Trini-Canadian poet M. NourbeSe Philip awarded $50K Arts Molson Prize


The Arts Molson Prize is a lifetime achievement award annually given by the Canada Council for the Arts

  1. NourBeSe Philip has won the 2021 Arts Molson Prize, a $50,000 award, for her “invaluable contributions to literature.”
M. NourbeSe Philip

The Arts Molson Prize is a lifetime achievement award annually given by the Canada Council for the Arts.

Philip is a widely celebrated poet, essayist, fiction writer and outspoken critic. Her books include the YA novel Harriet’s Daughter, poetry collection She Tries her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks, the genre-bending book Zong! and nonfiction collection Blank.

Born in Tobago, Philip moved to Canada in the 1960s and completed a Masters degree in political science followed by a law degree at the University of Western Ontario (now Western University). She practiced law in Toronto for seven years, writing and publishing poetry in her spare time, until she started writing full-time in 1983.

Philip released her first three poetry collections in the 1980s: Thorns, Salmon Courage and She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks. The books explored her identity as a Caribbean and Canadian woman, the complicated beauty of language and experiences of racism and exile as a Black woman in Canada.

Philip released her debut novel, Harriet’s Daughter, in 1988. The book tells the coming-of-age story of a 14-year-old girl in Canada who idolizes Harriet Tubman. Philip later adapted the story for theatre.

Her most recent poetry collection Zong! was published in 2008. The book tells the true story of a slave ship from November 1781 on which 150 Africans were drowned on captain’s orders so the ship’s owners could collect insurance money. Philip examined the legal text from the case to create a collection that mourns, sings, chants and curses.

“Everybody read Zong! now. It’s a stunning accomplishment that takes on how to write about the unrepresentable,” Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of The Sympathizer, tweeted in 2020.

But Philip’s work exposing colonial cruelty has always extended beyond the page. In the 1980s, she was a prominent voice for Black writers in the country, leading a protest group called Vision 21 outside of PEN Canada for excluding writers of colour. June Callwood, a CBC journalist known as “Canada’s Conscience” and PEN’s incoming chair, told Philip to “f–k off.”

Journalist Amanda Parris writes that the Canadian literary scene responded to Philip’s activism by pushing her further into the margins. Her work in the 1990s and 2000s was largely ignored by Canadian critics and prizes, despite the praise it was garnering abroad. In her 2017 book Blank, a collection of essays interviews, Philip describes herself as a “disappeared writer.”

“The primary obstacle I’ve had to overcome was Canadian racism in its myriad forms, the subtle and the not so subtle, which would have destroyed me as a writer,” said Philip in an interview with the Molson Prize.

“M. NourbeSe Philip’s writing has, for four decades, merged vital formal experimentation and considerations of race, gender, colonialism and African diasporic identity,” said PEN America, which awarded her the prestigious PEN/Nabokov Award for International Literature in 2020.

Philip continues to be a force in literature and a voice writers turn to for guidance. To emerging writers, she had this to say, “Learn how to trust [your] gut instincts about [your] own work — sometimes the critics are wrong; be willing to risk — failure or success; and have someone in your life who loves what you do and will critique your work honestly.”