It would be hard to make the claim that this author, or book, didn’t deserve the win. Calgary-based Suzette Mayr has been a quiet force in CanLit for years, with previous titles including Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall and Monoceros. She’s been known as a writer’s writer, one often found on lists of favourites from her peers, but too often left out of the spotlight. Last night that changed when Mayr won the coveted Scotiabank Giller Prize for her sixth novel, The Sleeping Car Porter, which tells the story of Baxter, a closeted gay Black man working as a porter on a Canadian passenger train in 1929.
“What I really wanted to do with this book was call attention to the lost history of LGBTQIA2S+ folk, and our essential contributions to history. Because of societal pressures (including the threat of violence and worse), previous generations of queer folk had to hide, and some did a very good job of it,” Mayr tells Xtra by email.
The Scotiabank Giller Prize is the largest literary prize in Canada in terms of the amount of money won, and the literary event that best rivals a traditional red carpet event. The next biggest monetary prizes for literature are the Amazon Canada First Novel Award and the Atwood Gibson Writer’s Trust Fiction Prize at $60,000 and the Governor General’s Award at $25,000.
While queer authors—including Zoe Whittall, Emma Donoghue, Shani Mootoo and Jordan Tannahill—have been shortlisted for the prize before, Mayr’s win is thought to be the first time an out queer writer has won. In her moving acceptance speech she thanked her partner, Tonya, and her “LGBTQIA2S+ sisters, brothers and siblings, many of whom, like my main character Baxter, are still too scared to come out or cannot come out because to do so would be too dangerous” She concluded, “I love you and this book is for you.”
In The Sleeping Car Porter, Baxter finds a provocative postcard of two queer men, and his desires come to the surface. The novel was shortlisted alongside books by Kim Fu, Noor Naga, Rawi Hage and Tsering Yangzom Lama.
“Suzette Mayr brings to life—believably, achingly, thrillingly—a whole world contained in a passenger train moving across the Canadian vastness, nearly one hundred years ago. As only occurs in the finest historical novels, every page in The Sleeping Car Porter feels alive and immediate—and eerily contemporary…. Baxter’s dream of one day going to school to learn dentistry coexists with his secret life as a gay man, and in Mayr’s triumphant novel we follow him … into and out of the lives of an indelibly etched cast of supporting characters, and, finally, into a beautifully rendered radiance,” the jury wrote of their pick. The five-person jury included trans author Casey Plett.
“I’m a queer person,” Mayr told the Calgary Herald late last month. “Part of being a queer person is trying to find your ancestors and it’s not necessarily about people you are biologically related to but people in the queer community who came before you and knowing that you have a place and you’re not the first and you’re not the only one. It was me excavating a past to find people like me.”
The win is a long-time coming, as Mayr has been publishing books since the late ‘90s and has taught creative writing at the University of Calgary since 2003.
“There’s so little of our histories in traditional archives, and so I did the only thing I could do—I researched as hard as I could to find concrete traces of someone like my main character (a Black, queer sleeping car porter), and then I conjured up the rest,” she tells Xtra.
“We’re over the moon that Suzette has won the Scotiabank Giller Prize! She is absolutely deserving of it. And it’s a thrill to see an openly queer writer—and an openly queer book—win a mainstream prize,” Alana Wilcox, editor of Coach House Press, Mayr’s publisher, told Xtra by email. “Suzette talks about the book as a way of imagining a queer Black history that has of course never been documented, and the book feels even more significant when you read it that way.”
The historical win is not lost on other queer writers. Novelist and 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlister Whittall tweeted highlighting Mayr’s long career making queer work:
“We have been around as long as humans have existed, but a lot of our history has been lost or erased. I’m doing the best I can to figure out part of our family tree,” says Mayr. “We also deserve happy endings. This is my happy ending.”