By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Lit Writer
Novelist Esi Edugyan has pulled off a rare feat with her novel, Washington Black, by creating a soaring page turner that also landed on just about every prestigious literary best of list in 2018. The titular Washington Black escapes brutal plantation life in Barbados in a cloud-cutter (hot air balloon), but as a free man, he struggles with the trauma and the danger hiding around every corner. He also discovers his gift as an artist and self-taught marine biologist. Edugyan recently spoke with the Current via telephone from her home in Victoria, British Columbia. [Answers have been edited for length.]
Your entry point for creating this story was a real event, yes?
There was a series of trials in England in the 1860’s and 1870’s called the Tichborne Claimant Affair centering around the disappearance of a young aristocrat, Roger Tichborne, who was shipwrecked. His mother refused to believe he died. On the advice of a clairvoyant, she advertised looking for him and got a response from a man in Wagga Wagga, Australia. She asked a man named Andrew Bogle, who had just retired to Sydney, to make the identification. Bogle was an ex-slave from a plantation in Jamaica who lived with and worked for the Tichbornes for 50 years. He traveled all over England and ended up seeing so many things. I started thinking I’d like to write something about Bogle, but in a different context. The idea of being born on a plantation, having the sense that your life was a very limited thing, that it would probably end early. Coming out of that and suddenly being transported into new societies — that was my material.
You create tension throughout the entire book. It’s riveting.
It was a very deliberate construction. There are different pleasures to get from different books, but as a writer, the greatest challenge is how do I keep the reader engaged and turning the pages. I’m very interested in writing taut sentences. It took a lot of re-writing and thinking about structure, but I like to do it, I like to pay attention to it.
Washington’s relationship with Big Kit is heart-breaking. How fraught and painful tender relationships must have been on a plantation.
It was a really lovely thing because she is his first source of love, the first instance of his being somebody’s beloved. Even though she’s a hard character, there’s a lot of warmth between them. It’s not a transactional relationship — it’s this wonderful thing for him.
I wanted to talk about Wash’s facial scarring. It makes it impossible for him to hide. He is easier to spot, but difficult to know. He isn’t really seen for who he is.
Exactly. It really marks him. When you see a black man in that era and you see such vicious scarring, you think this is the mark slavery. One of the men in the tavern cruelly says, you got that from your master. As readers we know it wasn’t received that way. In Nova Scotia at this time, there are people who had their freedom for several decades and looked at people who had very recently been slaves, as being people who didn’t have fully realized lives. In society that is largely white, he’s not accepted as a black man. In societies that are black, he’s not accepted due to his disfigurement.
Do you ever get responses that it was a long time ago and there’s no point in talking about it?
I can understand a kind of atrocity-fatigue, I suppose. But how do we begin to understand where we are today without looking at that history and remembering that history? So much of the racial inequality we see in today’s society, especially in America, comes from that history. How can you turn away from it and refuse to engage with it? To do that is to come to a place where you’ve forgotten it. To not engage with it really does no society any service.
Wash is such a beautiful character. As he discovers himself, he learns that he is a talented artist, maybe even brilliant. He also becomes passionate about the unseen world underwater, which matches his own hidden depths.
When he does the shallow water dive and sees the octopus — you know in that moment that he feels like he’s looking at an animal with whom he has a kinship. This creature is constantly shifting and changing to match its landscape, but also is distinct and will never be part of its landscape. That is very much what Washington is like.