Monday, 19 November 2018

Esi Edugyan wins her second Giller Prize, this time for Washington Black

CLIFF LEE PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 19, 2018 UPDATED 52 MINUTES AGO Open this photo in gallery Elana Rabinovitch, left, daughter of Giller founder Jack Rabinovitch, congratulates Esi Edugyan at a ceremony in Toronto on Monday night. TIJANA MARTIN Esi Edugyan got this one. After a whirlwind literary awards season that has seen numerous shortlist nominations for the Victoria author, Ms. Edugyan has taken home the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Canada’s most lauded award for literature was given out at a ceremony in Toronto on Monday night, where the prize jury announced Ms. Edugyan’s win for her acclaimed novel Washington Black. “In a climate in which so many forms of truth-telling are under siege, this feels like a wonderful and important celebration of words,” Ms. Edugyan said in her short acceptance speech. “I felt like I was taking a risk in doing something very different. People kept asking if I was going to do more about jazz or World War II [along the lines of Half Blood Blues],” she said after her win. “So I feel maybe I’m ready to write about anything – that it’s okay to be able to go out there and choose any topic and write about it.” This marks the second time Ms. Edugyan has won the Giller, after taking the 2011 prize for her novel Half Blood Blues. She is only the third author to win the Giller twice after M.G. Vassanji (in 1994 and 2003) and Alice Munro (1998 and 2004) and the first to win for consecutive novels. Earlier this year, Ms. Edugyan was shortlisted for the Writers' Trust fiction prize and the Man Booker Prize in Britain (which Half Blood Blues was also shortlisted for) but came up just short. She is also a finalist for the Carnegie medal for fiction awarded by the American Library Association, which will be announced in January. Published by Patrick Crean Editions at HarperCollins Canada, Ms. Edugyan’s novel tells the historical, coming-of-age tale of George Washington Black, a boy born into slavery on a plantation in Barbados who goes on to much more in the world. Earlier this year, she told The Globe of the writing process: “Some of the details were just horrifying. Some of the research was really difficult to do. But I really thought in order to write about this man, you have to see where he’s coming from, you have to deal with the details of his childhood. What it would have looked like to be a slave on a day-to-day basis, living out your life in these conditions. I didn’t want to flinch away from that.” Ms. Edugyan beat out a field that included a debut novelist in Thea Lim (An Ocean of Minutes), a Quebec book in translation by Eric Dupont and translator Peter McCambridge (Songs for the Cold of Heart), a first-time nominee in the autobiographical novelist Sheila Heti (Motherhood) and a two-time finalist in Patrick deWitt (French Exit). Each finalist receives $10,000. The Giller longlist included two short-story collections (Paige Cooper’s debut, Zolitude, and Lisa Moore’s Something for Everyone), Emma Hooper’s second novel, Our Homesick Songs, debut efforts by authors Tanya Tagaq (Split Tooth) and Joshua Whitehead (Jonny Appleseed) and new novels from Quebec’s Kim Thuy (Vi) and Rawi Hage (Beirut Hellfire Society). The Giller Prize shortlist was selected by a jury composed of Kamal Al-Solaylee, Maxine Bailey, John Freeman, Philip Hensher and past nominee Heather O’Neill, who read 104 titles in selecting the longlist in September, the shortlist early last month and – finally – the winner. Asked how she would spend her $100,000 prize, Ms. Edugyan said she would take care of some household debt, help out her older father and “take time to write.” Ms. Edugyan said she had been working on a new story. But about 20 pages in, her computer went on the fritz; she hadn’t backed it up. But she will return to that material. “I have an idea in mind.” Washington Black by Esi Edugyan review – beautiful and beguiling Mixing horror with high adventure, this powerful novel looks at the burden of freedom in a time of slavery Arifa Akbar @Arifa_Akbar Tue 21 Aug 2018 09.00 BST A slave plantation in Barbados, circa 1890. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images Washington Black opens on a 19th-century sugar plantation in Barbados and launches into the horrors of that experience from the child’s-eye view of the eponymous Washington Black, an 11-year-old slave. But it would be a mistake to think that Esi Edugyan’s Man Booker-longlisted third book is an earnest story of colonial slavery. Just over 10 pages from the start, in a second beginning, Wash tells us he was a “freeman” by the age of 18, and it is clear that Edugyan is coming at her subject sideways, not with gritty realism but with fabular edges, and as much concerned with the nature of freedom as with slavery, both for her white characters and black. This is, in fact, less a book about the effects of slavery and more about the burden, responsibility and the guilt of personal freedom in a time of slavery. “What does it feel like, Kit? Free?” Washington asks Big Kit, a female fellow slave who is, for a time, his protector. She tells him that it is a matter of being able to “go wherever it is you wanting.” He heads towards this goal for free movement, experiencing both the privilege and the guilt from the gradations of freedom afforded him. He is first freed from the daily brutality of field slavery after being selected by the plantation owner’s kinder brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde, to become his personal assistant. He is later an artist and assistant to a natural scientist called Dr Goff. Slavery is abolished but Washington finds himself stalked by its spectre in the form of a bounty hunter There is, initially, a hot-air balloon escape from the Barbados plantation to Virginia, then the Arctic wastes, Nova Scotia, London, Amsterdam, and Morocco. It is busy plotting but Edugyan’s intellectual inquiries are tucked neatly inside it, though one initially wishes that Edugyan had stayed on the Barbados plantation a little longer. Her descriptions of the terror there resemble the striking aesthetics of Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Twelve Years a Slave, which set a slowed-down and meticulous cruelty against moments of equally slow, still beauty. The beauty here lies in Edugyan’s language, which is precise, vivid, always concerned with wordcraft and captivating for it. Images of slave life are the most powerful of the book, and Big Kit is a formidable creation – a quietly seething figure rather like the strong, suffering women from Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women, and again, one wishes that Edugyan had not decided to abandon her so early on. But the story is broader and more ambitious in its scope. In between Washington’s apprenticeships, slavery is abolished but Washington finds himself stalked by its spectre in the form of a bounty hunter, years after abolition. The hunter, in some respects, is a manifestation of internalised enslavement. Washington is terrified by his early freedom – he is left by Titch when he still a boy – and spends years trying to undo its internalised scars. Even before he is left by Titch, he feels an existential fear of freedom, its capacity to unfix his identity and “the terrible bottomless nature of the open world, where one belongs nowhere, and to no one.” Edugyan’s last Man Booker-shortlisted novel, Half Blood Blues (2011), featured a black teenage music genius in Hitler’s Germany. This book continues a conversation begun then, about the power and privilege of genius in a time of tyranny through Washington’s talent for drawing, which is first noticed by Titch, though under-explored here. The talent gives him greater currency among other slaves and buys him degrees of freedom, though he later reflects – in passing – on creativity as a means of inner liberation. “At the easel I was a man in full, his hours his own, his preoccupations his own.” He is, by the end, a scientist as well as an artist, not so much a slave assistant as an accomplished man in his own right, fighting for official recognition of his skills. In a recent essay on the historical silence around black scientific achievement, Edugyan asks: “If science is a kind of conversation, how much have we lost in the silences?” Washington sees the failure of colour-blind science clearly – perhaps too clearly. His story becomes increasingly mythic, heading beyond freedom, toward empowerment. It’s not what readers who are wedded to realism might want, but Edugyan’s fiction always stays strong, beautiful and beguiling. • Washington Black by Esi Edugyan is published by Serpent’s Tail (£14.99). 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