The Next Chapter

When Wayne Grady discovered his family's secret past, it changed who he was and how he wrote

In the novel, Up From Freedom, the award-winning writer uncovers his family’s history during slavery in the South.
Wayne Grady is the author of Up From Freedom. (CBC)

This interview originally aired on Feb. 23, 2019.

Wayne Grady was 47 when he discovered that his father was black. He had been passing as white since before Grady was born.

This experience inspired him to write his first novel Emancipation Day, which went on to win the First Novel Award in 2013. 

In the novel, Up From Freedom, Grady has delved even more deeply into his family's roots through fiction — exploring slavery in America in the mid-19th century. At the heart of the story is Virgil Moody, who travels from Texas to Indiana in search of the boy he considers his son. Through it all, we see the daily lives of black and white characters entwined and ensnared by slavery. 

Race in law

"What struck me was the weird notion that whether one is white or black is something that could be determined in a court of law. It's a cultural thing. It's not a biological thing. Race is something that can be changed depending on the effect of race. The reaction to race is something that changes with society and societal norms."

Slavery then and now

"We read novels set in history to find out what's going on in the world around us today, I think, and to understand what's going on in the world around us. One of the things that occurred to me as I was writing this book — reading black history and reading novels by black writers in the States, and works of nonfiction — is that this struggle is still with us. Very much so. The Civil War ended slavery, but it didn't end racism." 

Split identities

"Finding out about my father and about my own African Canadian heritage changed my life; it changed how I thought of myself. I thought of myself as being white, and I thought of myself as being of one race. Finding out that I wasn't was a huge change. It split me. I didn't understand how those two halves met and became one person. In a way, both of my novels are an attempt to bring those two halves together, to have them sitting at the same table and talking to each other."

Wayne Grady's comments have been edited for length and clarity.


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