Canada Reads

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Washingon Black is a novel by Esi Edugyan.

Championed by Mark Tewksbury

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

Mark Tewksbury championed Washington Black by Esi Edugyan on Canada Reads 2022.

Canada Reads took place March 28-31, 2022 The debates were hosted by Ali Hassan and broadcast on CBC Radio OneCBC TVCBC Gem and on CBC Books

When two English brothers arrive at a Barbados sugar plantation, they bring with them a darkness beyond what the slaves have already known. Washington Black — an 11-year-old field slave — is horrified to find himself chosen to live in the quarters of one of these men. But the man is not as Washington expects him to be. His new master is the eccentric Christopher Wilde — naturalist, explorer, inventor and abolitionist — whose obsession to perfect a winged flying machine disturbs all who know him.

Washington is initiated into a world of wonder: a world where the night sea is set alight with fields of jellyfish, where a simple cloth canopy can propel a man across the sky, where even a boy born in chains may embrace a life of dignity and meaning — and where two people, separated by an impossible divide, can begin to see each other as human.

But when a man is killed one fateful night, Washington is left to the mercy of his new masters. Christopher Wilde must choose between family ties and young Washington's life. What follows is a flight along the eastern coast of America, as the men attempt to elude the bounty that has been placed on Washington's head.

Their journey opens them up to the extraordinary: to a dark encounter with a necropsicist, a scholar of the flesh; to a voyage aboard a vessel captained by a hunter of a different kind; to a glimpse through an unexpected portal into the Underground Railroad. This is a novel of fraught bonds and betrayal. What brings Wilde and Washington together ultimately tears them apart, leaving Washington to seek his true self in a world that denies his very existence. (From HarperCollins Canada)

Washington Black won the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize and was a finalist for the 2018 Man Booker Prize and the 2018 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction PrizeWashington Black is currently being adapted into a TV show. Esi Edugyan is executive producing the project; Sterling K. Brown will act and also serve as an executive producer.

From the book

Faith Plantation, Barbados 1830

I might have been ten, eleven years old — I cannot say for certain — when my first master died.

No one grieved him; in the fields we hung our heads, keening, grieving for ourselves and the estate sale that must follow. He died very old. I saw him only at a distance: stooped, thin, asleep in a shaded chair on the lawn, a blanket at his lap. I think now he was like a specimen preserved in a bottle. He had outlived a mad king, outlived the slave trade itself, had seen the fall of the French Empire and the rise of the British and the dawn of the industrial age, and his usefulness, surely, had passed. On that last evening I remember crouching on my bare heels in the stony dirt of Faith Plantation and pressing a palm flat against Big Kit's calf, feeling the heat of her skin baking up out of it, the strength and power of her, while the red sunlight settled in the cane all around us. Together, silent, we watched as the overseers shouldered the coffin down from the Great House. They slid it rasping into the straw of the wagon and, dropping the rail into place with a bang, rode rattling away.

That was how it began: me and Big Kit, watching the dead go free.

From Washington Black by Esi Edugyan ©2018. Published by HarperCollins.

Why Esi Edugyan wrote Washington Black

"I didn't initially set out to write a slave narrative. Several years ago I came across a real-life story about the famous Tichborne case that happened during the Victorian era in England. I started digging into it and found this completely absurd story where Sir Roger Tichborne, a young aristocratic man from a wealthy household, was shipwrecked and missing at sea off the coast of South America.

"His mother refused to believe he was dead and put notices in newspapers all around the world. A man in Australia claimed to be the missing man and she sends a man named Andrew Bogle, a former slave from a Jamaican plantation and now a member of the Tichborne household, down to Australia to identify him.

"I started thinking about what Andrew's life might have been like, to have been born a slave and raised in such brutality — with a sense of this is your destiny — to be suddenly wrenched out of that life to live in a completely different way and to grapple with a completely different society and set of rules. That's where the interest came from."

Read more of her interview with CBC Books

The Canada Reads 2022 contenders

Interviews with Esi Edugyan

Olympic champion swimmer Mark Tewksbury joined Tom Power to talk about his approach to this year's Canada Reads competition. He'll be defending Esi Edugyan's globe-trotting historical novel Washington Black.

Esi Edugyan wins 2nd Scotiabank Giller Prize

4 years ago
Duration 2:55
Esi Edugyan won the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize, a $100,000 literary award, for Washington Black. It's her second time winning the prize after she took it home in 2011 for Half-Blood Blues.

'I can see myself in that boy:' Esi Edugyan on her Washington Black hero

4 years ago
Duration 1:16
The author on how she relates to the 11-year-old protagonist, who escapes life as a field slave in the cane fields of Barbados.

Rosemary Barton speaks with Esi Edugyan

4 years ago
Duration 2:12
Esi Edugyan tells The National’s Rosemary Barton how winning the Giller Prize will allow her to keep writing.
The celebrated Canadian writer talks to Michael about growing up black in Calgary, the legacy of slavery, and what it's like to win (or be nominated for) so many literary prizes.
Esi Eduygan talks to Shelagh Rogers about her new novel Washington Black.

Other books by Esi Edugyan


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