through excerpt readings. I have truly felt encouraged by so many arts and cultural organizations in Hamilton.”

To learn more about the Literary Awards, purchase tickets for this year’s Ceremony and to discover information on next year’s 30th anniversary of the program, you can visit: www.hamiltonartscouncil.ca/literary-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.

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