The Journey Prize Stories: From the Best of Canada's New Writers

selected by Elizabeth Hay, Lisa Moore, Michael Redhill

Published by McClelland & Stewart

190 pages, 2004



Doing the Impossible

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen


Every year for the past 16, literary journals have been submitting the best short fiction they have published in the past year to a special competition. Made possible by James A. Michener's donation of his Canadian royalty earnings from his novel Journey, published by McClelland & Stewart in 1988, this competition has become a national literary highlight. From these stories will come the dozen or so titles that will be included in that year's volume of Journey Prize Stories, one of which will go on to win the coveted ten thousand dollar Journey prize. Awarded to a new and developing writer of distinction, the winning stories are selected by a jury of well known writers.

McClelland and Stewart also awards two thousand dollars to the submitting journal, as a way of recognizing and rewarding the important role such publications as Room of Ones Own, Prairie Fire, Grain and The Malahat Review play in encouraging and fostering new literary talent.

"We were looking for nerve-scrapping suspense and bone-deep pleasure. We wanted to read stories that were heartbreaking or hilarious, or stylistically brazen. Gorgeous, emotionally driven writing, shot though with wit. We wanted to find what we half-suspected, and what we could not have previously conceived. We were looking for moral complexity, questions with no easy answers, all the answers..." writes this year's exacting jury in the introduction.

The other winners here are, of course, the readers. We reap the benefits of such demanding, almost impossible standards. We also have the fun of choosing our own winner.

The entrants for the 2004 edition come from Vancouver Island on the West coast to Newfoundland on the Atlantic, with all provinces not equally represented. Not surprisingly, four writers hail from Ontario and two from the Maritimes, but perhaps surprising to many, the rest call British Columbia their home. Can we assume from this that the West coast is blessed with an abundance of talent or that more journals are flourishing in that province? Or is it that B.C. journals were more ambitious this year in ensuring the writers they published were put forward?

Some of these writers will be familiar. Patricia Rose Young, for example, is a well known West coast poet and the winner of several important awards: The Dorothy Livesay poetry prize, the B.C. Book Prize for poetry and the Pat Lowther award, to mention but a few. She is, however, new to fiction, and thus eligible for this anthology. Her short story, "Up the Clyde on a Bicycle," is heartbreaking and vibrates with subtext. A young girl's shattered world is portrayed through what is not said and not known by her. The reader,though, knows all too well. Dramatic irony is often the perfect device for showing instead of telling.

From a microscopic look at the tediousness and tenderness inherent in the life of a mother and housewife in "The Watermelon Social" to the unbearable horror and tragedy in "Benny and the Jets," from the positive, plot-driven story of "The Uses of the Neckerchief" to the intricate, sad study of how society shapes a soul in "Nice big car, rap music coming out the window," the stories have the kind of diversity that can often make an anthology such delicious reading.

It's also a pleasure to be on the inside track and to anticipate the next wave of Canadian writers. With writing like this from our emerging writers, we can definitely expect them to present more literary banquets for us.

"... we were thrilled by glimpses into new worlds thoroughly realized and ultra-fresh. We found stories in which every word was in the right place; words with no choice but to be exactly where they were..." the selection jury purrs in their introduction, pretty stiff requirements for emerging writers, and yet they were met in spades. It won't be easy selecting one winner from these contenders. | April 2005


Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.