Esi Edugyan (Photo: Courtesy of the author); John Hartman, Esi Edugyan, Victoria, 2018, oil on linen, 48 x 54 in. (Photo: Courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.); Out Of The Sun
Out of the Sun: On Art, Race, and the Future
Esi Edugyan, a storyteller interested in overlooked Black narratives, describes her new book of essays on identity and belonging as part memoir, part travelogue and part history / BY Ashante Infantry / October 8th, 2021
Book adaptations can be fraught for writers who may relinquish control of their most acclaimed works for a healthy payday and expanded audience, only to see the productions depart completely or abominably from their texts, but Esi Edugyan is comfortable with the trajectory of her bestselling 2018 novel Washington Black.
It was announced this week that This Is Us actor Sterling K. Brown will star in and executive produce a nine-episode series for the U.S. streaming platform, Hulu, based on the Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning novel about an enslaved boy’s journey from a 19th century Barbados sugar plantation to freedom in Canada.
“It’s very exciting,” Edugyan says by phone from her home in Victoria, B.C. “Obviously, this is territory I’ve never waded into before.”
Any apprehensions were appeased when she met with the writing team a few years ago, after Brown bought the film rights. “They’ve been very good about asking for my own vision and then clarifying things in the book, but then having their own ideas as well,” she says. “I can’t wait to see the series and what they come up with.”
The innovative plotlines and cinematic arcs of Edugyan’s historical fiction, like the 2011 Giller prize-winning Half-Blood Blues, about Black jazz musicians in Berlin and Paris at the beginning of the Second World War, would translate just as well to big and small screens. It’s gratifying to see her work embraced by TV’s big leagues like Canadian writers Margaret Atwood with The Handmaid’s Tale and Lawrence Hill with The Book of Negroes.
Now the Calgary native is following in the footsteps of distinguished Canadian and global intellectuals like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., economist John Kenneth Galbraith and urbanist Jane Jacobs, after she was selected to deliver the 2021 Massey Lectures. The five lectures are usually delivered in a public forum, but this year Edugyan will record them for broadcast on CBC Radio One’s IDEAS and CBC Listen this fall, and she draws on them in her new book of essays called Out of the Sun: On Art, Race, and the Future.
The Massey assignment melds her “abiding interest in locating Black histories and overlooked Black figures” with her enthusiasm for art and artistic practice. Edugyan used it as an opportunity to write about “racial issues through the lens of visual art, literature, film, and her own lived experience,” in engrossing treatises spanning North America, Europe, Africa and Asia.
In a chapter in Out of the Sun about the contentious representation of Black people in Western art, for example, she talks about sitting for her portrait with preeminent Canadian painter John Hartman a few years ago; revisits the quizzical depiction of a biracial European, Dido Elizabeth Belle (whose story was the subject of the 2013 film Belle), in an 18th century painting; and assesses African American artist and Barack Obama portraitist Kehinde Wiley’s audacious reinterpretation of Napoleon Bonaparte as a young Black man.
“Black people are present, but as footmen, slaves, lady’s maids, magi,” she writes. “…These images bear out across long centuries of portraiture, and they amount to a verdict of sorts. If one of the unavoidable eventualities of art is to act as social history, what story is being handed down to us?”
Edugyan relished the chance to analyze and tease out “back-of-your-head thoughts, or passing conversations that you have at book festivals. “In some cases, some of the stories are things that I’ve known about for years, but I maybe kept in a file, and thought, ‘Maybe I’ll do a novel on that, or short story, at some point,’ but they’ve been sitting in that file for, like, 10 years,” she explains.
Out of the Sun aligns with current efforts to re-centre Black narratives in the wake of the social justice and anti-Black racism remonstrations triggered by George Floyd’s murder.
“I feel like the last year and a half has been a real awakening in terms of this discussion of suppressed histories; and I feel like it’s something that our community’s always known, but it’s really been brought into the open,” says the author, noting that some people are threatened by the move to correct or revise historical records.
“We’re watching it play out, and in a very raw way, and there will be some kind of equilibrium at some point … We just have to kind of figure out how we’re all going to come to a collective consensus on the stories that we tell ourselves, that we permit ourselves to tell about our origins, about our histories, about the origins of our nations, of the origins of our systems.”
The book is revelatory for the glimpses it offers into the upbringing and personal life of the married mother of a six-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, including how her Ghanaian parents met as young students in California and what is was like to visit their home country for the first time ever with her siblings in 2007, 10 years after their mother’s death.
Edugyan, who is not as active on social media as some of her literary peers, says any reticence to share is out of consideration for her family.
“I always have my heart in my throat – ‘What is my father going to think?’ – really not wanting to expose those around me, because they didn’t ask for their stories to be exposed. But I justified talking about my parents because it’s part of my own story, as well. It’s kind of impossible to talk about origin without talking about one’s parents.”