Esi Edugyan, 44, is a Canadian author who was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta. She wrote her first novel, The second life of Samuel Tynein 2004 when she was only 24 years old. In 2011, she won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel Half-Blood Blues and in 2018 she was shortlisted for the Booker Prize with Washington Black. Out of the Sun: Essays at the Crossroads of Races is his first non-fiction work and interweaves personal narrative and discussions of racism, the Canadian slave trade, western art history and ghosts.
You start with an essay on black babysitters in western portrait…
The first one [piece] talks a lot about 18th and 19th century portraiture and how representations of black people have changed throughout history and how what we see is often based on the biases that the artist applied to his own paintings. One work that I considered was that of Johann Gottfried Haid painting of the Viennese courtier Angelo Solimana slave who was taken prisoner as a child and arrived in Marseilles in the 1700s. One of the most interesting takeaways, looking at both his portrait and also David Martin’s portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, a British heiress born into slavery, is the fact that details specifically included to elucidate certain elements of their life are paradoxically obscuring. Their turbans, for example, evoke exotic notions of “the Orient” and yet none had any real connections to what would then have been considered the Orient.
you expose lots of stories and little known facts about slavery in Canada. How was it different from America and the Caribbean?
I was born and raised in Calgary. During all my years of study, slavery in Canada was never mentioned. It was not something that was on the program in the 1980s. It is quite striking. The underground railways [the network of secret routes and safe houses established in the US during the early to mid-19th century to help enslaved African Americans reach Canada] seems to have been our central story in Canada. That we were a place of refuge and very welcoming. That’s not quite the full story. Afua Cooper is a great Canadian historian and has done so much work in this area. From the 1600s to the 1800s, we had slavery in our territory. There were people who were enslaved, working mainly as servants in households. It’s something that’s part and parcel of our history, but we don’t discuss it. So I really wanted to draw attention to [stories] like the hanging of Marie-Joseph Angélique. She was a slave born in Portugal in 1705 and was sold to a businessman in Montreal. At 29, she was charged with starting a fire that destroyed 46 buildings. She was hanged and her corpse was burned.
You also write, with some ambivalence, about Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug, two white women who fraudulently claimed black identities. How do you see the discourse on being “transracial” evolving?
Although these controversies took place four or five years apart, the most recent response to Krug was equally vehement. It seemed to suggest that not only had things not progressed — where we feel like there’s a possibility of crossing racial lines in a benign way — but there was a hardening.
As I say [in the book]for me it was unfair to refuse this woman [Dolezal], who feels very much like a black woman, her blackness. But on a visceral and emotional level, it feels like an encroachment. After researching this, people expressed this feeling of them being caricatures. It’s not her natural hair texture, it’s not her natural skin color. I understand this sensitivity. Maybe in 10 years we will feel all of this differently. Or perhaps we will be more grounded in a sense of the fixity of racial identities.
Do you feel a pressure or a duty to write about race?
I started this book shortly after the murder of George Floyd, [so] I felt deeply compelled, rather than obligated, to write about race. Race and racism play their part in my life. Washington Black, for example, is a book about race and racism, but it’s also a book about a young boy who finds his bearings, establishes his place in the world and discovers that he is gifted. Character, for me, will always trump ideological explorations of race. I want to explore people’s lives.
How important are travels to your writing practice?
I lived almost a year and a half in Germany and that pushed me to write Half-Blood Blues. Travel has been the backbone of my writing. Looking back, I feel like if I never went anywhere again, I would have enough material to write for the rest of my life. That said, I think a lot of travel gets in the way of your writing. The past two years have been so difficult for so many people. One of the most positive things that has happened to me personally is being forced to stand still. Connecting with my work and also reconnecting with my children. I think I was too far.
Are you a disciplined writer?
Before I had kids, I started writing at 10 p.m. and finished at 6 a.m. For 10 years I have been writing during school hours. It’s a much more truncated and prescribed schedule.
Which writers do you admire?
I read recently The transit of Venus by Shirley Hazard. It completely opened me up. It’s so pristine and beautifully written and so intellectually alive. In some ways, it’s a perfect novel. As soon as I finished it, I started reading it again. Toni Morrison will always be a guiding star for me. I read it at a time when it had just made this huge impression. I really liked Rachel Cusk’s trilogy. The poetry of Dionne Brand, Patrick Lane, Lorna Crozier – all these Canadian poets were so formative.
Your husband is the poet and the novelist Steven Price. How is it to write with another writer at home?
We read each other’s work. He reads all my first drafts and I read his. It was really crucial. He really gets his hands on it. It wouldn’t look like this without it being edited.