Skip to main content

Books The inspiration behind Esi Edugyan’s latest novel Washington Black

Novelist Esi Edugyan at her home north of Victoria.

Chad Hipolito

The coast of Ghana is dotted with slave castles – imposing fortresses built hundreds of years ago along the West African coast by colonial traders, initially dealing in gold, later in human beings. This is where Africans who had been kidnapped from the interior were held before being loaded onto ships and sent across the Atlantic to a life of slavery – if they survived the hellish journey.

During a 2007 trip to Ghana, her parents’ homeland, Canadian author Esi Edugyan visited one of the most famous of these structures, Elmina Castle, now a museum. Edugyan – who is on this year’s Man Booker Prize long list – had not yet published Half Blood Blues, the novel that would win her international acclaim, the Scotiabank Giller Prize and land her on a slew of prestigious short lists. At the time of her African journey, she had published her first novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, three years before.

It was an emotional trip; later, her father was reunited with his mother, and Esi, her sister and brother met their grandmother, then about 103 years old. And 10 years after the death of their mother, Edugyan and her siblings met, for the first time, their mother’s sisters.

Story continues below advertisement

At Elmina, also known as St. George’s Castle, Edugyan, her father and siblings were taking a tour when the guide invited their group of about 10 into one of the dungeon’s small holding cells, where maybe 200 captured Africans would have been held at a time. As they were looking around, the guide slammed the door and suggested they imagine what it would have been like to be imprisoned there. Then he left.

“I was okay for the first few minutes and then this great terror came over me,” Edugyan recalls. “Just the experience of being in this enclosed space and the bars and the energy. It would have been horrifying and you can get a bit of a sense of that.”

We are talking about slavery from the comfort of Edugyan’s home perched high above the Pacific Ocean outside Victoria; the interior is pristine and the views are magnificent. Edugyan, 40, lives here with her husband, the author and poet Steven Price, and their two children, ages 7 and 3½. The house has been renovated since the last time I was there in 2011, to discuss Half Blood Blues, which became a sensation; in addition to winning the Giller, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Orange Prize for Fiction and, in Canada, the Governor-General’s Literary Awards and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.

Her first novel since, Washington Black, is about a boy born into slavery on a plantation in Barbados. George Washington Black – Wash, everyone calls him – is 10 or 11 when the story begins; he’s not sure. Things change when the sadistic plantation owner’s younger brother, Titch, asks that Wash be allowed to help him work as ballast for his “cloud-cutter” – a term Edugyan invented for hot-air balloon. Titch grows to recognize and nurture Washington’s gifts, including his scientific acumen and artistic abilities.

The novel, which was published last month, has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and in reviews has been called “magnificent” by Publishers Weekly; “beautiful and beguiling” by The Guardian and “a thoughtful, boldly imagined ripsnorter” by Kirkus. (The Booker short list will be announced Sept. 20.)

Edugyan had not intended to write a book about slavery. She had been thinking about fictionalizing the 19th-century Tichborne Claimant case, an already stranger-than-fiction historical mystery.

Roger Tichborne, heir to a family fortune in England, went missing at sea in 1854. His devoted mother, Henriette, refused to believe he had perished, and advertised widely for his return. More than a decade later, a butcher from the Australian Outback came forward, saying he was Roger Tichborne. A trusted retired servant of the Tichborne household and former slave now living in Australia vouched for the butcher. Andrew Bogle travelled back to England with the claimant, where the sensational case spent years before the courts.

Story continues below advertisement

When Edugyan embarked on the Tichborne project, she was drawn to Bogle, who had been taken from a Caribbean plantation by a member of the Tichborne household. She wondered about the man’s inner life – what would it be like to be born into slavery, thinking you were going to live and die that way on a plantation, and then being taken into a completely different world?

“That was really interesting to me,” she says. “I grew away from the material – Tichborne and all the crazy details of the trials and all the ridiculous larger-than-life figures. And I just kind of cast those aside and then went my own way.”

Edugyan had already started and abandoned two other novels after Half Blood Blues when she became inspired by Bogle. Her timing wasn’t great – she started writing what would become Washington Black 3½ years ago, just as her son was born and sleep was scarce in the household.

Every morning, before writing, Edugyan did some reading to clear her mind from the daily domestic chaos. She read deeply about slavery in the Caribbean, Barbados in particular.

“Some of the details were just horrifying. Some of the research was really difficult to do. But I really thought in order to write about this man, you have to see where he’s coming from, you have to deal with the details of his childhood. What it would have looked like to be a slave on a day-to-day basis, living out your life in these conditions. I didn’t want to flinch away from that,” she says, a pile of books spread before her on the coffee table: histories of Africa, biographies of people who were slaves, scientific books about ocean life and aquariums.

While this is a work of fiction, and Washington Black is not based on Bogle or any other real person, Edugyan did not write anything that wasn’t a matter of historical record when it came to the brutal punishments that slaves faced. “It would seem wrong to be inventing cruelties,” she says.

Story continues below advertisement

She was struck by the “excruciatingly grotesque lengths that people went to, to come up with punishments. Some of them were just so outlandish,” she says. “Over-the-top kind of things. Like somebody being covered in honey and put on an anthill to be stung to death. It just defies credulity.”

This would be difficult material for anybody to research and then tackle as a fiction writer. But for a black woman with young children, it must have been agonizing. (Edugyan is unsure about her own family’s slave-related history; she has not done that research.)

Glancing at the corner of the room neatly jammed with toys and games and children’s books, I ask how she was able to research the slave trade and write this story and not put herself and her family in those shoes.

“I think there’s a moment where you do put yourself and your family in those shoes. And I think I did, especially in terms of my children,” says Edugyan, who dedicated the book to her son and daughter. “Just thinking about the horror of not having any way to protect them against certain hardships, to put it mildly. But then at some point, you’ve got to take yourself out of it; you can’t stay there mentally in order to write that. So there’s a bit of distancing that needs to happen.”

Edugyan says she felt some temptation to pull away from the brutality; to not have to read so deeply or write with such detail about the inhumane conditions and behaviours. But she quickly moved away from that cushiony notion. “It’s not true to depict life on a plantation as less brutal than it was. You’re doing a great injustice to the people who had to live out their lives there,” she says.

A thrilling page-turner that takes the reader far beyond Barbados, the novel is also a lyrical contemplation of captivity and freedom, and the scars that stay with us for life. There is tremendous movement in the story – geographically, away from the plantation; in society, as slavery was abolished; and in Washington’s own development, his inner life.

Story continues below advertisement

“I had the sense of wanting to follow him through his journey towards a sense of agency or a sense of personhood; a sense of ownership of his own actions – and even his own body. That was very interesting; to show this kind of postslavery transformation. And to show how just because law had decreed slavery and the slave trade dead and abolished, psychologically obviously everything that you had been through was still going to be something you carried with you into your future life,” Edugyan says, her feet tucked up next to her at one end of a large, comfortable couch.

And – without spoiling anything – the end of Washington Black is nothing like anything Washington Black himself could have imagined at its beginning. “I think by the time we leave him, there’s been a lot of light in his life,” she says.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter