Ryga Award shortlist
March 26th, 2023
Five writers have been shortlisted for the 2023 George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature (Ryga pictured at right). In alphabetical order, they are:
- Carole Blackburn: Beyond Rights: The Nisg̱a’a Final Agreement and the Challenges of Modern Treaty Relationships (UBC Press)
- Maureen Brownlee: Cambium Blue: A Novel (Harbour Publishing)
- Joseph Dandurand: The Punishment: Poems (Nightwood Editions)
- Stefanie Green: This is Assisted Dying: A Doctor’s Story of Empowering Patients at the End of Life (Simon & Schuster)
- Alan Twigg: Out of Hiding: Holocaust Literature of British Columbia (Ronsdale)
The George Ryga Award is an annual literary prize for a B.C. writer who has achieved an outstanding degree of social awareness in a new book published in the preceding calendar year. The prize money, thanks to the generosity of supporter Yosef Wosk, is $2,500 per year.
The Ryga Award has been presented annually since 2014 with the partnership of Vancouver Public Library in tandem with the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award.
The winner will be announced April 11.
ABOUT GEORGE RYGA
George Ryga is British Columbia’s greatest playwright. Only Eric Nicol, who had the first production of an original play by a B.C. writer at the Vancouver Playhouse, could begin to lay equal claim to the title of Father of B.C. Playwriting in the modern era.
“More than any other writer,” said theatre director John Juliani, “George Ryga was responsible for first bringing the contemporary age to the Canadian stage.”
Ryga was, as playwright Charles Tidler once put it, “Canadian theatre’s eloquent plea for the defence.”
The turning point for Ryga–and for Canadian drama–was his lyric documentary play about a young First Nations woman named Rita Joe who comes to the city only to die on Skid Row. Commissioned as a work for Canada’s Centennial celebrations, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is easily one of the most moving plays that Canada has ever produced.
With its circular structure and Brechtian use of a singer outside of the action, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, for Ryga, was more than a reflection of a local case of racial prejudice. It was his attempt to express his universal disdain and intolerance for injustice. “This issue is the burning issue of our time,” he said. “It is what the Congo, Bolivia, Vietnam are about. People who are forgotten are not forgetting. To overlook them is a dangerous delusion.”
The play first starred Frances Hyland as Rita Joe; Chief Dan George as her father; Ann Mortifee as the singer; Robert Clothier as the priest; and August Schellenberg as Jaimie Paul. It was directed by George Bloomfield. It premiered on November 23, 1967 at the Vancouver Playhouse.
Ryga was born in Deep Creek, Alberta in 1931. He was raised by poor immigrant Ukrainian parents as a Catholic on a farm in northern Alberta.
After seven years in a one-room country school, he left to work at a variety of occupations. In 1949, his writings for various competitions earned him a scholarship to Banff. He studied with Dr. E.P. Conklin of the University of Texas, Jerome Lawrence and Burton James. His first play broadcast on television in 1961 was based on his experiences working with Cree First Nations on his father’s farm during a period when Ryga was recovering from a bout of pneumonia. He understood how the Crees could view white man’s society as a prison. “[My play] emerged out of the soil and wind of a situation in which I was painfully involved,” he later wrote.
George Ryga credited the intervention of Daryl Duke for the successful launching of his first TV play and, with it, his professional career. Plays for television that followed included The Storm (1962), Bitter Grass (1963), For Want of Something Better To Do (1963), The Tulip Garden (1963), Two Soldiers (1963), The Pear Tree (1963) and Man Alive (1965). At the same time he was writing 12 short stories for radio and stage plays that included A Touch of Cruelty (1961), Half-Caste (1962), Masks & Shadows (1963), Bread Route (1963), Departures (1963), Ballad for Bill (1963), Indian (1964) and an adaptation of Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel (1965).
This frenzied burst of activity included drafts for at least six unpublished novels, The Bridge (1960), Night Desk (1960–later published in 1976), Wagoner Lad (1961), Poor People (1962), Sawdust Temples (1963) and Old Sam (1963). The volume of work attests to the passion within the man. Ryga was proud to think of himself as a commercial writer. In 1977, for example, he wrote a script for the American TV show The Bionic Woman entitled Garden of the Ice Palace–and it was bought and produced after several rewrites. But money was always scarce. George Ryga persevered from the Okanagan with scores of radio and television plays, plus a series of hard-edged and increasingly political novels published by Talonbooks.
George Ryga died of cancer on November 18, 1987 at age 55.