Literary lovers in Halifax cheered with the rest of Canada on Monday night when Scotiabank Giller Prize was awarded to Madeleine Thien.
Thien won the $100,000 literary prize for her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing. It tells the story of classical musicians honing their art during China’s Cultural Revolution and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
Thien’s win was announced at the televised Giller gala in Toronto and screened live at the Halifax Scotiabank Giller Light Bash, one of seven official celebrations across the country.
Before the announcement, the crowded room at the Atlantica Hotel listened to a panel of six guests advocate for each of the short listed novels.
“She’s a master of her craft and embodies and surpasses what the Giller Prize was created for in Canadian literature,” said Jess Chisholm, a Halifax Public Libraries employee who spoke on behalf of Thien’s novel. “Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a touchstone for everyone who reads it and is shaken by what it accomplishes, stands for and bears witness to.”
Half of the panel members who were championing other nominees took time from their speeches to mention their admiration for Thien’s work.
“Thien is one of the true masters of the sentence,” said author and panelist Alexander MacLeod, who was nominated for the Giller in 2010 and served as a judge in 2015. “I don’t think it’s surprising that her book is the fan favourite.”
The Giller is the largest cash prize for fiction in the country. A jury of five Canadian and international authors read 161 books and select the winner from a competitive short list. The five runners-up each receive a prize of $10,000.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing also won the $25,000 2016 Governor General’s Award for fiction last month and earned Thien a nomination for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, an international English literary award based in the U.K.
Halifax Giller Light Bash organizer Carolyn Gillis has been part of the annual celebration since the beginning.
“When we started the bash five years ago, there were about 10 people there,” said Gillis in an interview. “This year we sold more than 150 tickets.”
The event is a fundraiser for the Halifax chapter of Frontier College. The national non-profit literacy organization runs programs to help adults and children with reading and writing skills.
“Frontier College is all about crossing borders; your life is one way before you cross the border and another way after,” said MacLeod during the panel. “Reading is one of those fundamental borders; once you cross it, you’re never the same afterward.”