Ottawa Writers Festival: Esi Edugyan finds her voice in the past

Esi Edugyan.

There is little doubt that the novel of this year in CanLit is Esi Edugyan’s widely hailed Washington Black.

This is the story of Washington Black, a slave child born into the brutal plantation system in Barbados, who is taken away from this cruelty by a white abolitionist, and goes on the journey of a lifetime. It has captured nominations for prizes in Canada (Giller, Writers Trust, Governor General’s Award) and in the U.K. (Man Booker). It has been widely reviewed in prestigious journals such as The New Yorker.

Edugyan, who will be at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Oct. 26, knows that you pay a price for success.

The writer, who calls Victoria, B.C. home, has barely been there a week since September, she told ARTSFILE in an interview.

“I was not prepared for (the success). I am, of course, delighted. I set out to write a book that was good but you never really know how it is going to go over and it totally has exceeded my wildest dreams.”

Half-Blood Blues, her last novel, and Washington Black have both been well received but reviewers have remarked on the difference in the voices in each. Half-Blood Blues spoke with the language of the Jazz Age, Washington Black has echoes of a 19th century novel.

Edugyan says she “struggled to exorcise the voice from Half-Blood Blues so that I could write a 19th century boy’s voyage. It was hard to get Half-Blood Blues out of my head.”

But once she was able to do that Washington Black flowed.

“In a way, it was easier to get into. There were precedents. There were so many wonderful 19th century novels to draw upon.”

When Edugyan was in her early 20s she set a goal for herself to catch up on all the 19th century books she had not read in school.

“I set out to cover some of the blind spots in my reading because you don’t read a lot of 19th century literature in high school and college. You really have to be specific about taking those courses.

“For a period of six or seven years all that I read was this literature. I didn’t read a lot of contemporary novels. I just wasn’t interested.”

She found that she really liked the strong storytelling, especially in terms of plot.

“There is a lot happening (in 19th century novels). When you look at writers like Tolstoy or George Eliot. They were really trying to convey the psychology of each and every one of their characters, to fully flesh these people out so that (along with their thoughts) every single part of their physicality is expressed. It was so pleasurable to get to know characters on such a very full level.”

She did the same in her examination of slavery in the West Indies. There was a lot of source material available to her to describe the horror of plantation life.

“There has been a ton written about the history of sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean. One of my main sources was a woman who was exploring her own family history. Her great-great-great grandfather had been a planter. She was very specific in her description of what life would have been like in the great house and in the fields.

“It was emotionally hard to write and read about the lives of the slaves. There were incidents of cruelty that were were needlessly horrific. Lives were just snuffed out. It is incredible.

“There was a sense that there was no need to preserve people because there was a constant stream of them.”

Edugyan said that book actually started by exploring something very different.

“I thought I was writing a novel about the Tichborne claimant affair. This was a very famous series of trials in the mid-19th century. One of the main witnesses was a former slave named Andrew Bogle. He had been taken off the plantation and moved to London.”

After awhile she realized she wasn’t so interested in the Tichborne trials as she was really interested in the life of Andrew Bogle.

“I was more interested in the psychology of Bogle who had been taken out of slavery, where he had been very harshly treated, and brought to live in England, which would have been completely alien and strange to him. And he would have been carrying all the trauma and baggage from having been a slave.”

This is Washington Black’s story. He, too, is rescued from slavery by a well-meaning Englishman of means named Christopher “Titch” Wilde. He is the nice brother of the cruel plantation owner of Washington.

Titch takes Washington Black on a journey around the world and then abandons him in the frozen north.

Titch, for Edugyan, “is somebody who had grand ideals and he is thinking in terms of these large epic battles he is fighting. He wants to be on the side of good but I don’t think he necessarily applies these ideals to the minutiae of his own life.

“He has a blind spot. I think he is enlightened for his time but he is also a man of his time and can’t rise above it. He is a great liberal, he wants to change things but does he actually see the men and women working on the plantation as equals.”

This is the third novel by Edugyan and all have been set in the past.

“There is a sense of completion about the past, even though there really isn’t because we live with the repercussions of the past. But in particular stories from the past, it’s almost as if I can sense the structure in them.

“I don’t know if I could grapple with the present in the way that I can grapple with the stories from the past. The stories are liberated from the demands of the present.”

This a book about slavery and racism. Edugyan believes the conversation on race needs to move forward.

“Having the conversation is crucial. It is important to open up those lines of dialogue because if you don’t communicate everybody doubles down or clings to their own tenets and we are not going to get anywhere with that.

“We can’t shut down. The visibility, the inviting everybody into the conversation. This is how the hard work of civil rights gets done.

“I recognize I am a novelist; I am not a polemicist. I am not a social commentator. If this novel becomes a part of the dialogue then that’s wonderful. If it is useful for people in terms of them wanting to express their views on race that is interesting to me. I certainly don’t see myself as being central to that conversation.”

Edugyan was trying to tell a story that appealed to her about figures on the margins. She likes to dig up obscure historical figures and and shine light on them, she said.

When this interview occurred Edugyan was briefly home. She left soon after for Halifax and Ottawa.

It was a chance to reconnect with her children aged seven and three and her husband the novelist Steve Price, whose book By Gaslight was a big hit two years ago.

It must be quite a writing household. Edugyan says she and Price are always bouncing ideas off each other and reading each other’s drafts.

“My books are shaped by him. He reads so many drafts and he has a good critical eye. I’m so lucky.” So is he.

Washington Black
Esi Edugyan (Patrick Crean Editions)
In Town: Esi Edugyan is at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Oct. 26 on a panel with Ondjaki. The event is sold out. For information about the rest of the festival:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.