Jessica Johns, BA (Hons) '14, had been writing for much of her life, but wasn't planning on pursuing writing as a career until the final year of her undergraduate degree. It was when MacEwan University began to offer creative writing classes, she says, that she saw the potential for a future as a writer.
That future was solidified at the end of October when she was named the 2020 winner of the Writers’ Trust McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. The prize recognizes the year's best short story by an emerging writer first published in a Canadian literary journal or anthology. Johns was recognized for her short story, "Bad Cree," published in Grain magazine.
"I wrote 'Bad Cree' in response to a cool dream I had, which is terribly fitting with the story," says the Nehiyaw-English-Irish aunty and member of Sucker Creek First Nation. "I did not think it would win any accolades, to be honest. It's a weird little story and weaves in a lot of dream elements and dream sequences, so it's not incredibly 'CanLit.' But I'm incredibly grateful and still in quite a bit of shock about it all."
Johns credits her first creative writing class at MacEwan and the support, guidance and insight she received from Jacqueline Baker, associate professor in English, for helping her on her journey, which included graduate studies.
"I've done years more school and have completed my MFA, and she's still one of my favourite writers and instructors," says Johns, who is the managing editor for Room magazine and co-organizer of the Indigenous Brilliance Reading Series. Her short story, "The Bull of the Cromdale," was nominated for a 2019 National Magazine Award in fiction and her debut poetry chapbook, How Not to Spill, won the 2019 bpNichol Chapbook Award.
Johns is currently working on turning "Bad Cree" (which also won a silver medal for fiction at the 2020 National Magazine Awards) into a novel.
"The one thing I wish I did more of when I was in Edmonton is get involved with the writing community, because the literary scene there is filled with such talented writers," she says. "It's always suggested to read and write a lot as a writer, but I would say it's equally important to support local community writers and events in the capacity you're able – maybe that's going to online events, or creating a writing group, or just congratulating a writer on Twitter. Community is where it starts."
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