Saturday, November 9, 2013

Alice Munro Wins the Nobel Prize: A Polish-Canadian Perspective

Przeglad Polski, a Polish-language monthly published in the United States, recently asked four Polish-Canadian writers--Eva Stachniak, Jowita Bydlowska, Aga Maksimowska, and yours truly--to contribute our reactions to Alice Munro's recent Nobel Prize for Literature win. You can read all four of our pieces in Polish at, as published in their November 2013 issue. Here's my contribution in English:

For writers and publishers here in Canada, Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize win is a victory on several fronts. Not unlike Poland, Canada is a secondary power economically and politically, and a country which has struggled to have its stories told. Munro’s win is the crowning achievement of a 50-year effort involving thousands of Canadian writers, booksellers, agents and editorial workers to build a literary presence in the face of the mounting “globalization” of cultural industries. It’s only fitting that our first Nobel literary laureate should be a woman; women play a vital role in Canadian letters, not only as writers but also as editors, librarians, teachers, organizers of book clubs, and above all as readers.  It’s also fitting that our Nobel winner should be a writer of short stories. We excel at short fiction—Canadians Mavis Gallant and Morley Callaghan being two authors whom I’d include with Munro on a list of the greatest short story writers of all time. Short stories are out of favour in publishing circles nowadays, and we can be thankful that Munro has remained loyal to the form. Finally, at a time when authors everywhere are feeling pressured to forsake the localities that have inspired them and write for “international” markets, we can also be thankful that Munro’s fiction has remained faithful to its small-town Canadian roots. The Nobel jury’s decision to honour her work affirms that literature is often at its most powerful when it communicates universal truth by describing a particular human experience.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Edinburgh World Writer's Conference @ IFOA

I've been appointed a delegate to the Edinburgh World Writer's Conference Canadian Section which is happening this week at the International Festival of Authors at Harbourfront. As a delegate, I go to panel discussions offered under the EWWC banner, sit in the front row, ask questions, contribute to the discussion. We're also invited to Tweet (which hasn't caught up to me yet) and/or blog (which has).

Thursday night's session was a two-part keynote address delivered by Britain's China Mieville and Canada's Miriam Toews. Mieville's analysis of the future of the novel was smart, funny, irreverent, and to the point. The gist: it's time writers recognized that the world has changed irrevocably; copyright and creative control of a work of art vanish once they're in the digital realm and we have to be prepared for a world in which fans, amateurs, and virtual revisionists will tamper cut and paste, alter, and generally play with our work. The business model for publishing is finished and copyright is meaningful only to those under the illusion that there's still money to be made in the marketplace by producing books. His suggestion: that a new system for establishing merit be established and that recognized authors be put on salary--a daring proposal in the current economic climate.

Toews delivered a reflection on the viability of a "National Literature" in today's world and confessed that she was dubious of the idea, largely because it opens the door to an author's becoming subject to artificial constraints and obligations imposed by prescribed notions of what a national literature should be. As an author, she said, you are "not a soldier." Your first duty is to "serve your story." And the only true literature is one that is constantly "falling short of certainty."

Hard to quibble with these fine speakers. The only caveat I would add to the discussion is that at the heart of the literary experience is a sense of the particular: of the individual reader engaging with an individual author who has concentrated whatever time, effort and talent they can muster to lend shape to the chaotic flow of our lives. Bring on the fiddlers and tamperers, but let's not forget what's at the heart of this process and do what we can to ensure that the particular voice of the dedicated author survives. Similarly, I think it's important that national voices are preserved. These too, are particular voices, however artificial the definitions we lend them. It's important we keep those definitions loose, but I value a world in which an Irish literature, a Kenyan literature, and a Canadian literature can exist side by side, if only as constructs that ensure that voices from all parts of the world are heard.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

On Winning the 2012 Toronto Book Award

...and the winner is ...

I seem to remember bowing my head, readying my neck for the blow as City Councillor Gary Crawford fingered the envelope. Being half Polish, I’m genetically conditioned to prepare myself for the worst.  


That’s all I heard—the first syllable of my name, then a whoop from the Cormorant cheering section. Then everything went silent for a few seconds until Martha shook me awake saying “OhmyGod, Andrew. You’ve WON!”

