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2019 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize Nonfiction Finalists

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The Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction is given annually for excellence in the category of literary nonfiction, which includes essays, history, biography, memoir, commentary, and criticism. The winning book demonstrates a distinctive voice, as well as a persuasive and compelling command of tone, narrative, style, and technique. The prize has been sponsored by The Hon. Hilary M. Weston since 2011.
A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

edition:Hardcover

A bold and profound meditation on trauma, legacy, oppression and racism in North America from award-winning Haudenosaunee writer Alicia Elliott.

In an urgent and visceral work that asks essential questions about the treatment of Native people in North America while drawing on intimate details of her own life and experience with intergenerational trauma, Alicia Elliott offers indispensable insight into the ongoing legacy of colonialism. She engages with such wide-ranging topics as race, parenthood …

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A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

He took his glasses off and rubbed the bridge of his nose the way men in movies do whenever they encounter a particu­larly vexing woman.

“I’m really confused. You need to give me something here. What’s making you depressed?”

His reaction made me think briefly of residential schools, though at the time I couldn’t understand why. Maybe it was the fact that he operated his therapy sessions out of a church. That certainly didn’t help.

I wasn’t sure what to say. Can a metaphor or simile capture depression? It was definitely heavy, but could I really compare it to a weight? Weight in and of itself is not devastating; depres­sion is. At times it made me short of breath and at times it had the potential to be deadly, but was it really like drowning? At least with drowning others could see the flailing limbs and splashing water and know you needed help. Depression could slip in entirely unnoticed and dress itself up as normalcy, so when it finally took hold others would be so surprised they wouldn’t know how to pull you to safety. They’d stand there staring—good-intentioned but helpless. Empathetic, perhaps, but mute. Or, as in the case of this particularly unqualified ther­apist, angry and accusing. Not that I necessarily blame them. I’ve done the same thing.

When what was left of my family moved to the rez we lived in a two-bedroom trailer—my sister and I in the smaller room, my three younger brothers in the master bedroom. My parents had no bedroom, no bed. They slept in the living room on the couch and recliner. As one may assume of such circumstances, privacy was precious, if it existed at all. Doors never stayed closed for long; at any moment someone could barrel in unannounced. This meant there was no place for my mother to hide her illness.

I’d mostly known her as having bipolar disorder, though she’d been diagnosed and rediagnosed many times. Postpartum depression, manic depression, schizophrenia. Most recently, my mother has been diagnosed as having either schizoaffective dis­order, which is a version of bipolar disorder with elements of schizophrenia, or post-traumatic stress disorder, depending on which doctor you talk to. None of these phrases gave her relief. In fact, they often seemed to hurt her, turning every feeling she had into yet another symptom of yet another disease.

What these words meant to my siblings and me was that our mother’s health was on a timer. We didn’t know when the timer would go off, but when it did, our happy, playful, hilarious mother would disappear behind a curtain and another would emerge: alternatively angry and mournful, wired and lethargic. When she was depressed she’d become almost entirely silent. She’d lie on our brother’s bottom bunk and blink at us, her soft limp limbs spilling onto the stained, slate-coloured carpet. I’d sit on the floor beside her, smooth her hair—bottle red with grey moving in like a slow tide—and ask her what was wrong. She’d stay silent but her face would transform. Damp, swollen, violet, as if the words she couldn’t say were bubbling beneath her skin, burning her up from the inside.

Terminology is tricky. Initially, depression was known as “melan­cholia,” a word that first brought to my mind a field of blue cornflower and golden hay. Its trochaic metre gave it an inher­ent poeticism, an ingrained elegance. It was delicate, feminine. Hamlet’s doomed lover, Ophelia, definitely did not suffer from depression. When she floated down that river, decked in gar­lands, stones in her pockets, she was in the throes of melancholia.

The term first appeared in Mesopotamian texts in the second century BCE. At the time, they considered melancholia a form of demonic possession. They weren’t alone: ancient Babylonian, Chinese and Egyptian civilizations all attributed mental illness to demons overpowering the spiritually weak. Exorcism—which often entailed beatings, restraint and starvation—was the only known “cure.” Even during the Renaissance, when thinking about depression began to reflect the more progressive views of the early Greek physician Hippocrates, a heavily Christian Europe had another way to describe those with mental illness: witches. They were “cured” by being burned at the stake. Sometimes, as part of their trial, suspected witches underwent an ordeal by water. They were tied to a rope and thrown from a boat. If they sank they’d be pulled back to a safety of sorts, their innocence proven, but their illness unchecked. If they floated, like Ophelia, they were considered a witch and sum­marily executed.

