Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Shaughnessy Cohen Prize Series, with Marcello Di Cintio

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Marcello Di Cintio

It will be lucky number thirteen for one writer this year, with the thirteenth iteration of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, presented by the Writers’ Trust of Canada. The prize rewards the year's finest book tackling a political subject of interest to Canadian readers.

This week and next, Open Book will be speaking to each of the five finalists whose work impressed the jury of Ed Broadbent, Tasha Kheiriddin and Daniel Poliquin enough to plucked out of hundreds of submissions.

The winner of the prize, who will receive $25,000, will be announced at Ottawa's premiere social event, Politics & the Pen on March 6, 2013. In addition to the finalists, the event draws hundreds of politicians, staffers, diplomats and philanthropists as well as playing hosts to dozens of respected Canadian authors.

We're thrilled to launch this series speaking with Marcello Di Cintio, the author of Walls: Travels Along the Barricades (Goose Lane Editions). Walls, which describes Marcello's journeys to and experiences of the world's most disputed borders and barriers, has garnered universal praise since its publication. In addition to its place on the Shaughnessy Cohen shortlist, the book was also longlisted for the Charles Taylor Prize for Non-Fiction, the Alberta Readers' Choice Award and the B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-fiction.

Marcello talks with Open Book about the paradox of borders in a borderless world, the Calgary literary scene and books as sacred objects.

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted and how the project came about.

Marcell Di Cintio:

The idea for Walls: Travels Along the Barricades came from two trips I made to Israel and Palestine. In 1999, on Christmas Eve, I walked from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Though it sounds rather biblically epic, the walk was itself was nothing special — just a brief stroll on a sidewalk. What I remember, though, was that I couldn’t tell where Jerusalem ended and Bethlehem began. The borders of the two cities blurred into each other. It wasn’t until I started to see the Christmas decorations that I realized I’d reached Bethlehem.

When I returned to the region in 2004, there was no longer any nuance between Here and There. The Wall had been built around Bethlehem and defined Israel from Palestine with stark, medieval clarity. I’d read about the Wall, of course, but when I stood in the shadow of the barrier I was struck by the Wall’s concrete audacity. I wanted to learn what it meant to live in the shadow of such a structure, both in Palestine and elsewhere in the world.

I also wondered how such a blunt structure as a wall fits into our current “unwalled” world. There are no longer barriers to economics, communication or culture. Even the things we fear — terrorism, climate change, global pandemics, drone strikes — are borderless. And yet, even in this high-tech world, we continue to build low-tech walls. This fascinated me. It still does.

Travel writers are always looking for a great trip to go on. Something to go out in search of. In my last book, the ‘quest’ was for Iranian wrestlers and poets. The idea of traveling along some of the world’s most disputed edges appealed to my sense of journey. There was a delicious irony here, too, because the walls themselves are erected to halt travel.

Originally, I thought I’d write about how the walls are symbols. The walls represent fear, say, or historical hatreds. But as I traveled to the walls I realized that for those who live alongside the barriers, the walls are not symbols at all. They are walls. I decided instead to write about what it meant to have a literal, physical intimacy with these structures.


In your opinion, what qualities or characteristics signify that a book qualifies as political writing?


This is a tough question. Even though my book discusses political lines and borders, I never considered it a political book. I am a travel writer, not a political writer. (I’m glad no one told the Shaughnessy Cohen jury this.)

I guess a book is political if it addresses what it means to be a part of a community larger than our own network of colleagues and kin. Political writing reveals how our decisions and policies influence those around us and, in many cases, those far from us. A political book becomes relevant when it extends its focus beyond the men in suits who sign the paperwork to those who live intimately with the consequences.


The prize is presented at an evening event in Ottawa called Politics and the Pen. What are you most looking forward to about P&P? Have you attended before?


I’ve never attended Politics and the Pen before. I am looking forward to wearing a tuxedo for the first time since my high school graduation. It will feel strange, though, being in a tux and not hollering drunkenly from the sun roof of a rented limo.

Seriously, though, my regular milieu consists of freelance writers, poets, musicians or the occasional ex-barista science professor. The P&P gala and its congregation of the nation’s political elite will feel as foreign to me as the desert refugee camps, Palestinian villages and Bengali border towns I visited during the research for Walls. It will feel great, therefore, to be traveling among the Other again.


If you were to recommend one past finalist or winner of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize to readers, which title would you choose?


I would choose Doug Saunders’ Arrival City: The Final Migration and our Next World and not just because this is the only past finalist I’ve read. Saunders’ book aims his lens far from the halls of power and onto trials of the contemporary immigrant. It tells a story that is, in fact, the story of almost every family who moved from There to Here in search of something better. In that way, Arrival City is profoundly human.


If you win the prize, how will you celebrate?


After the initial shock wears off, I’ll throw a party for my ever-widening community of writers and readers in Calgary. We have a tremendous literary culture back home, and my fellow Calgarians have been incredibly supportive of this project from the beginning. I’d love the opportunity to thank them with a few drinks.


What can you tell us about your next project?


I am not sure what my next project will be. I have a few ideas that I am bouncing around. One of these is based on my month-long residency at the Palestine Writing Workshop last June. During my time in Palestine, I became interested in the role of books and writing in Palestinian culture — not just the narratives Palestinian books told, but the books themselves. I love the idea of books as physical artifacts; sacred, but not necessarily in a religious way. I visited ancient libraries, and collections of books from Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. I visited poet’s tombs and met with bookstore owners who talked about both writing and selling books under occupation. I want to put this together into a cohesive narrative.

Marcello Di Cintio’s first book, Harmattan: Wind Across West Africa, won the Henry Kreisel Award for Best First Book. His second book, Poets and Pahlevans: A Journey Into the Heart of Iran, won the Wilfred Eggleston Prize. In addition to being nominated for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, Walls was longlisted for the B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-fiction and the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction. Di Cintio has also written for numerous magazines, journals and newspapers, including the Walrus, EnRoute and the Globe and Mail. He lives in Calgary.

For more information about Walls: Travels Along the Barricades please visit the Goose Lane website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

For more information about the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, please visit the Writers' Trust of Canada website.

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