This week, HarperCollins Canada announced the inaugural winner of a new annual literary prize it created this year in honor of the 50th anniversary of Canada’s largest and most prominent creative writing program. The publisher also acquired a debut novel in the process.

Karim Alrawi’s novel Book of Sands will be published by HarperCollins Canada in 2015. Winners of the HarperCollinsCanada/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction are offered literary representation by The Cooke Agency, an advance and a publishing contract with HarperCollins Canada. (The Cooke Agency negotiates the specific terms of each contract and advance with HarperCollinsCanada.) The prize is a collaboration between the publisher, agency and the university; it is open to currently enrolled students and previous graduates of UBC’s writing program.

“We are honored to be publishing a first novel by a writer of such distinction from the UBC MFA program,” Iris Tupholme, v-p, executive publisher and editor-in-chief at HarperCollinsCanada said in the announcement. “Among many strong submissions, this novel stood out in its scope and its achievement in capturing so vividly a personal story set amidst the Arab Spring. Karim Alrawi writes with passion and precision about Tarek, a young husband who is forced to flee the city of Cairo with his daughter, when he mistakenly becomes involved in a political demonstration, leaving behind his pregnant wife, unsure when he will be able to return.”

The award’s jury commented: “The importance of storytelling in everyday life is one of Alrawi’s primary themes. His use of magic realism, quantum mechanics and (yes!) math gives this manuscript depth and power.”

Alrawi said he was surprised and delighted to win. “As a first time novelist trying to get attention for my work, this competition is a wonderful and rare opportunity to place my manuscript with a major publishing house.”

Penguin Random House Canada is also helping celebrate the anniversary of UBC’s program, which president and CEO Brad Martin has described as “the training ground for many of the country’s greatest writing talents.” In a C$75,000 three-year commitment, the publisher is sponsoring scholarships and partnering with UBC to create a new non-fiction writing course as well as publishing a 50th anniversary anthology, Naked in Academe, which will be launched at an anniversary gala in Vancouver on March 15.

Steven Galloway, the acting chair of UBC’s program, commented that Hazlitt, an online magazine created by Random House Canada in 2012, “is a terrific vehicle for our creative non-fiction students, and we are extremely pleased to be able to work more closely with everyone at Penguin Random House Canada.”

The program’s alumni include many well-known Canadian writers such as Joseph Boyden, Annabel Lyon, Zsuzsi Gartner, Paulette Bourgeois, Morris Panych, Madeleine Thien, and Susan Musgrave among its alumni. When asked what aspects of the program have helped so many Canadian writers to develop and succeed, Galloway, who is an author and alumni himself, told PW that the program is by far the largest in Canada, with about 240 students in its Master of Fine Arts program; that size allows it to offer courses in 11 different forms, including screen, stage, radio, writing for children and young adults, writing for graphic form, writing song lyric, new media as well as fiction, non-fiction and poetry. The program is interdisciplinary, Galloway said, explaining that students are encouraged to experiment and “get out of their comfort zones.” He added that the students are also discouraged from being competitive with one another to instead create a creative, collegial environment.

Galloway said that the creation of the program 50 years ago was remarkable. “In 1963, there barely was Canadian literature. Northrop Frye was able to review every book of poetry in his magazine,” he said. “And you have this guy [poet] Earl Birney convincing a bunch of stuffy English academics to let him go off and start his own writing program,” he said.

“We’re very happy to still be here,” Galloway said.