The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan, journalist Graeme Smith’s account of his disillusioning years of reporting in Afghanistan, won Canada’s richest nonfiction prize, the C$60,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, at a ceremony in Toronto last night.
Smith’s book, published by Knopf Canada, was selected by a five-person jury from 107 books submitted by publishers in Canada. Smith, now 34, traveled to Afghanistan as a young war correspondent for the Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail from 2005 to 2009. In its citation, the jury wrote that Smith started out idealistically believing that the international community could “bring the whole basket of civilization to Afghanistan: peace, democracy, the rule of law.” They went on to describe his memoir as a “painfully detailed, eyebrow-raising account of what he saw during his six years of reporting…: a tragic mix of cultural ignorance, miscommunication, greed, brutality, and political naiveté that no amount of individual courage and dedication could ultimately overcome. A graphic but determinedly even-handed memoir that does much to counter the reams of official spin this topic has endured over the years.”
Smith says the book doesn’t offer answers or a set of recommendations for ending the conflict; it is a personal story of his experience in Afghanistan. “There were days when I had sand grit in my teeth. I had the charred flesh of suicide bombers in the treads of my shoes,” he told PW after accepting the award.
Still, his disillusionment and that of some of the Afghan people he writes about is inherently a political subject. Successive troop surges were followed by increases in violence, he said. “We demonstrably did not create peace and stability….To declare victory and walk away was morally reprehensible.”
Smith, who now works as an analyst for the NGO International Crisis Group, has returned to Afghanistan. “Some things are getting better,” he acknowledges. “I live in downtown Kabul which is protected by the Afghan security forces and I feel quite safe living in the heart of the city, but out in the provinces there is an escalating war.”
Smith thanked “the wonderful people at Knopf” Canada, particularly executive v-p and executive publisher of the Knopf Random Canada Publishing Group Louise Dennys for her inspiration and his agent Jackie Kaiser of Westwood Creative Artists. Kaiser told PW the book is currently being considered by some houses in the U.S., but so far does not have an American publisher.
The four other finalists for the award, who all receive C$5,000, were:
Thomas King for The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (Doubleday Canada)
J.B. MacKinnon for The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be (Random House Canada)
Andrew Steinmetz for This Great Escape: The Case of Michael Paryla (Biblioasis)
Priscilla Uppal for Projection: Encounters with my Runaway Mother (Dundurn Press)
This year’s jurors were Candace Savage (the 2012 winner of the prize), Hal Niedzviecki, Andreas Schroeder, Samantha Nutt and Evan Solomon.