The Next Chapter

Esi Edugyan explores race, history and identity in her epic Canada Reads novel Washington Black

The Giller Prize-winning author spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing a novel that is one of the five contending books for Canada Reads 2022. The book debates will take place March 28-31.

Olympian and LGBTQ advocate Mark Tewksbury is championing Washington Black on Canada Reads 2022

Esi Edugyan is the author of Washington Black (CBC)

This interview originally aired on Oct. 15, 2018.

Washington Black by Calgary-born author Esi Edugyan is an epic novel that looks at race and identity from a historical fiction perspective. The book tells the story of 11-year-old Washington "Wash" Black, a slave on a Barbados sugar plantation in the 19th century. His master is Englishman Christopher Wilde, who is obsessed with developing a machine that can fly. When a man is killed, Wilde must choose between his family and saving Black's life — and the choice results in an adventure around the world for Wash. 

(HarperCollins)

Washington Black won the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize and was on the Man Booker Prize shortlist and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize shortlist

The novel is currently being adapted into a TV show with Edugyan as executive producer alongside Sterling K. Brown, who will also act in the series.

    Mark Tewksbury is defending Washington Black on Canada Reads 2022.

    Canada Reads will take place March 28-31. The debates will be hosted by Ali Hassan and will be broadcast on CBC Radio OneCBC TVCBC Gem and on CBC Books

    No other life

    "George Washington Black is referred to in the novel as Wash. He is a preteen field slave who has known no other life. He was born on the plantation in Barbados and has been raised in great brutality.

    He is someone with a child's vulnerability, but also has this awareness that his life is governed by certain forces that he has no control over."

    "He is someone with a child's vulnerability, but also has this awareness that his life is governed by certain forces that he has no control over.

    "He's quite terrified when Titch or Christopher Wilde arrives because he he's never known anything but but this very dark existence. And so when he gets taken into Titch's quarters, he just assumes that he's in for something even worse. And so he's quite surprised to find this man to be of a more, I guess, a more liberal mindset than any other white person he's ever been in contact with."

    Research-based

    "I was doing a lot of research into the history of slavery in the Caribbean. The acts of brutality described in the novel are things that came directly from history. There's nothing I made up. 

    It was completely beyond inhumane and unbelievable. I felt it was important to show that and to not flinch away from it.​​​​​​

    "It was completely beyond inhumane and unbelievable. I felt it was important to show that and to not flinch away from it."

    '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.

    Sense of purpose

    "Washington is somebody who is searching for that sense of self. He's somebody who's been confined to a very particular mode of life for years. This is all he knows. He gets taken away from this in a very dramatic way and taken to a place that is completely alien to him.

    Washington is somebody who is searching for that sense of self.

    "But this is the beginning of his realization of freedom. There's great ambiguity in his future, which is intentional. By the end of the book, we feel like he's reached some measure of self-understanding."

    Esi Edugyan's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

    The Canada Reads 2022 contenders

    WATCH | Esi Edugyan and Mark Tewskbury discuss Washington Black:

    Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

    A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

    Sign up now

    Comments

    To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

    By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

    Become a CBC Member

    Join the conversation  Create account

    Already have an account?

    now