stats
globeinteractive.com: Making the Business of Life Easier

   Finance globeinvestor   Careers globecareers.workopolis Subscribe to The Globe
The Globe and Mail /globeandmail.com
Home | Business | National | Int'l | Sports | Columnists | The Arts | Tech | Travel | TV | Wheels
space


Search

space
  This site         Tips

  
space
  The Web Google
space
   space



space

  Where to Find It


Breaking News
  Home Page

  Report on Business

  Sports

  Technology

space
Subscribe to The Globe

Shop at our Globe Store


Print Edition
  Front Page

  Report on Business

  National

  International

  Sports

  Arts & Entertainment

  Editorials

  Columnists

   Headline Index

 Other Sections
  Appointments

  Births & Deaths

  Books

  Classifieds

  Comment

  Education

  Environment

  Facts & Arguments

  Focus

  Health

  Obituaries

  Real Estate

  Review

  Science

  Style

  Technology

  Travel

  Wheels

 Leisure
  Cartoon

  Crosswords

  Food & Dining

  Golf

  Horoscopes

  Movies

  Online Personals

  TV Listings/News

 Specials & Series
  All Reports...

space

Services
   Where to Find It
 A quick guide to what's available on the site

 Newspaper
  Advertise

  Corrections

  Customer Service

  Help & Contact Us

  Reprints

  Subscriptions

 Web Site
  Advertise

  E-Mail Newsletters

  Free Headlines

  Globe Store New

  Help & Contact Us

  Make Us Home

  Mobile New

  Press Room

  Privacy Policy

  Terms & Conditions


GiveLife.ca

    

PRINT EDITION
Esi Edugyan does justice to history
space
Canadian author lands on the Man Booker Prize long list for her novel Washington Black
space
By MARSHA LEDERMAN
  
  

Email this article Print this article
Saturday, September 15, 2018 – Page R1

VICTORIA -- The coast of Ghana is dotted with slave castles - imposing fortresses built hundreds of years ago along the West African coast by colonial traders, initially dealing in gold, later in human beings. This is where Africans who had been kidnapped from the interior were held before being loaded onto ships and sent across the Atlantic to a life of slavery - if they survived the hellish journey.

During a 2007 trip to Ghana, her parents' homeland, Canadian author Esi Edugyan visited one of the most famous of these structures, Elmina Castle, now a museum.

Edugyan - who is on this year's Man Booker Prize long list - had not yet published Half Blood Blues, the novel that would win her international acclaim, the Scotiabank Giller Prize and land her on a slew of prestigious short lists. At the time of her African journey, she had published her first novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, three years before.

It was an emotional trip; later, her father was reunited with his mother, and Esi, her sister and brother met their grandmother, then about 103 years old. And 10 years after the death of their mother, Edugyan and her siblings met, for the first time, their mother's sisters.

At Elmina, also known as St. George's Castle, Edugyan, her father and siblings were taking a tour when the guide invited their group of about 10 into one of the dungeon's small holding cells, where maybe 200 captured Africans would have been held at a time. As they looked around, the guide slammed the door and suggested they imagine what it would have been like to be imprisoned there. Then he left.

"I was okay for the first few minutes and then this great terror came over me," Edugyan recalls. "Just the experience of being in this enclosed space and the bars and the energy. It would have been horrifying and you can get a bit of a sense of that."

We are talking about slavery from the comfort of Edugyan's home perched high above the Pacific Ocean outside Victoria; the interior is pristine and the views are magnificent. Edugyan, 40, lives here with her husband, the author and poet Steven Price, and their two children, ages 7 and 31/2.

The house has been renovated since the last time I was there in 2011, to discuss Half Blood Blues, which became a sensation; in addition to winning the Giller, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Orange Prize for Fiction and, in Canada, the Governor-General's Literary Awards and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.

Her first novel since, Washington Black, is about a boy born into slavery on a plantation in Barbados. George Washington Black - Wash, everyone calls him - is 10 or 11 when the story begins; he's not sure.

Things change when the sadistic plantation owner's younger brother, Titch, asks that Wash be allowed to help him work as ballast for his "cloud-cutter" - a term Edugyan invented for hot-air balloon. Titch grows to recognize and nurture Washington's gifts, including his scientific acumen and artistic abilities.

The novel, which was published last month, has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and in reviews has been called "magnificent" by Publishers Weekly; "beautiful and beguiling" by The Guardian and "a thoughtful, boldly imagined ripsnorter" by Kirkus.

(The Booker short list will be announced on Thursday.)

Edugyan had not intended to write a book about slavery. She had been thinking about fictionalizing the 19th-century Tichborne Claimant case, an already stranger-than-fiction historical mystery.

Roger Tichborne, heir to a family fortune in England, went missing at sea in 1854. His devoted mother, Henriette, refused to believe he had perished, and advertised widely for his return.

More than a decade later, a butcher from the Australian Outback came forward, saying he was Roger Tichborne. A trusted retired servant of the Tichborne household and former slave now living in Australia vouched for the butcher. Andrew Bogle travelled back to England with the claimant, where the sensational case spent years before the courts.

When Edugyan embarked on the Tichborne project, she was drawn to Bogle, who had been taken from a Caribbean plantation by a member of the Tichborne household. She wondered about the man's inner life - what would it be like to be born into slavery, thinking you were going to live and die that way on a plantation, and then being taken into a completely different world? "That was really interesting to me," she says. "I grew away from the material - Tichborne and all the crazy details of the trials and all the ridiculous larger-than-life figures. And I just kind of cast those aside and then went my own way."

