Author Tags: Afro-Canadian, Fiction

Born and raised in Calgary, Giller Prize-winner Esi Edugyan of Victoria has degrees from John Hopkins and UVic.

While living in Victoria she published her first novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne (Knopf, 2004), set in the formerly all-black enclave of Aster, Alberta. It's about a man originally from Ghana who tries to start life anew in a new place, only to become alienated from his twin daughters and an unhappy wife. As mysterious fires increasingly put everyone on alert, Samuel Tyne retreats to his electronics shop.

Esi Edugyan's second novel, Half-Blood Blues (Key Porter $29.95), about black jazz musicians in Berlin during the late 1930s, gained global interest when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011. Among the black musicians whose lives are threatened by the onset of World War II, there's a brilliant trumpet player, Hieronymus, and a narrator, Sid, who uses a distinctive German-American slang.

Half-Blood Blues was slated to be published by Key Porter Books until the Canadian imprint shut down in 2011, but it was published on schedule in the UK by Serpent’s Tail. Her husband Steven Price, whose first novel was published in the same year by Thomas Allen, was instrumental in encouraging editor Patrick Crean to read the manuscript and accept it for Thomas Allen in Canada, in 2011. Having just given birth to her first child in Victoria, Edugyan found herself simultaneously a finalist for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize, the 2011 Governor General's Award for Fiction, the 2011 Man Book Prize for Fiction and the 2011 Rogers' Trust Fiction Prize. She appeared as a panelist at the Vancouver Writers and Readers Festival in October, 2011, and was notified she had won the Giller Prize in November. [See below]

Her father's roots in Ghana are just part of the mix in Esi Edugyan's 48-page meditations on the nature of home, Dreaming of Elsewhere (University of Alberta 2014 $10.95), derived from the Henry Kreisel Lecture Series. "Home, for me, was not a birthright, but an invention," she writes. She also includes Paris, New York, Toronto and Budapest. 978-0-88864-821-1

[BCBW 2014] "Fiction"

Edugyan wins Giller
Press Release (2011)

Esi Edugyan Wins The 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize

TORONTO, Nov. 8, 2011 /CNW/ - Esi Edugyan has been named the 2011 winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel Half-Blood Blues, published by Thomas Allen Publishers. The announcement was made at a black-tie dinner and award ceremony hosted by Jian Ghomeshi, attended by over 500 members of the publishing, media and arts communities. The gala was broadcast live on CBC's bold, livestreamed on, and aired on CBC Television at 11:05 p.m. (11:35 p.m. NT).

The largest annual literary prize in the country, the Scotiabank Giller Prize awards $50,000 to the author of the best Canadian novel or short story collection published in English and $5,000 to each of the finalists. A shortlist of six authors and their books was announced on October 4, 2011. Those finalists were:

David Bezmozgis for his novel THE FREE WORLD, published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
Lynn Coady for her novel THE ANTAGONIST, published by House of Anansi Press
Patrick deWitt for his novel THE SISTERS BROTHERS, published by House of Anansi Press
Esi Edugyan for her novel HALF-BLOOD BLUES, published by Thomas Allen Publishers
Zsuzsi Gartner for her short story collection BETTER LIVING THROUGH PLASTIC EXPLOSIVES, published by Hamish Hamilton Canada
Michael Ondaatje for his novel THE CAT'S TABLE, published by McClelland & Stewart

The shortlist and ultimate winner were selected by an esteemed jury panel made up of award-winning Canadian writer and 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist Annabel Lyon; American author, memoirist and Guggenheim fellow Howard Norman; and acclaimed UK playwright and prize-winning novelist Andrew O'Hagan.

The shortlist was chosen from an unprecedented 143 books submitted for consideration by 55 publishing houses from every region of the country.

Of the winning book, the jury wrote:

"Imagine Mozart were a black German trumpet player and Salieri a bassist, and 18th century Vienna were WWII Paris; that's Esi Edugyan's joyful lament, Half-Blood Blues. It's conventional to liken the prose in novels about jazz to the music itself, as though there could be no higher praise. In this case, say rather that any jazz musician would be happy to play the way Edugyan writes. Her style is deceptively conversational and easy, but with the simultaneous exuberance and discipline of a true prodigy. Put this book next to Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues" - these two works of art belong together."

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Thomas Allen $24.95)
Review (2012)

from Joan Givner

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Thomas Allen $24.95)

The Second Life of Samuel Tyne by Esi Edugyan (Knopf $17.95)

As a novel about black or “half-blood” musicians in Berlin and Paris whose lives are threatened by the onset of World War II, Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues first came to international attention when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in England, where it was first published.

Her sophomore novel, Half-Blood Blues has since won the $50,000 Giller Prize in Canada. It was also shortlisted for a Governor General’s Award and the Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize.
Publication was delayed in Canada with the demise of Key Porter Books. Edugyan’s husband Steven Price, whose first novel was published by Thomas Allen in Ontario, encouraged his editor Patrick Crean to read the manuscript and accept it for publication.

Edugyan soon found herself a finalist for four major literary awards, having just given birth to her first child. Born and raised in Calgary, Edugyan lives in Victoria.

We asked Joan Givner to review both of Esi Edugyan’s novels.

In both her novels, Esi Edugyan illuminates little-known corners of black history, and shows the forces of racial hatred militating against, and ultimately destroying, the black person of extraordinary talent.

