Writing the footnotes: The author of Booker Prize-nominee Washington Black

Photo: Tamara Poppitt Photo: Tamara Poppitt

Award-winning Canadian author Esi Edugyan’s latest novel, Washington Black, begins in the brutal world of a Barbados sugar plantation in the 1830s. But the story, quite literally, soon soars beyond, as the young boy Washington Black escapes from the plantation in a hot-air balloon, spirited away by an English gentleman-scientist named Titch. The book traces Black’s astounding travels (Titch brings him to the Arctic by way of Virginia; later Black journeys to Nova Scotia, London, Amsterdam, and Morocco). The novel is, among other things, a coming-of-age story, as Black grows from a young enslaved boy stunted by fear and violence to a free young man coming into his own as an artist, with a self-made family and a visionary project.

Edugyan, who spent two summers in Charlottesville while her husband pursued his masters in poetry at UVA (it was really lovely, she says), will be back in town this week to discuss the book, which like her previous novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She talked with us about her intensive research process, the themes of her work, and what she’s reading.

C-VILLE: When did you decide that you wanted to be a writer? Was that something you’ve always known?

Esi Edugyan: I always enjoyed writing, and I did want to be a writer, but I wasn’t really aware that was something you could do as a profession. In high school, I had a really persuasive English teacher who convinced me that was actually what I needed to do with my life, and that there was a really great writing program at the University of Victoria.

What’s your writing process like?

I probably start a new book with research. It takes me a while to figure out what I would like to write about; I often have several ideas that I’m batting around and then have to force myself to choose one. So there’s a whole period where I’m researching different things, and then when I come to focus on a book then I’m researching just that one thing, for probably six months or so.

And then when I’m writing the book I’m researching alongside, going back and forth between the various sources, and part of why you’re doing this is to keep your head in the book, and to keep yourself excited about the material. If you’re culturally learning new things about it then that can only make it more exciting for the reader—that excitement translates to the page.

This is your third novel, and you have a book of non-fiction out: What do you see as the throughline in your body of work?

They’re very different books, even stylistically…none of them look anything alike. Others have pointed out that the throughline is probably looking at suppressed histories, or things we don’t know a lot about, or locating people within a history that we thought we knew a lot about but we didn’t know the stories of. So I guess writing about outsiders, writing about the story that hasn’t been told.

So these are the kinds of stories you’re drawn to?

Yes, I think that’s exactly it. You know, when you’re reading a story about a certain historical period or a pivotal moment in history and then you literally read the footnotes—about people who were part of the grander narrative, or just little incidents that happened—and that sparks something in you, because [it’s something] you hadn’t heard about before…that’s my main interest.

Could you talk about the story that inspired Washington Black?

Sure, so I thought I was writing a book about the Tichborne Claimant, which was 30 years of litigation that went on from the 1860s to the 1890s, focusing on an impostor looking to gain access to a very wealthy family living in the south of England. This butcher from Australia wanted to come and pretend he was the long-lost son who had died at sea, and claim their fortune.

One of the people who was a witness for the defense was a man called Andrew Bogle, and he was an ex-slave who had been stolen off a plantation in Jamaica by Sir Edward Tichborne, 40 years prior. So he had been wrenched out of his life of labor, and taken to live in England, and then he traveled in Europe and eventually retired to Australia. And I found this fascinating—who was this man, who played such a huge part [in the story] but was forgotten, essentially.

Do the stories say why Tichborne had taken him off the plantation?

No that’s a mystery, that’s one of the central mysteries, and it was actually, you know, it’s theft, that Tichborne would take his friend’s property and steal him away. It’s never clear why he made that choice. So that’s one of the things that you get to explore in a novel, you get to imagine the circumstances of that kind of a gesture.

Your parents were immigrants from Ghana—had they talked to you growing up about what it was like for them when they first moved to Canada, and has any of that influenced your work,
in terms of that feeling of disorientation or otherness?

Not my parents’ story, really; I found them highly secretive, and so it’s impossible really to get a sense of what their experience was. But probably for myself, growing up as a black woman in Alberta, this was not a multicultural society by any stretch back in the ’80s, so probably my preoccupation with these themes is coming out of that experience.

Like The Book of Night Women, by Marlon James, your book really illustrates the disfiguring aspects of
slavery and the way it warps people’s humanity, but you do that mostly by showing the depth of Washington’s character, and all these possibilities he has that normally would have been snuffed out. Was that a conscious choice on your part, a way to write about the brutality of slavery without being trapped on the plantation?

Yeah, I guess I wanted to give [Washington Black] the life that he was being denied, and that he would have been denied had he not had this stroke of fortune where he was spirited away from the plantation. [For readers] to understand that he is a person, that he has an excellent mind, that’s he’s a man who’s due the same rights as other men, for him to really come into a sense of himself as a human being, that was what was interesting to me. Because I think, as someone who is obviously always going to be haunted by his experiences as a slave, the book is like the process of him working toward an acceptance of freedom, and everything that freedom can be, and also what the limits are to that freedom.

Black narrates this story, and pretty early on he tells us that he became free at 18. I felt like reading it, you
have all these visceral feelings of fear and dread, but knowing that he gets free later gave me something to hold on to. Why did you choose to reveal that up front?

It felt like it had to be a retrospective story. Even just in terms of having a credible voice, some of the observations he’s describing, these are things that belong to an older psyche, and so as a writer it enables you to have that elasticity where you can kind of bounce between his younger mindset and his older one, where he’s questioning maybe some of the choices that he’s made. But I’m glad to hear that gave you a sense of comfort throughout, (laughs) to know that he does get free, and maybe that does lighten things. I hadn’t really thought of it in those terms.

Partly just the fact that Black is a child, there’s such a tremendous sense of vulnerability there. Did any of that come from your experience as a parent?

I think it probably did subconsciously. Consciously, I had to suppress any thoughts of my own children, I just, I couldn’t put my own children there. But obviously that’s there, there’s the whole parental dynamic with Big Kit, who is Washington’s mother figure, and I think that yeah,  I was probably writing out of my feelings and my sense of being a mother even though I wasn’t consciously doing it.

What’s the best book or books you’ve read lately?

I just finished Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose cycle. I enjoyed those, I thought they were ferociously witty. And I’ve started reading Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot. She’s an indigenous writer, and she writes about her experience as a young mother. She has to spend some time in a psychiatric hospital, and this is her memoir. It’s really amazingly written.

Are you working on another book now?

I’m trying to. I have an idea in mind and we’ll see if it sticks. But I won’t say what it is (laughs).

You’ve gotten a lot of accolades for your work; does that get in the way at all when you’re trying to work on the next project, or have you learned how to kind of put that aside?

I think more the latter. I think I probably approach every project thinking people are not going to like this as much as they liked the other one, just bracing myself for the disappointment…and then you can just go and write what you want to write.

Esi Edugyan will appear with author John Edgar Wideman for a conversation on race, violence, and freedom at the Jefferson School on March 24, at 3pm.

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