Biography of Esi Edugyan

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Birth and Childhood

Esi Edugyan was born in Calgary, Alberta, in 1978 (Nurse). Her parents, originally from Ghana, West Africa, came to Canada in the 1970s (Huffington Post), her father, Kweku, then working as an "economic forecaster" and her mother as a nurse (Nurse, Barber). The family's life in Canada was not always an easy one. The Globe and Mail reports that EE and her family were, at times, subject to racist behaviour or remarks: "[R]oad trips to Edmonton meant driving through small towns, where her family would be taunted and jeered with racial epithets." EE herself has commented on this tougher period of her youth: "I was raised in 1970s Alberta and there's that experience of being ... the only black kid in school and you"re very isolated and you do feel like you don't have a place" (Random House). Despite these troubling times, EE remained in Calgary until her university years, at which point she moved to Victoria, British Columbia (Random House).

Education

Becoming a writer was something that EE, from youth, wanted to do: "It drove my mother crazy, but I always had it in my mind to write because of my love of reading" (Random House). EE attended high school in Calgary before enrolling in the creative writing program at the University of Victoria, where she acquainted herself with another notable Canadian novelist, Jack Hodgins (Edugyan, Nurse). Following her undergraduate studies, EE went on to get her M.A. in writing at Johns Hopkins University (Edugyan). Her post-graduate education includes several academic fellowships, perhaps the most notable of which were at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Hawthornden Castle in Scotland, Klaustrid in Iceland, Akademie Schloss Solitude in Germany, and JAK/Collegium Budapest in Hungary (Anne McDermid & Associates).

Germany

Though she has held many international fellowship positions, EE's residency in Germany is of especial importance because of its influence on her Giller Prize-winning novel Half-Blood Blues. It was during her time in Stuttgart that she was able to study German and the history of black people in the country, a history that ultimately helped her contextualize her novel (Lederman). She also visited two concentration camps while she was there, Dachau and Sachsenhausen. In a train station outside Sachsenhausen, EE encountered a group of skinheads who began shouting and screaming at her and her companions (Lederman). This first-hand experience of the residual racism in Eastern Germany informed her second novel insofar as they forced her to face the same kind of prejudices that her characters endure.

Marriage and Family

EE met her husband, Steven Price, while studying at the University of Victoria (Nurse). Price, originally from Colwood, British Columbia, was enrolled in the same program, eventually completing his B.F.A. in writing (University of Victoria). He then went on to attain his M.F.A. in writing at the University of Virginia after winning the Henry Hoyns fellowship (University of Victoria). Like EE, Price is an author. His most recent published novel, entitled Into That Darkness, was released by Thomas Allen on 24 March 2011 (Amazon). He is currently a sessional instructor at the University of Victoria (University of Victoria). The couple have one daughter who was born in August 2011. The three now live in Victoria, British Columbia (Lederman).

Career

After graduate studies, EE continued to read and write extensively. From 2003 onward, she wrote and published several short stories and two novels (Edugyan). She also taught fiction writing as a sessional lecturer at the University of Victoria for two years (Artsy Type). If she had not become a writer, EE says that she would 'study law or might do something else artistic - like dance, perhaps. Definitely something creative" (Carswell).

Works

The Second Life of Samuel Tyne (Knopf, 2004)

For EE, the writing process for her debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, was particularly gruelling because she had just finished graduate studies and was also working full-time: "I'd get up in the morning around 4 a.m. to write, and then go to work. I wrote on the weekends as well, and it ended up taking me a year and a half" (Random House). Her initial interest in the themes and setting of the novel was sparked by a photo: "A few years ago, in a history book about Alberta, I saw a picture of black settlers from the early 1900s. I remember thinking, 'Everyone should know about this.' So, this book started with a photo of people we"ve forgotten" (Random House). As EE began to research the matter, she became more and more interested in the history of black settlers in Alberta, her efforts ultimately culminating in Samuel Tyne. EE has also said that she was influenced by parts of her father's life in writing the book, though it is not specifically about him (Lederman). The novel was published as part of Knopf Canada's New Face of Fiction program (Random House).

The novel is set in the fictional Aster, Alberta, and centres on the character Samuel Tyne, a man who emigrated from Ghana to Canada in the 1950s. He ends up inheriting his late uncle's mansion in Aster, quitting his job and uprooting his wife and twin daughters to move there and open an electronics shop. Tyne is at first happy with the seemingly friendly, small-town atmosphere of the town, but he and his family soon realize that all is not as it seems. As he begins to uncover the true nature and history of the town, including the mysterious fires that are worrying people, he becomes less and less satisfied with his decision to relocate, throwing himself into his work as he and his family become increasingly unhappy with the fresh new start they had hoped to create (Edugyan).

