And then there was one: The Handmaid’s Tale and Kim’s Convenience actress Amanda Brugel is the winner of Canada Reads 2020. In a suspenseful finale, the book she defended, memoir We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib, survived the final elimination vote and was named “the book to bring Canada into focus.”
During the debates, Brugel said that Habib‘s memoir felt like reading the “diary of a soulmate” she had yet to meet.
“She opened a window into a world that had been previously closed. This changed me,” said Brugel in her final plea before the vote that would seal her win.
The 2019 memoir, Habib‘s first book, chronicles the journalist and photographer’s early childhood in Pakistan, her experience with religious persecution, her arrival to Canada as a refugee and her journey of coming out as a proud queer Muslim woman.
“I cried all day yesterday. My kids cried. My mom cried,” said Brugel during an interview on CBC’s q the day after her win.
“I’ve had a lot of peaks in my career and I do have to say that by far this is the most accomplished I have felt. A lot of people have done a lot of work to allow my voice to have a platform.”
The runner-up was Eden Robinson‘s acclaimed 2017 novel Son of a Trickster, a coming-of-age story about an impoverished teenage boy who discovers he has a connection to the Haisla trickster Wee’jit. Son of a Trickster was defended by Letterkenny star Kaniehtiio “Tiio” Horn.
Brugel won in a 4-1 vote on the final day.
“Samra‘s writing is intelligent, raw and ultimately life-affirming. She bravely tackles her own experience with sexual assault, homophobia, religious persecution and Islamophobia in such a compassionate, accessible way that it compels us to tackle our own hardships with similar grace,” Brugel said during the Canada Reads 2020 finale.
Brugel was steadfast in her passionate defence of the book during Canada Reads 2020. She noted how, while all five of the contending books dealt with important issues, she felt We Have Always Been Here is the one book that best fits Canada Reads 2020 theme of “one book to bring Canada into focus.”
“With the recent global conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as every other marginalized group that has been forced to live in the shadows, Canadians have very quickly realized that we’re not all that inclusive,” said Brugel on Day One of the debates.
“We Have Always Been Here …will bring Canada into focus right now because it finally acknowledges so many of our own communities that, up until now we have been just too complacent to investigate. LGBTQ lives, refugee lives, Muslim lives: in one fell swoop it gently educates its reader about the complexities of our differences all the while guiding us to the triumphant conclusion that, at our core, we are all the same.”
Samra Habib is a journalist, photographer and activist based in Toronto. She watched the debates unfold over four days.
“It made me feel validated that the story I had written was an important one and something that needed to be told. It was reassuring to see that other panellists that had really different experiences from mine were able to see that as well,” said Habib on CBC’s q the day after the finale.
“I feel grateful and also I feel very connected to my path on this Earth as an observer and storyteller.”
Habib hopes her book will encourage readers to seek out voices and perspectives that are different from their own.
“I just think that it’s so important to ensure that historically marginalized voices are given a seat at the table to broaden the collective understanding of the Canadian narrative,” said Habib on q.
“I think that is key to building a more inclusive Canada where everyone feels like they belong and I hope that this is another step toward understanding experiences of marginalized communities in Canada. I hope there will be more Black and Indigenous writers on Canada Reads next year.”
As Brugel said during the event, the memoir is a powerful reminder of the everyday struggles that all Canadians face in finding their own identity and place in the world.
“What makes this memoir great is the sheer amount of individuals it speaks to, particularly the individuals that aren’t used to being acknowledged. For me, We Have Always Been Here was like reading the private diary of a soulmate that I had yet to meet. Samra‘s prose is both lyrical and smart without being too overly written. Every sentence is carefully constructed to be beautiful even when describing ugly situations. Her displays of vulnerability and honesty become contagious because she encourages herself as well as our audience to come out of hiding — to forgive yourself for not conforming — in order to find inner peace,” Brugel said on Day Two of the debates.
The other three books were eliminated earlier in the week. Novella collection Radicalized by Cory Doctorow and defended by Akil Augustine was eliminated on Day One, followed by Metis-Cree author Jesse Thistle‘s memoir From the Ashes defended by George Canyon on Day Two, and Newfoundland playwright and author Megan Gail Coles‘s novel Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club defended by Alayna Fender on Day Three.
It was a week full of agreement for the literary merit of all the contending books, but also featured some reasoned exchanges and criticisms.
This year’s show was hosted by Ali Hassan.
The Canada Reads 2020 contenders and their chosen books are: