Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan writes richly imagined and impeccably researched stories that illuminate complicated truths about race and belonging. “One of our sharpest and deepest writers of historical fiction,” according to Entertainment Weekly, she is only the third writer to twice win the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most prestigious literary award.
Edugyan was born the daughter of Ghanian immigrants in Calgary, Alberta. Echoes of their experience can be found in her literary debut, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, which was shortlisted for the 2005 Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. The elegant and atmospheric novel tells the story of an ambitious Ghanian immigrant who unexpectedly inherits his uncle’s crumbling mansion in Aster, Alberta. Founded by African-Americans as an all-black town, Aster at first seems an idyll and a refuge, but slowly reveals itself to be something more sinister. Booklist called it “a beautifully rendered and haunting look at personal longing and family obligations.”
While on a fellowship in Stuttgart, Germany, she began research for what would become her stunning second novel, Half-Blood Blues which O, the Oprah Magazine named one of the best books of the year. It was awarded the Scotiabank Giller Prize and earned nominations for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award for English language fiction, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
The novel transports us to 1939 Berlin, where The Hot Time Swingers, a popular jazz band, have been forbidden to play by the Nazi government. The band’s star is the young, gifted trumpet player Hieronymus Falk, a “Rhineland Bastard,” or a child born to a white German mother and a black African father, who is later arrested in Paris and never heard from again. Years later, bandmate Sid Griffiths returns to Berlin to discover what happened to his former friend.
“Destined to win a wide audience…Deftly paced in incident and tone, moving from scenes of snappy dialogue, in which band members squabble and banter humorously, to tense, atmospheric passages of description…Edugyan makes fresh tracks in this richly-imagined story…Half-Blood Blues itself represents a kind of flowering–that of a gifted storyteller.” ―The Toronto Star
It also marked Edugyan as a writer mining untapped historical veins for rich materials. “[I]t’s a natural curiosity about footnotes – historical footnotes. Things that we haven’t heard about,” she told Quill & Quire in 2018. “When I come across a reference in a text that I find appealing or haven’t heard of before, I feel compelled to express something about it.”
Such was the case with Washington Black, which was inspired by the story of the Tichborne Claimant. In the 19th century, a British aristocrat, Roger Tichborne, was shipwrecked and presumed dead. His grief-stricken mother never gave up hope, and when she later heard that he might be alive and living in Australia, she sent Andrew Bogle, a former slave, to find out if Castro could be her long-lost son.
It was the hidden narrative of Bogle’s life that led Edugyan to create the character of George Washington Black, a young slave who is pulled from the fields of a 1830s Barbados sugar plantation to become a manservant to an abolitionist and inventor known as Titch. Wash assists Titch with the development of a hot-air balloon called the Cloud-cutter. After Wash witnesses a shocking event, the pair make a late-night escape from the plantation in the Cloud-cutter, and though their fates will soon diverge, their transformative friendship deftly reveals the complexity of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized.
Though it starts as a take on the antebellum novel, Edugyan describes the book as having a post-slavery narrative: “It’s about what happens after, what do you do with your life, what do you make of it, how do you begin to know how to have a sense of self … and how do you try to live in the world when everything you know has been blood and violence and … you’re in a world that rejects you.”
Washington Black has received a rapturous reception, being named one of the top ten books of the year by The New York Times, Washington Post, Slate, TIME and Entertainment Weekly. It was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, longlisted for the PEN Open Book Award, and would go on to land the author her second Giller Prize. The occasion prompted The Globe and Mail to declare Edugyan to be “the most ambitious novelist in Canada, one who combines scope with technical chops. The grand historical narratives she spins – Nazi Germany in Half-Blood Blues, 19th-century slavery, trade and science in this one – are meticulously researched, perfectly plotted, real stories with high stakes, suspense, moments of gory violence, conclusive endings (the hardest thing for even the most imaginative of novelists to come up with).”
Edugyan is also the author of Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home, a non-fiction work published in 2014. She lives in Victoria, B.C. with her husband, the novelist and poet Steven Price, and their two children.