History is a living thing, says 2021 CBC Massey lecturer Esi Edugyan

When stories are left out of the historical record, we are all the poorer for that, says 2021 CBC Massey Lecturer Esi Edugyan. Her six-part series will air on IDEAS beginning January 24. The acclaimed novelist joined Nahlah Ayed to talk about the importance of origin stories and the factors that shaped her as a writer.

Esi Edugyan's six-part CBC Massey Lectures begins January 24 on IDEAS

Two-time winner of the Giller Prize, and twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Esi Edugyan has turned her attention to non-fiction in her 2021 CBC Massey Lectures, Out of the Sun: On Race and Storytelling. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

For Esi Edugyan, the past and present don't so much collide as run together: we are what we remember.

The 2021 CBC Massey lecturer says we are all worse off for not knowing the story of our past — stories that are left out of the historical record of who we are.

The award-winning novelist thinks we need to rediscover our "ghosts," those whose stories are ignored in the writing of history. She says the past is more complicated than perhaps we want to believe, and it's always open to question. 

Esi Edugyan's 2021 CBC Massey Lectures, Out of the Sun: On Race and Storytelling, will be broadcast on IDEAS beginning the week of Jan. 24. The lectures, also published as a book by House of Anansi Press, explore some of the themes that show up in her novels — identity, belonging, and the importance of stories in making us who we are. 

In a prequel to her lectures, the acclaimed writer talks to Nahlah Ayed about what has shaped her as a writer and what haunts her today.

Here is an excerpt from their conversation:

NA: You write that you realized when your mother died that you were haunted not just by her, but by some of the same questions that haunted her? What are some of those questions? 

EE: You know, I think that she also felt a sense of dislocation. Hers was probably a little bit different because she really did in a very visceral way span different cultures. Having been born into and then steeped in the land of her birth and then made this grand journey to live in California — and then moving from California to Alberta, you know, just having made these journeys, I think that she really did feel very strongly a sense of disconnect. 

(House of Anansi Press)

But it was a different sense of disconnect than my own. You know, me, having been born in Calgary and very much steeped in the culture in which we were still living. Mine was more obviously a sense of not quite being able to grasp what the second part of my hyphen was meant to be. 

Are there still some questions that haunt you today?

Oh, there are many questions that haunt me today. I'm so interested to do a genealogical deep dive. I'm so curious to know who beyond the few siblings of my parents and my parents themselves, like: who does make up a part of this physical family that has inhabited the  West Coast of Africa for hundreds and hundreds of years? Who are these people who are lost to me? What are their stories? What are their histories? What happened to them? So I have a very strong sense of wanting to do that.

Going back to the stories you've written in the past, your novels are all set in the past. What is it that kept you returning to the stories of Black life in decades and centuries past? 

I think I'm somebody who's always been interested in events or people who seem to have been footnoted or where I didn't know that history. For example, Half-Blood Blues, I had just moved to Stuttgart in the south of Germany and was living my life and then started to wonder about the history of Black people in Germany. Then researching [I came] across the story of the 'Rhineland, bastards' —  the children born during the World Wars. And so it's I think they've just emerged out of reading or out of maybe hearing a snippet of a story here or there. 

It's really just been locating Black lives and Black histories where we maybe aren't expecting them. 

Actor Sterling K. Brown is expected to star and executive produce the TV adaptation of Esi Edugyan's Washington Black. ( Amy Sussman/Getty Images, HarperCollins Canada)

There are many themes that tie all your novels but the other kind of major theme that comes through is the idea of ghosts and haunting and which appear in all three of your novels. What were you trying to understand about ghosts and haunting in those books?

I don't think it was deliberate. It's just something that's emerged for me. It's obviously some kind of subconscious sense of being haunted, maybe. There are ways in which we are haunted that [are] unquantifiable or we don't feel them as we go about our daily lives. But if I think about it, I think there are ways in which I'm haunted by — still haunted by — this kind of shadow idea of a Ghana that is absolutely a place of refuge. 

And I think I'm also haunted still by, my mother died when I was quite young or youngish, when I was 17. And so there are ways in which obviously that life is something that continues to enact its presence. So there's all of that and I'm not even meaning maybe to set out to write about ghosts, but there it is. 

In your lectures, you argue, ghost stories can anchor us to the past and give us a sense of continuity. So being haunted, generally seen as a negative thing but can it be a good thing? 

Yeah, I think it can absolutely be a good thing, you know, particularly when somebody has lost a parent, I think, or even, a spouse. I was speaking to somebody who had lost their spouse the other day, and they have a sense of the spouse as a kind of guide. They're speaking to their spouse and they just feel like the spouse is still present. And I felt like I can understand that feeling of there being this, not a ghost as we conceive it, not a haunting in that sense, but a sense of there being this sort of guiding presence for lack of a better term. That you can sort of feel at various times in your life, it's always changing, just a sense of maybe almost comfort that there is a kind of presence, you know, it's not gone.

Is there some way in which all of us could be guided or shaped by the presence of the dead? I mean, the stories of people who have gone on? 

Absolutely. I mean, I think that is history. History is the stories of the dead and the stories of feats passed and the people who enacted those feats. And I think, you know how we contextualize that history or how we come to view it enormously shapes our present world. 

I've been listening to an interview with Nikole Hannah-Jones and just the furor over the 1619 Project and people being so upset because they're viewing it as a complete rewriting and dismantling of this historical record that 'hey, we've already determined that this is the story that we're telling ourselves about our nation and that this is the story that we want our children to continue telling their children and their children.'

The 1619 Project was developed by The New York Times Magazine with historian Nikole Hannah-Jones, and began in 2019 to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. The newspaper says 'It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.' (New York Times/Wikimedia Commons)

There's this sense that any kind of enlargement of that story or repositioning of that story is a destruction of an established history, as though history isn't something that is living and always evolving, and as though we aren't continually, I guess, enlarging and recontextualizing the story. I think we always have to do that. 

What does it mean that that question is being raised? 

I think it speaks to how important our origin stories are to us in terms of how we negotiate the world in which we live. And it also speaks to the kind of future that we want to bestow on our children. The vision of the future that we want them to inherit from us and carry forward. 

Listen to the full conversation by clicking the play button near the top of this article. Esi Edugyan's 2021 six-part CBC Massey Lectures, Out of the Sun: On Race and Storytelling, begins the week of Jan. 24.

*This episode was produced by Philip Coulter and Pauline Holdsworth.

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