Novels can entertain, inspire, and sometimes bring history into focus. Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black (Vintage) is the rare book that accomplishes all three. It’s the story of a young slave who escapes a sugar plantation in Barbados with an unlikely accomplice, a rousing adventure story that also illuminates the slave trade in the early decades of the 19th century.
“My favorite books entertain and take me places I haven’t been before,” says Edugyan. “But I also come away with a sense of having understood something about history that previously escaped me, or I hadn’t thought about. Even though I didn’t set out to write a novel that would educate people, I am attracted to stories that have some connection to a larger history, stories that have been overlooked or largely forgotten.”
Edugyan appears March 9 in Oakland as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures’ Ten Evenings series.
Washington Black, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018, earned Edugyan the Giller Prize for excellence in Canadian fiction. The Vancouver resident’s previous novel, Half-Blood Blues, also won the Giller Prize in 2011. Those novels, alongside her debut, 2004’s The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, explore issues of identity and race, often through the prism of characters who have ignored perspectives other than their own.
In the latest novel, George Washington Black — known as Wash — takes a miraculous journey, escaping from Barbados with Titch, the brother of the plantation’s slave owner, via a primitive hot-air balloon. They journey to Virginia and the Arctic; Wash eventually makes his way to Nova Scotia, England, and Morocco.
One of the men he meets on his journey, the biologist GM Goff, gradually warms up to Wash and admits he failed to recognize him and others as having value, a lesson that can be applied to contemporary life.
“I feel what is really lacking now is a sense of wanting to, first of all, listen and hear others’ narratives and perspectives,” Edugyan says. “But also listening with openness and empathy. Empathy is a word that maybe is tossed around too much, but there it is. There are things to gain from perspectives that are completely different from your own, and values that you hold dear. For me, that is part of what reading has given me, this way of entering somebody else’s thought process down to a very granular level. Realizing how people are thinking and what they’re saying, and then trying to really think about what it’s like to live out somebody’s existence, and how the features of somebody’s life might be different from mine, but still of value and importance.”
Washington Black has been optioned by Hulu as a limited series, with actor Sterling K. Brown of This is Us set to produce. What the production will encounter is a layered story that invites readers to make their own conclusion about Wash’s fate.
“I’ve had a lot of readers come up to me about the open ending, and how there’s no fixed idea of what (Wash) will do,” Edugyan says. “I even really don’t have a definitive idea where he will go from there. … It’s all in there and it’s filled with possibilities. Maybe it’s something I’ll come back to in 20 years and pick up, or maybe not. I kind of like how open it is.”