M.G. Vassanji's fiction has been heaped with critical acclaim, but it was his non-fiction debut that grabbed the spotlight Tuesday as the Toronto writer won a Governor General's Literary Award.
A Place Within: Rediscovering India is a deeply personal exploration of the author's roots, a topic Vassanji says he couldn't resist tackling.
"It chose me," he said at a news conference.
An African by birth, Vassanji had heard stories about India from his ancestors but only visited there as an adult in 1993, with the journey turning into a true story of self-discovery.
"It sort of bowled me over," he said of the trip. "Discovering India was part of discovering myself, who I was, where I came from ... where in this India does my background fit in.
"It raised many questions - it was thrilling, it was painful. It just did many things," he said, pointing out it took him a long time and many trips back to India to finish the book.
"Curiosity led me on and on until I somehow had a sense of how to approach this subject and the only way I could approach it was to make it a very personal book so I was not really writing about India, but myself in India."
In 1994, Vassanji won the inaugural Scotiabank Giller Prize (then called the Giller Prize) for his novel The Book of Secrets.
He achieved the feat again in 2003 for The In-Between World of Vikram Lall.
With a smile, Vassanji called his prize-winning non-fiction tome a "sabbatical." He's currently working on another novel.
Kate Pullinger was the fiction winner for her Victorian-era novel The Mistress of Nothing.
Pullinger, who grew up in Cranbrook, B.C., but now calls London home, has been an enthusiastic supporter of digital media.
"I think in some ways it was for me it was a great treat to escape from modernity, to escape from the wired life and go back into the 1860s," she said of her book. "I had to do a huge amount of research because it was an area that I knew nothing about."
The Mistress of Nothing was drawn from a biography of Lady Lucy Duff Gordon that captivated Pullinger in the 1990s although the story she created is taken "from a tiny element in Lucy Duff Gordon's very interesting life."
Pullinger beamed after the ceremony and called the award "fantastic."
"One of the best days of my life, definitely."
Pullinger, who is busy with many projects and nurturing an idea for a new book, praised the Canada Council and the Governor General's Awards, saying their support for literature is "awe-inspiring."
The awards, administered by the Canada Council for the Arts, are worth $25,000 each. They will be presented on Nov. 26 at a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. Tuesday's ceremony announced both English- and French-language winners in several categories.
Among the other winners, Kevin Loring of Vancouver took the drama prize for Where the Blood Mixes, his examination of the trauma suffered by a survivor of the residential school system.
Loring gave what came closest to a politically charged acceptance speech when he noted arts funding is being threatened by the British Columbia provincial government.
"I want to remind our representatives out West that art is culture and if we don't invest in our artists the story of our communities, of our culture, will be diminished," Loring said, acknowledging the help he had received from the Canada Council and the B.C. Arts Council.
David Zieroth, who is also from Vancouver, picked up the poetry prize for The Fly in Autumn.
The French-language children's book Harvey, by Herve Bouchard of Saguenay, Que., and Montrealer Janice Nadeau, also made a splash.
It picked up the French-language awards for text and for illustration, the first time in the history of the Governor General's Awards that the same book has won in both categories. It also marks Nadeau's third Governor General's Award for illustration.
The list of English-language winners:
FICTION Kate Pullinger, London (originally from Cranbrook, B.C.), The Mistress of Nothing (McArthur & Company)
POETRY David Zieroth, North Vancouver, The Fly in Autumn (Harbour Publishing)
DRAMA Kevin Loring, Vancouver, Where the Blood Mixes (Talonbooks)
NON-FICTION M.G. Vassanji, Toronto, A Place Within: Rediscovering India (Doubleday Canada)
CHILDREN's LITERATURE (text) Caroline Pignat, Ottawa, Greener Grass: The Famine Years (Red Deer Press)
CHILDREN's LITERATURE (illustration) Jirina Marton, Colborne, ON, Bella's Tree (text by Janet Russell; (Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press)
TRANSLATION Susan Ouriou, Calgary, Pieces of Me (English translation of La liberté? Connais pas by Charlotte Gingras; Kids Can Press)