André Alexis, the 2010-11 Writer-In-Residence in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities, and his book Fifteen Dogs were named the winner of this year’s Canada Reads, after writer and rapper Humble The Poet successfully defended the book in the CBC program’s finale Thursday.
Fifteen Dogs takes a philosophical walk with man’s best friend, contemplating life, love and death through the eyes of a loyal companion. The intricately woven story opens with a bet between the gods Hermes and Apollo that leads them to grant human consciousness and language to a group of dogs at a Toronto veterinary clinic. What unravels is a complex story of a pack who are divided and challenged on whether to embrace change or resist the new ways of thinking – reverting back to the old ‘dog’ ways.
Alexis was honoured recently with the Windham-Campbell Prize, which recognizes an author’s body of work and is one of the world’s richest literary awards. Fifteen Dogs also won the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize and Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for the novel.
Humble The Poet, a former schoolteacher, successfully navigated his book through the week’s debates, eventually topping runner-up Company Town, Madeline Ashby’s dystopian thriller championed by opera star Measha Brueggergosman.
“I didn’t pick a book that looks like me, sounds like me, represents any type of minority that I might check off the box,” Humble The Poet said on Day Two of the debates.
“I picked the book that represents me to my core. Everybody in this room has regrets, anxieties. Everybody in this room is struggling with the thoughts in their head, which ones they should believe (and) which ones they should not. Everybody in this room struggles with jealousy, irrespective of their race, their gender, their orientation, their economic background. This is the only book that talks about that over and over again.”
When writing Fifteen Dogs, Alexis was cognizant of making the central characters assume a humanist way of being, contemplating existential questions about life, death and divinity.
“The essential thing about humans is a consciousness about death,” said the former Western Writer-in-Residence told Western News last year. “Everything dies. We all die. Part of giving human ways of thinking is looking at death.”
This novel goes beyond personification; rather, it explores a metaphysical question about what would happen if animals were given human intelligence. Alexis chose dogs to embody his central characters because of his lifelong relationship and familiarity with the pets. Through the different lens, Alexis is able to cast a new perspective or “weird angle” on questions about life, love, divinity and power.
“I’ve learned the meaning of death through dogs,” he said, over the audible barking of dogs in the background of the interview. The story “started out being just about the pack, then it became about the individual dog,” he added.
Throughout his writing, Alexis tackles philosophical questions exploring questions about his art form.
“Fifteen Dogs ended up being a potted history of philosophy,” he said. “I wasn’t interested in being a philosopher. I was interested in using philosophical ideas that allowed us to see the phenomenon of our thinking from a different angle.”
ts of it and think about the philosophical aspects divorced from the dogs,” he said. “So you have everything from the dog lovers who hate me to the dog lovers who love me – and the philosophers who hate me and the philosophers who like me because they can see I am doing things in an interesting way with concepts they are familiar with.”
Canada Reads is an annual ‘battle of the books’ competition organized and broadcast by the CBC.