Roundtable

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Home is a Hunger Beyond Lunch

(Poet, Amatoritsero Ede in conversation with novelist, Esi Edugyan)

Amatoritsero Ede: Esi, we are excited to have you on MTLS. First, what was the inspiration for Half-Blood Blues, your most recent novel.

Esi Edugyan: In 2005, I went to live in Germany on a fellowship, in Stuttgart, a city in the South. As a black woman in Germany, I began to wonder about the history of black people in Germany, and I came across the story of the so-called Rhineland Bastards, children born to German women and French black colonial soldiers at the close of the First World War. I wondered what had happened to those children during the Third Reich.

A.E.: A historically bigoted pre-war Germany is important as setting to Half Blood Blues. Is it a coincidence that a writing residency in today’s Germany also started you on this novel? In other words, how much has contemporary Germany left its racial sentiments and social divides behind from your experience of the place?

E.E.: What surprised me most about my time in Germany was my own slow realization that one of the cradles of humanism and enlightenment values was undergoing such a challenge from contemporary political and racial divides. Germany as a nation and the Germans as a people have carried the scars of the 20th century more than most. It was, of course, quite literally a divided place, and still is today in many ways. Being a visible foreigner in such a place at such a time meant that I was lucky enough to experience both the most generous and the least generous of impulses. Inevitably, the complexity of those experiences fed into the novel.

A.E.: Yes. Germany is indeed ironic. However the Enlightenment necessarily assumed that there were Others who were not enlightened! So one could say that the Enlightenment was shadowed by race or racism; it was steeped in a humanism that de-humanised others. That is the irony. Most of those ‘humanist’ philosophers who theorized the enlightenment were racists – from Emmanuel Kant to Rene Descartes. Therein lies the roots of twentieth century Nazism and the current racial divides in Germany. I lived there for 8 years as a student. It can be a hot, hot kitchen if you are black or coloured. But I must insist that we have a humane Left too there and that the German Right-Wing does not enjoy popular support.

Hieronymus Falk is the ‘soul’ of Half Blood Blues – musically and otherwise. He is as important, if not more important, than Sid, the narrator, who is also the former’s antagonist. Yet ‘Hiero,’ is always in the background, silent, brooding, unheard and tragic. He is the shy enigmatic musical genius. I, as a reader, wanted to hear and feel more from him. In the end when we do, he is blind and broken, even if unbowed. Would there have been any other way of characterizing him other than this?

E.E.: I’m so pleased you engaged so deeply with the novel. I’m sure there would have been many ways of conceiving these characters and this story, but that would have been a different novel.

A.E.: Agreed!; a different novel but with the same characters. A sequel to Half-Blood Blues that resurrects the unforgettable Hieronymus Falk would be very interesting indeed. I think he is going to be an undying fictional character. Is there any chance of a sequel?

E.E.: Thank you. There are always so many more stories to tell, aren’t there? I can’t imagine revisiting this world and these characters, but it’s an interesting idea.

A.E..: Yes, when I asked that question I was actually thinking of that rich tradition of sequels – for example in James Joyce through The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. In both works, the fictional Stephen Dedalus is a major character. Each novel therefore reflects upon the other, enriches the reading experience and the study of Joyce as a writer in his impact on the modern English novel.

The writing life brings its challenges and its fulfilment. What has been the most tasking challenge you have had to overcome as a writer, and as an African-Canadian writer?

E.E.: Interestingly, given the delicacy and generosity in your question: questions such as this one. That is, being regarded as a hyphenated writer, an Afro-Canadian etc, as if there were some special topic or subject required, and some special audience expected, rather than simply being seen as a writer telling stories about the world. Please don’t misunderstand me – it isn’t a ghettosization, here in Canada, at this time in history. Far from it. There has been so much interest in the past twenty years in stories that haven’t been heard, in minority voices, that sometimes one feels lucky to be able to speak from such a background. Sometimes. As a writer, the challenge is always time, confidence, energy, encouragement. Rejection is hard. Half-Blood Blues, in particular, couldn’t find a publisher until Jane Warren, then at Key Porter, picked it up. And when that press folded, suddenly, in the fall of 2010, editors across the country again saw the manuscript, and again rejected it. That was a heartbreaking time.

A.E..: I asked about the African-Canadian experience precisely because identity does matter from culture to culture to varying degrees and historically. It is part of the stories and realities in the world. You experienced it first-hand in Germany. It might be felt differently in Canada. And identity has shaped the modern world as we see in the example of the story of the Enlightenment – where, based on race, some become automatic barbarians and non-persons.

Dreaming of Elsewhere is your creative nonfiction mediation on home and belonging or un-belonging. It begins with the anecdote of Anthony Wilhelm Rudolph Amo, the Ghanaian child taken away to Germany as slave in the early 1700s and raised as the ward of a German aristocrat. This is symbolic of the mass movement of black people from Africa to a new world Diaspora. Can one say that black people have really found a home in their travels beginning with forced migration (slavery) initiated during European contact in 1400s Africa?

E.E.: An interesting idea. I wouldn’t wish to speak on behalf of all black people. I can say, for myself, that my search for belonging has been a personal one, rather than a collective, racial one. I do believe, as you suggest, that home is not so much a place as a way of belonging in the world.

A.E.: Of course, no one can speak for a whole race or group of people. But as public intellectuals those demands and responsibilities gets silently passed on to us based on ‘pigmentation’ and historical experiences.

In all its senses, where is home for you – Canada, Ghana or elsewhere?

E.E.: I don’t know that it is a question of place.

A.E.: Since 2005, a small circle of immigrant black writers describes themselves with the new-fangled term, ‘afropolitan,’ rather than the usual cosmopolitan. They are second- generation immigrants, have African roots and connections but may be ambivalent towards the continent. As a writer of African descent, what do you think about the idea of Afropolitanism?

E.E.: I think how we see ourselves is often what we become. Africa is a vast place – as varied and complex as Europe, or Asia. Sometimes we forget this in North America, and imagine it to be more akin to the US or Canada – a continental nation, multiple, but sharing a dominant culture. It is not; it does not. What I might say in answer to your question is this: that being descended from elsewhere has, in my experience, contributed to a feeling of otherness. For some writers, such a feeling would naturally lead them to seek out others with a similar experience, and form groups or cliques. For me, it has always led me to distrust the collective path, and to lurk on the sidelines.

A.E..: I cannot stand cliques myself because it is limiting. But I do have sympathies. And again, depending on a particular culture, you find yourself pushed into cliques. Germany did and does do that from my experience of the place.

Half-Blood Blues is a breathtaking and quietly stormy book – in its characterization, plotting and, especially, speech. What gets to me is the originality of its vernacular voice and its jazzy cadence. How did you manage to capture pre-world war black speech or rather the language of the streets and of Jazz with such familiarity and authenticity? It seems like this work is hundreds of years older than its author.

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