The story behind two local writers nominated for the first Carol Shields Prize for Fiction

Covers of God Isn’t Here Today by Francine Cunningham and We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies by Tsering Yangzom Lama.

The Carol Shields Prize for Fiction is a major new English-language literary award to celebrate creativity and excellence in fiction by women and non-binary writers in Canada and the United States. The announced long-list sees five Canadian writers: Suzette Mayr, Chelene Knight, Tsering Yangzom Lama, Emma Hooper and Francine Cunningham join 10 American authors.

Francine Cunningham – God Isn’t Here Today

Francine Cunningham is an award-winning Indigenous writer, artist and educator. God Isn’t Here Today is her debut collection of short fiction.

From a very young age, she always knew her future would be a web of creativity.

Short fiction is where Francine Cunningham gets to explore her weird side. | Photo courtesy of Francine Cunningham

“My mum made our spare room into my art studio,” Cunningham recalls. “She said, ‘Go in there, create, spend as much time as you can, and put all your focus into the things you are good at.’”

Poetry was the first outlet for Cunningham, as she journaled through her teenage years, putting pen to paper to make sense of all the existential angst, her poems were full of heart.

“For me, creativity is inevitable. I don’t know how not to do it!” she says.

Cunningham still draws from a myriad of creativity in her life and even her writing varies in style and expression, from poetry, to fiction, to short stories, to script writing.

“It keeps the writing fun, exciting and challenging!” she explains.

At any given moment, Cunningham has five to six projects on the go, and each in a different genre of writing. Even in a day she will mix her creative outlets and move from writing, to bead work, to painting.

“It just lights up different parts of my brain,” she says.

The different emotions also spark different genres of Cunningham’s writing.

“I find poetry is always in my heart,” she says. “Short fiction is where I get to explore my weird side and go into those strange ‘what if places’ like with the book God Isn’t Here Today. Then my novel is for exploration of deeper themes, while the memoir is where I go to try and figure out why I do things.”

With the short fiction in her debut collection, God Isn’t Here Today, Cunningham takes readers on a dark but poignant journey.

“I started writing those stories in grad school,” she says. “It took a long time to write them all. They started to come together, in this universe that I was trying to create. Finally bringing everything together to tell a story through micro fiction.”

Cunningham also has a passion for motivating young indigenous people to find their voice through creativity.

“It is incredibly important to me, to raise up indigenous voices, youth in particular,” she says. “Working with youth in the classroom is where I really feel I can make a difference.”

Cunningham believes each of us has a place in our communities to do what we do best.

“Follow what you are good at, and what brings you joy, and that is enough!” she concludes.

Tsering Yangzom Lama – We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies

Born in Nepal, to exiled Tibetan parents, Tsering Yangzom Lama grew up in the vibrant and cosmopolitan capital, Kathmandu. It’s a really bustling city, she says, there is a real sense of openness and excitement.

When Lama was about seven or eight, she recalls writing a poem at school about impermanence which she shared with her father.

Tsering Yangzom Lama depicts a refugee settlement in Nepal in her debut novel. | Photo by Paige Critcher

“My father was a real dreamer,” Lama remembers, and after seeing her poem he was determined that it would get published. “A few days later I saw it published in the newspaper! I didn’t even know that was a thing at the time.”

This was an important lesson for her, about what is possible if one is willing to take a leap.

That family support, especially from her father, would prove invaluable. Her dream of writing was resurrected during a creative writing elective course, which Lama took at UBC.

As a “90s kid” Lama enjoys the old school writing method of pen and paper. This is all part of the creative process for Lama. The messy notes on the page act as a great first draft, before it gets typed up and edited further.

Lama describes writing as a ‘compulsion’, like something she couldn’t not do.

“It [writing] helps me move through the world on a daily level,” says Lama.

When talking about her debut novel, We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies, Lama reflects how she was driven to write about the refugee settlement in Nepal. Lama describes the camp as having a strong sense of community. The people are humble there, often stateless, and sometimes forgotten.

“I knew I wanted to write about the camp and how the camp changed over time. From the beginning, right after the occupation and exile began, pretty much right up to the modern day. Looking at how time affects people and the way in which displacement takes a family into all kinds of different directions,” she says.

Although the camp and its location is the site for a lot of the story, none of the characters in the book are real, and none of the things really happened. It’s entirely fictional, says Lama.

Through a lot of research, reading aid documents, visiting different places outlined in the novel, talking to people and listening to oral history, Lama has tried to animate a much larger story than her own personal experience.

When Lama is not immersed in the world of writing her day job takes her into a world of activism and advocacy with an environmental role at Greenpeace.

“I really like being in an advocacy space, because it’s creative in certain ways,” says Lama.

Both Cunningham and Lama have to wait until Apr. 6 to find out if they make it onto the short list before the winner is announced May 4.

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