Esi Edugyan’s 2018 novel, “Washington Black,” is both magical tale of adventure and poignant examination of what it means to be free. Its title character begins the story as an 11-year-old slave, living a nightmarish existence on a Barbados plantation in 1830. With the help of the plantation owner’s eccentric brother — a naturalist and abolitionist — he escapes and travels the world, but can’t quite dispel the fear that lives within him.
“For there could be no belonging for a creature such as myself, anywhere,” muses Wash, “a disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running, from the dimmest of shadows.”
This is the third novel for Edugyan, a Canadian author whose parents emigrated from Ghana; born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, she now lives in Victoria, B.C. “Washington Black” won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, among numerous other honors. (It is also the third selection of Moira’s Seattle Times Book Club, which will meet online at st.news/washingtonblack at noon on Tuesday, June 25, to discuss the book.)
On a recent sunny morning in both Victoria and Seattle, Edugyan and I chatted on the phone about her book. “Washington Black,” she told me, was originally a different novel entirely; she had thought to write about the Tichborne Claimant trials, a series of court proceedings in Victorian England centering on the disappearance, and possible resurfacing, of a wealthy young man named Roger Tichborne. But she found herself drawn to another character in the story: a servant of the family’s household, Andrew Bogle, who was a former slave stolen from a plantation in Jamaica.
“I thought I would tell the story through Bogle’s eyes,” Edugyan said, “and then I discovered I was less interested in the crazy details of the trial than I was in the life of Bogle.” She did, however, keep one element of the unfortunate Roger Tichborne: the nickname “Titch,” which she assigned to a major character. “I really wanted to keep that!”
Researching the period — and the violent details of plantation life — was “an education,” said Edugyan. “I wasn’t somebody who had read very deeply about American slavery … I really didn’t have a sense of the shape that institution had taken, until I really started doing some research into it, and was obviously quite shocked at a lot of what I read.”
She consulted numerous books, both scholarly and popular, and researched plantation records online. One book that was especially helpful in finding Wash’s voice was “Equiano’s Travels,” the 18th-century autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, an African and former slave who earned his freedom working on Navy ships and later became involved in the abolitionist movement in England — and even, like Wash in the book, traveled to the far North. “I had already written that part of the book, so I was really struck by the similarities,” Edugyan said.
A “fascinating and pleasurable” counterpart to studying slavery was research on hot-air balloons; one of which, called the Cloud-cutter, plays a key role in “Washington Black.” If you look at the cover of the book’s paperback edition, you see a drawing of the Cloud-cutter, created for the original English edition. “It was literally the first book jacket they designed, and it was almost precisely what I had in mind,” said Edugyan. “I was so stunned to see it actually depicted!”
A few Moira’s Book Club members submitted questions for Edugyan, which I posed to her. One wondered if the author had a background in science, and what inspired the science/travel elements of the story. “My background is not at all in science!” said Edugyan, laughing. She admitted, though, to having “this latent interest in biology. When it came to writing the book … it seemed like a light bulb went off and it was an opportunity to learn these things.” (Wash and Titch study and draw biological specimens, particularly sea creatures.) As far as travel goes, Edugyan has been to some but not all of the places in the book; a trip to Greenland, she said, informed much of the arctic sequences. In Wash’s wanderings, “I wanted to give a sense of a literal manifestation of somebody trying to find their place in the world, seeking everywhere for a foothold and not able to find one.”
Another member noted that the book made her think of “Robinson Crusoe,” and wondered what literary works inspired “Washington Black.” Edugyan said that an editor told her, early on, that her story read like a novel by Jules Verne. “At first I thought, ‘oh no!’” Edugyan said. “But I thought about it, and realized that’s exactly the spirit in which it should be read. In a way, you can start to think of it as a bit of a corrective to the novels of Jules Verne, where his darker-skinned characters are depicted a certain way, in the service of men who are very much like Titch. It’s kind of a subversion of a Jules Verne narrative.”
And I asked her about the next step for “Washington Black”: a recently announced screen adaptation. A limited-run series is in the works by Twentieth Century Fox Television, with Emmy winner Anthony Hemingway (“American Crime Story”) directing.
“They’ve been gracious enough to have me on as an executive producer, so I can actually get involved,” said Edugyan. “It’s nice to be able to have a bit of input. But of course in the end, it’s their creation and I’m not going to be obnoxious.” She’s setting Wash free, so he can continue to fly.