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Washington Black

Best Seller
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
Sep 18, 2018 | 352 Pages
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    Apr 09, 2019 | 400 Pages

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    Sep 18, 2018 | 352 Pages

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“Thrilling . . . Washington Black is a gripping tale, made vivid by Esi Edugyan’s gifts for language and character, and by the strength of her story . . . The reader feels honoured to have kept Wash company on his journeying: and moved to see him embark upon his true beginning.”—Erica Wagner, The New Statesman (UK)

Washington Black is deserving of its place [on the Man Booker Prize longlist]. It’s a box of treats that manages to work history, science, and politics together under the guise of a high-stakes, steampunk adventure . . . For all its cinematic capers—there are snowstorms, identical twins, and searches for lost fathers—Washington Black is a profoundly humane story about false idols, the fickleness of fortune, and whether a slave, once freed, can ever truly be free.”—Johanna Thomas-Corr, The Times (London)

Washington Black is as harrowing a portrayal of slavery as Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, but it also becomes a globe-trotting, page-turning adventure story. A historical epic with much to say about the present-day world.” The Guardian

Washington Black is nothing short of a masterpiece. Esi Edugyan has a rare talent for turning over little known stones of history and giving her reader a new lens on the world, a new way of understanding subject matter we arrogantly think we know everything about. This book is an epic adventure and a heartfelt tale about love and morality and their many contradictions. I loved it.”—Attica Locke, author of Bluebird, Bluebird

“At the core of this novel, with its searing, supple prose and superb characters, is a visceral depiction of the abomination of slavery. Yet, as importantly, it explores an unlikely friendship, the limits to understanding another’s suffering, the violence lurking in humans, and the glories of adventure in a world full of wonders.”—Elizabeth Buchan, The Daily Mail

“Wonderful . . . Eloquent . . . Brilliant . . . Wash and Titch are so alive as to be unforgettable . . . This important novel from the author of the superb Half-Blood Blues belongs in every library.” Booklist (starred)

Washington Black paints an unflinching portrait of American slavery before tracing one boy’s arduous, globe-trootting journey to freedom.”—EW

“Edugyan’s magnificent third novel again demonstrates her range and gifts . . . Framing the story with rich evocations of the era’s science and the world it studies, Edugyan mines the tensions between individual goodwill and systemic oppression, belonging and exclusion, wonder and terror, and human and natural order . . . Crafted in supple, nuanced prose, Edugyan’s novel is both searing and beautiful.”Publishers Weekly (starred, boxed)
—Natasha Walter, The Guardian

“High adventure fraught with cliffhanger twists marks this runaway-slave narrative, which leaps, sails, and soars from Caribbean cane fields to the fringes of the frozen Arctic and across a whole ocean . . . One of the most unconventional escapes from slavery ever chronicled . . . Edugyan displays as much ingenuity and resourcefulness as her main characters in spinning this yarn, and the reader’s expectations are upended almost as often as her hero’s. A thoughtful, boldly imagined ripsnorter that broadens inventive possibilities for the antebellum novel.”Kirkus Reviews (starred)

Washington Black is an intimate portrait of slavery at its most genocidal and of the limitations of kindness in an unjust system. The book’s hero is a gifted scientist and artist fighting to live a fully human life in a world that insists on seeing him either as livestock or as an object of pity. Along the way, there are balloon rides through storms at sea, vignettes of frontier life in nineteenth century Canada, scenes of polar exploration, and the establishment of the world’s first aquarium. Washington Black is a brilliantly absorbing picaresque; a book that combines the unflinching depiction of violence with a lyrical, hallucinatory beauty.” —Sandra Newman, author of The Country of Ice Cream Star


Scotiabank Giller Prize WINNER 2018

Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize FINALIST 2018

Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction SHORTLIST

Man Booker Prize SHORTLIST 2018

Author Q&A

Q: What drew you to the story of Washington Black? How did the original tale become your novel?

A: In fact I set out to write a novel about the Tichborne case, of all things, one of the longest-running criminal trials in British history. I wanted it told from the perspective of an ex-slave who had been a servant at the Tichborne estate, and who later acted as the defense’s main witness. But almost from the first, the story began to stray, the characters took on their own realities and dimensions. I understand now that it was the voice of its narrator that interested me, the complicated position he found himself in, racially, socially, intellectually. This is what I took from that initial idea. And out of this grew a story about a boy of sensitivity and intelligence, seeking his foothold in a world where there can be no real belonging for him. Looking back at my previous novels, I see now how they are both preoccupied with aftermaths, with the reconstructing of lives after great suffering. Washington Black, as a post-slavery narrative, is no different. But it became what it is only very gradually, and on its own terms. 
Q: Readers have said that the style of your book reminds them of authors as diverse as Jules Verne, Charles Dickens and Colson Whitehead. Who have been your influences while writing Washington Black?

A: Influences are tricky things to isolate and pin down, and
they just seem to get trickier as I get older. I think the truest influences on this novel are works of nonfiction – popular histories such as Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains, and Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature. I read such books assiduously during the writing. Certainly there is much of Thomas Clarkson buried within Titch, as well as a great deal of the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. These histories, among others, opened something in me: I was transported, and wanted to capture some of what it meant to live in their worlds, with all their attendant brutality and wonder.
Q: There’s incredible detail in the science in the book. Did you already have any knowledge about, for example, 19th century flying machines? Can you tell us a bit about your research process?
A: Richard Holmes – one of the great historians of the possible – wrote a fascinating overview of hot-air ballooning called Falling Upwards. That was a trove of information. I also read much about the study of marine life in the 19th century and the invention of the first aquarium. I enjoy research, and sometimes joke that writing books is just an excuse to read widely. “It might be of use!” I’ll tell myself, and immediately feel better. On my writing desk at present is a book on Patty Hearst, a book on cave art, and a book of poetry on eighteenth century gardens.
Q: Later on in the novel Washington Black becomes fascinated by marine biology. He is sent underwater to find a rare octopus and has the idea to hold an aquatic show in London. How did marine biology weave its way into the story, and what do you see as its place in the story?
A: I’m fascinated by historical science: discoveries, inventions, the dismissal of one theory
in favor of a better one. There’s something in that which resembles, I think, the way we go through the world, the stages of a life. Washington’s relationship to marine life shifts constantly, and his ability to capture it – whether literally, or through paint – becomes an expression of his own changing self. Its study is how he comes to have a sense of purpose and worth in the world, even as he recognizes that science is an imperfect field, and that its infinite theories can be warped into evil, as in the case of John Willard. But Washington’s true subject is freedom, and so it is no accident that it is he who seizes that octopus, and he who dedicates himself to the world’s first aquarium.
Q: In a recent interview you said “Confronting the world as a Black woman is my particular reality, one that informs my work in both obvious and subtle ways.” It feels like an important time for writers of color, with publishers being called out for non-diverse lists; for only publishing a certain type of “particular reality.” Do you feel there’s change in the air?
A: Certainly within the last twenty years or so a big push has been made to be more inclusionary. In Canada we are seeing more stories from previously unheard voices. I do think we can do better, and that many writers are still struggling to be heard. But it is a complicated and nuanced problem, and one that is made more complicated by the different cultures in the English-speaking world. An American friend of mine, a novelist, speaks for instance of the great divide she feels in her country between what she calls “different shades of black.” She has the sense that African American voices are being ignored in favor of immigrant African voices. In Canada I grew up with almost no African Canadian writers to emulate; my models came from abroad. That is changing now, slowly. My own feeling is that the rooms of literature are vast and deep, and we would do well to linger in them.

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