Esi Edugyan explores race, history and identity in her epic Canada Reads novel Washington Black
Olympian and LGBTQ advocate Mark Tewksbury is championing Washington Black on Canada Reads 2022
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.
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.
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."
"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."
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.
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WATCH | Esi Edugyan and Mark Tewskbury discuss Washington Black: