Out of Bounds

Award-win­ning au­thor Esi Edugyan reimag­ines the slave nar­ra­tive

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Donna Bailey Nurse

Award-win­ning au­thor Esi Edugyan reimag­ines the slave nar­ra­tive

As long as Wash­ing­ton Black can re­mem­ber, the elevenyearold has cut cane with Big Kit, his guardian, in the swel­ter­ing fields of a Bar­ba­dian su­gar plan­ta­tion called Faith. It’s 1830, and Faith’s new mas­ter, re­cently ar­rived from Eng­land, is in­flict­ing hor­rific pun­ish­ments to en­force loy­alty. One slave has his tongue cut out. An­other is set on fire af­ter try­ing to flee. One by one, the slaves be­gin to kill them­selves, be­liev­ing their souls will re­turn to Africa when they die. Wash­ing­ton and Big Kit con­sider sui­cide too. But Wash­ing­ton’s life sud­denly changes when the mas­ter’s brother, Christo­pher Wilde (also known as Titch), bor­rows the young man as his as­sis­tant. A nat­u­ral­ist, in­ven­tor, and abo­li­tion­ist, Titch teaches Wash to cal­cu­late, read, and con­duct sci­en­tific ex­per­i­ments. He also en­cour­ages the boy’s newly dis­cov­ered pas­sion for il­lus­tra­tion, which, for Wash, is “a won­der, less an act of the fin­gers than of the eyes.” Based on tra­di­tional slave nar­ra­tives, Esi Edugyan’s new novel, Wash­ing­ton Black, reimag­ines the first-per­son ac­count of bondage and es­cape as a Bil­dungsro­man — an emo­tional, in­tel­lec­tual, and spir­i­tual jour­ney. Some of Wash’s du­ties in­volve as­sist­ing Titch with con­struc­tion of his Cloud-cut­ter, a hot-air bal­loon — Wash hap­pens to be the per­fect weight to serve as bal­last. Look­ing down from the peak from which they plan a test flight, Wash ac­quires a daz­zling new per­spec­tive of his world. “Never had I seen the roads, with their tiny men and tiny horses, the roof of Wilde Hall wink­ing in the light,” he says. “The is­land fell away on all sides, green, glit­ter­ing.” Wash soon comes to see him­self as more than a field slave — as an in­tel­li­gent young man with a rare artis­tic tal­ent. But dis­as­ter strikes, twice. First, a gas can­is­ter ex­plodes near Wash’s face, leav­ing him grotesquely scarred. Next, he wit­nesses the sui­cide of a white man, open­ing him up to a mur­der charge. Titch and Wash flee in the un­tried Cloud- cut­ter, which plum­mets, col­lid­ing with a ship. The pair are fer­ried to Vir­ginia, where they learn they are be­ing stalked by

a bounty hunter. They flee again, this time to the Arc­tic, where Titch’s fa­ther, a fa­mous sci­en­tist, is ru­moured to be alive. The re­union goes badly — his fa­ther is in­dif­fer­ent to Titch and his achieve­ments — and Titch aban­dons Wash, walk­ing out into the sub-zero el­e­ments to cer­tain death. Wash is trau­ma­tized. He had come to rely on Titch’s pro­tec­tion in a vi­ciously racist world and must now find a com­mu­nity where he can live and pur­sue his art. This is fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory for Edugyan, whose nov­els deal with thwarted black prodi­gies trapped within their his­tor­i­cal eras. Free­dom, her fic­tion as­serts, is only pos­si­ble when you are per­mit­ted to be­come the in­di­vid­ual you were born to be. Wash­ing­ton Black ex­plores the stark con­se­quences of that fail­ure.