My quite Catholic mother believes demonic possession is a real danger. She pretty much used the 1973 film The Exorcist as an instructional video for my siblings and me. It was mostly effec­tive. I played with a Ouija board only once, reluctantly, and though I remained firmly in control of my body, I still try to avoid the game (and pictures of Linda Blair) at all costs. I know demonic possession is impossible, probably, but it still scares me more than I’d like to admit.

So when my mother, now living in an adult care home in Florida, told me she was hearing demonic voices and thought she needed an exorcism, I was legitimately terrified. Not because I thought she was possessed—she didn’t mention anything about floating above her bed, and her voice sounded normal. I was scared for her. She truly believed demons were real and could take control of the spiritually weak. If she believed she was being overtaken by these demons, logic dictated that she was spiritually weak. As if her depressed mind didn’t have enough to guilt her with.
She wouldn’t tell me what the voices were saying to her. She just reiterated over and over that she was a sinner, that she had impure thoughts, that she hadn’t been going to church enough. None of this seemed to me like enough reason to call in an exorcist.

Evidently her priest down in Florida disagreed. He said it did, indeed, sound like she was in the midst of a spiritual battle, that she should contact the church about sending an exorcist right away. Though he himself was part of the Catholic Church, he never offered any assistance with her “spiritual battle,” never offered to bring in an exorcist to slay her inner demon. He just gave her his half-baked opinion like a torch and watched as she caught flame.

As far as analogies go, comparing depression to a demon is a pretty good one. Both overtake your faculties, leaving you dis­connected and disembodied. Both change you so abruptly that even your loved ones barely recognize you. Both whisper evil words and malformed truths. Both scare most people shitless.

According to Diane Purkiss’s The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations, European colonists widely considered Indigenous peoples to be devil worshippers. In fact, during the Salem witch trials, the people of the Sagamore tribe were blamed—described by early Puritan minister and master­mind of the witch trials, Cotton Mather, as “horrid sorcerers, and hellish conjurors . . . [who] conversed with Demons.” One person on trial claimed to have attended a black mass with the Sagamore Indians. Mercy Short, another accused witch, took it one step further: she claimed the Devil himself was an Indian, describing him as “not of a Negro, but of a tawny, or an Indian color.”

Literal demonizing of Indigenous people was a natural exten­sion of early tactics used to move colonization along. In 1452 and 1455 the Catholic Church issued papal bulls calling for non-Christian people to be invaded, robbed and enslaved under the premise that they were “enemies of Christ.” Forty years later, when Christopher Columbus accidentally arrived in the Americas, European monarchs began to expand on the ideas contained in those bulls, issuing policies and practices that have been collectively referred to as the Doctrine of Discovery. These new policies dictated that “devil-worshipping” Indigenous peo­ples worldwide should not even be thought of as humans, and thus the land they had cared for and inhabited for centuries was terra nullius, or vacant land, and Christian monarchs had the “right” to claim it all. The Doctrine of Discovery was such a tantalizing, seemingly guilt-free justification for genocide, even U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson adopted it as official policy in 1792—and we all know how much Americans wanted to distinguish themselves from Europe at the time.

The Doctrine of Discovery is still cited in court cases today whenever Canada or the U.S. want to shut up Indigenous tribes who complain. In an attempt to stop this lazy, racist rationale, a delegation of Indigenous people went to Rome in 2016 to ask the church to rescind these papal bulls. Kahnawake Mohawk Kenneth Deer said that after hearing their concerns, Pope Francis merely looked him in the eye and said, “I’ll pray for you.” Two years later, after the delegation’s second trip to Rome to discuss these papal bulls, they were told the matter was being sent to another committee. Nothing else has been done, though pre­sumably the Pope is still praying for us.

“Can you imagine going to a funeral every day, maybe even two funerals, for five to ten years?” the chief asks. He’s giving a decolonization presentation, talking about the way colonization has affected our people since contact. Smallpox, tuberculosis, even the common cold hit our communities particularly hard. Then, on top of that, we had wars to contend with—some against the French, some against the British, some against either or neither or both. Back then death was all you could see, smell, hear or taste. Death was all you could feel.