Edugyan had already started and abandoned two other novels after Half Blood Blues when she became inspired by Bogle. Her timing wasn't great - she started writing what would become Washington Black 31/2 years ago, just as her son was born and sleep was scarce in the household.

Every morning, before writing, Edugyan did some reading to clear her mind from the daily domestic chaos. She read deeply about slavery in the Caribbean, Barbados in particular.

"Some of the details were just horrifying. Some of the research was really difficult to do. But I really thought in order to write about this man, you have to see where he's coming from, you have to deal with the details of his childhood. What it would have looked like to be a slave on a day-to-day basis, living out your life in these conditions. I didn't want to flinch away from that," she says, a pile of books spread before her on the coffee table: histories of Africa, biographies of people who were slaves, scientific books about ocean life and aquariums.

While this is a work of fiction, and Washington Black is not based on Bogle or any other real person, Edugyan did not write anything that wasn't a matter of historical record when it came to the brutal punishments that slaves faced. "It would seem wrong to be inventing cruelties," she says.

She was struck by the "excruciatingly grotesque lengths that people went to, to come up with punishments. Some of them were just so outlandish," she says. "Over-the-top kind of things. Like somebody being covered in honey and put on an anthill to be stung to death. It just defies credulity."

This would be difficult material for anybody to research and then tackle as a fiction writer.

But for a black woman with young children, it must have been agonizing. (Edugyan is unsure about her own family's slave-related history; she has not done that research.)

Glancing at the corner of the room neatly jammed with toys and games and children's books, I ask how she was able to research the slave trade and write this story and not put herself and her family in those shoes.

"I think there's a moment where you do put yourself and your family in those shoes. And I think I did, especially in terms of my children," says Edugyan, who dedicated the book to her son and daughter. "Just thinking about the horror of not having any way to protect them against certain hardships, to put it mildly. But then at some point, you've got to take yourself out of it; you can't stay there mentally in order to write that. So there's a bit of distancing that needs to happen."

Edugyan says she felt some temptation to pull away from the brutality; to not have to read so deeply or write with such detail about the inhumane conditions and behaviours. But she quickly moved away from that cushiony notion. "It's not true to depict life on a plantation as less brutal than it was. You're doing a great injustice to the people who had to live out their lives there," she says.

A thrilling page-turner that takes the reader far beyond Barbados, the novel is also a lyrical contemplation of captivity and freedom, and the scars that stay with us for life. There is tremendous movement in the story - geographically, away from the plantation; in society, as slavery was abolished; and in Washington's own development, his inner life.

"I had the sense of wanting to follow him through his journey towards a sense of agency or a sense of personhood; a sense of ownership of his own actions - and even his own body. That was very interesting; to show this kind of postslavery transformation. And to show how just because law had decreed slavery and the slave trade dead and abolished, psychologically obviously everything that you had been through was still going to be something you carried with you into your future life," Edugyan says, her feet tucked up next to her at one end of a large, comfortable couch.

And - without spoiling anything - the end of Washington Black is nothing like anything Washington Black himself could have imagined at its beginning.

"I think by the time we leave him, there's been a lot of light in his life," she says.

Associated Graphic

Author Esi Edugyan says she 'grew away from the material' of a historical fiction she was working on about the 19th-century Tichborne Claimant case.

CHAD HIPOLITO/THE GLOBE AND MAIL


Huh? How did I get here?
Return to Main Murray_Campbell Page
Subscribe to
The Globe and Mail
 

Email this article Print this article

space  Advertisement
space

Need CPR for your RSP? Check your portfolio’s pulse and lower yours by improving the overall health of your investments. Click here.

Advertisement

7-Day Site Search
    

Breaking News



Today's Weather


Inside

Rick Salutin
Merrily marching
off to war
Roy MacGregor
Duct tape might hold
when panic strikes


Editorial
Where Manley is going with his first budget




space

Columnists



For a columnist's most recent stories, click on their name below.

 National


Roy MacGregor arrow
This Country
space
Jeffrey Simpson arrow
The Nation
space
Margaret Wente arrow
Counterpoint
space
Hugh Winsor  arrow
The Power Game
space
 Business


Rob Carrick arrow
Personal Finance
space
Drew Fagan arrow
The Big Picture
space
Mathew Ingram arrow
space
Brent Jang arrow
Business West
space
Brian Milner arrow
Taking Stock
space
Eric Reguly arrow
To The Point
space
Andrew Willis arrow
Streetwise
space
 Sports


Stephen Brunt arrow
The Game
space
Eric Duhatschek arrow
space
Allan Maki arrow
space
William Houston arrow
Truth & Rumours
space
Lorne Rubenstein arrow
Golf
space
 The Arts


John Doyle arrow
Television
space
John MacLachlan Gray arrow
Gray's Anatomy
space
David Macfarlane arrow
Cheap Seats
space
Johanna Schneller arrow
Moviegoer
space
 Comment


Murray Campbell arrow
Ontario Politics
space
Lysiane Gagnon arrow
Inside Quebec
space
Marcus Gee arrow
The World
space
William Johnson arrow
Pit Bill
space
Paul Knox arrow
Worldbeat
space
Heather Mallick arrow
As If
space
Leah McLaren arrow
Generation Why
space
Rex Murphy arrow
Japes of Wrath
space
Rick Salutin arrow
On The Other Hand
space
Paul Sullivan arrow
The West
space
William Thorsell arrow
space





Home | Business | National | Int'l | Sports | Columnists | The Arts | Tech | Travel | TV | Wheels
space

© 2003 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Help & Contact Us | Back to the top of this page