Prairie writing contest sees single Manitoban winner

U of M alumna Donna Besel talks ‘The Bay Filly’ and her upcoming projects

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Award-winning author, local Manitoban and U of M alumna Donna Besel is the sole Manitoban to win a prize in the 2019 Prairie Fire Press and McNally Robinson Booksellers annual writing contest.

Broken down into three categories — poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction — the annual contest awards first through third prize and one honourable mention per category. And although the other contest winners were Canadian, they hailed from British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Northwest Territories, Ontario and Quebec.

Besel won first prize in the creative non-fiction category of the contest with her short story “The Bay Filly.”

The idea for her story originated when Besel was conducting workshops with kids as a Manitoba Arts Council Artists in the Schools instructor. She would ask them to write about their experiences and “own their stories.”

“One of the questions I ask them is ‘Tell me a vivid memory from your past,’” she said. “And […] how can you describe that in great detail and make it emotional?”

For Besel, the memory that kept coming back to her during these workshops was the story of going down to Minnesota with her father and sister to pick up their horses. In fact, her horse that graces the cover of her award-winning book, Lessons from a Nude Man, is one of the horses the family was trekking down to the U.S. for.

“[My father] had gone and purchased [the horses] in the spring when they were two foals and a pony that was two years old,” she said, “and because the foals had to stay with their mothers for a few months we went later on in August to pick them up.”

Besel says “The Bay Filly” is the entire story of how chaotic and wild the trip was just to bring the horses back to her childhood home on the shores of West Hawk Lake, Man.

“My sister was hungover, so she was kind of green the whole way down and the only time we stopped was so she could barf,” she said. “When we got there […] my horse [the bay filly] had tried to get back to her mother and cut herself very badly.”

“We had trouble with the truck and we had trouble because we were supposed to get a vet certificate to take animals across the border […] there were lots of mess-ups,” she added.

Besel’s horse would recover from her injuries and would become part of a famous encounter captured on film. By chance, renowned Canadian photographer Malak Karsh was driving on Highway 44 by Penniac Bay, Man., where Besel’s family had a dock.

“We had a small pasture where the dock was,” Besel said, “and in the summer we would take our horses down there and they would eat the grass and if it was hot enough and the bugs weren’t too bad we would take them swimming, and a photographer happened to be driving by and he asked if he could take pictures of us.”

“I didn’t realize this person was so famous because he just signed the back of the pictures ‘Malak.’”

In fact, Besel recounted that the four photographs she has from Karsh are very special to her because in the 1990s her family’s house burned down, destroying all the family photographs.

“So I made a vow if I ever got a book published I would put that picture on the cover,” she said.

Now the origin story of Besel’s beloved bay filly will live on in short story form.

Prairie Fire Press will be publishing the author’s award-winning story later this year along with the stories of the other winners.

As an author appearing on CBC’s writing award long and short lists, a two-time Manitoba Book Awards nominee for Lessons from a Nude Man — nominated for the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction and the John Hirsch Award for Most Promising Manitoba Writer — and a fixture of the Falcon Trails Resort’s Wild Writing in the Boreal workshops, Besel is already looking forward to the future, hoping to publish a collection of short stories and a memoir.

“I’m constantly sending stuff out,” Besel said.

She shared that her upcoming collection of linked short stories is “about a young woman growing up in the boreal forest and having all sorts of trauma, loss [and] adventures” and that she also hopes to publish her memoir about her father’s prosecution for the sexual assault of her and her sisters.


“The Bay Filly” will be published by Prairie Fire Press later this year. Lessons from a Nude Man is available at major retailers.