Esi Edugyan's Half-Blood Blues finds music in a dangerous time
Her phones are ringing, her inbox is full, and the entire Canadian literary world is all atwitter about Esi Edugyan, especially now that the 33-year-old B.C. resident’s second novel, Half-Blood Blues (Thomas Allen), has been shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, the hugely prestigious international award that will be handed out on Tuesday (October 18). Half-Blood Blues is also among the finalists for the Booker’s Canadian equivalent, the Giller Prize, as well as for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Award and, as was announced this week, the Governor General’s Literary Award.
It’s a remarkable achievement, but not nearly as momentous as another new landmark: her first child, a daughter, who arrived here just over a month ago as a timely reminder that there are greater things in life than honours and celebrity.
“She’s basically my first concern,” says the radiant but tired-sounding author, reached at the Victoria home she shares with her husband, poet Steven Price. He’s looking after the infant, but it’s obvious that Edugyan doesn’t want to spend more than a few minutes away from their charge.
“It’s my first child, so everything is completely different and marvellous,” she says. “I’m not getting much sleep, but it’s all good.”
As for the possibility of winning the Booker, which carries with it a £50,000 cash award (not to mention a massive boost in worldwide readership), Edugyan is not at all sure it’s real. “As soon as I can go back and focus on the writing, I’ll probably absorb it more. It still feels a little bit dreamlike, and not fully formed, this idea.”
Edugyan’s talent, on the other hand, was obvious at an early age. She arrived in Victoria from Calgary at the age of 17, more than ready to pursue a B.A. in creative writing at UVic; after taking a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, she returned to the B.C. capital to teach. She soon gave that up, but only to spend the next five years enjoying various writers’ residencies in Europe, and it was during one of them that she conceived Half-Blood Blues.
“I was living in Stuttgart—you know, a black woman living in Stuttgart, learning German, immersing myself in this different culture and just wondering about the history of black people in Germany,” she explains. After learning about the so-called Rhineland Bastards—the mixed-race children of German women and the Senegalese troops sent to occupy the Rhine Valley following World War I—she had the germ of a story. The history of jazz under the Third Reich provided the rest.
The central figures in Half-Blood Blues are two black Americans, drummer Chip Jones and bassist Sid Griffiths, and their Afro-German bandmate, trumpet virtuoso Hieronymus Falk. Apart from an otherworldly sequence in which the three musicians are reunited in present-day Poland, the novel takes place in various claustrophobic redoubts in Berlin and then Paris, where the musicians play cat-and-mouse with Nazis and collaborators.
A theme even deeper than jazz is male bonding. “I guess maybe I’ve spent a lot of time with men,” says Edugyan. “My best friend is this great guy, so I’ve spent a lot of time with him and with my husband, listening to their banter—especially when they were younger, ribbing each other and all of this. So maybe I’ve been able to take a bit of that and transpose it into the novel.”
Edugyan obviously enjoys the challenge of writing in the masculine voice—as she also did in her first novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, which follows a Ghanaian immigrant as he tries to make a life for himself in an Albertan village originally settled by freed American slaves. The author doesn’t dismiss the possibility that in both books she’s drawing on her own real-life experiences—first as an Albertan of Ghanaian descent, then as a dark-skinned citizen of the world—but in a way that avoids the excruciating clichés of much semi-autobiographical fiction. Half-Blood Blues, in particular, offers considerable insight into what it means to be the “other”, both in one’s own culture and abroad.
“That was definitely something that I wanted to be implicit in there,” Edugyan allows. “You know, it’s a historical novel, but of course there is that conventional saying that the historical novel is really using a moment in history to illuminate what’s going on now. Obviously, under the Third Reich issues of identity and belonging were pushed to the extreme, but those core elements—race and belonging and nationhood and this idea of the enemy within—those are things we’re still very much dealing with.”
Whether similar themes emerge in Edugyan’s next book remains to be seen. “I’ve got a strong idea for my third novel—strong in that it’s strong within me, not that it’s the greatest idea that ever was,” she says, moments before being called back to her maternal duties by her daughter’s insistent wail. “Of course, I’ve just had a child, and I don’t know when I’ll be returning to the computer to write it. But it’s gestating, and it’s in my mind.”
Esi Edugyan is set to take part in two Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival events, both of them on October 22 at the Revue Stage: at 10:30 a.m. she’ll converse with fellow authors Gayla Reid and Antanas Sileika, and at 8 p.m. she’ll join a discussion on historical fiction with Randy Boyagoda, C.C. Humphreys, and Helen Humphreys.