Giller Prize winner speaks at the Agnes

André Alexis, writer of Fifteen Dogs, speaks of the meaning behind his winning novel

Andre Alexis, winner of the annual Scotiabank Giller Prize, appeared at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre to speak about his winning novel and his career.
Andre Alexis, winner of the annual Scotiabank Giller Prize, appeared at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre to speak about his winning novel and his career.

The Agnes Etherington Art Centre’s foyer is packed, and there’s a light hum of anticipation as the audience waits for author André Alexis to take his place behind the podium. 

There’s a table by the door where copies of his book Fifteen Dogs, the winner of the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize, are distributed to the graduating English majors.

Ten years ago, with encouragement from the Faculty of Arts and Science, the English department decided to host a flagship event to host the winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize. The prize is awarded to a Canadian author of a novel or short story collection every year.

The talk aims to build comradery within the graduating class by giving them a book to read and bond over. 

The winner of the Giller Prize each year is invited to speak to students, with copies of their book provided as a gift to the graduating class. 

This year’s winner was André Alexis’ novel Fifteen Dogs. 

Fifteen Dogs, an apologue — a moral fable where animals are the main characters — tells the story of a group of 15 dogs who are suddenly gifted by two gods with human language and consciousness. 

Hermes and Apollo, the gods in question, engage in a bet pending the outcome of their experiment. 

The novel ponders the effects language has on social behaviour, whether pleasure equates to happiness, the true meaning of relationships and death’s relevance to happiness. 

It’s complex and jarring to read, but hard to put down at the same time. 

Alexis spoke of his experience writing the novel — which he wrote in four months — saying his novels are a “result of [his] own agnosticism.” 

“In some ways, [my work] is a constant confrontation with this thing. Maybe because, in some ways, I haven’t gotten over the fact that I lost the belief that I had when I was younger.”

Having been raised Catholic, Alexis spoke of the consolidation between love, power and divinity. The dogs are puppets and at the mercy of the gods, who have given them the power of consciousness and language. 

Whether that’s a gift or a curse is up to the reader’s interpretation. 

Through the dogs, he conveys feelings of alienation. The dogs, who are gifted with this sudden ability to think and feel like humans do, have no choice or say in the actions of the gods, which leads to disillusionment and unhappiness with their lives. 

“Belonging,” Alexis said, “is the one thing that is lost with the imposition of human thinking.”

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