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Out of more than 2,400 English-language submissions, Kathleen May’s short story “Northwest and Back” has been selected as one of 32 for the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize longlist.
The Huntsville author was also shortlisted for the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize last fall.
“Being selected for the Short Story long list after being Shortlisted for the Nonfiction prize last year, I feel thrilled and validated,” May said via email. “It’s always been easy for me to hand-wave away any successes, thinking they must be flukes. That’s imposter syndrome. But I’m finally beginning to feel like I am actually skilled at writing, and that people like what I have to say and the way I say it. So I feel really gratified to know that my fiction can create connection just as much as memoir.”
May told CBC that the story was “inspired by our inevitable arrival at death—and, separately, the conclusion of our lives. We grow up confident that we will all die, but we know so little else. I wanted to explore the famous ‘life review’—when we die, what passes before our eyes? Do the dots finally connect? Was that life a clear path, or directionless meandering? What matters?”
She was told she had cancer on the day submissions for the contest were due. Although she wrote the story before her diagnosis and then left it to sit for a while, she read through it that evening, “sharpening it up for submission, and realized I might very well be telling my own story. We all die, all our stories conclude. But what do they contain? That’s what I’m most curious about.”
Every author hopes their words will resonate with readers. In reading “Northwest and Back”, “the story of a matriarch who, in dying, experiences a ‘life review’ and is able to piece together the lessons of her long life, I hope they consider the immense inner lives of the elders they know,” May told Doppler. “I read a lot of obituaries, and I have been shocked to see a person’s complex, immense life depleted into one hobby and the names of their grandchildren. There is so much more to existence than the scant words announcing our death. Everyone we know, but especially elders, has intricate inner workings and lessons that be gleaned only when looking back over the course of a lifetime.”
This is how the story begins (with apologies to those who want to know how it ends—for that, you’ll have to wait):
I die in the Northwest Territories.
It seems an absurd, not-here kind of place in which to die. How can a direction also be a location? If you’re in it, aren’t you simply “here?” If not, then it begs a comparison, but to what?
Ontario, I suspect.
That’s where I live; or rather, where I lived. While it strikes me as peculiar to die in a place you never lived, it does makes me think fondly of Ontario – I lived there but I didn’t die there. At least it didn’t do that to me.
See the full longlist at cbc.ca. The 2020 jury is comprised of David Bezmozgis, Alix Hawley and Rawi Hage, who together will select the shortlist and the winner.
The shortlist will be announced on April 15 and the winner will be announced on April 22.
The winner of the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.
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