On Winning the 2012 Toronto Book Award
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.