2021 Pat Lowther Memorial Award Winner: Noor Naga – Washes, Prays (McClelland & Stewart)

Congratulations to the Winner of the 2021 Pat Lowther Memorial Award: Noor Naga – Washes, Prays (McClelland & Stewart)!

Thank you to the 2021 Pat Lowther Memorial Award jurors: Puneet Dutt, Doyali Islam, Cassidy McFadzean.

About Washes, Prays

RBC Bronwen Wallace Award winner Noor Naga’s bracing debut, a novel-in-verse about a young woman’s romantic relationship with a married man and her ensuing crisis of faith.

Coocoo is a young immigrant woman in Toronto. Her faith is worn threadbare after years of bargaining with God to end her loneliness and receiving no answer. Then she meets her mirror-image; Muhammad is a professor and father of two. He’s also married.
Heartbreaking and hilarious, this verse-novel chronicles Coocoo’s spiraling descent: the transformation of her love into something at first desperate and obsessive, then finally cringing and animal, utterly without grace. Her best friend, Nouf, remains by her side throughout, and together they face the growing contradictions of Coocoo’s life. What does it mean to pray while giving your body to a man who cannot keep it? How long can a homeless love survive on the streets? These are some of the questions this verse-novel swishes around in its mouth.

About Noor Naga

Noor Naga is an Alexandrian writer who was born in Philadelphia, raised in Dubai, studied in Toronto, and now lives in Cairo. Her verse-novel Washes, Prays was published by McClelland & Stewart in 2020. She is winner of the 2017 Bronwen Wallace Award, the 2019 RBC/PEN Canada Award, the 2019 Disquiet Fiction Prize, and the 2019 Graywolf Press Africa Prize. Her debut novel is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in April 2022.

From the jurors

Noor Naga’s Washes, Prays (McClelland & Stewart, 2020) is technically flawless – and thus achingly full of what it means to be human. In this striking novel-in-verse, Naga’s keen attention to every aspect of language shows readers-listeners what poetry can do – how capaciously it can operate. Rich with wit and empathy, these poems feel wholly welcoming. Naga captures both the joy and humour of a protagonist in an affair, as well as the despair and desperation of longing. Centring jewel-like poems in the voice of the protagonist’s friend, this collection shares meditations on desire, love, God, and friendship in a skillful lyric voice. These brilliant poems absolutely sing. Here is a poet who has already mastered her craft.


Interview with Noor Naga

We asked Noor a few questions about writing, inspiration and -of course – poetry. Learn more about how Washes, Prays came to be and more about Noor Naga below! 

Who do you write your poems for?

I spent many years writing for a lover who had not yet come, hoping that a book would bring him to me. Now that there is love in my life, I suppose I write for myself with the same design: to romance me?

Is there a sentence (from your own work or another’s) you would consider living in?

I have a hard time committing to a living space (even a physical one), but I have been spending some time with this sentence my kid-sister Jana once said: You must trust humans, you are one of them.


Do you write your first drafts of poetry by hand or on the computer? Why?

I write everything on a computer because I am structurally-minded and want to move all the parts around.


What poets/writers changed the way you think about poetry?

I only realized I could get away with poetry when I discovered verse-novels like those of Michael Ondaatje, Anne Carson, Les Murray, and Kim Thúy.


If your poetry was a room in a home, which one would it be and why?

The kitchen, I hope, so that it might be life-giving.


What do you think poetry does for the world?

I think it helps us feel less alone.


Who is an up-and-coming poet that everyone should check out?

Sara ElKamel


What is the backstory behind your award-winning collection?

I don’t know if there is a backstory. I was living in my grandmother’s apartment in Alexandria and heard a frantic teenage voice.