Karen Connelly is the author of ten best-selling books of poetry and fiction, the most recent being Come Cold River, published by Quattro Books in 2013, a memoir in poetry about her troubled family and her early life in western Canada. In exploring the lives of women and children in her own country, she asks questions similar to those she posed in Burmese Lessons, a love story, a prose memoir that chronicles her time in Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand in the late 1990's and records the lives of activists and dissidents fighting against the former military regime. How does violence and trauma affect the individual, the family, the country? What are the limits of love? How do we witness evil without being destroyed by it? Burmese Lessons is also a portrait of the artist as a young woman, trying to make life decisions that will help rather than hinder her life as a writer.
In early 2017, her new long-awaited novel The Change Room will be published by Random House Canada. Middle age has brought this writer into brand new and very familiar territory: children, married love, adulterous sex, and housecleaning--though not necessarily in that order.
And a longer history . . .
Karen Connelly was born in Calgary, Alberta, in 1969, to a large working class family. She has read from her work and lectured in Canada, Europe, Asia, and Australia. She has won the Pat Lowther Award for her poetry, the Governor General’s Award for her non-fiction, and Britain’s Orange Broadband Prize for New Fiction for her first novel The Lizard Cage. Published in 2005, The Lizard Cage was compared in the New York Times Book Review to the works of Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, and Mandela, and hailed in the Globe and Mail as “one of the best modern Canadian novels.” Her latest book of prose, Burmese Lessons, was nominated for a Governor General's Award and British Columbia National Award for Canadian Nonfiction in 2009.
Karen Connelly identified as a writer when she was eleven years old. At seventeen she won a scholarship as a Rotary Exchange Student. Living in a Thai village for a year set her on a course of writing about what she calls “life in the world”. After Thailand, she returned to Canada for several months, then left, at nineteen, for Basque Spain, where she lived for almost two years. Choosing to decline the university scholarships offered to her, she instead took the advice of older writers, particularly Timothy Findley, and continued living by her wits in Europe, writing about her experiences there as she compiled the letters and journals of her early adventures in Thailand. She also began to take photographs and think more consciously about incorporating the visual into her work.
In 1991, she moved to France and settled in Montclar, the Gypsy and North African quartier of Avignon. She sums up Spain and France as the years of one pair of shoes, two pairs of trousers, many books, and lots of wine. She studied French, Spanish, and the literatures of various European countries. These experiences are detailed in the books One Room in a Castle, This Brighter Prison, Grace and Poison, and The Border Surrounds Us. Soon after, she made the northeast island of Lesvos her home and lived there, off and on, from age twenty-two to thirty-five. She has a tiny house there, in the hills near Eresos, and a community of good friends. In the last couple of years, she has been very active raising money for the Starfish Foundation, which is a first-responder humanitarian organization that helps refugees arriving on the shores of Lesvos. She still considers Greece--and Greek--to be her most familiar place of abode.
In 1993, Karen made a spectacular entrance onto the Canadian literary stage. Her book about Thailand Touch The Dragon, A Thai Journal won the country’s highest honour for non-fiction writing, the Governor General’s Award. At just twenty-four, Connelly became the youngest winner of this prestigious award. Touch The Dragon went on to become a national bestseller, remaining on bestseller lists for almost two years, then continuing to garner high praise in Britain, Australia, Germany, Taiwan, and, eventually, the United States. In 2002, Touch the Dragon was designated as A New York Times Notable Travel Book of the Year. (The book is published in the U.S. under the title Dream of a Thousand Lives.)
Interestingly, Touch the Dragon was actually Connelly’s second book. Her first was a collection of poetry entitled The Small Words in My Body, published in 1990. It won the Pat Lowther Award for Best Book of Poetry in 1991.
Though the rewards of early success were important to her, Karen also found that media attention was distracting. Tired of promoting her books--and thoughtful about the tensions between making artistic works and selling them--she left Canada for Asia once more, returning to Thailand in January, 1996. Over the next two years, she observed the dramatic changes wrought in Southeast Asia by development and tourism; she also went to Burma for the first time and met Burmese writers, artists, and dissidents who, in their various ways, were working against the dictatorship that controls their country.
Her observations about social and economic change in Thailand and her relationships with people in Burma and on the Thai-Burmese border marked the beginning of a new, more serious stage of education, an exploration into the politics of oppression, the politics of dissent, the political role of spirituality--in this case, Buddhism--and the cyclical nature of violence and trauma. The Border Surrounds Us is a poetic journey into the fraught world of the revolutionaries, dissidents, and refugees who live on the Thai-Burma border; it is also a precursor to the novel The Lizard Cage.
The Lizard Cage illuminates the tragic story of modern Burma by focusing on the lives of three people: a Burmese political prisoner, the jailer who befriends him, and the child-labourer who changes both of their lives in unexpected ways. A deeply layered work about the transforming power of language and of love, it was her first full-length book of prose in a decade. Burmese Lessons, a love story, her most recent book, is a memoir of her time in Burma and in the precarious, dangerous world inhabited by Burmese people on the Thai-Burma border; it also tells the story of her passionate relationship with a Burmese dissident leader. She is presently working on two more books, a collection of poetry called o Come Cold River as well as a novel.
Karen has served on the board member of PEN Canada and has been active in the Free Burma movement as well as the support campaign for the Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho, whose life has been repeatedly threatened by the criminals she exposes in her writings. In 2012, Karen travelled to Kurdistan, Iraq for the first time, to write about both the economic success of the region and the lives of women there. A proficient to fluent speaker of several languages, she divides her time between her home in rural Greece and her home in Toronto, Canada. She is married with a young child.
History of Literary Publications/Works in Progress
(publishers are Canadian unless otherwise indicated)
Come Cold River, Quattro Books, Canada, 2013.
Translated into Estonian by Katlin Kaldma in 2015.
Burmese Lessons, Random House Canada, Fall, 2009, Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, 2010
The Lizard Cage , Random House Canada, Fall, 2005
Doubleday/Nan A. Talese 2007
Harvill and Secker, Britain 2007
Buchet-Chastel, France 2007
Querido, Holland, 2006
Frassinelli, Italy, 2006
Grace and Poison ; essay and new edition of poetry, Turnstone Press, 2001
The Border Surrounds Us ; poetry, McClelland and Stewart Publishers, 2000.
The Disorder of Love ; poetry/photographs. Gutter Press, 1997.
One Room In A Castle, Letters from Spain, France, and Greece; Turnstone Press, 1995. Published in Australia (HarperCollins) and the U.K. (Black Swan) in 1997.
Touch The Dragon, A Thai Journal; creative non-fiction-travel, Turnstone Press, l992.
Published in the U.S. as A Dream of a Thousand Lives, by Seal Press.
English language publication in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia in 1994. (Silkworm Books)
Translated and published in Chinese in Taipei, Taiwan, 1995. (Perfect Wisdom Publishing)
Australia (HarperCollins) and the U.K. (Black Swan) in 1996.
Published in German translation (Bastei-Lubbe) in 1998.
This Brighter Prison , A Book of Journeys; poetry/fiction, Brick Books, l993.
The Small Words In My Body, poetry; Kalamalka Press, l990. New edition by Gutter Press, 1995. New edition by Turnstone Press, 2001.
A new novel.
A collections of essays.