When a Slave Becomes Free

Esi Edugyan on her new novel’s quest to understand the journey from bondage to liberation.

Esi Edugyan and the cover of her new book, Washington Black.
Photos by Rune Hellestad and Corbis via Getty Images.

Esi Edugyan’s new novel, Washington Black, which has already been longlisted for the Booker Prize, is the story of the eponymous central character, who in the 1830s is a slave on a Barbados sugar plantation. Black is exceptionally bright—he is only 11 when the book starts, but already has both artistic and scientific gifts—and develops a strange, complex relationship with his plantation master’s brother. That leads the book to many surprising twists, including a wild journey on a hot air balloon and a move to Canada, where Edugyan herself was born to Ghanaian parents.

I recently spoke by phone with Edugyan, who currently lives with her family in Victoria, British Columbia. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discuss how she came up with the idea for her story, the history of black people in science, and what it means to write a book about slavery in 2018.

Isaac Chotiner: What are the particular challenges of constructing a book around a central character whose humanity and personhood are constantly being assaulted?

Esi Edugyan: I guess maybe the challenge is to remember to show that not all is darkness for him. He is somebody who has been denied every human right up until the time of his escape. He’s somebody who is searching for a sense of himself and is becoming a fully real human being, and that’s his journey.

There’s so much research that one does about the history of slavery and the legacy of slavery, and it’s important to depict the brutality of that. But what I really wanted to do with this novel is to show the transition from leaving the brutality of that kind of a life behind into regeneration, into trying to construct a new life. The challenge is to balance the light and the dark, I guess.

Novelists have different ideas on how much research they should do, but this seems like a subject that a novelist would want to do a significant amount of research on.

Yeah. The novel took about three years to write all told, but I started researching shortly before I started writing it. I’m somebody who will do research throughout the whole process almost until the very end. I was reading a lot about slavery and then found a few sources on how slavery manifested itself in Barbados specifically. I read deeply about that as well as reading about slave forts on the coast of West Africa. My parents came from Ghana, so 10 years or so ago we made a journey so we could visit our extended family. We visited Elmina and we visited Cape Coast Castle.

But I also did some research into things like historical science. How people went about collecting marine specimens and how they cataloged them. That was really fascinating. Of course, the invention of the first aquarium as well. It was mainly reading, I would say. I read deeply and widely and discovered I was very interested in the history of hot air ballooning and then the stories seemed to kind of grow with the material I was reading.

Were there novels about slavery that you liked or that you felt were helpful?

I didn’t read any novels about slavery when I was writing this book. I think I just had my own particular vision and idea in what I wanted to do with it. I just didn’t want to be influenced or have somebody else’s creative work in my head. Certainly, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a huge, huge seminal text for me. I read that book many times, and I adore it.

You hear writers say things like, “This is a book I’ve been writing my whole life.” Was that this book?

I had no idea that this was what I was going to write about. Even starting the book, it had a different direction from the last draft. When I started writing this book, I really thought I was going to be writing about the Tichborne claimant series of trials, which was this infamous series of criminal trials in the 1860s and 1870s in England. The main witness for the defense in those trials was a man called Andrew Bogle, who was an ex-slave, who’d been taken off a plantation in the Caribbean by a member of the Tichborne household, literally stolen and then brought into this grand estate in the south of England, I think as their butler.

I thought that was an extraordinary, really fascinating story. I was very interested in the psychology of that, like being taken from the pain and the fixity of one life, like the idea that when you’re a slave and you’re born into it, you assume this is what life is and then you’ll die there, and it will probably be an early death and a painful death, and this is what life is. So, to be taken from that sense of predestination, that painful sense of predestination, to a place where things are more unknown and he’s a stranger and he has to make his way through a new society and place. This is what was most fascinating to me. And then I ended up abandoning the framework of the Tichborne claimant story and just taking that kernel of an idea and going some other place entirely.

Your main character is both scientifically and artistically gifted, and I think that a lot of people think of those things as pretty distinct. Was there a particular reason that you endowed this person with both of these gifts?

