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Washington Black Travels To Freedom [BookReview]

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Did you love adventure stories as a child?

Washington Black, the Booker shortlisted novel by Esi Edugyan, is very much in the mould of the adventure novel although written with an adult reader in mind. It has many of the elements of the adventure tale: a courageous character who goes on a perilous quest to a far-flung location; high octane escapades in the form of a balloon flight and storms; and an ogre who shadows the protagonist wherever he goes.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

But to label it simply as an adventure novel would be a gross injustice because this is a multi-layered, hybrid novel in which excitement and thrills are married with thoughtful exploration. It’s a novel crafted with panache that uses thrills, coincidences and twists of fate to explore the nature of enslavement and freedom.

Washington Black opens on a cotton plantation in 19th-century Barbados where her eponymous hero, George Washington (“Wash”) Black, is a young orphan slave. Christopher “Titch” Wilde, brother of the plantation owner, picks Wash to be his personal assistant in an attempt to build a hot air balloon.

Flight To Freedom

The child proves to be a quick learner with a sharp mind and a latent talent as an illustrator.  As Titch and Wash form a bond through their joint endeavour, fate thrusts them even closer. The pair literally take flight from the Caribbean to protect Wash from accusations of murder and almost certain execution. A nomadic existence ensues, taking the boy to the Arctic, Nova Scotia, London, Amsterdam, and, finally, Morocco.

It’s a clever device that enables Esi Edugyan to greatly expand her scope. The early chapters which describe the physical brutality and emotional pain of slavery are vivid and memorable. But it’s when Wash is removed from the daily cruelty of slavery that the breadth and ambition of Washington Black become evident.

How Does It Feel To Be Free?

Edugyan’s interest is no less than the nature of freedom itself. Though her protagonist is no longer a plantation slave as Wash roams the world he carries with him the physical marks of his former servitude. A brand on his chest can be hidden but the fascial disfigurement caused by a failed experiment is all too evident. It makes him easy prey for the bounty hunter who stalks him from continent to continent years after slavery is abolished.

As a child Wash had asked a slave woman who befriended him, how it felt to be free. It was, she said, the ability to “go wherever it is you wanting.” But now he has this long desired free movement, he becomes terrified by that freedom. It is, he thinks, like “the terrible bottomless nature of the open world, where one belongs nowhere, and to no one.

He can never entirely separate his new self from his old. Even when he has become an accomplished, though unacknowledged, marine scientist he still thinks of himself as a “disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running, from the dimmest of shadows.”

Journey To Understanding

The countries he visits become allegories of his journey to understand who he really is, and just as significantly, what he means to Titch. He had thought Titch was his friend but then the two became estranged in what Wash sees as an act of betrayal.

For years afterwards, Wash is in turmoil, constantly questioning whether Titch had valued him for as a person, or as a useful pair of hands or an abject creature in need of rescue. In an emotionally charged scene he finally gets to confront Titch.

I was nothing to you. You never saw me as your equal. You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black men.

That yearning for truth and for recognition haunts Washington Black. The boy who escaped bondage and eluded a slave catcher has grown up through the course of the novel. But as a young man he is still questioning the past and until he finds the answers, we sense that he will never be happy. Whether he does so by the time we reach the final page is still in doubt since Esi Edugyan leaves us with the kind of ending that is open to more than one interpretation.

What is clear however is that this is a fascinating novel that ranges far and wide geographically but never strays from the central idea about freedom as a state of mind as well as a physical entity.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan: Fast Facts

Esi Edugyan

Esi Edugyan was raised in Alberta, Canada after her parents immigrated from Ghana. Despite favourable reviews for her debut novel  The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, she struggled to find a publisher for her next work. she abandoned that to write Half-Blood Blues, about a young mixed-race jazz musician, for which she won the Giller Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2011.

Washington Black, her third novel, was published in September 2018. It won the Giller Prize that year making Edugyan only the third writer to win the award twice. Washington Black was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.

The View from Here: Books from Canada

In the third post in The View from Here series on literature from around the world, we travel to Canada with the help of Tanya,the blogger behind 52 books or bust. Her favourite authors include Margaret Atwood, William Boyd and John Irving though the list changes all the time. She’d prefer to take holidays anywhere in the world that is warmer than her current home in Scotland and though she once though she definitely preferred ‘real’ books to their e-version cousins, several international relocations have shown her that e-versions certainly have the advantage on times.

Let’s meet Tanya

TanyaI’m a Canadian living in Edinburgh since early 2012. I started my blog almost a year ago because I missed talking to people about books. Back in Canada I was a bookseller and was in the process of doing a degree in publishing, so most of my life had to do with books. Now I am a stay-at-home mom and needed something to fill my time. I still kind of blog as though I am in Canada because most of my contacts are in Canadian publishing, though that is starting to change. My blog is basically a record of the books I’m reading. I try to keep my posts to less than 500 words and still give an impression of the book and my thoughts about it. The title of my blog, 52 books or bust, was the footer on my emails for years and people knew me by it so I thought I would keep with the theme even though I now read more than 52 books a year.

Q. What kinds of books are the most popular right now in Canada?

It should come as no surprise that Margaret Atwood is hot right now. MaddAddam is the fall book everyone is talking about. Getting an ARC of it was near impossible. It used to be that Atwood was a very divisive figure in CanLit – you either loved her or hated her and did so vehemently. I think that was because you were forced to read her early work in high school. Now The Handmaid’s Tale is typically assigned and it is much more accessible to a teenage audience. Also it fits in with the whole dystopian trend in fiction going on right now. The other thing that has really worked in Atwood’s favor is her use of new technologies like Twitter (400 000+ followers) and Wattpad. She’s an author who is embracing the changing world instead of raging against i

In terms of literary fiction Joseph Boyden’s new book Orenda comes out this week. He is one of the most highly accomplished young writers in Canada. He writes almost exclusively about the First Nation’s experience in Canada.

