Canada Reads

Champion swimmer and LGBTQ advocate Mark Tewksbury says Washington Black is the Canada Reads contender to beat

Mark Tewksbury will champion Esi Edugyan's 'sweeping epic,' a book he couldn't put down, on Canada Reads 2022.

Mark Tewksbury is championing Washington Black on Canada Reads 2022

Mark Tewksbury is championing Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. (CBC)

Mark Tewksbury, one of Canada's most celebrated athletes, will bring his winning ways to champion Washington Black by Esi Edugyan on Canada Reads 2022.

Over his competitive swimming career, Tewksbury won three Olympic medals — including a gold in the 100-metre backstroke at the Barcelona Games in 1992 — and set seven world records.

When he publicly came out in 1998, Tewksbury was one of the first openly gay Olympic champions in the world, kickstarting a national conversation about LGBTQ representation in the sporting realm. Since then, he has continued to be an outspoken advocate for inclusive and safe spaces in sport for all, and helped mentor fellow LGBTQ athletes from many sports.

That advocacy has also taken the form of storytelling — Tewksbury is the author of three books, including his 2006 memoir Inside Out: Straight Talk From a Gay Jock; and also wrote and performed Belong, a one-man show presented in his hometown of Calgary at the Wordfest literary festival in 2019 and at the High Performance Rodeo theatre festival in 2020.

Tewksbury is currently the vice-president of the Canadian Olympic Committee, and was appointed Companion of the Order of Canada in 2020.

Tewksbury will defend Washington Black by Esi Edugyan on Canada Reads from March 28-31. The debates will be hosted by Ali Hassan and broadcast on CBC Radio One, CBC TV, CBC Gem and on CBC Books

Tewksbury spoke to host Dave White on CBC Radio's Airplay in Whitehorse.

Olympic gold medalist Mark Tewksbury explains why he signed up to be a panelist for Canada Reads 2022.

You just met your fellow panellists — as a former competitive athlete, have you spotted the weak points here? Do you know where you're going to attack?

I gotta read the other books. [laughs] I'm going to be really curious — what if I love every book equally? That's going to be difficult. But I have a feeling I'm going to have some sort of hierarchy going in there, of which books appealed more to me than others. In terms of the panellists, they're just great. They're a really diverse group of people, and I'm looking forward to seeing where they're coming from as well.

You've chosen to defend Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. Give me a synopsis of what that book is all about.

It's a big, sweeping epic, which is partly why I chose it. It follows the main character, George Washington Black — also known as Wash — a boy born into slavery in Barbados at the age of 11. He makes a daring escape from his plantation, and that's where the travel adventure starts. But it also has a parallel story, which is really the journey of self-discovery that Wash has to go through and learning what it means to be free.

Wow. What drew you to this book?

I wanted a big book. It was a book that I started reading at eight o'clock at night and at midnight, I forced myself to turn off the light. Sometimes it takes like 100 pages to get into a book, and there's some that had me in the first 100 words. It sucked me right in, and I hope it does the same for the rest of the country.

You had a chance to meet the author, right? Can you tell me about that?

Isn't that the dream, where you have a book you love and then you get to talk privately with the author and hear about what she was thinking, and where the characters came from and what the motivation was — and check if you got it right or not? Like, 'This is how I interpreted it; is that what you meant?' It was terrific — definitely one of the highlights so far for me.

Esi Eduygan talks to Shelagh Rogers about her new novel Washington Black.

Now you realize, though, that with great power comes great responsibility. Now that you like the book and you like her, it's up to you to win this thing.

I know! But you know what? I really, truly understood today — we all are on the show for all the days and we're voting, right? Like, how do you sway these other panellists for your book? So I'm prepared it can go either way — winner or not, I'm just thrilled to be on the show this time, truly.

The theme for Canada Reads this year is "One Book to Connect Us." How do you think Washington Black achieves that?

Well, I think it's a book of personal discovery, of asking ourselves some existential questions that we all have to do to figure out our meaning in life, our purpose, what makes us happy, etc. Maybe more than ever, at a time when we're asking ourselves some of these questions, I think having Wash guide us through that process would be really great.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was written up by Tabassum Siddiqui.

The Canada Reads 2022 contenders