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Rights + Justice

Against a Black ‘Monolith’

Victoria author Esi Edugyan calls for a more expansive, nuanced understanding of Blackness. A Tyee interview.

Olamide Olaniyan 9 Mar

Olamide Olaniyan is associate editor at The Tyee.

Esi Edugyan wants to explore the different ways Black people exist in the world.

The Victoria-based novelist says her interest in exploring Blackness from different perspectives grows out of her life and the experiences of her family. She was born and raised in Calgary. Her parents, Ghanian immigrants, met in San Francisco. The author herself also lived and worked overseas in Europe.

Given these experiences, she grew up understanding that Blackness can’t be easily categorized as one or even a handful of things. “There’s so many different ways to exist in the world as Black-skinned,” she said in an interview with The Tyee. “And locating these figures throughout history, where we may not have expected to find Black populace, or, indeed, even a single Black person, this was always a source of great fascination to me.”

Edugyan is the author of internationally renowned fiction like Half-Blood Blues and Washington Black. She’s also given talks about race and storytelling for the CBC Massey Lecture series.

Out of the Sun, her 2021 book based on the lecture series, looks at Black figures across the world and explores how they’re depicted in art, how they’re remembered and forgotten.

During a public conversation last month in Victoria with the BC Black History Awareness Society, the author said she is interested in an “enlargement” of history, and that there’s no such thing as one single story.

Blackness is not a monolith, she added, and part of her job is reminding people that it is not. For Out of the Sun, she had a real desire to “recontextualize” and restore humanity to figures who weren’t afforded that in their time.

Edugyan’s interest in these areas grows from her early experiences in 1980s Calgary, notably what she was taught about history in school, and what was left out. She’s interested in what she refers to as the notable “omissions” in that education.

She describes the feeling of finding some of that omitted history later, on her own, in an unexpected place. She remembers the electricity of reading about Black Albertan communities like Amber Valley in a library in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“To me, that was a really shocking thing. I think I would have felt more of a sense of belonging or being in tune with the surrounding culture had I had some sense that this township had existed,” she said.

“I think that we do ourselves and we do everyone a disservice when we’re not more comprehensive in our study of and our understanding of all histories,” she told The Tyee.

We caught up with Edugyan to talk about race, storytelling and Out of the Sun. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Tyee: Where were you, intellectually, when you were approached for the Massey lectures and when you started writing what would become Out of the Sun?

Esi Edugyan: I’m always in a chaotic headspace between novels. I’d been travelling quite a bit, promoting Washington Black, I was still sort of on a circuit for that, but trying to come up with new material for the next book.

When I was approached, I thought, “Well, can I do this? Do I have the mental headspace to be able to do this?” And if I did, what did I want to write about? And I just thought that it would be a good opportunity to look at the stories of figures and historical moments that I didn’t think I would get to in novel form. And I thought it’s a much more straightforward way of weighing these stories. I was delighted to do it.

During your February conversation with the BC Black History Awareness Society, you described our current society’s “visual culture” and why it was important that the lectures that you gave were focused on art and that the lectures are presented visually. Could you talk more about that?

When you’re in the publishing industry, the most recent kind of thinking in terms of how people should generally be structuring their books or something that they should be keeping in mind is this idea that you’re always competing with other forms of art, most of which are visual. That people would much rather sit and watch a movie than put in the effort to sit down and read a book. That’s the thinking anyway, I don’t know that I buy into that. But that’s always sort of in the background.

And we are an intensely visual culture. But also just innately, intensely visual creatures. We are always trying to make sense of our surroundings. And I think that so much of our ideas about others and our ideas of race can come from these visual constructions.

We’re taught to read certain features in a certain way, just based on how they’re presented in the culture. I think it’s something even as simple as Black hair and cornrows. When I returned to West Africa, cornrows are signifiers of one thing, but when you look at mainstream American media and how they’re discussed in that context, they become something else. This is very much rooted in how we’re taught to see the signifiers or how we’re taught to deconstruct them. That’s always been a source of fascination to me.

In terms of looking at older portraiture — I didn’t go as far back as the Renaissance, so it’s 18th- and 19th-century portraiture — just how Blackness is depicted and certain signifiers that are inherent are supposed to suggest a person’s position in life and, as an offshoot of that, what their inner world might have been, just this kind of limited sense of who they are. That was a great interest of mine.

Reading your book and interviews, it sounds like your experiences living in Europe, for residencies and work, informed a lot of your interests and writing. Could you talk a little bit more about those experiences and how much your work is a reflection or reaction to those experiences?

I think it doesn’t just start in Europe. I think it starts with having been born and raised in southern Alberta and Calgary. There’s this feeling of being not part of a critical mass and not part of the mainstream, and very much feeling myself an outsider. And I’m speaking sort of beyond race, I think I just felt out of step of a lot of the culture. This was in the 1980s, so quite some time ago. Who knows how I would feel if I went back now. I’m sure it’s quite different.

