Books·Black History Month

Esi Edugyan on making history and inspiring a new generation of black writers

The award-winning author of Half-Blood Blues and Washington Black answers eight questions from eight fellow writers.
(Courtesy of HarperCollins Canada)

Esi Edugyan made history in 2011 by being the first black woman to win the Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel Half-Blood BluesThe award changed Edugyan's career, but that's not why the accomplishment is meaningful.

"I was proudest when, some years later, a woman in her late teens approached me at a dinner to tell me that that win had given her the courage to study writing," Edugyan told CBC Books about the historic win. "The visibility allowed by the prize had made the choice less impossible for her. And that's wonderful."

In 2018, Edugyan became only the third author to win the Giller Prize twice, when she took home the honour for Washington Black

In honour of Black History Month, we asked Edugyan to take the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A and answer eight questions from eight fellow black Canadian writers. 

1. Sarah Raughley asks, "What do you think about diversity and marginalization in writing and do you commit to this issue through your writing?"

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My writing is the commitment, given who I am and where I am from. We cannot help but write through the lens of who we are. Confronting the world as a black woman is my particular reality, one that informs my work in both obvious and subtle ways. I don't always know why I write what I write, why one character or subject compels me above another. There is an element of mystery in it. I'm okay with that. I guess what I mean is it's not an ideological choice so much as an artistic one, for me.

2. André Alexis asks, "Are you conscious of the rhythm that paragraphs have, their length, when you're writing? Or is that something you work on as a form of sculpture afterwards?"

During the writing, absolutely. But it's the sentences — the rhythms inside them and how they play off each other — that take over for me. In fact, I am so conscious of sentence rhythm that often in the early stages of a project, it can take days to get a single paragraph right.

3. Canisia Lubrin asks, "What do you know now that would have greatly aided you when you first started writing?"

In my case it was the not knowing — about the ins and outs of publishing, how it works, the dangers in the industry — that helped me in the beginning. Had I sensed how challenging publishing can be, I don't know that I would have been brave enough to keep going. In terms of the actual writing, I wish someone had told me that it is not a rush, not a race, that you can take your time and find the story and characters gradually.

4. George Elliott Clarke asks, "What is your favourite font or typeface? Why?"

For years I wrote in Times New Roman, but my husband has introduced me to the joys of Garamond. I'm only half-joking when I say: change your font, change your life.

5. David Chariandy asks, "Is writing for you an act of freedom?  How or how not?"

Yes, an act of great freedom — and privilege. The page is the only place I can strive for utter control and maybe even sometimes achieve it. Who I am when writing is, I think, my best possible self, in part because I'm willing to leave myself behind. I'm very lucky to face that kind of a challenge each day.

6. Djamila Ibrahim asks, "What dream job or jobs did you have growing up? Has it or have they appeared in your writing?"

I grew up wanting to be a teacher, and then a visual artist — I've just now written a novel about someone who becomes both of those things. The beauty and the joy of fiction is its ability to let both the writer and reader live out alternate existences.

7. Christopher Paul Curtis asks, "Writing is the only time in my life when I can lose five hour blocks of time, where I look at the clock and it's 6:15 p.m., then when I look back up two minutes later it's 10:30 p.m. As I get older I wonder if this is a good thing, the remaining hours are not as abundant as they used to be, is it a good idea to blank out on even five of them? Has this happened to you? Where does the time go?"

For me, I know it's going well when I lose that sense of time. Ours is a house of small children. There are so few moments in my life when I'm permitted such escapism and self-absorption that I tell myself, don't fret, just enjoy.

8. Lawrence Hill asks, "If you could start your life all over again and writing were not an option, what work would you most love to do?"

Asbestos cement pipe machine setter. At least according to my high school guidance counselor.