Two York faculty members win 2007 Governor General’s Awards

York faculty members Karolyn Smardz Frost and Michael Ondaatje each received a coveted 2007 Governor General’s Literary Award on Tuesday. Smardz Frost, part of the Atkinson Faculty of LIberal & Professional Studies, received her first GG in the non-fiction category for her book I’ve Got a Home in Gloryland: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad, while Glendon’s Ondaatje picked up the award in the fiction category for his fifth book Divisadero, which coincidentally is also his fifth GG.

The winners were announced by Simon Brault, vice-chair of the Canada Council for the Arts, and Melanie Rutledge, head of the Council’s Writing & Publishing section, at a news conference in Montreal. They will be presented with their awards by Michaëlle Jean, Governor General of Canada, at Rideau Hall on Dec. 13. This year marks the 71st presentation of the GGs, Canada’s oldest and most prestigious awards for English- and French-language Canadian literature.

Smardz Frost’s book presents the absorbing story of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, two fugitive slaves from Kentucky who made a daring daylight escape from slavery in 1831.

The book was described by the GG jury as "a triumphant blend of archaeological and historical research with literary story-telling. Karolyn Smardz Frost uses the flight of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn from slavery in Kentucky to freedom in Toronto to bring the Underground Railroad and its passengers to life in remarkably rich detail. Moving and informative in the best sense, the book will become an instant classic."

Winners were informed well before Tuesday’s announcement. Yet Smardz Frost, who wasn’t available yesterday, told The Record (Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge) on Tuesday:  "I didn’t believe I had won, until today."

Her epic account portrays the Blackburns’ extraordinary life and their struggle for freedom – the choices they made, the dangers they faced, and the courage they had to forge ahead and create new lives for themselves. It is both a devastating portrait of the conditions – and the politics – of slavery and an inspiring account of two intrepid fugitive slaves whose flight to freedom changed the history of Canada and the United States.

"It’s an honour for the Blackburns," said Smardz Frost. "Theirs is a love story, a heroic story, a story that unearths over 120 years of race history on both sides of the US-Canadian border."

Right: Karolyn Smardz Frost. Photograph by Jerry Bauer.

In 1985, during a public excavation at the Sackville Street School playground in Toronto, Frost discovered traces of a house, shed and cellar. Municipal records revealed that the original landowner was "Thornton Blackburn, cabman, coloured." As the excavation progressed, intriguing clues arose about the past of the couple who lived there. The trail led to a late-19th-century newspaper article printed in the Toronto Telegram. It credited Thornton and Lucie Blackburn as Toronto’s first taxicab business owners.

So began more than 20 years of historical detective work. Frost’s research revealed that the Blackburns were more than just fugitive slaves, but also history makers – heroic individuals who paved the way to freedom for themselves and others.

For Smardz Frost, a Toronto-born archaeologist and contract faculty member in the Atkinson School of Arts & Letters, her book represents thousands of lost voices from the past – forgotten accounts that are stumbled upon by accident and yet leave an indelible mark. (For more on her telling of the Blackburn saga, see YFile, Nov. 1, 2007.)

Ondaatje, who holds a professorship in Glendon’s English Department, has produced a stream of poetry, theatre and fiction that has been widely acclaimed. This is his fifth Governor General’s Literary Award, tying him for the most awards with Canadian literary Hugh MacLennan (Two Solitudes). Previously, he has won twice in the poetry category for The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970) and There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do (1979); and twice in fiction for The English Patient (1992) and Anil’s Ghost (2000).

"Lyricism and whimsy are necessary ingredients of brilliant narrative language, and Michael Ondaatje achieves this magnificently in Divisadero," said the GG jury. "He establishes, in excellent measure, his mastery of poetic seduction, while mindful to include tenderness, compassion and grace. Grace, after all, is the ultimate gift which Ondaatje offers us in Divisadero."

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Ondaatje took a philosophical approach to winning his fifth Governor General’s Award and to tying the record set by MacLennan. "I take one book at a time so it’s not like a stamp collection," Ondaatje said. "I don’t have that ambition. But it feels very personal and this book for me was a very personal book and difficult book and risky book so it meant a lot to get the award for this book."

Left: Michael Ondaatje. Photograph by Jeff Nolte.

Other individuals with connections to York who were nominated for the 2007 Governor General’s Literary Awards include: York biology Professor Bridget Stutchbury for her book Silence of the Songbirds, in the non-fiction category; recent York Historica Chair lecturer John English for his book for Citizen of the World: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Volume One: 1919-1968, in the non-fiction category; York alumnus David Chariandy (PhD ’02), for his debut novel Soucouyant, in the fiction category; and York honorary doctorate recipient M.G. Vassanji for his book The Assassin’s Song, in the fiction category. 

A total of 1,417 books were nominated for this year’s GG literary awards. The Canada Council for the Arts funds, administers and promotes the Governor General’s Literary Awards. For the first time, the value of each award will be $25,000, increased from $15,000 in celebration of the Canada Council’s 50th anniversary. The publisher of each winning book will receive $3,000 to support promotional activities. Non-winning finalists will each receive $1,000 in recognition of their selection as finalists, bringing the total value of the awards to approximately $450,000.

For more information about the 2007 GGs, visit the Canada Council Web site.