Author Cordelia Strube stands comfortably in front of an audience in the Bluma Appel Salon reading from her latest novel that just won the highest honour at the Toronto Book Awards.
This relaxed physical appearance belies her exuberance, having just won a prize that 66 other writers were vying for until this announcement – quite different from a moment ago when she accidentally spurted out an expletive from that very same podium upon hearing the news.
It is a benign seven-letter word – “F*cking” – that makes us all laugh. Some of us are a bit shocked. After all, we are in a library, and a large part of the audience is somewhere around retirement age. I’m judging by the grey hair on their heads and that alone.
No one in the room is more shocked at her winning than Strube herself. In fact, she didn’t prepare a speech. Through tears she explains to the crowd that she always gets nominated for things but never wins – well, hardly ever.
She quickly falls into an intimate exchange with the audience. I spend the rest of the evening trying to figure out which side of Cordelia Strube is the authentic one, the calm or the anxious.
In a post-interview video online, she refers to her characters in her award-winning novel, On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light, as rebellious. “There’s a bit of rebelliousness in all of us – “a defiance,” she stresses.
Her reaction to my taking her picture at the end of the award ceremony says that Strube doesn’t go along with anything she doesn’t necessarily feel comfortable with – a bit of rebelliousness.
“You,” she says, pointing the cap of her blue pen at me, wagging it like a warning finger.
“Who are you with? Why are you taking so many pictures of me?”
She is sitting on a stool in front of a slowly moving line of autograph seekers who all seem to want to develop an insta-relationship with her.
I have a feeling she is expecting me to say the FBI, or CSIS. We are in Canada. Instead, I say “I’m with CoreMagazines.com, an online culture magazine,” which seems to satisfy her. I don’t know why. I know she’s never heard of Core until right now.
“I’m just trying to get a shot without all the hardware in the background and people don’t always want you to take their picture without their permission, so I’m trying to get a good one with you by yourself,” I tell her.
“Sometimes people take pictures of me and I never know where they end up…,” she says. By this time she is smiling.
She has been here before, but she makes it seem like this is unfamiliar territory. In 1987 Strube won the CBC Literary Competition for Mortal, a play published in 1986 on CBC Radio. Since then she has been singled-out and placed on some of the most well-known literary honour rolls in the country, including the Scotiabank Giller Prize long-list (Lemon), and the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award short-list (Alex and Zee, 1994). She has written “10 novels and counting,” and as many stage and radio plays, been nominated for the Trillium Book Award (Lemon, 2009), and the prestigious Governor General’s Award for fiction (Teaching Pigs to Sing, 1996).
This award puts her in the company of Margaret Atwood, Morley Callaghan, Austin Clarke, Robertson Davies, Timothy Findley, and Anne Michaels.
Cordelia Strube Reads from her Award-Winning Novel On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light at the Toronto Book Awards reception (video on YouTube.com/CoreMagazines)
Strube: …”as the voices got stronger, I realized it was incredibly freeing”.
Strube seems as unconventional as Harriet, the 11-year old protagonist in On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light, the novel singled out tonight.
“Despite hapless adults failing her on every front, Harriet charts her own course with the materials at hand,” reads host Gillian Deacon (Here and Now, CBC Radio) from the podium, words written by the jurists who selected the book as most representative of Toronto.
On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light takes place in an “underrepresented area of Toronto. It’s Scarborough. It’s not sexy, Strube says but “the children in the novel have a wonderfully problem-solving attitude…I really wanted it to be real. And they’re dealing with some pretty hefty stuff,” she said, in that interview video while walking through a park in Scarborough.
Adding, “At first I thought it would be a real challenge as a novelist, to write from the point of view of children but as I got into it, as the voices got stronger, I realized it was incredibly freeing. And I really think readers like that.”
Strube’s fiction is about flawed people going through social struggles like divorce, loneliness, or disease. Harriet is dealing with all three. Her brother Irwin suffers from hydrocephalus. Strube examines the complex dynamics of the relationship between the two of them and the larger family by painting it with humour.
The judges lauded On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light, saying it “pitches us full-tilt into the heart of human relationships,” and the complexities that come with it, calling it “a singularly moving novel.”
At the podium Strube thanks her young daughter Carson who is in the audience. “We have been through a lot together,” she says of her daughter, who is closer in age to Harriet, at 14 years old, in the second part of the novel.
The book is dedicated to Carson, whom she says started reading her novels when she was nine, and if “you’ve read a Strube novel, you know it’s not a good idea,” she adds. “But she got so emphatically into it,” with its adult situations and scenarios.
It’s probably about as inappropriate as an 11-year old who dumpster dives to gather materials for her mixed-media art projects, as ideal as life at the Shangrila apartments or being a part of a broken family.
Referring to her characters, she says “because they’re young they can take steps that perhaps we as adults were afraid to take,” to change the course that’s been charted for them.
Special guest, poet and novelist Anne Michaels, Poet Laureate of Toronto is interviewed on-stage by Deacon at the ceremony and Strube is presented with the $10,000 award by Mayor John Tory’s stand-in, Councillor Mary Fragedakis. Strube was short-listed among five finalists for the prize; including:
- Howard Akler – Men of Action
- Ann YK Choi – Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety
- Marnie Woodrow – Heyday, and
- Editors John Lorinc, Michael McClelland, Ellen Scheinberg and Tatum Taylor – The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood.
On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light is published by ECW Press.