Though not as critically acclaimed as EE's follow-up novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne was generally well-received. It was one of the nominees for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and the New York Public Library listed it as one of 2004's Books to Remember (Anne McDermid & Associates). Some reviewers, however, found the novel lacking in a few key ways. Bronwyn Drainie of Quill & Quire highlights the many "illogicalities" and "weary repetitions" apparent in the novel, eventually chalking them up to a recurring problem in newer Canadian literature in general: "There appears to be a sense in Canadian fiction publishing right now that the job entails locating, signing, and then marketing the hot new writers. The patience and care needed to develop and edit them seems to be going by the boards" (Drainie). Other critics have responded more positively to the novel, one writing that "Edugyan's elegiac, shimmering prose makes up for the lack of sunny skies in this impressively conceived and well-executed debut" (Publishers Weekly). Nevertheless, despite the mixed critical reception, the novel remains widely read and has been published internationally (Edugyan).

Half-Blood Blues (Thomas Allen, 2011)

The inspiration for Half-Blood Blues stemmed from EE's residency in Stuttgart, where, during her studies, she became interested in the Afro-German jazz culture in wartime Germany: "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... 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" (Nurse). Questions like these intrigued EE and led her to begin writing on the subject. When the book was finished and ready for circulation, EE encountered some problems getting it published in Canada, though it had already been published in England (Nurse). Key-Porter Books, the Canadian publisher set to release the book, went bankrupt before it could publish the novel, leaving EE understandably anxious: 'the book was actually homeless for a few months until it was bought by Thomas Allen Publishers...It was intensely worrying; I love the Brits, and I love my editor there, but when you write a book, you really want to be published in your own country, to make an impact in your own sphere" (University of Victoria). Patrick Crean, the Thomas Allen representative who read the manuscript, called it a 'slam dunk" (Nurse).

Set in Nazi-occupied Paris, Half-Blood Blues is narrated by Sidney Griffiths, the American bassist of a jazz band. His band member, twenty-year old Afro-German trumpet-player Hieronymus Falk, is arrested by the Nazis, Sid being the only witness (Edugyan, Nurse). Hiero is never heard from again. After a hidden recording is released years later, however, there is a resurgence in popularity for the band and its missing trumpet player. The novel follows Sid all the way to the 1990s, when he attends the premiere for a documentary on his now-infamous band mate, and the mystery behind Hiero's disappearance is eventually revealed to the reader (Lederman).

To say that Half-Blood Blues has been well-received by critics and general readers alike is an understatement. The book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, a finalist for the Rogers Writers" Trust Fiction Prize and for the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction (Edugyan). It also made the list for Best Books of 2011 on Amazon.ca, Quill & Quire, and the Globe and Mail (Anne McDermid & Associates). Finally, and perhaps most notably, it won the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize, valued at $50,000 (Huffington Post).

Works Cited

"Author Spotlight: Esi Edugyan." Random House. Web. 15 November 2011. < http://www.randomhouse.ca/ >

Barber, John. "Author Esi Edugyan takes home the Giller Prize." The Globe and Mail. Web. 20 April 2012. < http://www.theglobeandmail.com >

Carswell, Beth. "Esi Edugyan Interview." Abe Books. Web. 15 November 2011. < http://www.abebooks.com >

Drainie, Bronwyn. "The Second Life of Samuel Tyne." Quill and Quire. Web. 15 November 2011. < http://www.quillandquire.com/ >

Edugyan, Esi. Home Page. Web. 15 November 2011. < http://www.esiedugyan.com/ >

"Esi Edugyan wins Canadian literature award." Huffington Post. 8 November 2011. Web. 15 November 2011. < http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ >

"Half-Blood Blues." Anne McDermid & Associates. Web. 15 November 2011. < http://www.mcdermidagency.com/ >

"Into That Darkness." Amazon. Web. 15 November 2011. < http://www.amazon.ca/ >

Lederman, Marsha. "Esi Edugyan: A new baby, and an armful of literary-award nominations." Globe and Mail. 7 Oct 2011. Web. 15 November 2011. < http://www.theglobeandmail.com/ >

"Media release." University of Victoria. Web. 15 November 2011. < http://communications.uvic.ca/ >

Nurse, Donna Bailey. "Esi Edugyan: Writing the blues." Quill and Quire. Web. 15 November 2011. < http://www.quillandquire.com/ >

Price, Steven. Faculty Page. Dept. of Fine Arts, University of Victoria. Web. 15 November 2011. < http://finearts.uvic.ca/ >

"The Second Life of Samuel Tyne." Publishers Weekly. Web. 15 November 2011. < http://www.publishersweekly.com/ >

"UVic's Class of 2000 Takes the Stage." University of Victoria. Web. 15 November 2011. < http://communications.uvic.ca/ >

"Writing alum Esi Edugyan wins $50,000 Giller Prize." Artsy Type: UVic's Faculty of Fine Arts. 9 November 2011. Web. 15 November 2011. < http://finearts.uvic.ca/ >