Queen’s English hosts 2023 Scotiabank Giller Prize Event

Event celebrates Suzette Mayr and ‘The Sleeping Car Porter’

Image supplied by: Supplied by the English Department
Mayr reads from her acclaimed novel.

On Thursday, March 23, Queen’s English department celebrated author Suzette Mayr and her Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning novel, The Sleeping Car Porter.

The event, held at the Biosciences Complex on Barrie Street, opened with an introduction to the five Giller Prize shortlisted novels: Lesser Known Monsters Of The 21st Century by Kim Fu, Stray Dogs by Rawi Hage, We Measure The Earth With Our Bodies by Tsering Yangzom Lama, If An Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Noor Nagaand, of course, the eventual winner. 

Following roaring applause for The Sleeping Car Porter, Mayr introduced her novel and discussed her creative journey with a perfect blend of thoughtfulness, humility, and humour. 

“The thing that kept me going was what Toni Morrison said on Oprah: ‘If you find a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it’,” Mayr said.

“The book I wanted to read—that I needed to read—was one about Black, queer, Canadian history with sex in it and with an unambiguously happy ending. It was really important for me to have a book that embodied Black joy, that embodied queer joy.”

The novel, set in 1920s Canada, follows a sleeping car porter named Baxter as he works to save money to fund his dream of pursuing an education in dentistry. Mayr, who denounced any claim of being a historian, described the project’s creation as an 18-year learning experience.

“I worked so hard to build that world [to] be accurate and so nobody could come up to me afterward and say ‘well, zippers weren’t invented yet and they’re in here,’” she said.

After reading two passages from the novel, Mayr sat down with a panel of three Queen’s professors—Steven Maynard, Kristin Moriah, and Chloé Savoie-Bernard—to talk the finer details of her research and process.

Maynard, who specializes his studies in the history of sexuality, helped inform some of Mayr’s research and is credited in the novel’s works cited list. The scholar referred to The Sleeping Car Porter as “the greatest novel in Canadian history.”

Savoie-Bernard, a published French poet, shared what the novel means to her through a poem she wrote in English for the event. Moriah’s expressed her feelings for the book in a more straightforward essay, though it was no less profound.

“There’s such constraint, and yet one finds oneself so connected to Baxter as a character; one feels the fatigue as the trip wears on and [Baxter] is only getting a few hours of sleep night after night,” Sam McKegney, head of the department of English, said in an interview with The Journal.  

“The fact Mayr is able to have that impact on the reader while bringing forth this tragically unknown history, this cross-section of labour history, of queer history, and of Black history—I think all of that is truly exceptional [and] is what made it the Giller-winning book for the year.”

McKegney oversaw the organization of Giller event as the instructor of English 466: Topics in Modern/Contemporary Literature I: The Scotiabank Giller Prize and Literary Prize Culture.

“The students map the structure for the event, they decide who the visiting speaker or guest panelists ought to be, they determine what the structure of that night might look like—[they answer] all of those really big-picture questions,” he explained.

“They are reaching out to a broader Queen’s community and trying to encourage other undergraduate students to get excited about contemporary literature.”

Ultimately, the critics, scholars, and students have spoken: The Sleeping Car Porter is a ground-breaking piece of literature that absolutely deserves to be celebrated.


books, Giller, Literature, queerness, race history

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