Booker and Giller Prize nominee Esi Edugyan to appear at VIWF
I thought for sure Esi Edugyan was from Baltimore. She had to be. How else could she have so accurately captured the dialect of Sid, the narrator of her latest novel Half-Blood Blues?
An ear for music. And a love of her Dad’s jazz records, which she heard growing up in Calgary.
True, Edugyan has lived in Baltimore, but only long enough to earn her MFA from Johns Hopkins.
“Baltimore was such a strange place for me” she says. “I was 20. I had no idea. Going down there to get an apartment and being told oh you can’t walk. Take a security car.
“There was a corner store that had two locked doors. The clerk sat behind bulletproof glass. I pointed to what I wanted and put the money on a turnstile. And that was at midday.
“Fellow students were mugged. It was really shocking for me, coming from Calgary and Victoria and being so young and inexperienced. It’s one of those cities—just so much weirdness—like John Waters’ films. It’s a very interesting city with a great history—really alive in so many different ways.”
But of course Half-Blood Blues is set mostly in Paris and Berlin, shifting back and forth from the onset of World War II to1992. It concerns a brilliant black German jazz musician who’s arrested by the Nazis, and how that affects Sid Griffiths, the only witness, 50 years later. It’s about love, loyalty, race, and betrayal told in Sid’s flawless, syncopated voice.
Edugyan explains that the first draft had “a more straight-forward, less vernacular voice.” Her husband, poet Steven Price, encouraged her to “strengthen that up a bit and play with language in a different way.”
Once she had found the right tone, she says, “I always knew what Sid would say, was always able to slip into that voice, and enter that persona.”
The next challenge for Edugyan was the novel’s structure. the initial frame she had in her first draft didn’t seem to be working, she says. The book needed to include “the emotional impact in the present. It was more interesting as a writer to be able to stop and come back to the 1990s. It gave me more freedom and Sid’s voice was a bit different, less gnarled, older.
“It was also a great opportunity to show Sid and Chip’s friendship. How they have played out their triumphs and disappointments has changed the way they react and relate to their art form. It gives a fuller feeling of who they were.”
Edugyan started out as a poet and studied with Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier. She came back to fiction, and her short stories kept getting longer and longer.
“People said, ‘I think you’re a novelist.’
“Reading made me a writer,” she continues. “I was one of those kids who was more interested in reading than playing with dolls. I read anything that had a great story and intrigue—like Harriet the Spy. I wanted to be Harriet.”