When I sat down to watch today, I already knew how it was going to end. And not just because I’ve paid attention in the debates. But all the articles and interviews, all the extraneous discussions and comments: every little detail. I had it all figured out.
And that’s not saying that I loved how the whole event played out. I was disappointed about the first book to go; it had some great prose in it. Evocative sentences that deserved to be read aloud. When literary merits were discussed in relationship to one of the more prize-sticker-decorated books, I wished that other book was given a nod. (But I’m also glad we avoided that whole non-fiction versus fiction debate, and whether a journalistic style is more or less useful to transmit truths than a creative style.)
Mostly what I loved about this year’s debate was – to borrow from the panelist defending the life choices of the main character in their book – that everyone was trying their best.
At least, that’s the way it seemed to me. That the producers were trying to represent a variety of voices, a variety of experiences, a variety of writing styles. That the defenders were trying to promote their selected story with vigour and dedication. That the schoolkids in the audience were trying to look interested.
It’s easier to sit on the sidelines of a production like this and poke at it. It’s harder to suggest alternatives.
It’s easier to look at the selection of books and say that there is a particular kind of voice/experience/writing style missing, a voice/experience/style which is deserving.
It’s harder to say which of the five existing choices should not have been selected because it is less deserving.
It’s easier to say what specific language should be used in discussions, because that’s the language which makes you feel seen, makes you feel like you matter.
It’s harder to say what should be used instead, when those same words make someone else feel erased, insignificant.
In 2010, when Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony was in consideration, the debate circled around whether it was enough of a Canadian story: it’s the experience of only one community, not a nation, some argued. But of course, this nation does not exist without immigrants, others argued, and in Canada’s case, particularly the Chinese-Canadians whose labour constructed so much of the national railway which pushed the Confederationist agenda to the forefront and secured “national unity”. Which is a problematic concept, because of course this nation exists because law-makers disregarded the fact that these lands are the homelands of other peoples, indigenous groups, whose stewardship of these lands is traditional and ongoing, despite historical efforts to disenfranchise and eliminate these caretakers. The other four books that year were all by white writers (some from underrepresented groups, however) and one of those books won. (See, I’m not even going to spoil 2010 for you, if you have been inspired to dig into the CBC archives!)
So here we are, less than a decade later, with a remarkably diverse group of panelists and authors. All of whom seemed to have been trying their best. (If you haven’t checked out the additional videos and articles: have a look!) Because I’ve been trying my best to diversify my reading too, in those intervening years, this seems like progress to me. Maybe not perfection, but certainly progress.
But what I really loved about this year’s debate? I was wrong.
(I also really hated being wrong. If we’ve been chatting back-channel, you know where my heart fell. And even if you have only read this post, I declared a bias on Day One which was a factor in the finale.)
I thought I knew exactly how it was going to end. And I think all the panelists went into today knowing how it was going to end as well. (At least one of them discussed this openly.) But two of the panelists changed their minds. In interviews, they had spoken about aspects of their personal experience or awareness that made them particularly sensitive to one story. But today’s discussion expanded their understanding and changed their votes. In the course of talking about books and stories, aspects of those narratives took on new gravitas or new dimensions of importance.
Quite literally, books changed minds.