[Q&A] Booker Prize nominee Esi Edugyan talks to The Mark about her new novel, Half-Blood Blues.
Canadian authors Alison Pick, Patrick deWitt, and Esi Edugyan have all been named to the 2011 Man Booker Prize longlist. To celebrate this achievement, The Mark will be publishing interviews with each author.
Here we interview Esi Edugyan, who discusses her book, Half Blood Blues, which is pending release in Canada. Half Blood Blues, Esi’s second novel, has been described as an “entrancing, electric story about jazz, race, love, and loyalty, and the sacrifices we ask of ourselves, and demand of others, in the name of art.” We begin the interview with a brief synopsis of this compelling story:
Paris, 1940. A brilliant jazz musician, Hiero, is arrested by the Nazis and never heard from again. He is twenty years old. He is a German citizen. And he is black.
Fifty years later, his friend and fellow musician, Sid, must relive that unforgettable time, revealing the friendships, love affairs and treacheries that sealed Hiero’s fate. From the smoky bars of pre-war Berlin to the salons of Paris – where the legendary Louis Armstrong makes an appearance – Sid, with his distinctive and rhythmic German-American slang, leads the reader through a fascinating world alive with passion, music and the spirit of resistance.
THE MARK: With all the early publicity and anticipation of the release of Half-Blood Blues, do you have any fears about how the book will be received in North America?
ESI EDUGYAN: Not really – though I suppose everyone’s always a little nervous about how their work will be received. I’m just pleased that it’s done so well so far.
THE MARK: The book offers a deep commentary on conceptions of race. What kind of reflections or questions were you hoping to leave the reader with at the end?
EDUGYAN: One of the fascinating things that emerged from my research was how differently people of the same race could be treated under the Third Reich. In the case of blacks, for example, African diplomats were left mostly unmolested, as were certain other foreigners. Afro-Germans seemed to receive the worst treatment: A plan was actually put in place to sterilize some of the children. And then, of course, there was the treatment of the Jews. I wanted to show the complexity of all these realities. It’s a novel, of course, and not a work of non-fiction, and so whatever the reader is left with should, I hope, arise out of the material, out of empathy with the characters, rather than from some political position.
THE MARK: The book is situated mostly in Berlin and Paris. How do you write so intimately about cities so far from where your life is based? Are the gaps filled in with imagination, or with research?
EDUGYAN: Between the publication of my first novel and this one, I lived in, and traveled widely throughout, Europe. Most of my time was spent in Germany – first a year in the south, in Stuttgart, and, later on, two months in a little northern town. As a black woman living in what is, admittedly, a homogenous society (compared to Canada), I began to wonder about the experience of black people who had lived in Germany in the past, specifically during the Third Reich.
Intimacy is a curious thing, and the imagination has a lot to do with it. It’s possible to inhabit distant cities through the writing alone, though the extensive research required for a historical novel necessarily provides boundaries.
I’m reminded of a recent visit to Paris, where I met a friend who seemed to know all things Parisian and navigated us through the city’s streets effortlessly. I was surprised, as I didn’t think he had been in the city long. It turns out that he’d learned most of what he knew through reading Balzac’s novels.
THE MARK: You’ve talked about the great support you’ve received in Europe, as an author and an artist. Do you find that there is a profound difference in attitudes towards supporting the arts in Europe as compared to Canada? Would you like to see a different approach adopted here?
EDUGYAN: Canada has some excellent support systems in place. The Canada Council for the Arts, for instance, is one organization absolutely crucial to the sustainability of Canadian art. But I would say that a lack of recognition for the arts, and arts cuts, seem to be things we’re constantly battling against, especially these days, whereas, in a country like Germany, even in leaner times (I lived there when the economy was not at its strongest), there are protections in place for artistic support. Or so it seemed to me.
Also, there seemed to be a public curiosity about even avant-garde art. I have friends who are experimental saxophonists and new music composers who are able to eke out a living there. Interestingly, the American musicians in my book flocked to Europe in part for similar reasons of artistic support.
THE MARK: Where should young Canadian authors go to look for similar types of opportunities?
EDUGYAN: I know some people dislike them, but I do find writing programs to be a good place to start in terms of support, both in financial terms and in terms of the secure hubs they offer as places of learning and experimentation among peers. Our country has many fine ones (the University of Victoria, University of British Columbia, and Concordia University, to name a few). For those who are a little more established in their careers, there’s a great network of residencies throughout Canada (usually attached to universities), and of course throughout Europe. Online is a great place to start seeking out some of these institutions.
Check out The Mark’s interview with Alison Pick, whose book Far To Go is also nominated for the Man Booker Prize, here.