Starting with character

By Amy Reiswig, October 2011

In her latest novel, Man Booker Prize finalist Esi Edugyan explores the world of jazz musicians during the rise of Nazism.

"Sightseeing ain’t but a waste of time ’less you know what you looking at.” So says Chip Jones, one of the main characters in Victoria novelist Esi Edugyan’s latest work, Half-Blood Blues (Thomas Allen, September 2011). Reading a novel is, in fact, a lot like being taken on a sightseeing tour: you settle in and put yourself in the hands of a guide you trust to lead you through an often foreign world. You therefore want that guide to be not just knowledgeable but a true animator—someone who with words can restore ruins, clothe ghosts with flesh and voice, and make that foreign world relevant and alive to every visitor. Edugyan is such a guide.

The world Edugyan spirits us through in her latest book is that of jazz musicians, both African-American and Afro-German, in Berlin and Paris under the spreading threat of Nazism at the start of World War II. It’s an ambitious undertaking and not just another war novel. “I really feel like I haven’t seen this story told in this way—the multiple perspectives in this place,” Edugyan tells me during a brief break from tending to her six-day-old daughter. So what brought her into this foreign territory?

Born to Ghanaian parents in Calgary in the late 1970s, Edugyan came to BC for UVic’s writing program and has from here gone on to live and write around the world. With a Master’s in writing from Johns Hopkins, Edugyan has held multiple residencies internationally (including Scotland, Iceland, Hungary, Finland, Spain and Belgium) and lived for about five years in Germany. But she says Victoria—where she met her husband, poet Steven Price—has remained home base. 

This peripatetic life has given Edugyan her own experience of foreignness. “I seem to end up living in these cities that are mostly homogenous,” she laughs warmly, noting that just like today’s largely-white Victoria, “there wasn’t exactly a huge black population in Alberta in the 1970s. So I’m really interested in these diaspora stories—the little pockets where people end up.” 

This interest was first explored in her Hurston/Wright Legacy Award-nominated debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne (Knopf, 2004), which describes the life of a Ghanaian immigrant to Canada settling in small-town Alberta. This second book also tells a diaspora story, with characters crossing oceans and continental European borders seeking freedom to live, love, and above all make music. Shifting back and forth from 1939-40 in Berlin and Paris to Baltimore, Germany and Poland in 1992, Half-Blood Blues chronicles in part just that: the difficulties of finding a place to belong, whether in the Jim Crow US, Nazi Germany or occupied France.

As a work of historical fiction, the book offers a glimpse into unsettling realities of this dark era—how Goering began collecting information on mixed-race children in 1933; the programs of forced sterilization; Goebbels’ Reichsmusikkammer (State Music Institute); and the insistence that musicians register in order to prevent degenerate influences like jazz. “I wouldn’t say the goal is to educate people, though,” Edugyan tells me. “Character is where I start from.”  

Told in the first-person voice of Baltimorean bassist Sid Griffiths, the novel’s style is quick and intimate, natural and often hilarious. But Sid’s focus largely revolves around trumpet prodigy Hieronymus Falk (Hiero), who he witnessed being arrested in a Paris café in 1939, never to be heard from again. Falk “was a Mischling, a half-breed, but so dark no soul ever like to guess his mama a white Rhinelander.” 

Through Falk, Edugyan addresses the experience of the so-called “Rhineland Bastards,” children of German women and occupying African soldiers from French colonies after World War I. “Having these African-American musicians coming overseas made for an interesting dichotomy set against this Afro-German experience,” Edugyan explains, adding that characters of varying racial backgrounds (Sid was the son of two quadroons: “so light-skinned, folks took me for white”) allowed her to examine the many ways to be black in that era and the ability—or inability—to navigate society based on skin colour and nationality.

Much has been made of Edugyan’s deft, sensitive and original exploration of race during a particular period, but that is merely one of many elements to admire on the tour. Ultimately, like all great literature, this is a story about human nature, one that goes to the core of our most elemental themes and struggles. As a result, I was often put in mind of Greek tragedy: people under pressure wrestling and working out their relationship with issues of truth, pretence, friendship, love, betrayal, jealousy, rage, regret, hope and redemption—timeless themes which shine out as such against the backdrop of so specific a point in history. As Sid says when the musicians flee Berlin, “Ain’t no man can outrun his fate.”

So while it may have been a surprise to the author, it won’t be to any reader that Half-Blood Blues recently made the shortlist (with only five others) for the international Man Booker Prize for Fiction. She was surprised enough at being longlisted for the award: “I was eight months pregnant and sleeping” when the phone rang, Edugyan says. “Obviously you don’t anticipate such a thing. I had no idea the longlist was even being announced,” she laughs. Her book is also on the longlist for the Giller Prize. Both prizes will be announced in October.

With a newborn baby and fairly newborn book generating massive media attention, Edugyan is just feeling grateful, especially, she says, since the book’s birth was so difficult. Initially bought by Canadian Key Porter Books and slated to be released in February 2011, the company’s bankruptcy meant a delay in the domestic release. Published in the UK with Serpent’s Tail just in June, it only took a short time for Half-Blood Blues to come to the attention of Booker judges looking to reward, as the prize’s site states, “the very best book of the year.”

Half-Blood Blues will interest not just historians, readers of war literature, music lovers and people interested in explorations of race, but any reader who appreciates beautiful, sharp writing that captures and expresses our deepest human dilemmas. However long it may take for the next book—Edugyan is preoccupied with her new daughter right now: “She’s so beautiful!” she exults—I look forward to wherever this resourceful, gifted guide might take us next. 

Writer, editor and musician Amy Reiswig is going to listen to her Louis Armstrong records differently from now on.