My life didn’t flash before my eyes, but maybe the life of my book, Copernicus Avenue, did: thinking “You know, this book actually isn’t bad,” when I read over the final proofs; thinking “You know, this book just might be good,” when I read the reviews in National Post and the Globe and Mail; thinking “Wow, people actually like this book,” when I learned it had risen into the Top 10 on the CBC’s Giller Prize Reader’s choice contest. Now this.

I had to get up there. I had to say something. Any shortlisted author will tell you that the worst part of the buildup to an awards ceremony is having to prepare an acceptance speech which—the odds are—you won’t get to give. I had made a few notes and now I couldn’t remember which pocket I’d stashed them in, so I winged it. I thanked everyone for turning up at the Appel Salon in the Toronto Reference Library, my favourite building in the City of Toronto,  a place I called a Treasure House of Stories. I thanked them because story telling is something we all do together: writers, readers, listeners, the people who make sell, lend, and organize events for books. I thanked the Toronto Book Awards committee—who review seventy-odd books, thrash out a short list and agree on a winner, as well as helping to set up events and raise the award’s profile, all on a volunteer basis. I thanked the gang at Comorant, my heroes. I thanked Martha for putting up with me as I’d been bumping into things and mumbling to myself in the days leading up to the ceremony (much as I’d been doing for the previous 27 years of our marriage).

Then I told a story I like to tell, about an afternoon almost 25 years ago, laying on a beach in Kenya and reading that year’s winner of the Toronto Book Award. We’d been living abroad for a time and were about to return to Toronto and I wasn’t convinced that going back to “Tomato, Can.” as Ezra Pound once called our fair city, was the best move for my literary career. But that book—Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion—convinced me that my home town was a place of mysteries and marvels and big ideas, and that it just might be worth a shot.

Then I thanked my fellow shortlisted authors—Dave Bidini, Farzana Doctor, Michelle Landsberg, and Suzanne Robertson—whose work is part of the proof, all these years later, that Mr. Ondaatje was right.
Hi Everyone,
Well, life as an award winning author rolls on. For those of you who couldn’t attend the Toronto Book Awards ceremony, where Copernicus Avenue took home top honours on Oct. 11, I’ve posted an account of the night summing up my acceptance speech on my blog, which you can read at or access via my website:
The TBA has also posted the videos produced for each shortlisted author and shown at the ceremony. You can see mine (with special guest appearance by His Holiness John Paul II) at:
Upcoming are two events where you can join me in person:
A precious and rare opp. for East Enders to visit Copernicus Avenue as I read at Gerrard /Ashdale Public Library, 1432 Gerrard Street East (near Coxwell)
Thursday November 1, 7-8 p.m.
A chance for locals to celebrate on the book’s home turf: a reading and talk as part of a special presentation by the Roncesvalles Village Historical Society to an open meeting of the Roncesvalles-Macdonell Residents Association at Fern Ave. Public School, 128 Fern Ave., on Tues. Oct. 30 at 6:30 p.m.
Thanks for reading!
Andrew J. Borkowski

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Hi folks,

Well, the cat is out of the bag– Copernicus Avenue has made the shortlist for the 2012 Toronto Book Awards. Thanks to all those who’ve already heard the news and sent me messages of congratulation and support. It’s a great honour to be included with the other fine writers on the list.
The announcement kicks off an eventful season and I hope you’ll be able to join me for one or more of them.
On Tuesday, September 18, I’ll be joining novelists Antanas Sileika and Eva Stachniak for a reprise of our Writing Eastern Europe panel, presented under the auspices of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto. The time is set at 2–4 p.m. The exact location at U of T is still TBA, so stay tuned.
I’ve got a big day planned for this year’s Toronto Word on the Street festival of authors and readers, Sunday, September 23 (which also happens to be my birthday!). As part of the Toronto Book Award celebrations I’ll be reading from and talking about Copernicus Avenue at the City of Toronto marquee at noon and 4 p.m. In between, and on the same stage, I’ll be hosting a block of readings by writers representing Toronto’s amazing diversity for Diaspora Dialogues 2–3:30 p.m. Then I’ll be signing at the Cormorant Books booth at 5 p.m.
The TBA festivities continue on Wednesday, October 3, when I and the other shortlisted authors convene at the Toronto Public Library’s Yorkville Branch, 22 Yorkville Avenue, to read from our books, 6:30–8 p.m.
The big night is the TBA Awards Ceremony which will take place at the Toronto Reference Library’s Appel Salon on Thursday, October 11.
Quite a month coming up. Hope you can be there!