Born to Ghana­ian im­mi­grants in 1978 in Cal­gary, Edugyan was one of few black girls grow­ing up in the Prairies. That de­tail is less an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal ba­sis for her work than a pos­si­ble source of her course of in­quiry and idio­syn­cratic vi­sion. Her nov­els blow up con­ven­tional no­tions about where black sto­ries should take place and who they should be about. Her de­but novel, The Sec­ond Life of Sa­muel Tyne, fea­tures a Ghana­ian im­mi­grant who gives up his gov­ern­ment job in Cal­gary and moves his fam­ily to a fic­tional prairie town called Aster, es­tab­lished by former slaves. There, he opens an ap­pli­ance-re­pair store. In Edugyan’s Giller Award–win­ning novel, Half Blood Blues, Hierony­mus Falk, the son of a Ger­man wo­man and a Sene­galese sol­dier, is a bril­liant trum­peter who aban­dons Ber­lin, to elude the Nazis, and makes a run for Paris, where he is ar­rested and thrown into a con­cen­tra­tion camp. Edugyan’s pro­tag­o­nists are like African Cana­di­ans gen­er­ally—per­ceived out­siders in an alien land. Her pro­tag­o­nists are also ge­niuses — her act of re­sis­tance against so­ci­ety’s propen­sity to view black peo­ple as an un­dif­fer­en­ti­ated group. Grow­ing up at a dis­tance from larger black com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try may have en­hanced her in­sights into the African Cana­dian ex­pe­ri­ence: the cul­tural alien­ation, the anx­i­ety around iden­tity, and the racial con­de­scen­sion in po­lite so­ci­ety. But part of what dis­tin­guishes Edugyan from other black Cana­dian writ­ers is her will­ing­ness to ex­plore the sus­pi­cion and be­trayal that can af­flict di­as­poric com­mu­ni­ties. While a col­lec­tive

While a col­lec­tive his­tory may bring black peo­ple to­gether, it can also be a cen­trifu­gal force that rips them apart.

his­tory may bring black peo­ple to­gether, it can also be a cen­trifu­gal force that rips them apart. We see an ex­am­ple of this in The Sec­ond Life of Sa­muel Tyne. As a bril­liant stu­dent, Tyne was lav­ished with sup­port by his Ghana­ian vil­lage. In Canada, he ex­pects Aster’s spirit will heal his trou­bled fam­ily. But not only does Tyne ex­pe­ri­ence hos­til­ity from the town’s over­whelm­ingly white pop­u­la­tion, his one black neigh­bour, a found­ing mem­ber of Aster, also ap­pears to cheat him out of some land. As Ja­maica Kin­caid ex­plains in her novel The Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of My Mother, those shar­ing a his­tory of en­slave­ment can end up mis­trust­ing one an­other be­cause “the peo­ple we should nat­u­rally have mis­trusted were be­yond our in­flu­ence com­pletely.” Af­ter Wash­ing­ton Black’s Titch dis­ap­pears into the Arc­tic, Wash, now six­teen, trav­els to Shel­burne, Nova Sco­tia, to make a home among the Black Loy­al­ists es­tab­lished there since the end of the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion. But Shel­burne is wet and dis­mal, and the white peo­ple are racist and vi­o­lent. Wash heads north and re­lo­cates in the Bed­ford Basin, where his skin colour and ru­ined fea­tures re­pulse both white and black res­i­dents. Wash sinks deeper into de­pres­sion. He lands a job on the docks where the sight of jel­ly­fish rekin­dles his

artis­tic de­sires. While paint­ing by the wa­ter, Wash meets and falls in love with abira­cial wo­man whose white fa­ther is ama­rine bi­ol­o­gist. The two men col­lab­o­rate on a project that takes Wash to Lon­don, Am­s­ter­dam, and the deserts of Morocco. But Wash is not con­tent. He re­sents not get­ting credit for his il­lus­tra­tions. Echo­ing the nar­ra­tor in Ralph El­li­son’s The In­vis­i­ble Man, Wash de­spairs of so­ci­ety ever look­ing be­yond his race to the unique hu­man be­ing within. “There could be no be­long­ing for a crea­ture such as my­self any­where,” Wash says, “a dis­fig­ured black boy with a sci­en­tific turn of mind and a tal­ent on can­vas, run­ning, al­ways run­ning, from the dimmest of shad­ows.”

