The Ross and Davis Mitchell Prize is one of the earliest initiatives of Faith in Canada 150.
The following is an interview with Doug Sikkema, Project Leader for the Ross and Davis Mitchell Prize for Faith and Writing, a literary award worth $25,000 from Cardus. Cardus is a Canadian think tank “dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture.” The Puritan’s essays editor, André Forget, interviewed the project leader to learn more about this sizeable, faith-based literary prize.
André Forget: What are the origins of the Ross and Davis Mitchell Prize? How did it come about, and what has your own involvement in it been?
Doug Sikkema: In 2015, Cardus, a public policy think tank based in Hamilton, ON, conceived the idea of Faith in Canada 150: a set of projects for the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Confederation that would be taking place later this year. These projects are quite unique and varied, but all share a fundamental desire to help Canadians better understand the important role that faith and religion have played in making Canada (and Canadians) what they are today.
One of the earliest initiatives we thought about was a poetry and fiction prize that would help to profile, and perhaps even catalyze, the numerous Canadian writers today who write out of a certain religious tradition. In meeting with editors, publishers, and literary organizations, it became clear that such a prize would not only be unique, but would also be an important contribution to the Canadian literary scene. As a researcher and managing editor at Cardus, as well as a PhD candidate in English Literature at the University of Waterloo, this project was a great fit for me. I’ve been happy to be the project lead, helping to organize the prize objectives and criteria, getting our panel of judges together, and developing the Fall 2017 Gala.
AF: Religion has been a frequent subject and target of Canadian writing. There are the scathing accounts of writers like Rawi Hage and Miriam Toews, who present faith as being unambiguously dangerous, and also more sympathetic portrayals in K.D. Miller’s All Saints and Maggie Helwig’s Girls Fall Down. All of these writers got attention, some of them a significant degree of attention. Why was it felt that a separate, explicitly faith-related prize was needed?
DS: Yes, to be clear, we’re not assuming that writers of religion get “no” attention. One has only to look at the popularity of Yann Martell’s Life of Pi or Atwood’s eco-theology to see that there is a certain fascination around the connections between faith and the imagination in Canadian literature today.
The hope with this prize is to ‘crack’ this kind of encrusted thinking and help more Canadians see that religion and faith strike at the very heart of what it means to be human.
As you note, though, this “fascination” today ranges from outright rejoicing to hostility. Our purpose with this prize is to bring these stories and these responses together and encourage them in light of the 150th anniversary celebrations taking place. Because one thing we have noticed in the Canada 150 celebrations is that while Canadian culture is being celebrated, very little is being done to recognize that this culture is a quilt of various religious communities. As the late Prime Minister Trudeau said in 1981, there’s a “golden thread of faith” woven in the tapestry of Canada. He also noted that, “To pass on that heritage, strong and intact, is a challenge worthy of all of us who are privileged to call ourselves Canadians.” So, our prize is hoping to bring that thread into the light amidst all the other wonderful programs and initiatives taking place.
Also, as you can see on our prize description on the website, there is an increasingly dominant strain in our “secular” culture, that religion is nothing more than window dressing. It’s a funny way to dress, or perhaps a place to go and worship. The hope with this prize is to “crack” this kind of encrusted thinking and help more Canadians see that religion and faith strike at the very heart of what it means to be human.
AF: The prize website notes that the Mitchell Prize is open to writers engaging with many faith traditions. Was there an attempt to make sure this same faith diversity is represented in the judging? Will the judges have final say, or does the organization sponsoring have a role in choosing the work as well?
DS: The judges for the Mitchell Prize represent a strong range of academics, writers, and experts, many of whom work intimately with the creative communities of various religious traditions. They are all highly accomplished in their fields, and we are proud to have them. It’s an honour to have George Elliott Clarke, Canada’s poet laureate, evaluating poetry submissions, for example. We have award-winning novelist Susan Lynn Reynolds judging the fiction category. Each of the judges brings a wealth of experience and talent to the table. I feel we have the cream of the crop to judge this prize.
The judges will have final say. The entire process will be anonymous and the organizing institution will have no say over who makes the shortlist or is awarded the final prize.
AF: Responses to this prize on social media have not been uniformly enthusiastic. On December 14, Toronto poet Jacob McArthur Mooney took to Facebook to suggest the prize is a “theocratic gesture” and call attention to the fact that the think tank behind the prize, Cardus, is a conservative Christian organization. How would you respond to those who suggest this prize is less about literature than it is about furthering an explicitly conservative-Christian political agenda?
Toronto poet Jacob McArthur Mooney took to Facebook to suggest the prize is a ‘theocratic gesture,’ and call attention to the fact that the think tank behind the prize, Cardus, is a conservative Christian organization.
DS: I would encourage writers to read more about our objectives, our juror panel, our advisors, and our mission before they jump to this rather uncharitable, knee-jerk conclusion. It is unfair to simply paste labels on an organization and attempt to marginalize it based on a very superficial understanding of its raison d’être. Our hope is not to airbrush history: we explicitly ask for people who feel they have been harmed by religion to share those stories. However, we also know that many people find comfort, security, and identity in the habits and rituals of their religion. This is part of what it means to be Canadian and I think it breaks through a simple “progressive” vs. “conservative” dichotomy. So, if allowing religious voices to speak into the public square without threat of coercion and celebrating the beauty of language and narrative are part of the “conservative-Christian political agenda,” then by all means, that is what we’re for. But I think there would be many Canadians surprised by such a claim!
AF: You and I have spoken on several occasions about the challenges writers of faith experience in a literary culture where religious skepticism is the default. Do you think this sense of marginalization is further compounded for writers coming from a non-Christian background?
DS: The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor may provide some help on this question. Taylor’s framing of secularism suggests that religion will not become more and more unlikely, but that the conditions for belief and unbelief are shifting in significant ways. In a secular age, unbelief does become a much easier option than it was, say, 500 years ago. Yet even unbelief is “haunted” by belief in much the same way that believers may be “haunted” by doubt and skepticism. Secularism cuts both ways.
What the writer of faith—whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc.—can offer (among other things) is a brief moment where the dominant narratives of secularism are challenged and maybe even undermined. It may still be more difficult for non-Christian writers of faith in Canada today given how predominant Christianity still is. The metaphors and tropes, analogies, and symbolism of Christianity are more easily ingested by a Canadian culture whose roots are more Judeo-Christian (even if those have been forgotten).
However, the marginalization of Christianity today also means that writers of the Christian faith have to make allegiances and work with writers of other faith traditions. This is not to say they must ignore and erase their differences. Not at all. However, it is to suggest that as they write “against” a dominating narrative that threatens to push them to the margins and irrelevance, their work is shared.
The deadline for the Ross and Davis Mitchell Prize is June 30, 2017.