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. Although this debut novel was shortlisted for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award in 2005, she had difficulties getting a contract for a second novel. During a writer-in-residency in Stuttgart, Germany, she became inspired to tackle a new subject.

Esi Edugyan's second novel, Half-Blood Blues (Serpent's Tail, 2011) is about an inter-racial jazz band in Nazi Berlin in the late 1930s. There's a brilliant, black trumpet player, Hieronymus "Hiero" Falk, as well as two African American musicians, jazz drummer Chip Jones and Sidney "Sid" Griffiths, a journeyman bassist who can pass for white and uses a distinctive German-American slang as a narrator. In an era when the Nazis were concocting their fallacy of a master race, the marginal acceptability of being black is increasingly jeopardized by increasingly repressive Nazi ideology. Hiero is denigrated as a Mischling or half-breed. When they learn that Goering has a plan for the sterilization of all mixed-race children, all three escape to Paris in 1939, but after Paris falls in 1940, Hier Falk, a German citizen at age twenty, is arrested and never heard from again, seemingly another victim of one of the concentration camps. Sid, in his 80s, returns to Berlin in 1992 and begins to learn more about his friend's fate. When he learns Hier might be alive in Poland, he and Chip go on a quest to find their long-lost band mate. The novel gained global interest when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011. Although it can be marginally identified as a Holocaust novel, it contains remarkably little content regarding the persecution and mass-slaughter of Jews.

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 U.K. 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 the winner of the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize and a finalist for 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]. The following year it was also shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction and it received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Cleveland.

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

Her third novel, Washington Black, about a man who escapes from slavery in Barbados during the 19th century, was immediately shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the Soctiabank Giller Prize. It received the Giller, making her a two-time recipient of Canada's most-publicized literary award.

In 2020, curated a blog post for articles by Black women writers who included Afua Hirsch, El Jones, Namwali Serpell, Roxane Gay and Nikole Hannah-Jones.

[BCBW 2020] "Fiction"

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
(Patrick Crean Editions $33.99) 2018

On the faith plantation in Barbados, at the outset of Esi Edugyan’s novel Washington Black, slaves are routinely whipped to shreds, hanged above the fields, or shot. Suicide is a tempting way out, especially for those who believe the dead are reborn in their homelands to walk free again.

Big Kit plans to return to her native Dahomey [now the Republic of Benin] by killing herself and the boy she cares for, eleven-year-old George Washington Black. “What it like, Kit? [to be] Free?” he asks.

Erasmus Wilde, their brutal master, curtails their plan. When another slave commits suicide, he decapitates the corpse, declaring, “No man can be reborn without his head.”

That same day, “Wash” is loaned out to Titch, the master’s brother, because his size makes him ideal ballast for Titch’s aerial balloon, the cloud-cutter. Wash learns to read and sketch botanical specimens, developing skills that Titch exclaims, “You are a prodigy, truly!” And so his ascendancy begins; and this story moves from the Caribbean, to the east coast of Canada, and onto London, England.

In her two previous novels, Esi Edugyan has described black men of exceptional talent struggling against the annihilating forces of racism in the 20th century. Once again, she writes from the point of view of a man (one of relatively few female authors to do so consistently) using his narrative voice. Washington Black’s speech evolves from that of an enslaved child to that of a young man capable of astute observations and poetic eloquence. But this time her episodic story is wide in scope, full of action and panoramic in its geographical range.

It is a mark of Edugyan’s versatility that her latest novel is a complete departure in form from The Second Life of Samuel Tyne (Knopf, 2004), about a man from Ghana who raises his family in Alberta; and Half-Blood Blues (Thomas Allen, 2011), about black jazz musicians in Berlin during the late 1930s. Setting Washington Black in the 1800s, she adapts the sprawling, capacious 19th century novel to her purpose. That century is notable for its great scientists and explorers. In Washington Black she emphasizes throughout, the contradiction between their increased knowledge of the natural world and their blindness to the suffering of most of its human population.

In the story, fictional men of science (vaguely reminiscent of Darwin, Franklin and Gosse) react incredulously to Washington Black’s achievements. Wash says of one of them, “I felt as if he were watching some insensible creature perform an unnatural act, as if a hot house plant had learned to speak.”

Edugyan’s large cast of idiosyncratic characters includes Wash’s nemesis, John Willard, a soft-spoken villain whose impeccable manners belie his ruthlessness as a bounty hunter; identical twins Benedikt and Theo Kinast, the captain and the surgeon of the Ave Maria with a crew of rescued orphans; Edgar Farrow, the sexton of St. John’s parish in Norfolk, Virginia, who studies rotting human flesh, and smuggles runaway slaves to safety; and Peter Haas, a Dutch mute who speaks with his hands.

Most closely entwined with Wash’s destiny is the Wilde family. Besides the savage Erasmus and the abolitionist Titch, it includes the patriarch James, an arctic explorer unwilling to communicate with his fellow men; his eccentric wife back at the family estate in England and a cousin, Philip, who visits the Faith plantation. It is Philip who seals Wash’s fate in Barbados.
It is giving too much away to describe how and why an F is branded onto our protagonist’s chest, or why there is a huge reward for his capture. Or how Titch engineers his escape. Or why Wash rejects his chance for freedom in Upper Canada and instead accompanies Titch to Hudson’s Bay. Eventually our hero reaches Nova Scotia in 1834 where slaves are technically free. The Slavery Abolition Act applies to British Colonies.

The evil of racism persists in men such as John Willard who rails against the steam engine and extols a “natural order” that justifies one race dominating all others. As Titch once explained to Wash, “Freedom... is a word with different meanings to different people.”

Gradually, we participate in the emergence of Wash’s understanding that abolition has not resulted in liberation, "... there could be no belonging for a creature such as myself, anywhere: a disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running, from the dimmest of shadows."

On the shores of Labrador, after a fortuitous meeting with a distinguished marine biologist and his daughter, Wash becomes a deep sea diver, bringing to the surface rare sea creatures, and even designing the glass tanks in which they can be displayed alive. The crowning achievement of his life is the creation of Ocean House in London, a gallery of aquatic life.

As the story unfolds, Wash will witness the gruesome death of John Willard and embark on a quest to discover if Titch is still alive, but his major contribution to Ocean House will not be acknowledged, his name will be erased from the record. With much dexterity, Edugyan describes how her protagonist makes sense of injustices and cruelties. While the storyline is engaging, it is her imagining of his inner self that makes this story redolent with sophistication and empathy.

An octopus provides the most resonant image for this novel. As Wash descends underwater he sees “a flaring orange creature radiating like a cloth set afire, its arms boiling all around it, the suckers very white... an animal that can change itself to match its surroundings, just by contracting its skin.”

This meeting is poignant. He imagines this sentient female creature scorning “the sad rigidity of a boy, the uselessness of his hard inflexible bones.” But the octopus inks him playfully, and looking at him with her small gelatinous eyes, she swims directly into his hands. He tends to her lovingly; he brings her to England so that others might appreciate her beauty.

Outside her natural medium, she cannot thrive. Watching her saddening decline, he sees “not the miraculous animal, but my own slow, relentless extinction.” This is a story that goes to great depths; it’s deserving of the attention it is receiving.