This is part of a series of conversations between authors to mark the 2021 edition of The Globe 100, our annual guide to the most noteworthy books of the year.
Esi Edugyan is a two-time Giller Prize-winning Canadian fiction writer, for her novels Half-Blood Blues and Washington Black. Rinaldo Walcott, author of On Property, is the director of Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto. This conversation is moderated by culture writer and podcast host Elamin Abdelmahmoud.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud: I am really honoured to be having this chat with both of you. I want to talk about your books but also about ourselves and the context from where we’re writing from. If y’all don’t mind, I want to start with asking about our different origins of Blackness. Esi, you were born in Calgary. Rinaldo, you came from Barbados. I was born in Sudan. That’s an interesting collection of access points to Blackness. I’d like to get some thoughts about how you conceive of being Black in Canada.
Esi Edugyan: I feel like it’s something that’s been ever-evolving with me, my relationship to my nation and my sense of belonging within it. My parents came from Ghana and I always had the sense, growing up in Calgary, that the small African diaspora population we were in constant connection to really felt like my core family. I never grew up with a sense of a larger extended family, they were always this nebulous presence across an ocean.
I took part in the Calgary Stampede every year, and these kinds of cultural touchstones and markers that really serve to connect you to the people around you, but I always had a sense of difference. There was a sense of this expectation for me to somehow conform to, or have emerged from this African-American idea of Blackness that people thought North American Blackness was about. And this was a stereotypical idea, of course, based on certain cultural imports, but I didn’t fit that mould either. It wasn’t until much later that I felt that Blackness is so large and it’s so deep. That’s something that I’ve taken upon myself to explore in my work. Rinaldo, what’s your sense of things?
Rinaldo Walcott: There’s not a time in my life that I don’t know I’m Black. I was born in the Caribbean at the time of national independence and Black power. By the time I was 10, those things are well on their way, and part of those projects is to reconnect with a particular, imagined Africa: to know that there are Black people around the globe and especially in the Americas. Blackness to me has always been a global thing.
Arriving in Canada and encountering Black people from other parts of the world, and particularly other parts of the Caribbean, Blackness also became for me something that was beyond the national. I’m not one who is really interested in collapsing my Blackness into some myth of African-Americanness or some myth of West Africanness or even some mythic Black Canadianness. I often say that I’ve not been Black in Canada, that I’ve been Black in Toronto. If you grew up in Montreal or you grew up in Toronto or you grew up in Nova Scotia, Halifax – it depends on where you grew up in this country, you experience and live Blackness quite differently.
EA: Something that I often say is that I became Black at the airport in Canada. Sudan has a deep, rich history of shade-ism and a lot of racism against darker-skinned folks there. That ended up resulting in me growing up my entire childhood and early teenagehood not really conceiving of myself as a Black person. There’s a lot of over-identification with Arabs and less so with Africans and with Black people in Sudan. Then I got here and it became very clear to me: “Welcome to Canada, here’s Blackness, go deal with whatever that means.” As a consequence it took me a long time to figure out the place that I’m speaking from as a Black Canadian. We end up in these roles where we are very publicly Black, and asked about to speak on the Black experience in Canada much of the time. So when you are speaking about that, where are you drawing from?
EE: I feel uncomfortable with that as a concept. I can only speak from personal experience and so I think this is why a lot of my Massey lectures touched on the global and historical but they’re also very much coming out of my own personal experience, because that’s where I can speak from.
RW: I would never say that I speak on behalf of a community, because especially for someone like myself who holds left politics, some people will call it left radical politics, who is an out queer Black person – there are many people who look like me who don’t see someone like me as a part of their community. But I would say that I speak within a community of people who look like me. In my work, as I said earlier, I try to think about what does that experience look like? And why, for instance, if I’m writing about police as I did in On Property, why can I find the same practices happening to Black people in London, U.K., as other places?
I think people from the outside imagine this Black community as this singular thing but inside of it, there are multiple and many different kinds of perspectives, and even among us, we have very different ideas of what kind of world we want to help create and how we imagine a future. I feel compelled to speak of and to respond to things that I think are going to be a part of helping to shape the kind of world that I want.
EE: I think that’s a really important word for me as well: “compelled.” I’m somebody who grew up really not using or exercising my voice at all, I literally was known to be the quietest person in any room.
RW: You even have a quiet face.
EE: I find myself surprised to be occupying the space that I do and to be speaking up, but I feel so deeply compelled and driven to do so, especially given the last couple of years that we’ve been through. Having been granted this platform through my fiction, this was something that I very much had to do. As Rinaldo was saying, it’s not that as a community we conclusively agree upon every issue, but to be able to have those conversations with the larger public, with each other, has been so important.
EA: I was thinking about Ian Williams’s new book, Disorientations, and in the first essay he talks about the ways that Black people are sometimes invited to speak online, and how that might not be the mode for most people. He describes an Instagram post that is like, “if you don’t repost this, then your silence equals violence.” I’m trying to grapple with that.
EE: I’m somebody who avoids Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. I don’t feel maybe as though that’s my best mode of expression, to react in the moment.
RW: I like the wildness, craziness and the nonsensical-ness of the public sphere called Twitter. I like Twitter because I think it gives the everyday person the opportunity to respond in real time to things that they might care about and know about.
The question of the relationship between silence and political action is one that I hold dearly. I do not believe that everyone who holds some kind of public personality needs to speak to political issues. If you’re a writer and you write poetry and that’s the way you address these questions, do that. If you write novels, do that.
Politics by guilt never works. Politics has to be generous. It has to be willing to bring people along. It has to be persuasive. It has to be willing to engage. I see my work within the lineage of great Black thinkers, not that I’m a great Black thinker, but I think of W.E.B. Du Bois, Toni Morrison, C. L. R. James, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Derek Walcott and on and on, these global Black figures who were able to not simply hone in on the individual story, but to say something about that story that tells the large context within which Black life happens. Of course, to come from that intellectual lineage means that you don’t only find yourself sometimes upsetting white people, you often find yourself very much upsetting Black people.
EA: Let’s switch a little bit and talk about joy. The days have just gotten a little bit darker around here. I’m not coping particularly well, so I’m hoping to get some ideas from you folks about what’s bringing you joy.
EE: I’m just so obsessed with Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus, which I think is like 40 years old. It’s just so rich and expansive. It speaks so candidly about women’s lives and the life of the mind. That’s bringing me sheer bliss. It’s hard to get work done when you’re reading such a book. How about you?
RW: I’m reading an intellectual biography of Cedric Robinson, an amazing African-American intellectual who wrote a really important book called Black Marxism. I’m also reading a memoir of André Leon Talley, Chiffon Trenches. Talley is somebody who I’m totally fascinated by: this tall, big Black man who reigns supreme in the fashion world and is so witty, smart and tragic in a bunch of ways.
Apart from that, I like to listen to pop music and I am so glad that we have the Weeknd. I can’t sing but I sing his songs at the top of my voice, off-key, and that gives me a lot of joy. I also play this one particular album of the essential tunes of Nina Simone every Sunday, like it is church.
EA: Would you like to sing the Weeknd for us? I’d just love to hear it, pretend we’re not here.
RW: I’m a terrible singer. My friends will pay me not to sing.
This Interview has been edited and condensed.
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