If writers write with empathy and authenticity, it allows them and their readers to cross all sorts of barriers.
If there’s another accolade Esi Edugyan deserves, it’s the one for Writer Most Untouched by Success. What a delight, then, to be able to spend time in conversation with her on the pleasures and the pitfalls of writing fiction today.
Esi has said (in a 2018 interview for Kirkus) that in the early reception of Washington Black she had sensed the unspoken question, “Why are you writing this, where are we in this?” I ask if she is irked by the constant craving we have to see ourselves reflected in a work of fiction, to see fiction as a mirror, in other words.
Edugyan is thoughtful, her voice considerate and soft, but she’s not hesitant. When she pauses during our conversation, it’s only to find the precise words to frame her position most accurately. No, she says. She understands that craving totally. Readers want to engage with the character, to identify with them, and that’s easiest to do when the experiences they’re reading about most closely reflect their own.
Why, then, is she attracted to historical fiction? What are the special benefits that historical material brings to her as creator?
It’s the attraction of the unknown story, Edugyan says, the story arising from that unexpected, really compelling nugget you come across by chance, and that you might be able work with. I can hear a trace of the excitement she feels—and that I can relate to—as she describes the moment of discovery, the writer’s realization that a whole story is present there in that detail, waiting to be unfolded, and brought into being. She adds, more practically, that working from hindsight simply feels easier and she hints at the difficulties of writing in the present, in these times where we live in such uncertainty.
She believes, though, that historical fiction can be an effective way to raise present-day issues, a vehicle to illuminate the roots of certain aspects of our own culture. There is plenty of opportunity in the course of Washington’s travels, for instance, to shine a light on continuing racism in Canadian society today.
It’s no accident that each of Edugyan’s three novels is historical, though her first, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, set in 1968, almost makes it into her own era. We talk for a while about the attraction of historical fiction for writers less inclined to make creative hay with their own lives, Edugyan suggesting its usefulness is to provide filters or layers, a kind of privacy screen, between the writer’s work and the writer’s self.
So to write from the point of view of a male protagonist might be, for a woman writer, just such a protective screen? (Edugyan’s three novels all involve a male protagonist.) We consider briefly the question of whether a writer need, or should, be confined to writing their own gender—and it’s quickly dismissed.
Wash, though male, is the character Edugyan attests to feeling most in tune with in all of her work. She’s keenly aware that many women are looking exclusively for women’s stories to the extent that they feel short-changed when confronted with a male protagonist. But to be so constrained to a single point of view, she argues, is to take a strangely binary approach to literature, which after all should be reaching for the universal.
So, on the fraught question of identity and authenticity, the growing insistence on it, and current interpretation of it (you can only write, say, about the plight of an addict if you’ve experienced addiction), I have to ask: does such a stance serve to protect the truth, or does it imperil our attempts to break down barriers? Are we constrained to write only from the position of the group we identify with?
Edugyan, knowing where this line of thought is taking us, considers her reply and phrases it with care, acknowledging the trauma of colonization and its legacy of continuing pain, and showing enormous respect for the reality of that lived pain. And yet, she says after a thoughtful pause, if it’s done well, that is, with understanding and empathy and authenticity, then it can allow us to cross barriers. And if it’s done with the right motives? I suggest. But Edugyan doesn’t commit. She says she has seen both bad and good on both sides of the issue: writers from outside the group telling its story badly, and writers from within telling it well—and also, most importantly, vice-versa.
It seems like a good moment to haul out the American philosopher Richard Rorty and a quote I keep close to my own writing desk. In Rorty’s ideal universe, solidarity with others would be achieved “not by inquiry but by imagination.” He says we reach solidarity by “coming to see other human beings as ‘one of us’ rather than as ‘them’” and we can foster that ability through detailed description and rediscription. And that is exactly what the novel, as a form, can do so well.
