Photo by Venturi + Karpa
ESI EDUGYAN reading with Writers’ Trust short-listers Wednesday (October 26), 8 pm, in the Brigantine Room; participating in a round table with Booker nominees, 4 pm, and reading with the Giller short-listers, 8 pm, both October 29, Fleck Dance Theatre; and reading with Rana Dasgupta, Prue Leith and Zoë Strachan, October 30, 2 pm, in the Studio Theatre.
Esi Edugyan understands envy. Just read Half-Blood Blues, her novel about jazz musicians living in Nazi-occupied Paris. Her hero Sid, a decent bass player, is supremely jealous of Hiero, the genius sax man who doesn't have to try hard to sound brilliant. Plus, they're both hot for the same woman.
"I was climbing inside Sid's mind," says the Calgary-born author from her home base in Victoria. "When you have a close friend that you have conflicted feelings for - including sexual envy - the artistic rivalry compounds everything."
Lately, Edugyan is probably the target of some serious professional jealousy herself.
Half-Blood Blues, her second published novel, appears on all three major Canadian prize short-lists. And she'll be taking a trip to London, England for the Booker Prize banquet - she's nominated for that award, too.
Add a newborn baby and you have some heavy happenings.
"It's still a bit hazy and in the background, with the baby in the forefront."
Don't expect a follow-up novel soon. She's busy being a new mom.
Edugyan read voraciously as a child and had what she calls a minor epiphany that she should become a writer. She recalls an intimidating teacher who urged her to speak up more in class.
"‘You obviously get literature,' she told me. ‘We need more of your voice.'"
Now in her early 30s, Edugyan hasn't let go of that shyness. Maybe it's because taking care of a newborn can be so completely draining, but she's very low-key over the phone. She speaks in measured tones as she assesses her breakout success, which, she says, has taken her completely by surprise.
It comes thanks to her absorbing story about black and mixed-race musicians in war-torn 40s Europe. Half-Blood Blues offers a rare, fresh glimpse into lives almost never considered in literature.
While travelling in Europe for several years beginning in 2006, she felt the need as a black woman to explore the topic. She dug deep into what there was of the non-fiction canon on people of colour in Nazi-occupied Europe - you can count the texts on one hand - and tried talking with one mixed-race survivor to get intimate details. But he was writing his own memoir and wasn't exactly forthcoming.
So she used her imagination. That applies to the dialogue, too, a wondrous mix of poetry and street slang, in which the Nazis are called boots, for example, men Jacks and women Janes. It comes across as absolutely believable and of the time and yet, from a present-day perspective, strangely hip.
Some of that lingo came from listening to oral histories and from reading a biography of Louis Armstrong, who figures prominently in the novel.
"But I was also inventing language as well, taking the texture and instinctively creating new words and ways of speaking, based on their speech. And I came up with new words specific to the experience of these men in Germany. Jacks and Janes are actually authentic words. Boots? I made that up."
Once she'd fashioned the argot, the spoken words came easily.
"Once you grasp it and have a sense of the characters, you can say anything in that voice - it's available to you and you're not straining for it.
"I have to admit, though, once I had finished several drafts, it overtook everything, and I felt like I was stuck in that voice. I kept wanting to write something completely different - like the longest, most lyrical sentence in third person ever."
Central to the novel is the friendship between drummer Chip and the younger Sid, whom Chip groomed when they were teens in Baltimore, later urging Sid to come with him to Paris. The relationship, which we witness in the 40s and in the 90s, is prickly - Chip can actually be a bit of an asshole who gets almost sadistic pleasure from pressing Sid's buttons.
"When you have friendships that began in childhood, you're much more forgiving of that person's faults than a newer friend's," she says. "Sid was young and vulnerable and Chip was a bully, and the pattern persisted. But they're like brothers so they just carry on with it."
As for the gobs of media attention she's bound to get, Edugyan won't be reading or watching any of it. The reason is buried in a Half-Blood Blues moment, when Chip and Sid are at a 1992 showing of a documentary film about Hiero. Sid watches in horror while Chip excoriates Sid onscreen for his treatment of Hiero decades earlier. Predictably, Chip tries to weasel out of it, claiming he was taken out of context.
"I don't read my interviews or my reviews - my husband does all that for me," she admits. "It's from a fear that one of these days someone's going to patch together all the worst parts, and I'll look terrible."