Interview: Esi Edugyan

Originally published in The Vancouver Sun and The Calgary Herald on October 20, 2011:

by Brad Frenette

Imagine you’ve spent years crafting a novel, endlessly poring over drafts and re-drafts and negotiating its publication. Then picture a moment when the phone rings and the voice on the line explains that this novel has been selected by a distinguished panel to compete for the Man Booker Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards. Imagine then how that moment might be enough to make one’s stomach flip with joy.

For Victoria-based novelist Esi Edugyan, the movements in her belly were happening well before the phone rang: “I was eightand-a-half months pregnant when I heard. I was humongous. I couldn’t sleep and I was tossing and turning in bed. It was awful. And then the phone started ringing off the hook. My husband ran to get it, came back and said: ‘You’re on the Booker long list.'”

While it was announced Tuesday that the Booker had gone to Julian Barnes, that call from London was just the first of a long list of nominations that have helped make Edugyan’s second novel, Half-Blood Blues, one of the most discussed books of the fall literary season. A few weeks later Edugyan’s daughter was born, and the phone kept ringing.

By early autumn, the 33-yearold had become part of an exclusive list of Canadian writers nominated for the country’s most coveted trio of fiction awards: the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Writers’ Trust Award.

“What are the chances?” she recalls with a quiet laugh from her home in Colwood, just south of Victoria.

Half-Blood Blues pilots between present-day Baltimore and the smoky clubs of German-occupied Paris at the beginning of the Second World War. The novel tells of a 20-year-old Afro-German jazz prodigy named Hieronymus Falk and his bandmates, as they attempt to record under a regime that dubbed the style fremdländisch, or “alien” music. After young Hiero is arrested by the Nazis, his bandmates scatter, and the band’s only surviving recording becomes a cult hit. Decades later, Sidney Griffiths, one of Hiero’s American bandmates, is forced to revisit the events that led to the young virtuoso’s disappearance.

The idea came while the author was undertaking a residency in Stuttgart, Germany: “It got me thinking of the history of black people in that country,” she said. “I’m very interested in these diaspora histories, so I starting doing research and learning about these amazing people – diplomats and African royalty – and I started specifically looking at the era of the Third Reich.”

Among the stacks, Edugyan read about a small group of men and women referred to as the Rhineland bastards – “children of German women and the French colonial soldiers who were sent over from France’s African colonies to police the Rhineland” – and therein found the genesis for her mixed-race jazz genius.

“The book plays with different identities – Afro-Germans and Afro-Americans, an Afro-Canadian, a blond German-Jewish man, a rich German gentile – all with different skin tones, and examines how that affects how they navigate society. It was interesting to explore.”

The novel certainly deals with heavy material, but moments of lightness spark throughout, often in the playful, colloquial dialogue between the bandmates. To find the cadence of the day, she referenced works such as the autobiography of the great American jazz saxophonist Sidney Bechet, who dictated his book from his deathbed. Given that “there isn’t tons written about what the book is about,” Edugyan says she was free to take some licence. “Half of it is this authentic way of speaking, and half of it is invented. You extrapolate. What would these guys call the Nazis in this patois? I came up with ‘the boots.’ ” Edugyan was born in Calgary, the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, in 1978.

After high school, she moved further west, enrolling in the writing program at the University of Victoria. There, she worked with the great Canadian novelist Jack Hodgins – “a huge mentor for me. I learned so much from him, and I can’t thank him enough” – and found the man she would eventually marry, poet and novelist Steven Price.

Her debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, which focused on the travails of an immigrant from the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana) and his family, was published in 2004 as part of Knopf’s “New Faces of Fiction” initiative. Well-reviewed in Canada, it was published internationally, nominated for several awards in the U.S., and selected as one of the New York Public Library’s “Books to Remember.”

However, despite the successes of her debut novel, Half-Blood Blues’ path toward the literary limelight was shaky. After buying the book, Key Porter, Edugyan’s Canadian publishing house, went bankrupt. The manuscript was suddenly on the table again, and spent months bouncing around before being sold to Thomas Allen & Sons.

It was “disheartening,” says Edugyan, but she credits an “obsessive” streak in pushing past the setbacks.

“I think you need to be obsessive, or you’re not going to get through it. Writing is such a difficult profession. Actually getting the work written, then on top of that the whole publication situation can be very stressful and unpredictable.”

Though maybe one morning the phone starts ringing and, suddenly, the things you can’t predict become very rewarding.

Half-Blood Blues (Thomas Allen & Sons) is available now.

 

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