But just that sense of slight dislocation, standing to the side of things and then moving to Europe — mainly to Germany, that was where I spent most of my time when I was there — and again, having that sense of, obviously, being a foreigner, learning the language, everything being new to me. But also starting to ask about these histories of Black people within these places that we don’t think of as having any kind of deeply rooted Black presence.

And so I think my work definitely comes out of that. But that first question to investigate things came out of this feeling, that sense of dislocation, and then looking backwards and trying to see if there any precedents who might have also had that sense of things.

I wanted to talk to you more about this idea of the Black "monolith" and your desire to run against that idea.

For me, growing up in the ’80s, people were watching a lot of American television and I think, for the most part, a lot of my fellow students’ ideas of what it meant to be a Black person were these kinds of easily digested, maybe monotone depictions of Black characters on downgrade TV shows. I think I felt like I was always being asked, like, “Why aren’t you more like that?”

I didn’t conform to this easily culturally digested, inaccurate tradition of a monolithic African American existence that of course must characterize all Black people everywhere who weren’t currently living in Africa or the Caribbean. Living in the West, this was the kind of Black person that you ought to be and why aren’t you more like that.

And so, I think it definitely comes out of that, that very early first experience of being categorized based on some erroneous idea of who you might be because they consumed a cultural product that was very monotone in what it was showing.

Your skills and interests seem very varied, and it seems like there are a lot of things that you could have become. I can kind of imagine you as an art professor, or teaching philosophy. Why did you choose to be a storyteller?

I was always a huge reader. I think for me, I was very solitary. I had friends, but I wasn’t wildly popular. I read tremendously; I was a huge reader. And I would go to the library every weekend and take away a stack of like 25 books that I could have never hoped to finish. And I think books saved me. I really loved immersing myself in different worlds.

So that was always something that was in the back of my mind, although I was a kid and not really thinking that this is an actual profession. That you could write books for a living just didn’t really occur to me in that way. I wanted to be a teacher when I was really young. That was the main thing I wanted to be. And then as I got to high school, and I got more into doing visual arts, I thought I might be a visual artist. But I always enjoyed writing. I thought I would be a journalist, and when I eventually went to do the writing program at University of Victoria, I did study journalism. And I did actually take a course in the visual arts department.

But very quickly, I understood that creative writing was really where my heart was at. I read poetry with Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier, and came to study fiction with Jack Hodgins, and later on Bill Gaston. And yeah, I just understood that that was where my interests lay.

Why is a writer of fiction interested in social issues and history? Should a writer of fiction be interested in social issues and history?

I think a writer of fiction should just be interested in whatever that particular writer of fiction is interested in. Not everybody has to have an abiding interest in history and social issues. In fact, I think it would be a really poor landscape if everybody was interested in the same things.

It's so funny speaking to other writers, because writers are always envious of other writers who write books that are so unlike what they themselves write. So, I’ll read a book by a writer who maybe writes autofiction and I think, “Why am I not writing this? This is just so visceral and personal.” But, ultimately, that’s not maybe my strength, or if I look clearly at myself, that’s not my interest.

I feel like just given who I am and how I exist in this world and the body that I’m in and the times that we’re in, it just feels most urgent to me to write books that are rooted in looking at social issues through a historical figure or events, that somehow reflects the time that we’re currently living in. That feels most urgent to me, although I understand that for others, it’s something else, and everything is valid.

You’ve talked about books as this kind of solace and how books "saved" you. And it feels like in this moment there’s a broad movement to restrict and censor books, teaching and learning about history, including Black history. How do you feel about what’s happening in this moment?

I’m horrified. I think back to my own childhood. I read everything. I was not restricted in what I could read at all. And I feel like just having that unfettered restriction to books and to knowledge and to worlds that weren’t my own was just so broadening for me. I never had a sense of narrowed horizons based on the fact that I was reading about everyone, everywhere, in different time periods and just different experiences, different genders. My sense of the world was never narrow. And I locate that in the books that I read.

It’s really sad to think of somebody, especially somebody who maybe does exist outside of a mainstream body or a mainstream way of thinking, to not have access to books that are about everyone — people like them and people who aren’t like them.

Because so much of who we are and our ideas of the world are formed in childhood and in those first 13 years of life, I think that’s the time when we really should be encouraging kids to be reading about all sorts of experiences. Teenagers too. This is something where you really need to be engaged with so many different ideas and I shudder to think of a world in which kids only have access to a certain kind of experience or a certain mode of thinking or certain depictions of only one way of living. This to me does not seem like it would produce a very healthy, open-minded populace, a world in which I want my own children to grow up. It’s frightening.  [Tyee]

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