Esi Edugyan on the inspiration for her new book Washington Black
Seven years ago this fall, one of CanLit’s most entertaining (and polite) rivalries was heating up. In one corner, there was Esi Edugyan’s second novel, Half-Blood Blues, a stylistic powerhouse about the persecution of Black jazz musicians during the Second World War. Facing off against Edugyan was Patrick deWitt’s sly comedic western, The Sisters Brothers, the adaptation of which just screened to acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Both novels, so different in tone and scope, landed on major award shortlists in Canada and abroad, including as finalists for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. While deWitt took home the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, Edugyan came back to win the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which helped launch Half-Blood Blues into Indigo’s bestselling book of 2011.
All this to say that Edugyan’s followup novel, Washington Black — which made this year’s Booker longlist well before its publication date — is one of this season’s most anticipated books. In a fun coincidence, her novel lands just weeks after Patrick deWitt’s delightfully dark new comedy of manners, French Exit. Edugyan hasn’t seen deWitt since 2011, but their paths will cross on this fall’s busy festival circuit.
“It’ll be nice to see him again,” Edugyan says with a laugh, ending any expectations of fisticuffs in the green room.
Despite her runaway sophomore success, awards were the last thing on the Victoria-based author’s mind as she wrote Washington Black, a high adventure that illuminates the lingering horrors of slavery and the complexities of freedom. Whereas Half-Blood Blueswas borne out of Edugyan’s time at a writers’ residency in Stuttgart, Germany, where she worked in the shadows of an 18th-century castle, Washington Black emerged out of a story Edugyan read about “the Tichborne Claimant,” which has enough intrigue to fill a Netflix miniseries.
In the 1850s, a British aristocrat named Roger Tichborne was shipwrecked off the coast of South America and presumed dead. His devastated mother never gave up hope; a decade later, when Lady Tichborne heard that Roger might be alive in Australia, she offered a reward for information. After a butcher named Thomas Castro emerged claiming to be her long-lost son, she sent Andrew Bogle — a former Black slave who had been stolen from a Caribbean plantation to become a family servant — to verify Castro’s identity. When other members of the Tichborne family took the case to court, believing this foreign man to be an imposter, Bogle became a main witness for the defence.
It wasn’t the bizarre twists of the Tichborne trials that intrigued Edugyan, but rather the hidden narrative of Bogle’s life that inspired Edugyan to create her character, Washington Black.
“I realized I was more interested in the psychology of being wrenched out of this boyhood of brutality and then taken into an entirely different world, and how that would’ve played out as psychologically foreign,” she says.
After writing the first few chapters, the epic journey of Washington Black began to emerge as the story of a young slave who is plucked from the brutal fields of a 1830s Barbados sugar plantation to become a manservant to Christopher Wilde, an abolitionist and inventor known to his intimates as Titch. Beyond the typical household duties required of the position, Washington is recruited to assist Titch with his experiments, most notably with a hot-air balloon dubbed the Cloud-cutter. Titch soon discovers Washington’s natural artistic talent, which increases the young protege’s value. But, as their bond grows, so do the inherent imbalances in their relationship.
“These are two men who are generally quite like-minded, same interests. But their stations in life were so drastically different that there can be no real equal friendship,” Edugyan says. “My desire was to show how the institution of slavery was so disfiguring and damaging to all human relationships.”