Edugyan agrees with Rorty’s characterization—and goes further. She emphasizes the importance of not simply describing but examining interior lives in minute, granular detail, exposing the deep psychology of your characters. Even the act of writing about someone who is not you is itself an act of solidarity, she says. And further still, it is an act of solidarity for the reader who is led to feel for the character, to feel bad for them, to feel close to them. And those emotions conjured by the work can represent the beginning of empathy, the beginning of coming to see “them” as “us.”
All of which seems to answer my next questions in advance. Can we justify this continuing need to make up stories—to invent fiction and to read it—when so many compelling, stirring, shocking or inspiring stories from life are available to us, just a click away? Or, as Peter Whittaker, writing in the New Internationalist, once asked, “Is fiction a luxury when there are so many more pressing and urgent needs?” What can it possibly contribute?
Edugyan returns to the ability of fiction to engender empathy—something the world could certainly use more of. In our runaway lives, she says, it can make us stop for a moment to think of others. She likens its effect to being suddenly taken out of ourselves, shaken from all our daily preoccupations and limited concerns, by the sight of someone in desperate need on a busy downtown street.
That fiction and non-fiction share many common elements, Edugyan readily acknowledges, but she sees the ability to enter another consciousness, another experience of the world, the ability to see that you are not so very different from that “other,” as the special, the particular work of fiction. “Going deeply into another’s psychological landscape, into their thought processes—at a very granular level…that’s the work of fiction,” she says decisively.
We return to craft and process and discuss ways of tackling historical fiction in general and, in particular, her approach in Washington Black—one I think of as the flight-of-fancy approach. Edugyan stresses that everything in the novel could have taken place. There is, she says, (with the exception of one minor shift of date for convenience) nothing anachronistic, nothing people in the 1830s might not have thought or said or done, given the contemporary knowledge base, the current social landscape and political climate. Having a single character experience so many of the wonders of his new world—the flying boat, the rescue at sea, the sea voyage, icebergs (!), Arctic travel, the natural sciences, marine biology, graphic art—and express them to us in his own voice, is to give the reader a chance to experience his sense of wonder. Conversely—and in a way that makes me think of the visual artist’s use of negative space—it also leaves behind the haunting impression of all that he has endured, and escaped.
I find it particularly interesting that Edugyan, evidently such a thorough and meticulous researcher, chooses to work largely with characters of her own invention (something else I can relate to) even though it’s clear there’s a huge appetite for tales of actual historical figures—think Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell), or Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean (Aristotle).
Obligations accompany the choice of a real-life subject. Edugyan privileges the creative freedom an invented character bestows. To use a character from life within a fiction would, in her view, incur too much responsibility. For instance, it would feel unethical, she says, to put words in the mouth of a historical figure. I can’t agree more, and can only wish it felt that way for some biographers who take liberties with their subjects.
To some readers who simply can’t get enough of the inventive gifts of an author like Esi Edugyan, her reservations might seem like needless inhibition, but her sense of obligation to history is entirely justifiable when you consider how our views of a historical figure can be so quickly and dramatically altered—for good or ill—by representation in a novel.
In any event, I’m glad she chose her trademark mix of fiction and history to allow us this wild ride through a world that really did exist in all its fascinating and astonishing detail.
When I ask Esi the question that is to end our conversation I receive an answer entirely in keeping with her thoughtfulness and generosity. What keeps you going, I ask, in this insanely Herculean task of creating a whole factual world for your fiction and then carrying it about with you for five, six—how many?—years, while at the same time making dental appointments and cooking dinner?! (Edugyan has young children.)
“I started with a footnote,” she says. “That’s what made it possible. If I had tried working with the whole concept, it would have been too heavy, too big. Just too daunting.” And then she reiterates, “Yes. You start with the details, the footnotes, and that makes it all possible.” She makes it sound so easy.
Pauline Holdstock is an internationally published award-winning novelist. Her most recent novel, The Hunter and the Wild Girl, set in the Languedoc region of France, won the 2016 City of Victoria Butler Book Prize. Her new novel will be released in the fall.