Esi Edugyan on Her CBC Massey Lectures and Writing at 35,000 Feet

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The two‑time Giller Prize‑winning novelist of Half‑Blood Blues and Washington Black, stories that illuminate untold Black histories from Berlin to Barbados, has turned to non‑fiction for this year’s CBC Massey Lectures – and her writing continues to take us around the world.

Esi Edugyan has penned many of her words on airplanes. Travelling constantly for literary events and lectures, the Calgary‑born, Victoria‑based novelist wrote much of Washington Black, her 2018 historical epic about slavery and freedom, in window seats. “You sort of feel like you’re in a bubble – you put your earbuds in, play your music and it’s a place of no distractions,” she says. Even better are hotel rooms: “They’re king. You can order a meal, you don’t have to worry about cleaning up and you can concentrate on what’s before you.” Being at home for the past 18 months has been an adjustment for Edugyan, but in her seaside house with her husband and two children, she found the space she needed to craft the 2021 CBC Massey Lectures, Out of the Sun: On Race and Storytelling, which will air on CBC Radio and be released as a book this fall. We caught up with Edugyan to chat about writing around the world, how place informs identity and what she’s working on next.

September 15, 2021

enRoute Destinations are big characters in your novels. Is travelling part of your research?

Esi Edugyan Pretty much all of my travel is book‑related, but I haven’t travelled too much for research – that involves a lot of reading and watching films. I’ll usually get an opportunity to give a talk or attend a festival. One of the lovely things about writing is that you sometimes get asked to go to a place that you wouldn’t have thought to visit – and that’s always fascinating.

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Out of the Sun: On Race and Storytelling by Esi Edugyan.

ER You write in the intro to Out of the Sun that it’s part travelogue. How so?

EE The book is laid out by geography, exploring stories of Black people or histories that haven’t been aired widely. For instance, one essay is about Canada and how our collective ghost stories are usually not about populations that aren’t of European descent. Another is about Afrofuturism, looking at West Africa because that’s my heritage, and there’s also one about Asia and how, for instance, there was no contact between Japan and the continent of Africa until the 16th century, but Arab and European traders would travel there and bring stories of Blackness. So, what happens when these stories arrive before there’s chance for contact? And many of the essays have personal stories – I talk about travelling in China, for example, and what that was like.

ER What are you hoping people take away from Out of the Sun?

EE An early reader said, “I learned so much that I hadn’t known or even thought about.” I was delighted by that, the fact that she’d taken away this fuller, richer sense of Black history.

ER You’ve completed residencies around the world – is there a place that was best for writing?

EE I once had a residency in eastern Iceland, in this massive house in the countryside. I thought it would be conducive to writing because it was very solitary, yet I found it was like The Shining: Every creak would send my mind whirling and I didn’t get very much written at all. But when I lived in an arts residency in Stuttgart, Germany, which was a hive of activity with people from all over the world, I found that I wrote really well.

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ER In a 2018 piece about visiting Ghana for the first time, you wrote about expecting to feel at home there versus Calgary, with its rodeos and wheat fields. But, you left “feeling less Ghanaian than ever.” What role does physical place play in identity?

EE Physical place can’t help but shape us. Despite not feeling that I belonged, I was very much formed by those wheat fields and rituals – even if it was just to form in me a sense of unbelonging. Having said that, every time I travel abroad, I feel, very starkly, my Canadianness. And my Western Canadianness, specifically. I’m always surprised by how much I’ve been marked by the place of my birth and the country of my birth, and that part of that is also to acknowledge the ways in which I have grown up with a sense of difference. But I’ve grown to accept that; it’s just a part of my identity.

ER What are some of your favourite Canadian destinations?

EE Winnipeg is one of my favourite Prairie cities. The last time I was there, I visited the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which was spectacular. I lived in Toronto for a year about 20 years ago, and I always feel happy there. Eastport, Newfoundland and Labrador, is stunningly gorgeous and the people are so irreverent and funny and warm. And every year my family and I go to Parksville, B.C., and we love it. It’s such a calm, beautiful place.

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ER What’s next for you?

EE I’m finishing up a children’s picture book. And then I’m hoping to get back to my novel. I’d written several pages of a new book and then I got the call from the Masseys – so, I pivoted, but I’m looking forward to pivoting back.

Esi Edugyan

The Questionnaire

  • Carry‑on essential I’m never without a book. Right now, I’m reading It’s What I Do, photojournalist Lynsey Addario’s memoir.

  • Bucket‑list destinations I have so many, but I’ll name three: Croatia, North Africa and Argentina. Oh, and I’ve always wanted to go to Cuba. That’s four.

  • Dream seatmate Someone very quiet. Or, the opposite: somebody who is a wonderful storyteller.

  • First travel memory Every summer, my family would make the three‑hour drive to Edmonton to stay with family friends. It felt extremely long, and I would pack like 10 books and my Discman. But we would always stop in Cochrane for ice cream; that felt magical.

  • Favourite souvenir I have a pair of slippers and a scarf that we bought in a marketplace in Dubai. My husband was bartering with a young man who was so over the top, trying to sell us everything in his stall, and everybody around us was laughing. All of my items that I feel warmly about have a story attached to them.

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