Award-winning writers share the importance of human connection in difficult times


Health comes first, of course. But for Tolu Oloruntoba, the separation induced by the pandemic looks like a kind of “nobody’s thirst”.

“We can’t see the people we love, the people we love, so we have too little of it. It’s thirst, it’s hunger. We don’t get the nutrition we need,” he said.

The Surrey, BC poet won the Governor General’s Literary Award in 2021 for English-language poetry for his first comprehensive collection The junta of chance.

He also wrote about the connection in a poem titled the desire machine.

Oloruntoba, who grew up in Nigeria and has lived in Canada and the United States, notes that travel restrictions have been particularly difficult, as “many of us have families scattered across multiple countries or provinces.”

Connecting with people on a computer screen helps. Since Oloruntoba’s day-to-day job is in virtual healthcare, he is both professionally and personally grateful for video conferencing.

At the same time, he says it “cannot be compared to seeing people whom we need to see and whom we would like to see.”

Tolu Oloruntoba is one of four winners of the Governor General’s Literary Awards who IDEAS talked about connection. Each has created original writing on this theme, for an annual collaboration between the program, CBC Books and the Canada Council for the Arts.

A fortuitous connection

Edmonton educator and writer Norma Dunning won the English Fiction Award for her collection of stories, Taina: The Invisibles.

Alienation and displacement affect her characters, who are often Inuit living in southern Canada – an identity proudly shared by the author herself.

Dunning’s fiction is raw and straightforward in portraying the destructive impact of colonization and prejudice. The stories also harness human moments of grace, humor, and bonding.

“I have First Nations friends who read my work and say, ‘I’m so glad you brought up these issues because they’re difficult,’” said Dunning. IDEAS.

Tainna: The Unseen Ones, a collection of short stories by Norma Dunning, is the recipient of the 2021 Governor General’s Literary Award for English Fiction. (Emily Weisz Studios, Douglas and McIntyre)

Although many of his readers are not Indigenous, Dunning takes this fact as an opportunity to imaginatively engage them in everyday Indigenous realities.

“I can take the reality, hide it behind the fiction, and people will understand it. go take it, ”she said.

In one essay, she describes making an unexpected connection last fall during a rare in-person visit to the Vancouver Writers Festival. A non-native stranger says that after hearing Dunning on stage, she decided to read the author’s collection of stories.

Dunning writes: “As she walks away, I think about how books make us reach out to each other. How they make us explore something we’ve never thought of. How they make us understand things with which we have struggled with. “

A primordial link

Memoirs of Sadiqa de Meijer alfabet / alphabet took top honors in the GG’s English Nonfiction category. The Kingston, Ont., Writer wrote about the connection in a poem titled Permanence of the object.

alfabet / alphabet, a dissertation by Sadiqa de Meijer won the 2021 Governor General’s Award for Non-Fictional Literature in English. (Press Palimpseste)

It is a meditation on a winter day, watching the ice move on a lake, as the mist joins the water with the sky. de Meijer says the sight rekindled a personal memory of absence and connection after a relationship ended.

“Something that I had experienced years earlier, which was adjusting to being separated from my child first after my separation, and the strange new feeling of being away from her.”

As she says, “It’s actually a very common thing within families. But we don’t necessarily read or talk to each other a lot about it. And so this poem is my articulation of that feeling.”

A permanent connection

David A. Robertson is a renowned Winnipeg-based children’s and young adult writer.

He is struggling with one of the most difficult forms of all forms of missed connection: His beloved father passed away just before the pandemic began, in 2019.

For author Swampy Cree, his father had been more than a parent: a “therapist, friend, mentor and hero”. He was a guide for Robertson, sharing stories from their family past, recounting in traditional ways and taking him to where generations of their family lived on the land.

David A. Robertson is the author of the picture book On the Trapline, illustrated by Julie Flett. This book won the 2021 Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature – Illustrated Books, in English. (Amber Green, Tundra Books)

These conversations and experiences have inspired much of Robertson’s recent work, including a memoir and his Governor General’s Award-winning children’s picture book, On the trapline.

In the depths of his grief, David Robertson would frequently listen to his father’s recorded voice and on a podcast he did for CBC about the experience of connecting with his Cree identity.

In one essay, he describes feeling the pain of an overwhelming loss: “I can’t tell you how many times I have listened to the fifth and final episode of Kowew while driving, yelling at a red light. “

Robertson says he now recognizes that going through this pain is part of the grieving process. For him, it brought him back to a different sense of deep connection.

“I’m almost able to get to the point where I can imagine him there, still teaching me the things he taught me, while I was recording him, and listening to those recordings to write my books.”

Guest in this episode:

Norma Dunning is a writer and professor at the University of Alberta. She is the author of several award-winning collections of stories, including Tainna: The Invisibles, who won the 2021 Governor General’s Award for English Fiction. She is Inuit and lives in Edmonton, Alberta.

Sadiqa de Meijer is the author of several collections of poetry, as well as of the memoirs alfabet / alphabet, which won the 2021 Governor General’s Award for Non-Fictional Literature in English. She lives in Kingston, Ontario.

Tolu Oloruntoba is a widely published poet whose first complete collection, The junta of chance, won the 2021 Governor General’s Prize for English Poetry. He lives in Surrey, British Columbia.

David A. Robertson is the author of numerous books for young readers, including the Children’s Picture Book, On the trapline, illustrated by Julie Flett, and winner of the 2021 Governor General’s Prize for Children’s Literature – Illustrated Books, in English. The story of her connection to her Cree family story is told on CBC podcast Kiwi.


* This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.


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