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Esi Edugyan on the shabby but vibrant genesis of her writing

We asked Giller Prize winner Esi Edugyan, the author of Half-Blood Blues, to write about a transformation in her neighbourhood as part of our "Hyperlocal" storytelling map. Below, she revisits the shabby but vibrant apartment building in Victoria where she cut her teeth as a writer.

The Montrose Apartments
by Esi Edugyan

Look. Sometimes it’s not just where you were, but who you were with. I remember the Montrose Apartments in Victoria in the late 1990’s. It was an old art deco tear-down replete with crumbling bricks, drafty windows, and vast echoing hallways arched and wide enough to drive a carriage down. Or so it seemed to us, its residents, most of us under 30 and dreaming of being artists. We couldn’t have chosen a more charged spot. The Montrose was just around the corner from one of the city’s most notorious parkades, where a lot of suicides took place; across the street a small churchyard reminded us what lay in store. And just below us lurked Hermann’s, a smoky jazz lounge whose denizens came out after dark and leaned against the brick facade in ratty tennis shoes, their smoke and voices drifting up into the late hours.

I was renting a bachelor suite, a cramped space with white walls and a window seat overlooking the traffic on Blanshard Street. I had no furniture, not even a telephone; sometimes it seemed none of us had anything, beyond our futons and our frying pans and our books. We came and went easily, lightly, at will. But my place wasn’t entirely empty. I remember waking one morning in that vast white space, staring up in horror at a dark mass sitting on my chest. I screamed. And that thing, whatever it was, shot off across my floor, leaped through the window, and was gone.

It was a ferret. Evidently it lived next door, and had climbed delicately out its window, picked its way along the sill, and slipped in through my own open bathroom window.

The artists were the ones you didn’t see. A spot of paint from a shoe on the stairs, a scrawny shadow slipping out the doors when you weren’t looking. The poets were the ones you couldn’t avoid: the doors open at all hours, smoking in the entranceway, unshaven, unscrubbed, unsavoury, and unspeakably sexy. The art historians, though, were the curious ones - elegant, sophisticated, as if they’d just flown in from Milan, they seemed every one to be living fabulous lifestyles on no income at all, their bank accounts always mysteriously topped up each month. Lucky you were if you could get one of them to pick up a tab.

My best friend was one of the latter breed. She desperately wanted in to the Montrose, but its cheap rent kept the waiting list full. I remember so clearly the day I got her a spot, in a newly vacated apartment on the first floor. I called her up in excitement, crying, “Great news! The dealer on the first floor’s been arrested—you’re in!”

The parties were frequent, leaning around the walls with bottles of cheap wine, smoking and talking about literature, imagining our lives, and taking it all much too seriously. It seemed the poets were sleeping with everyone. I remember the tiny man in the purple turban and cape who would lurk across the street, asking the young women if they would model for his photography. I remember the couple who broke up outside the front door, and then broke the glass for good measure. I remember quitting that life, quitting writing, often. And then picking it back up again in the morning.

All of that seems a long time ago. In the years since, the building has been remodeled, rebuilt, repainted, and looms now over Blanshard Street like an elegant echo of our pasts. On the ground floor now sits a coffee shop with cable lights, gleaming mirrors, and seven-dollar lattes. Going in now, I hardly recognize the old place and in a way I feel like a whole part of my past has been canceled out. 

But I still return there to write. In fact, I wrote much of my last novel in that cafe. It’s comfortable, quiet, and they’ll let you nurse that latte all afternoon long. The Blanshard traffic is like a blank sheet on which to let your gaze and your mind wander. Beneath the new sheen of the place, the gleaming tables and the faint world music, there’s something familiar there. The brick walls still old and stained, still fragrant with dust.

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Esi Edugyan's most recent novel, Half-Blood Blues, won the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize for Fiction. It was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction, the Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize, and was longlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction. It was also a finalist for Canada Reads 2014. Edugyan lives in Victoria, British Columbia, with her husband and daughter.


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