Like its cen­tral char­ac­ter, Edugyan’s novel is sui generis. Her prose pos­sesses a kind of el­e­men­tal force. It is re­strained, spell­bind­ing, and, con­sid­er­ing the of­ten grotesque na­ture of the sub­ject mat­ter, eerily beau­ti­ful. To achieve that power, she jug­gles an idio­syn­cratic cross-sec­tion of gen­res, blend­ing the tra­jec­tory of slave sto­ries with clas­sic el­e­ments of the nine­teenth-cen­tury novel: cliffhang­ers, over-the-top in­ci­dents, and ec­cen­tric char­ac­ters. The story never stops feel­ing epic, thanks in part to its scope (Wash’s quest for a true home tra­verses the world), its tragic tone leav­ened with touches of irony and farce, and the wealth of the Bi­b­li­cal, lit­er­ary, and cul­tural al­lu­sions that il­lu­mi­nate ev­ery cor­ner of her writ­ing. The mir­a­cle is how mas­ter­fully she gets these el­e­ments to work to­gether. Here, for ex­am­ple, is Wash in­tro­duc­ing him­self to the reader: “I was born in the year 1818 on that sun-scorched es­tate in Bar­ba­dos. So I was told. I had also heard it said I was born in a shack­led cargo hold dur­ing a fren­zied cross­ing of the At­lantic, aboard an il­licit Dutch ves­sel. That would have been the au­tumn of 1817. In the lat­ter ac­count my mother died in the dif­fi­cult birth. For years I did not priv­i­lege one ori­gin over the other, but in my first years free I came to suf­fer strange dreams, flashes of images: Tall, staked, wooden pal­isades, walls of black jun­gle be­yond. Naked men yoked to­gether and stum­bling up rot­ted planks into a dark brig.” The long-breathed sen­tences, the el­e­vated dic­tion, the po­etic pac­ing — what Wash­ing­ton Black re­sem­bles most is MobyDick. Like Melville’s Ish­mael, Wash has a voice that hyp­no­tizes us, sink­ing our senses deep into the tex­tures of the story. There are Melvil­lian grace notes through­out the book, such as the de­scrip­tion of Big Kit in the fields as “all scorched fury, like a blunt axe, wreck­ing as much as she reaped.” Or the vis­ceral im­agery Edugyan calls up when Wash first as­sesses the ex­tent of his in­juries af­ter the Cloud-cut­ter ac­ci­dent: “I could see into the flesh of my cheek, a strange white patch mar­bled with pink, like a fatty cut of mut­ton. Old black scabs edged the wounds, along with fresher ones, clots pale as boiled oat­meal.” The “grotesque crea­ture” that Wash gazes on im­me­di­ately evokes Franken­stein’s mon­ster and raises a ques­tion that nags Wash at ev­ery turn: Did Titch see him as his own cre­ation? Was there ever a mo­ment Titch ac­cepted him as an equal? Black Cana­dian nov­els are said to be pre­oc­cu­pied with is­sues of be­long­ing, of­ten boiled down some­what sim­plis­ti­cally to the de­sire for ac­cep­tance from white so­ci­ety. But, for Edugyan, the term pos­sesses deeper nu­ance. In her 2013 Henry Kreisel Me­mo­rial Lec­ture, “Dream­ing of Else­where: Ob­ser­va­tions on Home,” she de­scribes home and be­long­ing as a com­bi­na­tion of “where we are, who we are, who we are with.” If the spec­tre of Titch hov­ers over Wash, it’s be­cause his men­tor is in­sep­a­ra­ble from Wash’s un­der­stand­ing of free­dom and home. Where be­long­ing to the plan­ta­tion made him a piece of prop­erty, be­long­ing to Titch de­noted broth­er­hood and fam­ily. Or so it seemed. But Wash ul­ti­mately grasps that be­long­ing truly ex­ists only where there is equal es­teem and love — as in his sem­i­nal re­la­tion­ship, the one he shared with Kit.

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