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Victoria-based author Esi Edugyan says her second time winning the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her latest novel "Washington Black" felt all the more meaningful amid a climate in which truth is "under siege."
Published by Patrick Crean Editions, the novel follows the saga of an 11-year-old boy who escapes slavery at a Barbados sugar plantation with the help of the owner's kinder brother.
Edugyan secured the top prize after a season flush with acclaim for "Washington Black," which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Writers' Trust fiction award.
As she took to the stage Monday night at the Ritz-Carlton in Toronto, Edugyan sighed as she admitted she didn't prepare a speech, because she didn't expect to win.
"In a climate in which so many forms of truth telling are under siege, this feels like a really wonderful and important celebration of words," she told the crowd, which included notables such as acclaimed author Margaret Atwood, actor Gordon Pinsent and former Ontario premier Bob Rae.
Runners-up included Patrick deWitt for "French Exit," Thea Lim for "An Ocean of Minutes," Sheila Heti's "Motherhood" and "Songs for the Cold of Heart" by Eric Dupont, translated from French by Peter McCambridge.
Edugyan's first Giller win was for "Half-Blood Blues" in 2011, when she also beat out fellow contender deWitt.
In an interview after the awards ceremony, Edugyan said the literary triumph felt different this time around, saying she felt like she was taking a risk with the subject matter in "Washington Black."
"I sort of feel maybe that it's opened me to writing about anything," she said. "Stories of the marginalized, it's extremely important to get those out there, and for us to be reading them, and trying to imagine ourselves into other skins, and not closing ourselves down.
"It's part of, I think, keeping the dialogue alive, and keeping empathy alive."
Edugyan said she hopes her success empowers readers who may not see underrepresented in literature.
"To see a black woman win the prize ... that's huge. For me, when I was growing up in Calgary in the (1980s), there weren't a ton of Canadian models in terms of people who had my background," she said.
A five-member jury praised "Washington Black" as "a supremely engrossing novel about friendship and love and the way identity is sometimes a far more vital act of imagination than the age in which one lives."
Jury members Heather O'Neill, John Freeman, Kamal Al-Solaylee, Maxine Bailey and Philip Hensher culled this year's short list from 104 titles submitted by publishers across the country.
This year's televised gala was hosted by comedian Rick Mercer, who elicited a mix of guffaws and groans from the crowd with his political humour, while The Tragically Hip's Johnny Fay drummed presenters on and off the stage.
Celebrating its 25th year, the Giller awards $100,000 annually to the author of the best Canadian novel or short story collection published in English, and $10,000 to each of the finalists.
Last year's winner was Michael Redhill for "Bellevue Square."
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