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Gender disparity in Canadian publishing inspires Rosalind Prize

The panel that inspired the prize: Gillian Jerome, Kate Mosse, Gail Jones, and Susan Swan (Photo: Chris Cameron)

When she returned to Toronto from the Vancouver Writers Fest, Janice Zawerbny had no clue that word had spread so quickly about her idea to start the Rosalind Prize, a literary award that will recognize fiction written by Canadian women.

“It’s less than a week old,” says Zawerbny, editorial director at Thomas Allen Publishers. “It’s still an idea, but the onslaught of emails I’ve received has been overwhelming. I’m happy that this is taking off, even if it is a lot faster than I anticipated.”

Zawerbny was inspired to action after attending a panel at the Vancouver festival, where U.K. Orange Prize founder Kate Mosse, Canadian author Susan Swan (whose Facebook post was most likely what drew attention to the award’s conception), Australian novelist and professor Gail Jones, and poet Gillian Jerome, who earlier this year founded Canadian Women in the Literary Arts, discussed statistics around gender parity in publishing and book prizes.

“I thought things were fine and equal here in Canada. I didn’t realize the disparity until looking at the hard numbers,” says Zawerbny. “It was really disheartening. Why is this happening in this day and age? It became the impetus or the rallying cry, sitting in the auditorium.”

Zawerbny, who plans to call on Mosse for support and advice, has plenty of work ahead of her developing the prize’s structure, recruiting a board of directors, and signing sponsors. She expects the first award to be handed out late 2014.

Although the Orange Prize lost its namesake sponsorship earlier this year, several high-profile corporations such as Apple and Kobo are said to be courting the organization. Zawerbny is confident there will be similar interest from Canadian companies for the Rosalind. “I do think there are people in corporations that will support it,” she says. “Right now it’s just doing the legwork to find them.”

Even with all the supportive emails she’s received, however, Zawerbny is aware that some people think a literary prize solely for women is unnecessary and even harmful to the cause, but believes the backlash shows that there really is a need for this kind of award.

She says the prize’s name – which doubly refers to the protagonist from Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It and British biophysicist Rosalind Franklin – has also drawn some disapproval for not having a Canadian connection or explicitly referring to the gender it represents.

“I thought it was literary, elegant, and feminine, without calling it a prize for women,” says Zawerbny, who says she would entertain a name change by sponsor request.