Somewhere in Esi Edugyan’s immaculate ocean-view home on the outskirts of Victoria, a newborn is sleeping. There’s a bird sanctuary down the hill, and outside, the vultures are circling overhead. Edugyan’s husband, poet and novelist Steven Price, sits in a chair before one of the enormous picture windows, reading. And on top of Edugyan’s busy desk, there’s an invitation to attend the Man Booker Prize ceremony in London this month where her second novel, Half Blood Blues, is one of six books in the running for the prestigious ₤50,000 ($82,000) award.
Edugyan, 33, has led an exciting life filled with travel and opportunities, but it’s reasonable to say she’s never had a summer like this one: the Booker long list in July, a baby girl in August, then the Booker short list and Scotiabank Giller long list in September, just days after the novel’s Canadian release.
With autumn has come more recognition: Last week, she was shortlisted for the $25,000 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Award, and this week she made the $50,000 Giller short list.
If she wins all three, that’s a tidy little purse of $157,000.
“Nobody reasonably expects to be longlisted for the Booker Prize,” Edugyan said during a recent interview in her main-floor library. “But it just seemed really amazing that I would make the short list, because it was such a strong long list, and I’m not a U.K. writer. I’m just a little kid from Calgary – this girl from the colonies.”
The Booker call came early on Sept. 6, while she was breastfeeding her daughter, then two weeks old. Later in the day, she received the Giller long-list news.
“It was amazing, but I was still going about my day and still dealing with pee and poo and everything,” said Edugyan, claiming to be in a postpartum/sleep-deprivation fog, but in fact radiating eloquence and insight. “Obviously the baby’s been first and foremost. And then I’ve got everything else kind of distantly in the back of my mind. But every once in a while, I stop and think about it. It’s like a dream. It’s incredible.”
At odds with the idyllic scene of Edugyan’s home (have I mentioned the wind chimes?) is her Holocaust-period novel, where the smoky jazz-club air hangs thick with apprehension and mystery, and which explores the popularity of American jazz in Nazi-era Europe, and the treatment of black people under the Third Reich.
The novel begins in the early days of the Nazi occupation of Paris. American bassist Sidney Griffiths is holed up with the remains of his jazz band, after fleeing Berlin. The band’s original lineup represents an array of ethnic possibilities: light and dark-skinned African Americans, an Aryan-looking Jew, a white German with aristocratic ties but a revolutionary soul.
The band’s star, young, gifted trumpet player Hieronymus Falk, is an Afro-German of mixed race, now stateless. When he’s arrested – Sid, the book’s narrator, is the only witness – it means the end for the band.
Hiero disappears, but a hidden recording is discovered years later, and the band – Hiero in particular – becomes the subject of intense interest. In 1992, Sid travels to Berlin for the world premiere of a documentary about the now legendary musician.
Soon, the truth about what happened to Hiero will be revealed.
The idea for the story was sparked during a residency in Stuttgart, one of many international residencies Edugyan – who has degrees from the University of Victoria and Johns Hopkins University – has been awarded. While in Stuttgart, Edugyan studied German and the history of black people in Germany.
She was taken aback by some of the accounts she came across: a young Afro-German who joined the Hitler Youth; the hiring of an Afro-German teacher to replace a fired Jewish-German teacher.
“There were these strange particular stories which are just so interesting and so telling of how insane racism is,” says Edugyan.
She visited concentration camps: Dachau and – against the advice of German friends who warned her about racism in the east – Sachsenhausen, north of Berlin (which ultimately figures in her novel).
Her friends, as it turned out, were right. Sitting on a bench at Sachsenhausen, Edugyan, who is black, overheard a group of schoolchildren talking about her. “Well, I’m going to sit beside the black,” one teenage girl told her classmates. And she did, looking as if she’d just accomplished the most daring thing imaginable.
Then Edugyan emerged from Sachsenhausen to a train station filled with skinheads, drinking from gigantic “almost cartoon-sized” beer cans, who began screaming something indecipherable at Edugyan and her group.
“It was really crazy, really weird and awful,” says Edugyan. “I was just so chilled and so frightened.”
It certainly wasn’t Edugyan’s first experience with racism. Growing up in Calgary, road trips to Edmonton meant driving through small towns, where her family would be taunted and jeered with racial epithets. She also remembers well the terror she felt about a well-publicized cross-burning in Provost, Alta., when she was 12.
Edugyan’s parents immigrated to Canada from Ghana, and for her first novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne – about an Albertan from Ghana who is dissatisfied with his life in Canada – Edugyan borrowed details from her father’s life (but stresses it was not about him).
Her own experiences with racism informed the writing of Half Blood Blues. While also a story about love, friendship and music, the novel deals very much with the question of race, and captures the dark truth that, in very troubled times, a chance meeting on the street or in a café – or at a train station – can mean the difference between life and death.
Now that she’s a mother (and of a mixed-race child), this fact, and the historical horrors Edugyan uncovered in her research, are chilling in a new, alarming way.
“[ Half Blood Blues]is a book about a mixed-race young man who can’t find his place in his society, and this devastating thing happens to him because of it,” says Edugyan. “And now that I’ve had a child, I have been thinking about it much more and thinking about her, and I’m so grateful that we live in Canada. Imagine if she had been born in this era I’d written about, and was an Afro-German mixture. This would have been a completely different reality.”
Esi Edugyan will appear at the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival on Oct. 22 and at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto on Oct. 29 and 30.