The Indiegogo campaign that began in May as a response to a group of Canadian media professionals who publicly joked on Twitter about backing a prize for cultural appropriation in literature has brought about a new series of awards for emerging Indigenous writers in Canada.
Administered by the Indigenous Literary Studies Association, the new Indigenous Voices Awards were officially announced at the Vancouver Writers’ Fest on Oct. 21, with a second launch event held at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto on Oct. 26. Authors, academics, and media figures, including Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Virginia Pésémapéo Bordeleau, Rachel Qitsualik-Tinsley, Gregory Scofield, Richard Van Camp, Rodney Saint-Éloi, and Shelagh Rogers, were named as jurors.
“Our priorities there were to have representation from various Indigenous communities, differently gendered people, and because the prize is a response to certain views on Canadian-ness, some settler figures as well. So we have predominantly Indigenous jurors, and some Francophone and Anglophone jurors,” says Sam McKegney, a Queen’s University English professor and ILSA board member. “It was quite straightforward to put together a jury because people are inspired by the work to be done and eager to participate.”
Of the $116,565 raised (through crowdfunding campaigns by lawyer Robin Parker and author Silvia Moreno-Garcia), a $2,000 prize will be presented in each of five categories for unpublished work: best prose piece (English and French), best poetic piece (English and French), and best piece in, or incorporating significant use of, Indigenous language. Winners in three published categories – most significant book of prose, book of poetry, and work in an alternative format – will receive $5,000 each.
McKegney says the focus on recognizing unpublished work in the inaugural year serves to underscore the ethos of encouraging creativity among emerging, underrepresented authors. “We wanted to think of ways to really breathe a bit of air onto the spark of inspiration felt by Indigenous people who are creating in their own way, and really want to affect folks who haven’t yet approached publishers or had their voices heard in a public forum,” he says. In future years, ILSA hopes to expand its support for established authors who often go unrecognized in the traditional Canadian literary world and who help “contribute to a healthy writerly community of Indigenous literary artists in Canada,” McKegney says. “We need to be raising up those voices as well.”
A mentorship program to fly award-shortlisted authors to meet with publishers and agents in Regina is also in the works, dependent on further fundraising.