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Esi Edugyan

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Writing the blues

After becoming disenchanted with literary life, Esi Edugyan found inspiration for her sophomore novel in an unlikely place

Not too long ago, Esi Edugyan grew dissatisfied with literary life. Her first novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, had been published in 2004 to international kudos and was part of Knopf Canada’s New Face of Fiction program. But Edugyan became deeply frustrated when the manuscript for her second novel – a project she has since put aside – was passed around without landing a publisher. At the time, she contemplated abandoning writing altogether.

“I thought I could have gone off and studied law,” says Edugyan, “or anything else with very tangible, forward-moving results.”

However, Edugyan had been accepted into residencies in Iceland, Hungary, and France, and felt she owed it to her patrons to put out another novel. In the German city of Stuttgart, she lived on the grounds of an 18th-century castle, in outbuildings that had been converted into studios for artists and writers – an experience that helped change her perspective. “The Europeans, especially the Germans and the French, are just amazing at supporting their artists,” Edugyan says. “[Artists] are almost hallowed.”

While in Germany, Edugyan studied the language and immersed herself in a totally alien culture. “There are so many amazing things about the country: its reverence for the arts; its reverence for beauty and thought; the strains of philosophy. And the landscape: it’s extremely beautiful.” At the same time, she acknowledges, “Germany has such a heavy history.”

That apparent dichotomy – between the richness of German culture and the darkness of its history – inspired her latest novel, Half-Blood Blues, which is being published by Thomas Allen Publishers in September. The novel’s main action takes place in occupied Paris, where Hiero, a brilliant young Afro-German jazz musician, is arrested by the Nazis and never heard from again. The son of a white German mother and black African soldier, Hiero is one of the mixed-race Germans that came to be known as “Rhineland bastards,” a despised population who were denied citizenship and persecuted by the Nazis. A member of an interracial jazz ensemble, Hiero’s life is doubly imperilled: the Nazis condemned jazz as the degenerate music of blacks and Jews.

“We all know about the Jazz Age in the 1920s, and how African-American performers were going overseas to perform in Germany and, especially, in France,” Edugyan says. “But then came 1933 and the Third Reich. What happened to some of the African-American musicians who may have stayed behind? What happened to their fellow German musicians? A lot of them were Jewish.”

Edugyan possesses an original literary mind – it’s hard to think of another contemporary novelist who could fuse jazz, Jews, blacks, and the Holocaust into a cogent, riveting story. Yet, Half-Blood Blues also fits comfortably into a tradition of black Canadian literature that includes Lawrence Hill’s Any Known Blood and Kim Brunhuber’s Kameleon Man, in which biracial experience symbolizes the challenge of reconciling black and national identities.

“Hiero feels very German at his core, but he can’t just slip in with the majority. And so he is forced into this feeling of otherness. There’s this sense of helplessness about it,” Edugyan explains.

“[Suppose] someone was telling you all the time, ‘You’re not Canadian. You’re not Canadian,’ and you felt very deeply that you were Canadian,” she adds. “There’s a tragedy there. You’re not allowed to be what you feel yourself to be.”

Edugyan, 33, was born and raised in Calgary. Her parents, Ghanaian emigrants, settled in Alberta, where her father worked as an economic forecaster and her mother was a nurse. She is a petite, glamorous woman with a creamy, dark complexion and a mass of curly hair that she wears tied back in an unfussy style. When we met in Toronto in April, Edugyan, who was five months pregnant at the time, wore a lilac dress with an elegant cut that skimmed her body. She has smiling eyes, but her expression is enigmatic – she’s still more than a little wary of the ups and downs of the publishing process.

Edugyan began writing in earnest in her teens – “terrible poems,” she insists. Nevertheless, a high school teacher recognized her talent and directed her to the creative writing program at the University of Victoria, where she met her husband, the poet and novelist Steven Price. The couple, who both studied under the novelist Jack Hodgins, continue to be each other’s toughest critics, Edugyan says.

Half-Blood Blues appeared first in the U.K., where it was published by the venerable literary house Serpent’s Tail in June. In Canada, the novel was originally picked up by former Key Porter Books editor Jane Warren, but publication was delayed when the company went on permanent hiatus last October. Edugyan’s agent, Anne McDermid, eventually sought a new home for the novel with Thomas Allen, which had published Price’s debut novel, Into That Darkness, earlier this year.

Thomas Allen publisher Patrick Crean, already a fan of Edugyan’s work, read the manuscript in two sittings. “It was a slam dunk,” he says. “There was the compelling nature of the story – a group of jazz musicians caught up in Nazi Germany. The editing had already been done. We were a lucky publisher to have this wonderful book land in our lap.”

For Edugyan, at least, it seems the vicissitudes of literary life are paying off.