This Black History Month, and always, DiversiPro celebrates the artistry of novelist Esi Edugyan—two-time winner of Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize—for Half Blood Blues in 2011 and Washington Black in 2018.
Born in Calgary of Ghanaian parents—an economist and a nurse—Esi Edugyan is only the third person (Alice Munro and M.G Vassanji are the other two) ever to have won the Giller Prize twice. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Victoria, completed her Master of Arts at Johns Hopkins University and served as a writer-in-residence in Stuttgart, Germany.
In her latest novel, Washington Black, Edugyan demonstrates her absolute mastery of historical fiction of the Black experience—she places fictionalized characters in historically accurate settings—and explores such currently relevant themes as personhood, identity, race, belonging, displacement and how one fits into society. The main character in Washington Black, ‘Wash’ is reminiscent of Josiah Henson who rose from slavery in the United States, and by way of the Underground Railroad, rose to become a community leader, educator, author and founder of one of the first manual labor training schools in Southwestern Ontario, motivating Black people to learn trades to support themselves.
Edugyan’s work can also be seen as blazing a trail for newly emerging Canadian Black author activists with social justice interests across the African Diaspora. Habiba Cooper Diallo is a case in point. Born of a Caribbean mother and West African father, her recently published book Black In School paints vivid pictures of the racism and micro-aggressions she experienced as a high school student in Canada and offers critical perspective on anti-Black racism in the education system. This work serves as a complement to her earlier advocacy accomplishments as founder of Women’s Health Organization International (WHOI)—an organization devoted to eradicating fistula as a significant medical challenge for women in Ghana, Senegal, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.
Edugyan’s accomplishments and messages to mainstream culture were applauded in 2021 by the Ontario Heritage Trust when she delivered—via ZOOM an engaging discussion of Washington Black at Heritage Matters Live—Ontario’s annual bellwether cultural discussion event.
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