Esi Edugyan at the Eden Mills Writers' Festival, 9 September 2018. (courtesy Daniel Harasymchuk, flickr)
Early Years and Education
The child of Ghanaian immigrants, Esi Edugyan was born and raised in Calgary, where her father was an economist and her mother was a nurse. She and her family experienced racism and discrimination throughout her childhood, and she has spoken of being terrified by a Ku Klux Klan cross-burning incident in Provost, Alberta, when she was 12.
Edugyan began writing poetry in high school and was encouraged by a teacher to apply to the creative writing program at the University of Victoria. She was mentored there by novelist Jack Hodgins and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1999. In 2001, she graduated with a master’s in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University.
The Second Life of Samuel Tyne (2004)
Edugyan’s first novel, published when she was 26, 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 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 with 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. He is also 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 the novel explores the Black history of the Prairies, the stubborn resiliency of racism, the continuing presence of people and places left behind in migration and questions of inheritance and legacy.
The Second Life of Samuel Tyne was shortlisted for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award in 2005. Around this time, Edugyan’s other work was also featured in two anthologies: Best New American Voices (2003), edited by Joyce Carol Oates; and Revival: An Anthology of Black Canadian Writing (2006), edited by Donna Bailey Nurse.
Half-Blood Blues (2011)
Despite her early career success, Edugyan failed to find a publisher for her second completed novel, which remains unpublished. Discouraged, she considered abandoning writing to pursue a law degree but instead accepted artistic residencies in Iceland, Hungary, France and Germany. While living on the grounds of an 18th-century castle in Stuttgart, Edugyan’s love of German art and culture combined with her horror over the atrocities of the Nazi regime to inspire her second published novel, Half-Blood Blues (2011). It focuses on the Second World War, jazz and the Nazis’ treatment of the so-called “Rhineland Bastards,” Black Germans who were largely the progeny of African occupation troops following the First World War and who came of age during the Third Reich.
Half-Blood Blues explores issues of racism, genocide, the language of music, cultural exchange, nationality, and racial and cultural identity. The novel alternates between the early 1990s and the Second World War. 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. It was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction and the UK’s Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. In 2014, Half-Blood Blues was championed by Donovan Bailey on CBC Radio’s Canada Reads.
Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home (2014)
In 2013, Edugyan addressed the topic of “home” in the University of Alberta’s annual Henry Kreisel Memorial Lecture Series (see also Henry Kreisel). Her lecture, published in March 2014 as Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home, blends fiction and fact “in an effort to find out if one can belong to more than one place, if home is just a place or if it can be an idea, a person, a memory, or a dream.” Edugyan writes about her experiences with racism — of being “an apparition so dark and odd people in the street sometimes paused to watch me pass” — as well as the experiences of Mathieu de Costa, the first Black person in Canada, and Olivier le Jeune, the first slave.
Reviewing Edugyan’s essay in Literary Review of Canada, Madeleine Thien wrote that it “feels like an interstice between her novels, a clearing away of the brambles before returning to imaginative fiction that, by its very nature, is a voyage away from the self.”
Washington Black (2018)
Edugyan returned to fiction with the novel Washington Black (2018). It was inspired by the true story of Andrew Bogle, a Black servant to the aristocratic Tichborne family. Bogle was sent from England to Australia in the 1860s to confirm the identity of a man claiming to be a long-lost Tichborne scion.
Washington Black follows the globe-trotting adventures of Washington “Wash” Black, who escapes from a Barbados sugar plantation in 1834 with the help of Christopher “Titch” Wilde, the brother of the sadistic plantation owner. Titch chooses Wash as his assistant simply because he is the right weight to serve as ballast for his hot air balloon, in which they make their fantastical escape. But Wash possesses many talents — from his skill as an illustrator to his aptitude for science — that endear him to Titch at first, before threatening to upset the delicate power balance between the two men. As Edugyan told the Toronto Star, “My desire was to show how the institution of slavery was so disfiguring and damaging to all human relationships.”
Washington Black was met with wide acclaim. The Washington Post’s Ron Charles called it “an engrossing hybrid of 19th-century adventure and contemporary subtlety, a rip-roaring tale of peril imbued with our most persistent strife.” Praising it as “strong, beautiful and beguiling,” the Guardian’s Arifa Akbar wrote that Washington Black is “less a book about the effects of slavery and more about the burden, responsibility and the guilt of personal freedom in a time of slavery.” Leo Robson, an adjudicator with the Man Booker Prize, called Washington Black “a novel of ideas but also of the senses, a yarn and a lament, a chase story that doubles as an intellectual quest, a history lesson in the form of a fairy tale.”
Washington Black won the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize, making Edugyan only the third writer (with Alice Munro and M.J. Vassanji) to win the award twice. The novel was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.
Focus and Style
Esi Edugyan’s work exhibits her interest in Black histories and the Black diaspora, 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. Edugyan simultaneously examines the effects of Black migration and the resulting presence of Black subjects in predominantly white societies.
Quill & Quire’s Shazia Hafiz Ramji has observed that Edugyan’s body of work “brings nuance and magnetism to relationships between colonizer and colonized.” The Guardian’s Arifa Akbar praised Edugyan’s ability to come “at her subject sideways, not with gritty realism but with fabular edges.” She called Edugyan’s use of language “precise, vivid, always concerned with wordcraft and captivating for it.
Honours and Placements
On the strength of her first published novel, Edugyan accepted numerous writing fellowships between 2005 and 2010, including the Klaustrid writer’s residence in Iceland, the Fine Arts Work Center in Massachusets, Hawthornden Castle in Scotland, and the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Germany. She has also attended residencies in Hungary, Finland, Spain and Belgium. In 2015–16, she was writer in residence in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Athabasca University in Edmonton.
While an undergraduate student at the University of Victoria, Edugyan met poet and novelist Steven Price, whom she later married. Edugyan and Price were both nominated for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize in 2012. They have two children and live outside Victoria, BC.
- Scotiabank Giller Prize (Half-Blood Blues) (2011)
- Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize (Half-Blood Blues) (2012)
- Anisfield-Wolf Book Award (Half-Blood Blues) (2012)
- Scotiabank Giller Prize (Washington Black) (2018)