Esi Edugyan, novelist (born 1978 in Calgary, AB). The child of Ghanaian emigrants, Esi Edugyan was born and raised in Calgary before earning creative writing degrees from the University of Victoria (Bachelor of Arts) and Johns Hopkins University (Master of Arts). At the University of Victoria she was mentored by novelist Jack Hodgins and met fellow writer and future spouse Steven Price, who would also be Edugyan's co-nominee for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize in 2012.
Focus and Style
Without exception, Esi Edugyan's work exhibits her interest in diaspora and Black histories, which in turn reflects the concerns that frequently characterize Black Canadian writing. Her work explores notions of nation and belonging — to new and old cultures and countries, to "here" and "away," to the present and the past — and simultaneously examines the effects of Black migration and the resulting presence of Black subjects in predominantly white societies.
The Second Life of Samuel Tyne
Edugyan's first novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne (2004), depicts a Ghanaian man who immigrates to Canada in the mid-1950s and aspires to accomplish great things, but fails to do so in his own estimation. Bored in his civil service job, Samuel is offered a second chance by a reclusive uncle who leaves him a dilapidated estate. He moves his wife and twin daughters to Aster, a rural Albertan town established by Black settlers from Oklahoma (based on the town of Amber Valley, Alberta, and settlements like it such as Campsie, Wildwood and Breton). Despite his hopes, Samuel finds the town less promising than it first appeared and he is witness to, and the victim of, incidents of racism and violence. The initial gothic overtones of the novel come to dominate the text as the strangeness of the house, the town, the neighbours, and especially his twin daughters, increase to an alarming degree. The idea of "haunting" envelops the plot as it explores the Black history of the prairies, the stubborn resiliency of racism, the continuing presence of people and places left behind in migration, questions of inheritance and legacy, and the relationship of time to place.
The inspiration of history shaped Edugyan's second published novel, Half-Blood Blues (2011), as well. (Edugyan wrote but did not publish a book in the time between her two published novels.) Half-Blood Blues focuses on the Second World War, jazz, and the Nazis' treatment of the so-called "Rhineland Bastards" — Black Germans who came of age during the Third Reich and were largely the progeny of African occupation troops following the First World War. Half-Blood Blues explores issues of racism, genocide, the language of music, cultural exchange, nationality, and racial and cultural identity as it alternates between the early 1990s and the war years. Narrator Sid Griffiths recounts the time he spent in Germany and France as an African American jazz musician between the wars, and his experience trying to escape Germany and then France with his fellow musicians — white, Black, Jewish, German, Canadian and American alike. The plot centres on the young genius trumpet player and "Rhineland Bastard" Hieronymus Falk, the legend surrounding the recording of Hiero's "Half-Blood Blues," and the mystery surrounding his fate. The novel examines notions of trauma and oppression as they relate to love and betrayal, the creation and role of art, and the way history is or is not remembered.
Nominated for numerous literary awards, Half-Blood Blues won the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize, the 2012 Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. In 2011, Half-Blood Blues was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the Governor General's Award for English language fiction.
With international publication and recognition, Edugyan's talent was recognized from an early stage in her career. On the strength of her first published novel, Edugyan accepted numerous writing fellowships between 2005 and 2010 and her work was featured in two anthologies (Best New American Voices 2003, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, and Revival: An Anthology of Black Canadian Writing, edited by Donna Bailey Nurse). Her fellowships include residencies in the US, Scotland, Iceland, Germany, Hungary, Finland, Spain, and Belgium. The critical attention Edugyan has garnered —which has only increased with her Giller win — suggests that she has become an influential and essential part of the Canadian literary canon. In 2014, Half-Blood Blues was championed by Donovan Bailey on CBC’s Canada Reads series.