For more popular fare both Louise Penny and Linwood Barkley have new books out this fall. How the Light Gets In is Penny’s latest installment in her popular Inspector Gamache series. Barkley, who is much more popular overseas than in Canada, continues on with thrillers in A Tap on the Window.

viewfromhereQ. There seems to be a real concern about the future of the ‘bricks and mortar’ type of bookshop with the government in Quebec preparing to intervene. How serious is the decline of bookstores? 

The intervention of the government in Quebec into the book industry really has just as much to do with identity politics as it does with a real concern for the book industry. I can’t really speak knowledgeably about the French language publishing industry in Canada. Certainly, small presses would be under threat and unable to complete with larger, international publishers. Quebecois authors may also have problems finding publishing outlets. I don’t know.

Bricks and mortar bookshops are certainly feeling the pinch in the rest of Canada. Our single large chain, Indigo Books and Music, which also owns the Chapters stores, has diversified its holding to the point where they now see themselves as a ‘cultural department store’ rather than a book store. That means there are just as many candles, toys and cooking gadgets as there are books in their stores. While being a shrewd business move to sell items with a greater mark up than books, it does make a trip to Indigo less bookish feeling.

A growing number of independent bookstores are feeling the pinch in Canada. They have to be really good at what they do in order to compete – a destination in themselves. On-line and e-book sales continue to rise, which puts all brick and mortar establishments under threat regardless of their size. However, Indigo has a large on-line presence that means at least business is still going to a Canadian company rather than to an American one.

Q. What do you and your friends like to read – books written by local authors or books from other parts of the world?

Canadian popular culture is hugely influenced by American culture. As much as Canadians claim to be distinct from Americans we consume their television, movies, music and authors without giving it a second thought. Whatever is on trend in the States, tends to be what sells in Canada as well. There are notable exceptions to this of course. Canadians tend to follow the Governor General’s Award and Giller Prize rather closely, as well as the Man Booker. And there are notable Canadian authors who we wait to hear from. But if Oprah recommends a book, it will be a big seller in Canada.

Q. What books do you remember having to study in school that could be considered classics of Canadian literature?

For a long time in Canada’s history there was no Canadian literature. It was all either British or American (did you know that Hemingway was a journalist in Toronto?). As a result Canadian literature didn’t really come of age until the 1950’s or 60’s. So the Canadian ‘classics’ we read in high school weren’t really all that classic. But there was a whole group of Ontario writers who seemed to dominate the scene for quite sometime – Robertson Davies, Timothy Findley, Margret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, Carol Shields, Alice Munro, Mordecai Richler etc. When I went to high school in the 1980’s they were who you read.

Q. What are the distinguishing features of Canadian literature? 

Over the past decade or two there have been great changes in what is considered the hallmark of CanLit. Traditionally there has been a lot of man vs. nature and pastoral themes, whether it be from novels such as Atwood’s Surfacing to W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen The Wind. The frontier experience used to dominate. More recently, CanLit has taken a more urban and multicultural turn that reflects our changing population. For example, Vincent Lam’s Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals, and Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park give a harshly accurate look at life in some of Canada’s major cities. At the same time, the present Canadian literary scene is full of relatively recent immigrants to Canada who write about the experience of elsewhere: Rohinton Mistry, Shyam Selvadurai, and M.G. Vassanji. Increasingly the experience of minority voices are being heard in CanLit, whether it be the Amish experience illustrated in Miriam Toews novels, Selvadurai’s swift back and forth between Canada and Sri Lanka in The Hungry Ghosts or Boyden’s first nations perspective as portrayed in all of his novels.

Q. How much of a difference is there between writers from Canada and your neighbours across the border? is there such a thing as a uniquely Canadian literary voice for example or is it very similar to USA? 

Oh boy, whole dissertations have been written on this question. Yes, I think we have a uniquely Canadian voice, but I can’t describe it. You just know it when you hear it. Canadian writing can be very regional. There is a specifically eastern Canadian voice heard in authors such as David Adam Richards, Lisa Moore and Wayne Johnson that reflects the maritime culture. In some ways it reminds me of Irish literature. Each region in Canada has this to a certain extent. That means that there really is no one Canadian voice.

Q. What recommendations would you have for readers who want to discover books written by Canadian authors?

There are often Canadian authors people have read without even realizing they are Canadian – Atwood, Carol Shields (we claim her as our own), Michael Ondaatje, Kelley Armstrong.

Every year the CBC, our national broadcaster, runs a series called Canada Reads. Their website is good place to start for good Canadian fiction. It is a panel (radio) show in which the panelists champion a Canadian book and try to convince the others of its merit as the one book Canadians should read. A great cross-section of the Canadian experience is represented in the choices.

Q. Several non Canadian authors have used the country as a setting. Do these work as well as books by indigenous authors?

Annie Proux did a great job of capturing the East coast spirit in The Shipping News. So much so that an awful lot of people think it is a Canadian novel. Putting that aside, Canada is a country of immigrants. We will adopt just about anyone as our own. Citizenship or even writing about Canada is not strictly necessary.

 Q. And finally…..  now you have experience of both Canada and UK,  have you noticed any differences in the way books are written and published in the two countries?

I feel like I am still learning so much about British literature and the British book industry. The most noticeable difference is in book covers. In Canada sometimes we get the British cover, sometimes we get the American cover and sometimes (rarely) we get our own. Regardless of what anyone says, we do judge books by their covers. Initially, I did not generally like the British covers. They seem much more gendered to me, all cursive writing for ‘women’s lit’, but now I am getting used to them. Now whenever I hear about a book I check the covers in different regions.

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