I wasn’t setting out with that dichotomy in mind. I guess it just grew out of material that seemed like he was somebody who had lived in this place and hadn’t really seen or really looked at what was around him because he hadn’t really been permitted to experience his own home, his own given place.

I really don’t think that there necessarily has to be this dichotomy between science and art. I think we tend to stigmatize them and separate them.

I read the essay that you wrote about the historical “silencing” of black scientists. What got you interested in this?

In having written this novel, I really started thinking about the history of black people in science. It was so fascinating because when you put black people in science into a search engine, it’s often articles about black people as the subjects of science or scientific experimentation, and of course, there’s this awful legacy there. You don’t really often hear tons about scientists of African descent. There were so many important ones, and letting that out is really just trying to shed light on a few of them that I found in particular because the stories are so … It can encapsulate a lot of the issues in why we’re forgetting these scientists. That was fascinating to me.

What year did you start working on the book?

I think it was 2014.

OK, so 2014 to 2017 more or less. Obviously, a lot happened politically between 2014 and 2017 in ways that are interesting for anyone thinking about matters of race or American history. I’m just curious if that changed your perception as you were working on it.

I guess so, yeah. It’s hard for me to articulate exactly how. I didn’t consciously change my themes or change direction, but I was very conscious of the way that the book is set in the past, but a lot of it still resonates today and is very urgent. Questions of racial inequality, racial injustice, and the hardening of people against the suffering of other people. It’s just one of the hugest issues we’re still dealing with today. But also, if you think about the abolitionists and how society was back then, it’s really extraordinary that … when I was first studying this shift, first of all, that they recognized that slavery was a great evil but also that they were able to shift public thinking to get whole societies to understand that this was a great evil.

You’re sitting in your home in London and you’ve got the sugar on your table and you sprinkle it in your oatmeal, you understand that the sugar comes from the Indies. You understand that it’s gotten through unpaid labor and there’s great hardship there. But you’re still using it and you think, OK, this is a hardship but it’s a necessary hardship because this is what makes my life comfortable. To shift that thinking and have people get outraged over the lack of rights of other people, that was huge. This is the lack of rights of people who they had never seen before and who were physically and culturally very different from them. That’s astonishing. I think we’re seeing that today—that people are getting very outraged over the lack of rights of others, and it’s heartening.

How did your family make its way to Canada from Ghana?

My parents met in San Francisco. My father was doing a master’s degree at Stanford. He had come from a small village and he had a scholarship. My mother was a geriatric nurse and she ended up also studying—I can’t remember the school she went to—but it was somewhere in San Francisco. Somebody was having a moon landing party. They had a friend in common who had a television and everybody would just crowd around and watch.

How did they make their way to America?

My father would have gone over in like ’68, just flown over, and my mother—it’s strange, I don’t know the particulars, but she must have flown over as well.

You never asked her?

I have. My parents are very funny. Mother passed away long ago, it’s been about 20 years, but they’re sort of furtive about their past so it’s hard to get all the particulars. But I understand they were both studying there, they met, they married very shortly after they met, it was like six months. Then they went all around California. My father lived in New York for a bit and then they decided to move to Edmonton.

How do you think about Canada’s racial history and distinguish it from America’s?

In terms of the racial history, in terms of black people, obviously the institution of American slavery, that’s obviously a huge part of your foundation. I don’t want to say myths because that doesn’t sound quite right, but it’s epic, right? It’s epic.

You still feel the strains and the aftereffects, and there’s so much that’s going on that’s not some … It’s hard to express, but in terms of Canadian history and how we tend to think of ourselves when it comes to the slave trade, I think our central national idea that we have of ourselves when you think of black slavery is that we were the endpoint, the stopping point, the ultimate destination for the Underground Railroad. There’s a sense of, I guess I would say not quite pride, but there’s a sense that we were more enlightened and here we are, we’re the final destination of the Underground Railroad and so that gets spoken about a lot and felt a lot. I think certainly that’s extraordinary, but we don’t look so much at the fact that there was slave owning going on in Quebec for hundreds of years, that people owned slaves. This is just not something that is widely discussed or studied in school.