Alissa York

Alissa York, writer, educator (born at Athabasca, AB 1970). Alissa York studied English literature at McGill University and considered a life in zoology or biology because of her love of animals.

Alissa York, writer, educator (born at Athabasca, AB 1970). Alissa York studied English literature at McGill University and considered a life in zoology or biology because of her love of animals. Her affinity for the arts led to a writing career, but York's interest in our relations with others in our world, including the natural world, permeates her writing.

York's debut short fiction collection, Any Given Power (1999), won Manitoba's Mary Scorer Award and was short-listed for the Danuta Gleed Award. York's stories consider how the individual survives in the world into which they have been thrust. Her language exposes vulnerabilities, using descriptions that bore into the heart of a character to reveal the nature of its existence. In "Clues," prepubescent Paula befriends Tonya, whose family teeters on the poverty line: "Whenever she came to the apartment, Tonya watched Mama like a hawk. Like a poor kid watches your sandwich in school, no matter if it's only baloney or jam." The collection's "The Back of the Bear's Mouth" won the 1999 Journey Prize; in the same year, York won the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers.

Mercy (2003), Alissa York's first novel, unexpectedly intensifies a plot already fraught with the guilt and tradition of Catholicism, human lust and isolation in the small town of Mercy. Thomas, a butcher, waits a long time for love, "But there's only ever been Mathilda. She was the first person he spoke to upon arriving in Mercy on foot... No one would call Mathilda pretty. Sloe-eyed and slender, with loose red hair, she made a far deeper impression.... She was too young for marrying, so he waited." Abruptly turning from this romantic beginning, York shocks readers with timid bride Mathilda's arrival at the altar: her eyes lock with those of Father August Day, launching an explosive passion that creates generations of divisive hatreds, guilt and a child. Critically acclaimed, Mercy has been published internationally.

Alissa York's second novel, Effigy (2007), was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and longlisted for the 2009 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Its protagonist, Dorrie, is one of four wives in a polygamous marriage; over time she becomes a skilled taxidermist. Sharp prose cuts to the core of her emotional state: "She never knows what to call him. Mr. Hammer? Brother Hammer... she could call him Erastus... but the name repels her. Which leaves one choice - the word she uses sparingly, when she can't help but address him. Husband."

The natural world is never far from Alissa York's daily experiences, nor her writing. In her novel Fauna (2010) York creates a ravishing picture of two opposing worlds - wild ravine life and complex, corporate urban life - set side by side to reveal how much one depends on the other for renewal and recovery. Guy is the embodiment of such duality, offering refuge to both animals and humans in his auto shop. Lilly, a runaway teenager, learns compassion from Guy and from birds stunned and disoriented by office lights left to burn all night. York poses a series of questions about our movements between the urban and natural worlds and what that means to personal growth and balance. When the two worlds are equally valued, York's characters' lives are restored. Fauna was shortlisted for the 2011 Toronto Book Award.

Alissa York is a faculty member at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and regularly teaches at the Banff Centre for the Arts Wired Writing Studio. She and partner Clive Holden run Cyclops Press, a small publisher and multidisciplinary art project. Having lived throughout Canada, Alissa York now resides in Toronto.

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