Esi Edugyan gauges the power of the past in acclaimed new novel Washington Black
Some 15 years ago, while reading “The Improbable Imposter Tom Castro”, a Jorge Luis Borges short story, Esi Edugyan found herself struck by its drama and intrigue. Tracing a rube tricked into masquerading as the deceased scion of the wealthy Tichborne clan, the plot, Edugyan believed, was the Argentine writer’s invention.
A visit, years later, to the National Portrait Gallery in London, where Edugyan had travelled when her 2011 novel, Half-Blood Blues, was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, offered a revelation. Walking through the halls with her husband, the poet and novelist Steven Price, Edugyan was shocked to see numerous images of individuals who’d been involved in what was the real-life Tichborne trial.
The 19th-century incident persisted in her imagination through the following years, after the Victoria-based author won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for Half-Blood Blues, which featured black jazz musicians in Europe during World War II. Near the end of 2014, juggling the demands of writing and parenthood, she began focusing on a novel inspired by the case.
In particular, she wanted to explore it “through the eyes of Andrew Bogle, who was one of the main witnesses for the defence, and was an ex-slave who’d been stolen away from a plantation in the Caribbean by a member of the Tichborne clan.
“But then, when I was tackling that material and writing it,” Edugyan says, reached by the Straight in Victoria, “I started to realize I was more interested in the mindset—in the psychology of somebody like Bogle, but who wasn’t actually Bogle himself, and didn’t have anything to do with the trial.”
Currently nominated for the Booker, the Giller, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, Edugyan’s third novel, Washington Black, delivers a coming-of-age tale that is her finest work yet. Here, George Washington Black, “Wash” as he is known, is plucked from the fields of a Barbados plantation to assist Christopher “Titch” Wilde, an English gentleman scientist and abolitionist, who happens to be the brother of the sadistic plantation owner.
Under Titch’s tutelage, the young Wash, who was born and raised on the plantation, discovers an innate talent for illustration and starts to develop his personhood. A fatal event, however, severs the relative relief, prompting Wash and Titch to flee in Titch’s Cloud-cutter, a hot-air balloon, on an adventure that leads Wash from Barbados, across North America including the Arctic, and on to the United Kingdom and Africa.
The novel, according to Edugyan, is “really about his search for a sense of personal agency. But it’s also about him really looking to live a free life. He has to first of all decide what that is, and weigh that against what he’s been told from various quarters. And then he has to redefine that for himself.
“Through all of this, he’s somebody who feels a grand sense of rootlessness,” she continues. “He’s always searching for his place in the world. And so it only seemed natural for the book to be moving through various settings.”
This idea of dislocation patterns Edugyan’s material. (Her 2004 debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, detailed a former civil servant who moves his family from Calgary to an inherited property in rural Alberta; her 2014 volume of nonfiction, Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home, related her thoughts on the subject as the Canadian-born daughter of Ghanaian immigrants.) All her books, she suggests, are about how the past grips the present, how histories are never far.
As the years draw on, Wash remains aware of a bounty on his head and haunted by the memory of the departed Titch. Even though his circumstances have shifted, he observes, “My current life, I realized, was constructed around an absence; for all its richness I still felt as if the floors might give way, as if its core were only a covering of leaves, and I would slip through, falling endlessly, never again to get my footing.”
The meticulously paced novel further demonstrates Edugyan’s skill at conveying the magnitude of a life—its pivotal joys and disillusionments—and broaches the divide between physical and psychic freedom. “Just because you’re free in body,” Edugyan says, “does not mean that you’re emotionally free.”
Despite her accolades, Edugyan is pragmatic about literary fame. She writes in secrecy, in a home office with an occasionally used treadmill desk, and discusses her projects only with her husband until they’re completed.
The recent attention “is a great gift—and it can be an elusive gift—so it’s marvellous to have a spotlight on you. And it’s a good thing to have readers,” she says. “That’s why you’re writing—so people will read it.”
Esi Edugyan appears on October 20 and 21 at this year’s Vancouver Writers Fest. See the festival's website for details.