Madeline Sonik’s marvellous Afflictions & Departures

I confess that I don’t read as much fiction and creative non-fiction as I’d like. Given my occupation, I lean instinctively to periodicals, newspapers and their online equivalents.

But when I heard that Afflictions & Departures, a collection of essays by Madeline Sonik, had been nominated for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction, I logged on to Kobo’s website and downloaded the book right away.

I hadn’t read any of Sonik’s earlier work — not her poetry, as collected in Stone Sightings; not her collection of stories in Drying the Bones; not her earlier novel, Arms; not her children’s book, Belinda and the Dustbunnys. I admit I was intrigued by the fact that Sonik had made a career of writing, editing and teaching (currently at the University of Victoria) after first training as a journalist.

Sonik was more than just a classmate at the University of Western Ontario’s graduate school of journalism during the 1985-86 school year (the school has since become the graduate journalism program at Western University‘s Faculty of Information and Media Studies). As fellow grad students, we shared an office. At the time, I was a young father with a spouse and three children (and another on the way); she was an introverted writer and scholar who was destined to incorporate journalistic modes of research and writing into other creative pursuits, especially creative non-fiction. And so, in that office in the rotunda on the second floor of Middlesex College, we spoke relatively little of our vastly different backgrounds and personal lives.

I found Afflictions & Departures to be a intriguing and compelling glimpse into the life of a person I knew, but really knew nothing about. Sonik’s essays, which fuse historical references with autobiography, explore the disturbing complexities of families, the bewilderment of childhood, the loving yet strained and dysfunctional relationships between parent and offspring and the resulting perplexity of adolescence.

The book is a wonderful illustration of what can be achieved through the use of personal experience in creative non-fiction. On a more personal level, it reminded me of how little we sometimes know or understand of the way history, fate, circumstance and afflictions have shaped those with whom we interact every day. I’m probably speaking for many of my classmates when I say, “Madeline, we hardly knew ye.”

This year’s winner of the Charles Taylor Prize will be announced tomorrow and, of course, I hope Sonik wins. The other finalists are Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest, by Wade Davis; Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe, by Charlotte Gill; The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son and a Suit, by JJ Lee; and The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A Canadian Story of Resilience and Recovery, by Andrew Westoll. The prize is worth $25,000.

An hour-long discussion among nominated authors of their works, moderated by Steve Paikin of TVO’s The Agenda, is here. Below, Sonik reflects on the impact of the Internet and online reading on her craft.

Update (March 5): Andrew Westoll won the prestigious prize for The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A Canadian Story of Resilience and Recovery. Congrats once again to all the nominees.

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