25th Trillium Award

Trillium Testimonial: Jason McBride

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This year marks the 25th Anniversary of Ontario's illustrious Trillium Book Award/Prix Trillium. To celebrate this silver milestone, Open Book has asked members of the literary community to tell us what they love about their favourite award-winning Trillium title. If you're looking for a recommended read (or re-read), follow these Trillium Testimonials on Open Book: Ontario from now until the winners of the 2012 award competition are announced. Today, writer and editor Jason McBride tells us why Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion (1987 Trillium Book Award) made him change his tune on "CanLit."

Open Book:

What do you love about this book?

Jason McBride:

A Canadian who grew up attending American schools, I had read virtually no Canadian literature before moving to Toronto for university. Not a word of Atwood, a sentence of Richler's, a note of nichol. This didn't prevent me, however, from cultivating an opinion about CanLit — that it was provincial, dull, irrelevant — and, even if I later found out that there was some truth to that assessment, I also discovered a much richer, complex and diverse literary landscape than I had anticipated.

The first Canadian writer that thrilled me in those mule-headed years was Michael Ondaatje. I arrived at Ondaatje, not surprisingly, through his "American" books — The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter — but it was In the Skin of a Lion, his first real commercial success (and Trillium Award winner), that showed me literature about Canada, and specifically about Toronto, was far from provincial, dull or irrelevant. It gave the city a romantic yet gritty sheen, made real history and real places (the Bloor Street Viaduct, the R.C. Harris Waterworks) magical and dangerous, populated the city with characters as vivid as any in Faulkner or Woolf.

I knew that Toronto's literature didn't begin with In the Skin of a Lion, but for me it did, and the experience of living in a place that I was reading about, and vice versa, was startling and unfamiliar. When I ate lunch for the first time at El Basha, a now-defunct falafel joint that Ondaatje thanks in the novel's acknowledgments, and saw a signed cover of the book tacked to a greasy wall, literature and life mingled in a way that felt, finally, new.

Jason McBride is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor. He's the former managing editor of Coach House Books and a regular contributor to Toronto Life, Maclean's, the Globe and Mail, The Believer and many other publications. Follow Jason on Twitter @jasonmcbride68.

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