By Erin Stott
What is the purpose of literature? Why do we read?
How does a book come to be one that matters?
In what contexts does it matter? And to whom?
We will all, no doubt, have several answers to all of these questions. And of course all answers are true and welcome: we all read for our own reasons, from escapism to philosophical engagement, to everything in between and outside these. One particular reason literature is so important is the insight it can offer. Literature can open a metaphorical door for its readers and let us walk around inside: whether we sit beside a character in their bedroom and wonder at the world with them; or we stand in the doorway of dinner-time tensions and be glad to have the freedom to walk away (close the book); or we sweat and climb Corvus Peak alongside this month’s protagonist, feeling every hope and fear as though it were our own.
The power of last month’s book, Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, was a brutally honest experience of an oppressed life and mind, and the steps we walked with Kambili in her journey to freedom from it. It is a wonderful faculty of literature to illustrate how pain takes shape in the mind of its narrator – whether we recognise that pain as one we have personally felt, or we learn to empathise and begin to understand the pains of others. Moreover, another wonder of the world of fiction, is that it can offer us liberation from oppressions – be they literal or mental, huge escapes or small freedoms found in creativity. Edugyan’s Washington Black does all of this, and more: the novel is laced with niches of freedom found by its characters amongst and alongside their oppressions.
Now let us be clear: what Adichie does not do is offer freedoms to which we cannot relate, where her characters cast off their oppressions without qualm or conflict (as cathartic as that might be to read). Instead, Adichie expertly crafts moments of liberty whilst still doing honest justice to pain. Washington experiences complete liberation of the imagination as he draws, whilst he is simultaneously confined by the fear of being caught in his pursuit. Big Kit knows the hope and promise of home, whilst simultaneously bearing the anguish of being taken from there. Tanna knows the brilliance of her own mind, whilst simultaneously watching her intelligence go unnoticed or unappreciated by her father.
As students, as women, as people of colour, as LGBTQ+ people, as disabled people, as working class people (the list goes on, and I speak to us all) … as people, one of the strongest limitations to our sense of freedom can be the burden of oppressions. Whether we internalise them or reject them, feel them heavily or only sometimes, if they manifest as microaggressions or blatant hate speech, experience them ourselves or we support our friends/family/colleagues through them – they exist. I personally might not like to wear the label of “oppressed”, because I have enough privilege in this world to reject that label. And it is exactly that, my privileges, that I must remember when thinking of others: not everyone has the freedom to reject their oppressions and so in the meantime, we must recognise and support each others’ pains and privileges. What is fantastic about Esi Edugyan’s characters in Washington Black is that they wear their prides and pains in their own unique combinations. Their niches of freedom are not found in unrealistic separation from pain, nor are their freedoms dependent on anyone else’s “permission” (more on this in a moment). What Esi does give us is an illustration of duality: Washington and the other characters of the book find their moments of autonomy and independence, and simultaneously recognise their own pain. Washington Black demonstrates that recognition of pain is not always internalisation of it, and even when pain seems to permeate every aspect of life, there is still joy to be found. In other words, we readers can take inspiration: our pain or our struggle is never to be diminished or disregarded, but neither is our joy or our freedom. We can, wherever possible, celebrate ourselves and our victories alongside recognising our own pain. Freedom is not something on the far horizons of Upper Canada, the Arctic, or London; freedom is not something reserved only for those totally “healed” or “liberated”; no, freedom is a habit, a pursuit to be found in the many niches of our lives, in duality with everything else we experience.
Now, I’d like to note something vital… you do not need permission for your freedom. Washington Black begins as a slave story, and transitions into a unique exploration of power, privilege and perseverance in all directions. But slavery was, and for some still is, an abhorrent corruption of freedom. The act of appropriating someone else’s agency, taking control of it, is a pollution to a person’s power over themselves. But sometimes when we try to comprehend that which we consider ourselves as far removed from, it can become an abstract agreement of: “Slavery? It was awful.” without fuller comprehension of how deep roots can run, and how massive racially-based discrimination still exists in our world today.
When we meet Titch, early in the novel, it feels easy to let our hope build: he may be the key to freedom for Washington. But Edugyan’s incredible attention to word-level detail twists the tale into a marriage of tones both lightly-dreamlike, and sinister. As Titch offers Washington the *freedom* to call him Titch – as opposed to “master” – even this is on Titch’s terms. Titch does not accept Washington’s compromise, “Mister Titch?” which might have shown an empathy for the mistrust and fear Washington understandably felt in their early relationship. No: “Come now. What did I say about that? What are you to call me?” is Titch’s assertion. Try, as he sometimes does, Titch ultimately cannot relinquish his power of “What I say goes.” Even when he thinks he is extending kindness, there is still an assertion of privilege and power. And I thank Esi for this, as she asks us to “check our privilege”, and be respectful to the pains of others.
Washington Black does not only give us an insight into the lives of people like Washington, it also challenges us to question the many levels of personal agency: how even freedom can be policed, how a perceived kindness can carry a privilege, how it may take immense strength of will to find moments of freedom from that which weighs on us. Esi reminds us that sometimes people carry pain that cannot be understood. But why this book matters is that it inspires us: pain is not mutually exclusive with freedom. We can and should acknowledge our pains, recognise our privilege, understand that other people have pain too, and as much as possible: enjoy our freedoms wherever they are.