“What does that type of mourning, pain and loss do to you?” he asks. We reflect on our own losses, our own mourning, our own pain. We say nothing.

After a moment he answers himself. “It creates numbness.”

Numbness is often how people describe their experience of depression.

I was sixteen when I wrote my first suicide note. I was alone in my room, for once. It was cold; the fire in our wood-burning stove must have gone out. I was huddled beneath the unzipped sleeping bag I used as a comforter, listening to the only modern rock station my ancient radio could pick up. The songs washed over me. My brothers laughing, crashing and crying washed over me. My mother half-heartedly yelling at them while she watched a movie with my sister washed over me. My father’s absence washed over me.

Even though the trailer was full I was alone. I was alone and I felt nothing and it hurt so much. More than grief, more than anger. I just wanted it to end.

Tears fell on the paper faster than I could write. It was hard to read in parts. I didn’t care. As long as it reassured my family they shouldn’t blame themselves, it would do the trick.

I looked at the knife I’d smuggled from the kitchen, pressed its edge to my wrist. Nothing happened. The blade was too dull. I’d have to stab hard and slash deep just to break the skin. I was crying so hard.

I reread my note. I looked back at the knife. Even though it could hardly peel a potato it scared me more than the void I felt.

I lay back down, disgusted with myself and my lack of resolve. I tried to listen to the radio. I couldn’t hear anything.

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Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me

Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me

Depression in the First Person
edition:Paperback

NATIONAL BESTSELLER
Award-winning journalist Anna Mehler Paperny's stunning memoir chronicles with courageous honesty and uncommon eloquence her experience of depression and her quest to explore what we know and don't know about this disease that afflicts almost a fifth of the population--providing an invaluable guide to a system struggling to find solutions. As fascinating as it is heartrending, as outrageously funny as it is serious, it is a must-read for anyone impacted by depression--and tha …

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How do you talk about trying to die? Haltingly, urgently: in mes­sages and calls to friends. Abashedly: you stand in the middle of a hospital hallway on a parent’s cell phone as your grandfather bel­lows, “No more stupid tricks!” Gingerly: you stand in your psych ward at the patients’ landline, conscious of fellow patients watch­ing TV just behind you, white corkscrew cord curled around your finger as you murmur to your grandmother who understands better than she should. Who is the first to tell you, as you lean against the orange-tinted counter with its row of cupboards for confiscated belongings below the sink, that you have to write all this down. And even though you put it off for months, agonize for years, you know she’s right.
 
Quietly, desperately: in one medical appointment after another. Trepidatiously: to colleagues. Searchingly: in interviews. Increasingly loudly. In a book? With the world?
 
A disorder hijacks your life and becomes an obsession. Know thine enemy. Chart in minute detail the way it wrecks you and seek out every aliquot of information out there. Butt up against the con­stricting limits of human understanding, smash yourself against that wall and seek instead to map the contours of collective ignorance. Know the unknowns of thine enemy, learn them by heart. Because even if you never best it, never loosen its grip on your existence, at least your best attempt at understanding will give you some sem­blance of agency.
 
No one wants this crap illness that masquerades as personal failing. I had no desire to plumb its depths. The struggle to func­tion leaves me little capacity to do so. But in the end I had no choice. I approached this enemy I barely believed in the only way I knew how: as a reporter. I took a topic about which I knew nothing and sought somehow to know everything. I talked to people in search of answers and mostly found more questions.
 
Personal experience has made me more invested in addressing the gross inequities depression exacerbates, in hammering home the human, societal, economic costs. The depth of depression’s debilita­tion and our reprehensible failure to address it consume me because I’m there, spending days paralyzed and nights wracked because my meds aren’t good enough. But this isn’t some quixotic personal proj­ect that pertains to me and no one else. Depression affects everyone on the planet, directly or indirectly, in every possible sphere. Its very ubiquity robs it of sexiness but not urgency. I found this in every interview I did, in every article I read, in every attempt I made to sort out how the fuck this can be so bad and so badly unaddressed.
 
This book is also my way of exorcising endless guilt at having been so lucky—to have benefited from publicly funded inpatient and outpatient mental health care; to have maintained, for the most part, employment; to have had patches of insurance lighten the burden of paying for years of drugs. This shouldn’t be the purview of the priv­ileged but it is. We fail the most marginalized at every level, then wonder why they worsen.
 
