Two months before Esi Edugyan’s splendid new novel, Washington Black, was published in the United States, it was long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize.
“That was a great gift,” Edugyan says of the favorable attention during a call to her home in Victoria, Canada. “I’m a Canadian novelist. Not only that, I’m a novelist from western Canada. To be noticed was like a miracle.”
Washington Black is itself something of a miracle. Opening in Barbados in the 1830s, it tells the story of Washington Black, an 11-year-old slave on a sugar plantation whose life is forever changed when he is removed from hard labor and “loaned” by his owner to Christopher “Titch” Wilde. Titch is an eccentric naturalist, inventor and abolitionist who initially wants the young Washington to serve as ballast in his experiments with hot air balloons.
Washington turns out to be a gifted artist and naturalist himself. The two develop a fraught relationship that takes them from Barbados to the Arctic and the deserts of Morocco until Washington ultimately gains his freedom. Told from Washington’s point of view, the novel examines both what it means to be truly free and the complex power dynamics of its central relationship.
Edugyan, who was “born on the prairie” in Calgary, Alberta, is the daughter of parents who emigrated from Ghana. She is married to Steven Price, a poet and novelist, who is her first reader. “From the first draft, he’s the only one who knows what I am writing about,” she admits. The couple have two children, ages 6 and 3, who are voluble in the background as our conversation begins. “Yeah, they are pretty high energy,” she says, laughing.
Edugyan took a circuitous journey in conceiving Washington Black, beginning with reading a story by Jorge Luis Borges about an ill-fated 19th-century impostor named Tom Castro, who claimed to be the shipwrecked scion of a wealthy English family. Borges’ story is told through the voice of an ex-slave. “I found myself interested in the voice of this former slave and his journey from one world—a very brutal world—to this other world. That’s where the book grew out of.”
It is apparent from her previous novel, Half-Blood Blues, also a Man Booker Prize nominee, that Edugyan is fascinated by sounds and voices within her fiction. Half-Blood Blues unfolds from the point of view of a black jazz musician in Germany at the outbreak of World War II and captures the rhythms of jazz and the desperation of that era. In Washington Black, Washington’s voice seems to speak across the decades from the 19th century. “They had to sound true to their eras and backgrounds,” Edugyan says of her narrators. “I wanted this to have the sense of a written narrative, a bit formal, as though it’s a slave narrative that’s been transcribed for the record.”
Edugyan says she doesn’t write autobiographically and speculates that writing from male points of view “is maybe a way to put some distance from myself.” To achieve that authentic-sounding voice, Edugyan read a lot of nonfiction. She mentions Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains, Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder and Andrea Wulf’s book on the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, The Invention of Nature, as being influential. “I’m somebody who really enjoys reading widely,” Edugyan says. “I enjoy research and delving into things deeply. But of course, at some point the trick is to stop, because you could turn your whole life into researching. At about the halfway mark, you don’t want to do any more research. Then you’re reading for prose that is just really beautifully written.”
“I didn’t want these abolitionists to be viewed as the great white saviors. It’s not just black and white.”
The 1830s, in which Washington Black is set, were an especially significant decade in the history of slavery. Although the slave trade had been outlawed in the British Empire, slavery itself was still legal. “It seemed like this was a really potent time,” Edugyan says. It afforded her the opportunity to examine the complex relationship between Washington and Titch. “I wanted to show something more nuanced and more subtle about the relationship. I didn’t want these abolitionists to be viewed as the great white saviors. It’s not just black and white. I think there’s a lot of gray. Theirs is not a true friendship. The power imbalance is just so staggering.”
Both Titch and Washington are haunted by their pasts. Titch, burdened by the expectations of his colonial family, is a man “who was very enlightened for his era, very open-minded. You get the sense that if he met Washington today, they could have a good friendship. But he’s living in the shadow of this very strange relationship. There’s something unfinished there.”
And Washington? “He comes out of a life of brutality and savagery. He’s wondering how to begin to live a life that he owns.”
Furthermore, the early 19th century was a period when Europeans were exploring the Arctic. Her knowledge of sea life adds pleasurable depth to the novel. “We live right on the coast,” she explains. “Having young children always asking questions when you’re at the beach makes you see things anew. Growing up, I didn’t know tons about sea life, but I’m learning now. It’s an interest of mine.”
Her efforts have paid off in this story of high adventure with a unique and compelling character. “I’m lucky to be writing in an era when stories from people of color are things people want to hear. I know that 30 years ago that was not the case. It was a struggle. But I do feel now in the Canadian landscape there’s a real effort being made to be more inclusive.”
Author photo by Tamara Poppitt.