Her first novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, is set in a small Alberta town, established as a black community by fugitives from the southern United States. Here in the 1960s, decades after it has lost its black identity, Tyne arrives with his family. An economic forecaster by profession, his real love is electronics, his ability to create a rudimentary computer marking him as a visionary. However, he is an immigrant from Ghana, and his world is not hospitable to a black visionary. What follows is the steady erosion of his dreams and the devastation of his family. He left the city to follow his vocation, fearing an ignominious epitaph: “he made it to the end.” After all his struggles those words sum up his life exactly. As Faulkner wrote of his black characters, “They endured.”

This bleak chronicle has a cast of grotesques—monstrous twins (right out of Marjorie Wallace’s 1986 book, The Silent Twins), and the town’s deputy mayor and his wife, a red-neck couple that arrives on Tyne’s doorstep shouting, “Call the Guinness Book—we made it here in less than a month.” Even the comedy of their antics and dialogue cannot relieve the overwhelming heaviness of the story.
Seven years after this debut, Edugyan found a body of material that intensified her themes and focussed them brilliantly. The characters of Half-Blood Blues are jazz musicians in Nazi Germany and, as such, they face threats far more dire than the bigotry of rural Alberta. Not only is the mixed race of the performers abhorrent to Nazi ideology, but the music itself is anathema:

It was a plague sent out by the dread black hordes, engineered by the Jews. Us Negroes, see, we was only half to blame—we just can’t help it. Savages just got a natural feel for filthy rhythms, no self-control to speak of.

For any writer, the Holocaust is dangerous subject matter since the good-versus-evil dichotomy invites (almost condones) melodrama. Edugyan negotiates the territory deftly. In focussing on black victims, she neither diminishes Jewish suffering, nor makes every German a Nazi collaborator. Of her six musicians, the Jewish pianist is deported to Sachsenhausen, one German cravenly abandons the group, while the hochgeboren manager risks his life to save the black performers. These are Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones, African-Americans from Baltimore, and the young genius, Hieronymus Falk. He is a Mischling (mongrel) the son of a Senagalese soldier and a white German mother. It is the fate of this trio that the book traces, as they flee Berlin for Paris, only to
arrive as the army of occupation moves in.

Sid Griffiths, anti-hero, a good but not great musician, is the narrator. Naturally for such a polyglot group, communication is a problem. Sid explains how they (and the author) solve it:

We talked like mongrels see—half German, half Baltimore bar slang. Just a few scraps of French between us. Only real language I spoke aside from English was Hochdeutsch.

The idiom they improvise is as spontaneous, lively, and rhythmic as their music. It allows the witty repartee of Chip Jones to run counterpoint to the harrowing events, creating a sustained chiaroscuro effect. The novel’s other stylistic distinction is the perfectly calibrated, cyclical arrangement of the six sections, alternating between past and present. Only at the end, do the implications of the opening segment become clear.

The scenes—a meeting in a disused Jewish bath house, hiding out in an abandoned night club, waiting for forged papers in the baronial manor of a prominent official, a side trip to Hagenbeck’s “human zoo” outside Hamburg, lying low in a dingy Montmartre apartment—provide a panorama of life in Nazi Germany and of Paris in the first months of the occupation.

a list of sources authenticates Edugyan’s picture of Afro-Germans, blacks and jazz musicians in the Third Reich. She also includes a true portrait of Louis Armstrong among her characters. It emphasizes Armstrong’s commitment to Judaism, the legacy of his childhood, when he was nurtured by a Jewish family in New Orleans.

Armstrong is seamlessly integrated into the plot when he passes on the mantle of his genius to Hieronymus.

Edugyan’s focus on the music gives the narrative its deeper resonance; and her description of jazz extends by implication to all art forms—musical, visual and literary. She addresses the mystery of artistic creativity—its collaborative nature, the jealousy it inspires, its tendency to transcend the individual artist, and the rare appearance of genius. Sid, heartbroken by Armstrong’s rejection, bitterly considers the unfair distribution of talent:

Gifts is divided so damn unevenly...In every other walk of life, a jack can work to get what he want. But ain’t no amount of toil going to get you a lick more talent than you was born with. Geniuses ain’t made, brother, they just is. And I just was not.

But it is the Nazi official, a lover of classical music, who speaks the most poignant words on the subject. “Dedication,” he says, “can be genius in its own right.” His statement is prophetic, for it is Sid who ensures the creation and survival of the great piece of music. He does so by committing an act of betrayal that recalls Faulkner’s words:

The writer’s only responsibility is to his art...he has a dream... If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.

The ultimate affirmation of the novel is that “Half-Blood Blues” is produced, and that a fragment—a mere 3 minutes and thirty-three seconds—survives. That outcome carries a faint echo of the conclusion to Eliot’s vision of a devastated world, The Waste Land:
These fragments I have shored up against my ruins... Hieronymo’s mad again

It is the divine madness of art that produces the things of value (often mere shards) that we find again after the destruction ends and the tides of ignorance and hatred recede.

However, nothing in Esi Edugyan’s work is unshaded and unambiguous. The final irony is that the music produced secretly in a squalid studio, as the last defiant cry before its creators are silenced, endures to gain mainstream acceptance. It is embalmed in the trappings of success (a conference and a documentary film) by a critical establishment, which in another era, colluded in its denigration. 9780887627415

Biographer and novelist Joan Givner writes from Mill Bay.

Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home
Article (2014)

As the homeland of her father, Ghana figures into Esi Edugyan’s 48-page Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home (University of Alberta $10.95), which is derived from the Henry Kreisel Lecture Series. “Home, for me, was not a birthright,” she writes, “but an invention.” 978-0-88864-821-1