Andrew J. Borkowski

Friday, August 3, 2012

July 29, Leek, Staffordshire
The town of Leek is known locally as the Queen of the Moorlands. It’s a market town in the Churnet Valley, once a centre in the silk trade, which drew William Morris and Co. to the area in the nineteenth century for the manufacture of their fabrics.  The heights around the town mark the beginning of Peak District National Park, a conglomeration of heather-covered moorlands, plunging dales, and spectacular outcroppings of black millstone grit in what’s known as the Dark Peak and limestone cliffs in the White Peak over in Derbyshire.
Several scenes in The Frenzy of Mad Sweeney take place in the Peaks and I’m intent on visiting one of them: Lud’s Church, a long deep chasm in the heights above the River Dane, a few miles north of Leek. I’m relieved to find the path to it well-signed as I found the directions to it on a website called It’s Not The chasm is breathtaking. We descend through a series of “chambers” that are thirty feet deep and five to fifteen feet wide. The walls are coated in emerald green moss and feathered with long grasses and ferns. Oak trees sprout from the walls near the top. Lud’s Church gets its name from the Lollards, a persecuted religious sect  which once held secret services here. The gorge is also reputed to have been the location of the duel between Sir Gawain of the Round Table and The Green Knight. There’s an outcropping along the walls that resemble a human face, said to be the malevolent Green Knight keeping watch over his preserve.
In 1993 a dead Wallaby was found at the bottom of Lud’s Church. The animal is preserved in the Nicholson Institute in Leek. Wallabies have been living on the moor above Lud’s Church since the 1930s when a batch from the London Zoo escaped from a nearby estate, where they were being temporarily housed.
On the other side of Leek, we ride a miniature-gauge steam railway along the shores of Lake Rudyard, actually a reservoir created in the 18th century to feed nearby canals. Rudyard Kipling was named for this lake after his parents visited here, and a beautiful spot it is. Lined with stone boathouses and villas, it’s a touch of Muskoka in the heart of England.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

July 27, Longton, Stoke-on-Trent
We’re back in “the Potteries”—the name the English give to the city of Stoke-on-Trent, an amalgamation of the six Staffordshire towns that, for almost three hundred years, has served as the centre of Britain’s ceramics industry. Martha and I lived here in the late 1980s and it’s the setting for my novel-in-progress The Frenzy of Mad Sweeney. We’re here to visit old friends and I’m taking the opportunity to refresh my memory, visiting locales that serve as the backdrop for the book and brushing up on local history.
Until the 1950s the Potteries skyline was studded with the chimneys of 2,000 Brick Bottle kilns like the ones pictured here. The kilns were coal-fired and belched thick smoke that almost permanently blocked out the sun and covered buildings in black soot that can still be seen clinging to the facades of Victorian buildings in Longton. Arnold Bennett’s novels about the Potteries made him one of England’s most successful authors in the early twentieth century. He described Longton, which specialized in the production of bone china, as the Potteries town “most akin to hell.”
The use of toxics like lead and arsenic in glazes, smoke from the kilns, and the dust-filled air of Victorian “pot banks” resulted in an average life expectancy of 46 among pottery workers in 1900. Stoke-on-Trent also endured Britain’s highest infant mortality rate at that time. Health inspectors of the time noted a high rate of “lowered intelligence” among the population, the result of environmental conditions for a workforce that included 50 percent of the towns’ women, most of whom would have worked while pregnant
 That all changed as the Bottle Kilns were replaced by cleaner gas and electric kilns and safer materials were introduced. But there is still something stunted and strange about the Potteries. In spite of  having created wares that adorned the tables of Catherine the Great and Teddy Roosevelt, the great pottery owners left behind little in the way of great architecture or cultural institutions. The towns still cling to the hillsides like so much stubble.
The men and women working in the Potteries enjoyed clean, safe working conditions and fair wages for a very short time.  Globalization has decimated this city. Wedgwood’s factory at Barlaston was a model to others in health and safety when it opened during the 1930s. By the 1980s it employed 2,800 people. Today there are only 200 employees at Barlaston and most of the product that bears Josiah Wedgwood’s name is made in Asia. Royal Doulton closed its works here over a decade ago. On the day of our visit, it appears that every third storefront in Longton is either shuttered or boarded up and butterfly bushes sprout from the chimney pots. The day after this photo was taken, this street had to be closed to traffic after a derelict  building collapsed.