A University of Guelph ecology professor has won the 2020 Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction.
Dr. Madhur Anand’s experimental memoir, This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart: A Memoir of Halves, was among five finalists in the category.
The Governor General’s Literary Awards, run by the Canada Council for the Arts, are one of the country’s oldest and most prestigious literary awards programs.
“I’m thrilled and honoured, of course, but as a writer, I can’t feel the full impact quite yet, maybe because the biggest reward for me was the creation of the book — a product of a ton of hard work, but also lots of mystery and discovery,” said Anand, a professor in the School of Environmental Sciences.
“But I do hope it attracts more readers to this experimental book, which I think is different from what typically appears on such lists. I hope people will read it and think for themselves.”
The book is told in two parts and has two covers. One side begins during the Partition of India into India and Pakistan in 1947 following independence from British rule. Anand tells the stories of her parents’ lives, which include different perspectives on childhood, youth, disability and arranged marriage in post-Partition India, as well as their immigration to Canada and living in northern mining towns and tiny city apartments while facing many challenges.
The stories alternate between the imagined first-person voices of her mother and her father.
At about its midpoint, the book comes to a partition of its own. The reader must flip the book over to find another set of stories, told by Anand as she reflects on the lives of her parents and her own life as a poet and scientist. Readers may begin the book from either side and read either way, she said.
Critics have praised the book’s lyrical prose and innovative structure and the author’s power to weave poetry and science in exploring ideas of partition or division between generations, cultures and geographies as well as partitions found within many of us.
Anand uses elements of earth science, ecology, mathematics and physics to explore the symmetry and asymmetry of life and to craft the connecting metaphors that run through the memoir.
She said the book grew out of a desire to learn more details about her parents’ lives and to record the stories they had told her. As she wrote, she worked to capture not just the elements of the stories but also the way her parents spoke, using different styles of language as well as some Hindi and Punjabi words. She speaks about the book in Quill & Quire magazine.
“I could not write this book in the third person, though I tried,” she said. “I switched to ‘I’ and that allowed me to enter more deeply and, strangely, more universally, perhaps because it allowed me to be who I am—a poet and a scientist but also the daughter of two remarkable characters with lives so foreign to mine and yet lived so intimately with mine.”
Anand’s first collection of poems, A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes (2015), was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award.
She has gained international recognition for her studies of the impact of globalization and climate change on ecosystems. Her research has been supported through numerous awards, including two Canada Research Chairs. She is the inaugural director of U of G’s Guelph Institute for Environmental Research.
Recently, she has collaborated on COVID-19-related research, including studies of daily coronavirus counts in the Greater Toronto Area and vaccination prioritization. That research has been widely covered, including stories in the New York Times and Toronto Star and on CBC News.
Dr. Madhur Anand