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Giller Prize 2018 Special Series: The Chat with Esi Edugyan

Next up in this year’s special Giller edition of The Chat, we’re in conversation with Esi Edugyan, author of Washington Black.


Next up in this year’s special Giller Prize edition of The Chat, we’re in conversation with Esi Edugyan, author of Washington Black.

Of Washington Black, the Giller jury says, “How often history asks us to underestimate those trapped there. This remarkable novel imagines what happens when a black man escapes history’s inevitable clasp—in his case, in a hot air balloon no less. Washington Black, the hero of Esi Edugyan’s novel, is born in the 1800s in Barbados with a quick mind, a curious eye, and a yearning for adventure. In conjuring Black’s vivid and complex world—as cruel empires begin to crumble and the frontiers of science open like astounding vistas—Edugyan has written a supremely engrossing novel about friendship and love and the way identity is sometimes a far more vital act of imagination than the age in which one lives.”

Esi Edugyan won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2011 for her novel Half-Blood Blues. The novel was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the Orange Prize for Fiction. She lives in Victoria, BC.



Trevor Corkum: Your previous novel, Half-Blood Blues, won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2011. How does it feel to be a finalist this time around?

Esi Edugyan: It is of course lovely! I was surprised at the nomination, especially having been honoured with the prize in 2011, and it is just as meaningful for me this time round. What a wonderful thing for the book.

TC: Washington Black is a rich, sprawling novel, addressing questions of freedom, loyalty, and courage. What was the most pleasurable part of writing the book?

EE: The characters are what give me the most pleasure in any book—discovering who they are, following their interactions, depicting their disagreements and negotiations with each other. Wash’s relationship with Titch is the heart of the novel and I enjoyed writing the evolution of that.

TC: What particular fears—if any—did you harbour as you wrote?

EE: I think it’s every writer’s dread that a book won’t hang together in the end. It is important in the later drafts, I think, to ask yourself very clearly what your central concerns are and to shape the material towards them.

It is important in the later drafts, I think, to ask yourself very clearly what your central concerns are and to shape the material towards them.

TC: In an alternate life, what career would you choose if you weren’t writing?
EE: Criminal lawyer? Interior designer? Who can say?

TC: The Giller Prize is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Can you talk about a previous winning title (or finalist) that you’ve enjoyed, or that has inspired you in some way?

EE: There are so many favourites. Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version has always stood out as idiosyncratic, bombastic, and above all highly readable. I was struck by its utter lack of pieties. I unequivocally adore it.

Excerpt from Washington Black
I might have been ten, eleven years old—I cannot say for certain—when my first master died.

No one grieved him; in the fields we hung our heads, keening, grieving for ourselves and the estate sale that must follow. He died very old. I saw him only at a distance: stooped, thin, asleep in a shaded chair on the lawn, a blanket at his lap. I think now he was like a specimen preserved in a bottle. He had outlived a mad king, outlived the slave trade itself, had seen the fall of the French Empire and the rise of the British and the dawn of the industrial age, and his usefulness, surely, had passed. On that last evening I remember crouching on my bare heels in the stony dirt of Faith Plantation and pressing a palm flat against Big Kit’s calf, feeling the heat of her skin baking up out of it, the strength and power of her, while the red sunlight settled in the cane all around us. Together, silent, we watched as the overseers shouldered the coffin down from the Great House. They slid it rasping into the straw of the wagon and, dropping the rail into place with a bang, rode rattling away.

That was how it began: me and Big Kit, watching the dead go free.

His nephew arrived one morning eighteen weeks later at the head of a trail of dust-covered carriages driven directly from the harbour at Bridge Town. That the estate had not been sold of was, we thought at the time, a mercy. The carriages creaked their slow way up the soft embankment, shaded by palm trees. On a flatbed wagon at the rear of the caravan sat a strange object, draped in canvas, as large as the whipping boulder in the small field. I could not imagine its purpose. All this I remember well, for I was again with Big Kit at the edge of the cane—I rarely left her side in those days—and I saw Gaius and Immanuel stiffly open the carriage door and extend the step. I could see, at the Great House, pretty Émilie, who was my age, and whom I would glimpse some evenings dumping the pans of wash water into the long grass outside the scullery. She descended the first two steps of the verandah and, smoothing out her apron, fell still.

The first man to emerge, carrying his hat in his hands, had black hair and a long, horselike jaw, his eyes darkened by heavy brows. He raised his face as he descended and peered around at the estate and the men and women gathered there. Then I saw him stride back to the curious object and walk around it, inspecting the ropes and canvas.

Cradling a hand to his eyes, he turned, and for a frightening moment I felt his gaze on me. He was chewing some soft-textured thing, his jaw working a little. He did not look away.

Excerpted from Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. Copyright (c) 2018 by Ides of March, Inc. All rights reserved. Excerpted by permission of Patrick Crean Editions, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

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