By Molly Masters
Man Booker prize shortlisted, critically acclaimed, and beautifully, startlingly written, Washington Black by Esi Eduygan was a clear choice for our Black History Month celebration here at Books That Matter. What was not clear, however, was how to get ahold of it. Only out in hardback until next April, this amazing novel was printed in paperback exclusively for Books That Matter; and we will be later be interviewing Esi on our podcast thanks to the support and generosity of Serpent’s Tale at Profile Books. The gold foiled cover of this masterpiece serves as a fitting preface for the golden narrative that lies inside. We can’t wait for you to dive in and enjoy this one, but first, as we do every month, let’s take some time to bookend our reading of Washington Black with an overview of its context, themes and ideas to embellish and enlighten your reading.
Let’s start with a bit of an introduction to Esi Edugyan. Washington Black is Esi’s second novel to be nominated for the Man Booker prize, and her third novel altogether. She has also written a non-fiction collection called Dreaming of Elsewhere, which consists of essays on belonging and the construction of the sense of home. Esi’s parents moved to the United States and then Canada from Ghana, and she grew up on the western Canadian prairies. When interviewed with The New York Times, Esi tells how this has influenced her storytelling. She details; (quote) “I’m always looking for the story that’s a little bit hidden, a story about black people that hasn’t been told.” Her second novel, Half Blood Blues, is the story of a jazz musician in World War Two Europe who is abducted by the Nazis, which was inspired by her time away at a writer in residence opportunity in Stuttgart where she learned about the history of Black people in Germany. In an interview with Attica Locke for The Guardian, Esi also adds how Alberta in Canada, where she grew up, was not a diverse place. In Canada, around 3% of the population is Black, and the percentage was smaller still in the 80s. She suggests that through the incidents of racism she experienced, perhaps this is where she gleaned her inspiration to tell the stories of people who aren’t necessarily, as she puts it, “part of the social fabric”. Esi’s writing focuses on the outlier, or the strange moment in history. To quote Esi again, she describes how, “It’s almost like I’m looking for the most marginalised within the marginalised, and this is what’s attractive to me, maybe because it comes out of my childhood.”
The first thematic and contextual element of Washington Black to grasp is the depiction of slavery. The Guardian Review calls it a book “less about slavery and more about the burden, responsibility and the guilt of personal freedom in a time of slavery”, which makes sense when placed aside the narrative of our young protagonist, Washington. He is witness to grave brutality from the age of two: he is spat on, held down by elders who steal his sandals by cutting them from his feet, he witnesses the decapitation of a dead slave, he stands and watches as Big Kit’s nose is broken in front of him, he knows of the silent brutality of what happens to runaway slaves, how slaves have been held in wooden cages in transportation, and how newborn babies are brought out in the fields with their mothers and left to die in the sun. In his lifetime, he sees slavery abolished but is still haunted by what he saw, his internalised narrative as a slave, and the guilt he feels of being free when others are not. Washington’s personal guilt and his internalised narrative can be seen through the constant use of descriptions of objects and sceneries and even human actions compared to knives and sharp objects; reminiscent of the ones used in the plantation fields, and also as instruments of torture and pain upon the slaves by the plantation owners. When asked about tackling slavery, Esi comments: (quote) “I think for a lot of people, we know about slavery in the abstract. We know what happened, and go on with life, when all these terrible things happened in the past. But they have real reverberations today. I started researching painful stories of these abuses and they were just so disgusting and brutal I really felt I needed to get that on the page.Though I don’t live with the iconography of slavery around me on the west coast of Canada, such a thing is certainly alive in the east of the country: slave-holding was practised in Quebec from 1629-1833, and of course Ontario was the final destination of the Underground Railroad. It’s important for me to acknowledge the roots of slavery here.”
Esi takes an interesting and introspective look at the effect of Washington’s childhood and past on his present mindset, and his interiority and the first person narrative plays a huge role in the depth of the theme of freedom, and Wash’s struggle to accept it throughout the novel. Wash is specifically selected by Titch, the brother of the Barbados plantation owner, for his scientific endeavours with the Cloud Cutter research (research into the world’s first hot air balloon). He is taken away from his maternal companion, Big Kit, and stays with Titch in his quarters, instead of in the overcrowded outhouses with the rest of the slaves. He is treated well by Titch, and discovers his incredible talent for art, and his life is elavated above that which he is accustomed to, despite not yet being a free man. Wash, narrating through a child’s eye perspective, feels a great amount of guilt for his quality of life differing so vastly from others, that his sense of freedom is stagnated somewhat through his interiority and awareness of his position and the position of others. However, interesting still is Esi’s exposure of the normalisation of brutality, and the complicitness of white people in the prevention of freedom for slaves. Esi describes: (quote) “When I was researching Washington Black I read historical accounts of people who would come to the plantations in the Caribbean – visitors coming for a nice warm-weather holiday from England – and would sit down for dinner and then hear screaming coming from outside and just be shocked and horrified. But the people who had been living on the plantation for years would just be casually eating – it’s just part of the landscape, like birdsong or something.
I think as human beings we can get to these places inside ourselves where we stop seeing just how awful something is, because we have become used to it; it becomes ingrained in our landscapes. It’s frightening – the idea that everybody has the capacity within them to be hardened against human suffering. And that’s something that we have to guard against, even on a much smaller scale with everyday cruelties. You don’t want those to become part of the political and social landscape. You don’t want to become used to that.” In looking at this theme of freedom, Esi explores a well-rounded, complete view of how it is experienced from Wash’s point of view, and how it links to the ignorance from the white perpetrators. She interrogates the impact of slavery not only on the slaves themselves, but also on the rhetoric and ideology of white society, which of course holds up this narrative in order for the brutality to continue in the name of profit. In Barbados, she shows how the white people normalise brutality among themselves, and once the novel leaves the realms of the plantation, it explores how those who think of themselves as “saviours” remain complicit in oppression, which is something we can still think about in our society today. An example of this rhetoric is the repeated blase comments from Mister Phillip, who states (quote) “No progress without blood, I suppose”, shrugging off the brutality and choosing convenient ignorance with the more dangerous racist undertone that: if it’s not white, upper class blood, he doesn’t care.
Esi contrasts the realism of freedom and the harshness of the brutality in her novel with aspects of magic and chance. This is not to say there is anything in the way of spells and fantasy involved, but a few fantastical atmospheres that are inserted in terms of time, space, travel, characters, obstacles and rhetoric that are different to the tone of the narrative that was established at the Barbados plantation. This magical tone is jarring against the dark content confronted throughout the book. Edugyan oftentimes evades this with a more grounded discussion of Wash’s life in between being a slave and a free man, as a marginalised man in a racist world, to becoming an artist and a scientist whose gifts demand respect even from the white upper classes (quoting Walter from The Guardian Review), so look out for these aspects whilst you’re reading, and definitely don’t be afraid of getting your highlighters out for this intricate novel, as there are a lot of repeated themes and symbols that are not to be missed. This development that takes place in Wash’s life, his becoming a respected artist but firstly, having access to explore his art, gives him a first step into personhood whereby he realises he has something to offer the world, and establishes his own self-worth. He is, by the end, a scientist as well as an artist, an accomplished man in his own right, fighting for the official recognition of his talents. In an essay on the historical silence around black scientific achievement, Esi Edugyan asks: “If science is a kind of conversation, how much have we lost in the silences?” Washington see the failure of racist science unravel before him, and ultimately his story becomes increasingly magical, stretching beyond the theme of freedom, and towards something empowering and inspiring, making it undeniably a book that matters.