Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Prize watch: nonfiction GG to Sandra Djwa

The winner
West Coast English prof Sandra Djwa won the Governor General's literary award in nonfiction today for Journey With No Maps, a biography of poet and painter P. K.Page. Full list of GG winners here. I haven't read the book, but Djwa's earlier biography of another poet, F.R. Scott, was also admired. Sign of the times: Djwa's book was published by a university press, after the big foreign-owned Canadian trade book publishers all passed on it.

I was rather hoping for the only book on the nonfiction list I have actually read, and also the most "historical"  title on the shortlist.That's Carolyn Abraham's memoir The Juggler's Children: A Journey into Family, Legend, and the Genes that Bind Us. Abraham, a journalist, grew up in southern Ontario in a family where a look in the mirror told them they were mixed-"race" of some kind but where the official line was that they were "English."

First quizzing her relatives and then plunging pretty deeply into commercial DNA-tracing services, Abraham begins to sort out where she comes from. It becomes a research-quest story, with her parents, husband, siblings, and sources becoming engaging characters in the story. And it turns out to be one hell of an ancestry: Anglo-Indian with some Chinese (he was the juggler) along one line, and Jamaican on the other.

It's a well told story, with jaunts to south India and the Jamaican north shore, but particularly as the family gradually faces up to what seems pretty likely to the rest of us from the start:  if they are mixed-race and Jamaican, there is going to be a slave-owning father and an enslaved and probably unwilling mother in the line somewhere.
Not the winner,

A science writer, Abraham is good on the technical and practical complications of the DNA testing industry. But she is even more engaged with the ethical complications of DNA testing. The tests don't always confirm the family legends, let us say, and once known they cannot become unknown. This becomes particularly salient when Abraham begins participating in the social media services the DNA testing companies provide. She gets to email other clients from all over the world with a matching DNA profile, most of whom are saying "How the hell am I related to you?"

It sounds like fun, scraping the inside of your cheek and getting back your ancestry. Just as DNA testing looks likely to take over the world,.Abraham sets out both the attractions and the complications. Abraham's website for the book is here.
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