By Janet Somerville
What an erudite, diverse and articulate group it was: Kamal Al-Solaylee, Modris Eksteins, Taras Grescoe, JJ Lee, and Candace Savage. The Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction Finalists appeared in conversation with host Rachel Giese on Sunday afternoon, framing their discussion around the idea of research and revelation.
Each described their book in shorthand. Al-Solaylee said his memoir “came out of anger, frustration, and fear” and he exists in Intolerable in relation to his family and the politics of the Middle East during the past 30-40 years. Eksteins charmed the crowd, claiming, “I feel like the ancient mariner in this regatta of youth that surrounds me,” and noted that Solar Dance is grounded in the enigma of Van Gogh—”a miserable failure in the 19th Century who became one of the greatest successes in the 20th Century.” For him, “history is an explanation with a question mark at the end.”
Lee entranced with an anecdote about his violent alcoholic father whose suit he inherited, which he used “as a playground, as an autopsy, as a shadow of my father” in The Measure of a Man.
Savage wondered if “maybe big sky and big silence promote deep thoughts” and that the difficulties she experienced in her beloved prairie landscape were “not an inconvenience, but an intervention” that inspired her to write A Geography of Blood.
Research took Eksteins to an archive that turned up “a chameleon fraud artist—a dancer-turned-art dealer who sold fake Van Goghs in the 1920s.” He mused that by imposing some “truth” about history that he is a sort of trickster himself, something that he has “struggled with all along.”
Two images that thread together Lee’s narrative are the suit and the knot. Noting that even on Bay Street men have “all of the buttons on their suit jackets closed when the bottom one ought to be left open,” Lee explained that in sartorial history that open button implied a certain way of living. Those men rode horses and, ergo, were wealthy. About the knot in his tie, Lee noted he was a half-Windsor man—that “intertwined discourse between father and son showed me what it took to be a man.” What I found curious was that he appeared on stage in a bowtie, the half-Windsor a shadow memory, a subconscious way of distancing himself from his father’s influence, perhaps.
Throughout the hour the writers exchanged smart, snappy, thought-provoking commentary that made me feel that I’d spent an afternoon in the company of the brightest and best. As Eksteins reminded us, “Great literature stirs the imagination and feeds the soul.” The winner of the 60K prize will be announced on Monday November 12th and I honestly cannot predict who that will be, such a strong list it is.