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Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch wins literary prize

Hannah Moscovitch is the first Canadian playwright and also the first Canadian woman to receive a Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prize.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

When Hannah Moscovitch first learned that she had won a $150,000 (U.S.) prize for literature via a visual voicemail message, the Canadian playwright was pretty sure it was a scam.

"I thought it was 'Congratulations, you've won a cruise to Florida if you pay $200,'" Moscovitch recalls of the text she received last Wednesday. "I nearly didn't listen to the actual voicemail."

But while the Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prizes may sound too good to be true, they are, in fact, real. Established in 2013 and administered by Yale University, the $150,000 prizes are given out to eight or nine writers of drama, fiction and non-fiction from around the world each year.

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And on Tuesday, Moscovitch – whose plays include East of Berlin and This Is War – was announced as one of nine recipients for 2016. In her citation, she was celebrated by the selection committee for work that "focuses on the painful (and sometimes dangerous) ways that the past ruptures the present, and the difficult questions about responsibility and redemption that result."

Vancouver-based writer John Vaillant, who holds dual citizenship with the United States, is the only other Canadian to have been feted by the awards to date.

The 37-year-old Moscovitch is therefore the first Canadian playwright and also the first Canadian woman to receive a Windham-Campbell prize – which will significantly transform life for her; her fiancé, theatre director Christian Barry; and their eight-month-old baby, Elijah.

"I'll be able to look at the list of projects that I most want to work on and work on them: It's incredibly emboldening," says Moscovitch, who is originally from Ottawa and currently based in Halifax. "The prize is so much money – and the exchange rate is pretty great right now for me to win an American award."

The selection process for the Windham-Campbell prizes is shrouded in secrecy. Nominators are contacted based on suggestions by previous nominators. They then nominate two contenders that are considered by a three-person jury that then whittles down all nominees and passes along a shortlist to an anonymous nine-person selection committee.

Toronto's Tarragon Theatre – where many of Moscovitch's plays have premiered, and where her play Infinity, about "love, sex and math," will be remounted in 2017 – was likely involved in her nomination, but they're keeping mum as to exactly how.

Tarragon's literary manager Andrea Romaldi was filled with joy to hear of Moscovitch's win, in any case. "I hope that with the support of this prize, Hannah will have the freedom to realize those plays that, until now, could only exist in her imagination," Romaldi says. "Her talent for dialogue and dramatic writing is matched only by her tenacity and discipline."

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As financially freeing as the unrestricted grant that comes with the prize is, the Windham-Cambpell Literature Prize will also offer a boost in profile outside of Canada for Moscovitch. She will gather with other recipients at Yale in September for an international literary festival celebrating their work.

This year's other drama winners are Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the American creator of the off-Broadway sensation An Octoroon, and Abbie Spallen, a Northern Irish writer whose most recent satire was Lally the Scut.

Three fiction writers are among the 2016 winners: Tessa Hadley (U.K.), C.E. Morgan (U.S.) and Jerry Pinto (India). The three non-fiction writers this year are Hilton Als (U.S.), Stanley Crouch (U.S.) and Helen Garner (Australia).

Moscovitch, who also writes for CBC's X Company and has an opera in development in Philadelphia, calls this a "pretty hot list" and hopes the award will help her find new homes for her plays.

"It's hard as a Canadian not to feel like your work isn't strong, for all sorts of systemic reasons and the identity of our nation," she says. "You do this thing in relative silence – but people are witnessing it and paying attention."

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Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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