I don’t want to be the person writing this book. Don’t want to be chewed up by despair so unremitting the only conceivable response is to write it. But I am. I write this because I need both life vest and anchor, because I need both to scream and to arm myself in the dark. Maybe you need to scream, to arm yourself, too.

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All Our Relations

All Our Relations

Finding the Path Forward
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback

In this vital and incisive work, bestselling and award-winning author Tanya Talaga explores the alarming rise of youth suicide in Indigenous communities in Canada and beyond. From Northern Ontario to Nunavut, Norway, Brazil, Australia, and the United States, the Indigenous experience in colonized nations is startlingly similar and deeply disturbing. It is an experience marked by the violent separation of Peoples from the land, the separation of families, and the separation of individuals from tr …

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The Art of Leaving

The Art of Leaving

A Memoir
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook Hardcover Audiobook

WINNER OF THE CANADIAN JEWISH LITERARY AWARD FOR MEMOIR

FINALIST FOR THE HILARY WESTON WRITERS' TRUST PRIZE FOR NONFICTION

An unforgettable memoir about a young woman who tries to outrun loss, but eventually finds a way home.

Ayelet Tsabari was 21 years old the first time she left Tel Aviv with no plans to return. Restless after two turbulent mandatory years in the Israel Defense Forces, Tsabari longed to get away. It was not the never-ending conflict that drove her, but the grief that had shaken …

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Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related.

Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related.

A Memoir
edition:Hardcover

Finalist for the 2019 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction
A beautiful and haunting memoir of kinship and culture rediscovered.

Jenny Heijun Wills was born in Korea and adopted as an infant into a white family in small-town Canada. In her late twenties, she reconnected with her first family and returned to Seoul where she spent four months getting to know other adoptees, as well as her Korean mother, father, siblings, and extended family. At the guesthouse for transnational adoptees …

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Excerpt

Minutes after I was born, my grandfather—that is, my father's father—gifted me a name. Then he signed a contract that struck me from the family registry. That ripped me away from my mother as she frantically counted my wrinkled and already-reaching fingers and toes. She pressed her mouth to my wet hair only once before I was taken away, what remained of the salty wax slip of her own insides thick and earthy on her lips. 

For thirty years (and still to this day in the mouths of most), my name was replaced by one so expected it might have been Jessica or Meghan or Kimberley. Names of varying degrees of impossibility to Korean speakers. Mine is a name that I answer to, but that I wear only because I'm accustomed to it. Because others are accustomed to it. Not because it suits me. Early on, I was scrubbed until my skin turned pink. I was programmed to speak English, then French, and to place my fork and knife side by side on my plate when I had finished eating. I disappeared into a life of cream-of-mushroom casseroles, Irish setters, and patent leather Sunday school shoes. I was buried under Bach concertos, feathered bangs, and maple sugar candy until my own mother wouldn't have recognized me. 

But of course I couldn't  stay missing forever, and around 2009, I was reborn somewhere in the dusky November mountains of Seoul. I came back to life with a long wooden spoon in one hand and flat silver chopsticks in the other. I came back when my Korean father called me by name, when my Korean mother called me daughter. When my youngest sister called me unni, older sister, and I understood what that meant. 

I learned by mimicking others. I tried to fall in line with a culture practised by people who use given names only for those younger than themselves. I peeled giant apples in one long curl. I recognized spiciness by the redness in the bowl. I came back to life when all the ginkgo berries had fallen and the entire ountry of South Korea was filled with their cutting scent. I came back to life when all that remained were persimmons clinging to bare branches. 

While my homecoming was something to be celebrated, it also planted lingering heartache once all the soju had been drunk and all the kisses had been given and received. I watched my parents, reunited after being torn apart on the day I was taken, fumble through what could have been our lives, if only. They came together, reclaimed the love they'd lost decades earlier. They thought they'd outsmarted fate. I thought I was happy. 

I watched my own unni's life crack and splinter and shatter when it became clear that our father had always been pathetic and her mother had sometimes been both weak and cruel. She tried, my unni, to love me despite all the disloyalty that went into my making, but in the end we had nothing to hold on to. And although there is even less between us now, I still whisper stories to her into the sky, fallen eyelashes and dandelion fluff. Confessions and prayers to an older sister, related but not really. Wishes that, one day, everything will be forgiven.

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