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On a fictional sugar plantation called Faith, a boy named George Washington Black is born into slavery in Barbados in the early 1800s; brought to life, on the page, by Canadian writer Esi Edugyan some 200 years later. Washington Black – or Wash, as he’s called – is doomed to captivity as a consequence of colonial greed, ignorance and cruelty. But he finds a certain kind of freedom as a result of intellectual curiosity, scientific rigour, artistry – and kindness. He is the 19th-century hero the world needs right now.

Edugyan was already an acclaimed author prior to the publication late this summer of Washington Black. This year, the novel further established Edugyan as one of the best contemporary writers of English-language fiction – not just in Canada, but in the world right now.

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Esi Edugyan at her home.Alana Paterson/The Globe and Mail

The book has been an awards- and year-end-season triumph. Washington Black won the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and is one of three novels shortlisted for the American Library Association’s Carnegie Medal for fiction, to be awarded in January.

Edugyan is only the third person to win the Giller twice; she won it in 2011 for Half-Blood Blues – which was also shortlisted for the Booker, the Writers’ Trust and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. Her 2018 win marks the first time anyone has received the Giller for back-to-back books.

“In a climate in which so many forms of truth-telling are under siege, this feels like a really wonderful and important celebration of words,” she said in her brief acceptance speech in November.

The novel has made all kinds of best-of lists, including rankings by Time magazine, NPR, CBC, Kirkus, Quill and Quire and The Globe and Mail. The New York Times, Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly and Slate have named it one of the top 10 books of 2018.

Washington Black – one of the most anticipated books of the year – should finally get American readers to wake up to this extraordinary novelist across our Northern border,” Ron Charles wrote in his Washington Post review. He went on to note that Half-Blood Blues inspired a chorus of international praise, “but it never attracted the audience it deserved in the United States.

“That should change now,” he declared.

Edugyan, who turned 40 in October, was born and raised in Calgary; her parents moved to Canada from Ghana. There were not a lot of black people in Alberta at the time, Edugyan recalled in a 2011 interview with The Globe, and her family experienced some incidents of racism.

Edugyan studied creative writing at the University of Victoria and earned her master’s degree from Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars in Baltimore in 2001.

She published her first novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, in 2004 with Knopf Canada. The novel was shortlisted for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award, recognizing the best in black literature in the United States and internationally.

Yet Edugyan had trouble finding a publisher for her second novel, Half-Blood Blues, about black jazz musicians living in Nazi Germany and occupied France.

“I was in such despair getting to the end of that novel, I didn’t even think I was going to be able to finish it. I was in such a bad place artistically and it had a lot of rejection,” she told The Globe during an interview at her home outside Victoria this past August. It finally landed a Canadian publisher, Key Porter Books. But when the company headed toward bankruptcy, Edugyan pulled the rights.

“It just seemed like it was the most cursed experience and the whole universe was just telling me: Why bother? Nobody wants this thing.”

She was losing faith. Finally, publisher Patrick Crean acquired it for Thomas Allen Publishers. And it caused a sensation.

For all of her success in 2011, Edugyan struggled mightily once again, finding her way to Washington Black. She started two other novels, getting about 100 pages into one, 50 into the other, but abandoned them both. She started writing the first pages of what would become Washington Black nearly four years ago, shortly after her second child was born. The book went through many drafts – nine or 10 – and Edugyan was still making changes as late as the spring, ahead of the book’s late summer publication by the HarperCollins imprint Patrick Crean Editions (Crean left Thomas Allen in 2012).

As much as the novel examines the effects of slavery on the slaves themselves, it also concerns itself with the effects of the system on those with the power and control – and ability to change things. This is personified in the character Titch, the brother of the plantation master, who takes Wash on as a sort of assistant, then protégé – and, ultimately, friend.

What happens to a boy when someone decides to pay attention to him? Conversely, what happens when we all turn our backs?

To be clear, Washington Black is in no way a didactic morality tale, wagging a finger in our direction about historical (and current) societal failings. It is a rip-roaring adventure story full of thrilling escapades, all taking place in the threatening shadow of a racist society.

It is also a story about progress and innovation. Titch builds a hot air balloon (Edugyan calls it a cloud-cutter); Wash works on an early aquarium.

“Here, finally, was a thing of my own making – the invention of a boy born for obliteration, for toil and for death. What vindication, to think I might leave this mark,” Wash thinks.

Edugyan was born too late, thank goodness, for these corporeal burdens. What a mark she has left, already and certainly during this year, writing about them.

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