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Esi Edugyan brings Black historical figures out of the shadows

A photo of author Esi Edugyan

Esi Edugyan (David Levenson/Getty Images)

In this year’s CBC Massey Lectures, two-time Giller winner Esi Edugyan tells the stories of overlooked Black figures from history in essays that explore art, white allyship, samurais, and more. Edugyan examines these forgotten lives in the context of their time, but also explores their impact on us and why they were forgotten in the first place.

Edugyan spoke to Q&Q about the process of writing the essays in Out of the Sun: On Race and Storytelling (House of Anansi Press, Sept.).

Where did the idea for these lectures come from?

I thought I’d like to get a chance to explore some historical figures and stories that I’m probably never going to do a whole novel on. This was a perfect opportunity to do that: to give some shape to these lives, to air them and make them visible. When we think of Black migration historically, the idea is intrinsically linked to the slave trade. I wanted to look at some of the stories that sat outside that paradigm.

What impact did the pandemic have on the work?

It threw into greater relief the privilege I have doing the work that I do. It took me off the road – I was travelling constantly, I was lecturing constantly, I was rarely at home – and so it forced me to be home, to reconnect with my family, and also to reconnect with my thoughts. This is not a book I could have written with the former conditions of my life; I just couldn’t have done it. I needed that space for deep thought.

How did your approach differ from the way you write novels?

In an essay, everything is explicit. Any story that you tell has to fit into your overall thesis, and you have to state explicitly why it is you’re telling that story and what it highlights. When you’re writing a fictional work, to be explicit in that way is to really diminish and damage the material. It did require a bit of an adjustment.

What do you hope readers take from the book?

If you walk away with even one new fact that has enlarged your sense of history about who was where when, then that’s great. That’s perfect. –CD

This interview has been edited and condensed.