By Cecily Lawson, Friends of the McGill Library committee member
The 2019 Hugh MacLennan Lecture was given by Canadian writer and Giller Prize winner Esi Edugyan. She was interviewed on stage at Moyse Hall on April 29th by CBC radio and television personality Amanda Parris whose questions focused largely on Edugyan’s most recent book, Washington Black.
The book’s title character, Wash, began life as a slave on a plantation in Barbados. Edugyan shared with the sellout audience the difficulty of researching a subject such as slavery, which was particularly cruel in the Caribbean and South America. She said she felt that she needed to write about the life of a slave in some detail, what their days were like, the randomness of the punishments that were meted out, the lack of control. Glossing over the brutality would dishonour those who had lived that reality. She noted that the descriptions of slavery are covered in the first quarter of the book and the reader must trust that they are there for a reason and that he or she will get through it.
Edugyan explained that she is very interested in the loss of human potential that resulted from the institution of slavery. All the talent and capacity for greatness that were never realized. She also wanted to explore the concept of what she termed the aftermath. In the case of Washington Black, this meant the journey Wash embarked upon once he was no longer a slave. Edugyan notes that he doesn’t know how to be free. His notion is that it means he doesn’t have to work or to answer questions. But as he goes out into the world, he realizes that it is much more complicated and the novel is about him groping his way to freedom.
Moving away from the book, Parris asked about the impact of current political events on a writer. Edugyan responded that we are living in a time of regression where so much of the progress of the civil rights movement is being undone. As a writer, she said, one sits at a desk all day long and feels guilty about not being socially active. But one of the things that fiction does is to give the reader the ability to understand the plight of someone else who is not himself or herself, and that can be transformative.
Edugyan, whose main protagonists in both her previous book, Half Blood Blues, and in Washington Black are men, confirmed that her next book will be told from the point of view of a woman. She talked about writing from the male perspective, saying that today it can be controversial to write not from your own experience. She hopes that we don’t come to a place where we cannot be creative as writers. While preferring not to put limits on her material, Edugyan said that her work would always be about what it’s like to be black moving through the world.
The MacLennan Lecture is sponsored by Don Walcot. It is presented by the Friends of the McGill Library in cooperation with the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. Blue Met board member Philippe Bélanger spoke briefly at the start of the event, preceded by Friends board member Louise Dery-Goldberg. Ms Edugyan was introduced by McGill Law Professor Adelle Blackett and thanked by Christelle Tessono, president of the Black Students Network of McGill.
Watch a video recording of the lecture by clicking here.
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