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Author Wayne Grady has been working on Emancipation Day for two decades.Gloria Nieto/The Globe and Mail

After researching 14 non-fiction books that have taken him across North America, through the Gobi Desert and to the North Pole, Wayne Grady chose to set his first published novel in his hometown of Windsor, Ont.

"It was serendipitous that I was born there, and that my father was born there," the author tells me during an interview in the lobby of Toronto's King Edward Hotel, as the flighty sound of a trumpet filters in from above.

Grady, who lives northeast of Kingston, Ont., with his wife, fellow author Merilyn Simonds, is renowned for writing about science (The Great Lakes: The Natural History of a Changing Region and The Quiet Limit of the World: A Journey to the North Pole to Investigate Global Warming), as well for his translations of French works into English (he won the 1989 Governor General's Literary Award for Translation for Antonine Maillet's novel On the Eighth Day).

His new book, Emancipation Day, chronicles a pernicious history of anti-black racism in Windsor through the perspectives of a fair-skinned, big-band-jazz-playing Jack, his father William Henry, and Vivian, who becomes Jack's wife.

"In Windsor in the forties and even up into the fifties and sixties, if you were black, you had to sit in the balcony of the theatres, and you couldn't buy property in most places," Grady says. Because of its cultural and geographic proximity to Detroit, Windsor is one of the only places in Canada where a story like this one – involving race riots, segregated parks and hospitals, whites-only marching bands – can be told.

For the same reason, Windsor is a great place to set a story brimming with jazz. Jack, Grady says, "believes that he is white, and he doesn't want to play the kind of music that appeals to black audiences. So that's how he begins to pass. He's black, but he plays white music."

But it's through jazz band palpitations, both the gritty kind in the "black-and-tan" clubs across the river in Detroit and the brassy Second World War swagger in the white-only clubs of St. John's, that Jack first learns to listen to his heart. "There's this kind of nice crossover thing going on," Grady says, adding that the music allows for "crossing through that colour bar."

In the acknowledgements section of Emancipation Day, Grady writes that he's been working on this story for two decades. What he doesn't say is that it was back in the mid-1990s that he first learned of his own African-American ancestry, covered up for decades by his family. I ask what it was like to build a fictional world after so many years of his career spent writing about the real world. "I originally thought of the book as a nonfiction book, that I would write it as a kind of memoir of my parents before I was born," he says. "But I began realizing that there was just too much I didn't know, too much I couldn't know. After my parents died, I could no longer ask them to fill in the gaps between what I knew and what I didn't."

He could have used deep research to help flush out that missing history, and he could have made some guesses and written the story as creative non-fiction. "But," he says, pausing to draw out his point, "I decided that I would rather tell the uninterrupted story." Grady tells me he wanted to avoid conjecture; he wasn't interested in outlining several possibilities for his characters' motives, the way a good journalist might. From the material of his life, he came back with too many questions. "But," he tells me, "I wanted to do it as a story, with one answer. So that, in a way, is why I thought I had to do it as a novel. To make it believable."

"Literature is memory written down," Grady, 65, adds. "All literature is memory. In a way, what I'm doing here is re-establishing the memory – our family memory. Because my father cut it off."

Jack, the character Grady based on his father, has attempted to erase his history. The novel is heartbreaking, depicting a man clawing his way out of the hateful circumstance of structural racism by trying to deny his family, their love and his blood. "The next book I'm working on goes back to the 1800s, about the same family," he says. "Really, literally, re-establishing that memory … I don't tell that story in this novel, the story of how that memory got cut off with my father."

Nietzsche wrote that "we possess art lest we perish of the truth." Grady started with anger, with questions, and came out of it with a novel. It's through music that Jack tries to rewrite his own story; he joins an all-white high school band, and from a stage in Newfoundland, he falls in love with Vivian, who's white. He spends his whole life running to art, to music, trying to outpace the truth of his own body, because the racist world he lives in won't recognize the deeper fact of his humanity, of his soul.

The personal questions that Grady started with remain. "You know," Grady tells me, the music filling the lobby having grown sonorous and mournful, "I always think about that Janet Malcolm quote, that people believe novels more than they believe non-fiction because, in a novel, there's only the one version of the story."

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