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Graeme Smith’s war memoir wins Weston Prize

Former Globe and Mail foreign correspondent Graeme Smith has won the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction for The Dogs Are Eating Them, a searing memoir about his time covering the Afghanistan war from 2005 to ’09.

Smith, who now works in Kabul as a senior analyst for the think tank International Crisis Group, was in Toronto Tuesday night to accept the prize. He told Q&Q after the ceremony that the book was a form of “personal therapy” allowing him to put years of reporting in a broader context.

“It contains a lot of spit and vitriol and ranting, and it was a way for me to process a lot of things I had seen,” he said.

Smith added that he did not set out to draw conclusions about Canada’s role in the war in Afghanistan. “I was looking to give you the texture on the ground that might reveal why it went wrong,” he said. “I was hoping that somewhere in all those hours of audio [of interviews] I would find the perfect scene, the perfect dialogue that might explain why it all went sideways. I think I failed at that, but along the way the book got born.”

The Dogs Are Eating Them is the second Knopf Canada title to win the Weston Prize since its inception three years ago. Charles Foran’s literary biography Mordecai won in the prize’s inaugural year.

Juror Candace Savage, last year’s Weston Prize winner for A Geography of Blood (Greystone Books), said the only criterion for the prize is “literary excellence,” which the jury “worked very hard” to define.

“In the end, we looked for books in which the author had come close to achieving what he or she had set out to do,” Savage said. “It was the quality of the storytelling in Graeme Smith’s book that won the jury over, his ability to persuade people like me, who don’t want to be taken into the war in Afghanistan, to go there with him and take the subject seriously, to feel and think what needs to be felt and thought.”

The shortlist was selected by a jury comprising Savage, Toronto author and critic Hal Niedzviecki, and Andreas Schroeder, who holds the Rogers Communications Chair in Creative Non-fiction at the University of British Columbia. Two other jurors helped select the winner: War Child Canada founder and executive director Samantha Nutt and CBC broadcaster Evan Solomon.

Savage said the additional jurors helped streamline the process. “It made the choice easier because, out of five, there was a majority choice that might not have been there out of the three,” she said.

Smith’s memoir was nominated alongside Thomas King’s essay collection The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (Doubleday Canada); J.B. MacKinnon’s paean to wildlife The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be (Random House Canada); Andrew Steinmetz’s genre-bending biography This Great Escape: The Case of Michael Paryla (Biblioasis); and Priscila Uppal’s Govenor General’s Literary Award”“nominated memoir Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother (Dundurn Press). Each finalist received $5,000.