At the end of September, CBC Books, the National broadcaster’s online home for literary content, together with the Canada Council for the Arts, and Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, announced that Hampstead resident Chanel M. Sutherland was the winner of the 2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize for her story, Umbrella.
Selected from over 2,000 entries, Sutherland, during a recent telephone interview, said wining the grand prize came completely out of left field. “I didn’t enter thinking that I was going to win. I was just trying to get my writing out there and do something with the story that I was writing at the time. So when I found out that I was longlisted, it was amazing. And then just to win … I’m still in disbelief.”
Along with receiving the $6,000 in prize money from the Canada Council for the Arts, Sutherland’s story has been published on the CBC Books site and a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity is hers for the taking. The four runners-up received $1,000 each.
A graduate in English Literature from Concordia University, the 38-year-old is a director of product marketing for a Montreal-based software company and said she mostly writes for her own enjoyment and only began entering the CBC competition three years ago. “I wanted to take my writing a little bit more seriously, getting myself out there and putting myself in front of readers, even if it’s just to have one person read my story,” she said.
Sutherland, who is Black, was born in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, moved to Montreal at age 10, and as a teenager, attended Wagar High School in Côte Saint-Luc, where her winning story, Umbrella, is based.
“It’s about me and a white friend of mine in high school. We’re on the soccer field and my friend, who is called Dee in the story, puts me in this confrontational moment with a crush of mine and it’s just her asking some very inappropriate, racist questions and I’m being very aggressive in a teenage kind of way. The story opens with the line, ‘Do you like being Black?’ Which kicks off the whole experience.”
What ended up being a compelling 2,000-word short story had actually been kicking around in Sutherland’s head for years, but it was never put down on paper until the events that followed George Floyd’s murder — including the marches protesting racial injustice and the prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement — struck a nerve.
“I always remembered that question, ‘Do you like being Black?’” said Sutherland. “And I
think it brought back a lot of experiences. There was so much on social media and in the news about other people’s experiences and I could identify with a lot of the things that I was hearing.”
Writing a story about a racial experience that took place as a teen in the midst of all the racial reckoning taking place decades later gave her initial version an edge that Sutherland thought had to be toned down.
“I was very frustrated because of everything that was going on with Black Lives Matter,” she explained. “So when I first started writing it I wrote it with that anger. The first version of the story was with that adult anger in my eyes, but I had to step away from it for a week or two and then come back and just write it as honestly as possible and channel in myself as if I was a teenager and write it with those emotions. So, I had to edit myself a lot, edit this version of myself.”
Sutherland, who hopes the win is a first step toward fulfilling her dream of becoming a published author, is now working on a collection of short stories which she says will be a mix of fiction and non-fiction stories about the Caribbean experience, based on the conversations she has had with friends, family, and other members of the Caribbean community.
“Growing up I wasn’t exposed to many Caribbean writers and only just recently have I met a few. So I would like to at least do my part to help get our stories out there because I think it’s an important part of the Canadian story.”
To read Umbrella, visit https://www.cbc.ca/books/literaryprizes/umbrella-by-chanel-m-sutherland-1.6156556
For more information on the CBC Literary Prizes, visit CBCBooks.ca.