Writing alum Esi Edugyan wins second Giller Prize in seven years

Internationally acclaimed Department of Writing alumna and Greater Victoria-based author Esi Edugyan has won the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her latest novel, Washington Black.

Esi Edugyan wins her second Giller Prize on Nov 19

Edugyan wins $100,000 on this, the 25th anniversary of Canada’s richest literary award, and also earns the distinction of being one of only three authors to twice win the Giller Prize, alongside M.G. Vassanji and Alice Munro.

“I wasn’t expecting to win,” she told the audience as she collected the award & her $100,000 prize. “So I didn’t prepare a speech.” She did, however, go on to say that, “in a climate where so many forms of truth telling are under siege, this feels like a really wonderful and important celebration of words.”

You can congratulate Esi in person at a special Autographing with Esi Edugyan, from noon to 2pm Friday, Dec 7 at Munro’s Books, 1108 Government.

Nominated for the Man Booker Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the winner of this year’s Giller Prize, Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black is a wildly inventive portrayal of a young slave’s flight from Barbados alongside a mysterious inventor.

Edugyan previously won the Giller in 2011 for her sophomore novel, Half-Blood Blues. Indeed, having only published three novels (including her debut, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne), Edugyan’s back-to-back wins for Washington Black and Half-Blood Blues is doubly remarkable, especially when you consider both were shortlisted for the trifecta of fiction awards — not only the Giller but also the Man Booker Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.

The announcement was made on November 19 at a black-tie dinner and award ceremony hosted by television personality and author Rick Mercer, and attended by nearly 500 members of the publishing, media and arts communities. This year’s longlist, shortlist, and winner were selected by they five-member jury of Canadian writers Kamal Al-Solaylee, Maxine Bailey and Heather O’Neill, along with American writer John Freeman and English novelist Philip Hensher.

Of Edugyan’s winning novel, the jury wrote, “How often history asks us to underestimate those trapped there. This remarkable novel imagines what happens when a black man escapes history’s inevitable clasp — in his case, in a hot air balloon no less. Washington Black, the hero of Esi Edugyan’s novel, is born in the 1800s in Barbados with a quick mind, a curious eye and a yearning for adventure. In conjuring Black’s vivid and complex world — as cruel empires begin to crumble and the frontiers of science open like astounding vistas — Edugyan has written a supremely engrossing novel about friendship and love and the way identity is sometimes a far more vital act of imagination than the age in which one lives.”

Edugyan earned her BA in Writing department in 1999, and later taught some courses for the department as a sessional instructor. She is also married to fellow Writing alumnus Steven Price, who is also an acclaimed novelist and poet.

“I studied with so many great teachers at UVic,” said Edugyan in this 2012 interview upon being named one of UVic’s Distinguished Alumni. “The caliber of guidance was amazing. Patrick Lane was my first great teacher. I found myself following poetry because he was so inspiring. Jack Hodgins, Lorna Crozier, Bill Gaston . . . there was such a high level of instruction.”

Award-winning author and Writing professor Bill Gaston recalls that both Edugyan and Price were in the very first workshop he ran at UVic in 1998. “I’m sure never to say I ‘taught’ her, though,” he says with a chuckle. “I tried to stay out of her way, and not ruin things.”

The four remaining Giller finalists, who receive $10,000 each, include Patrick deWitt (who also lost to Edugyan in 2011) for French Exit, Thea Lim for An Ocean of Minutes, É​ric Dupont for Songs for the Cold of Heart, and Sheila Heti for Motherhood.

Media coverage of Edugyan’s win was extensive, of course, with notably pieces running in CBC News, the Globe and Mail, the local Times Colonist and CBC Radio’s All Points West, who interviewed Bill Gaston on Nov 20 but has yet to archive the story.

The Globe and Mail also published this interesting post-Giller piece, commenting on the award’s impact for the Canadian publishing industry. “The greatest relief through the room was that the assembled publicists would not have to battle to sell a 600-page book in translation about a small Quebec town,” wrote analyst Russell Smith. “This one sells itself.”

A distinguished year for Distinguished Alumni Esi Edugyan

If there was ever a reason to acknowledge someone as a Distinguished Alumni, it would be exactly because of the kind of year Esi Edugyan just had: not only was she nominated for the $25,000 Governor General’s Literary Award, but she was also shortlisted for the prestigious £50,000 UK Man Booker Prize, the $25,000 Writers’ Trust fiction award, the UK’s £25,000 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, the $50,000 Giller Prize and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize as part of the annual BC Book Prizes—the latter two of which she subsequently won.

Photo: Chad Hipolito

Photo: Chad Hipolito

It’s rare any novelist achieves such a menu of nominations for just their second book, but Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues is more than a typical novel. Set in the world of black jazz musicians in Nazi Germany and occupied Paris, Half-Blood Blues has been described by award-winning Book of Negroes author Lawrence Hill as “a truly beautiful novel . . . both taut and expansive, like great jazz [with] exquisite language throughout.”

Given such accolades, the Faculty of Fine Arts is proud to name Esi Edugyan our Distinguished Alumni for 2012. “It’s amazing, like nothing you could expect,” says Edugyan of the year she’s had. Indeed, Edugyan still seems a bit dazed by all the international acclaim. “It was such a crazy thing that happened with this book—losing its publisher at the beginning of the year, then seeming like it wasn’t going anywhere—so I’m just so grateful for everything that happened this fall.”

Edugyan now joins the likes of previous Fine Arts Distinguished Alumni Carla Funk (BFA ’97), Paul Beauchesne (BMus ’88), Deborah Willis (BA ’06), Valerie Murray (BA ’78), author Eden Robinson (BFA ’92) and Andrea Walsh (BA ’91).

After being originally released in England by Serpent’s Tail publishers, Edugyan’s intended Canadian publishing deal fell apart when Key Porter Books collapsed in February 2011, leaving her without a domestic publisher. Fortunately, Thomas Allen & Sons stepped in and the rest has quite literally become Canadian publishing history. As John Barber of the Globe and Mail noted in his year-end column, with the end of publisher H.B. Fenn and its Key Porter imprint, “2011 began ominously for independent Canadian publishers and then quickly turned to roses. Rescued from the Key Porter wreckage, Half-Blood Blues became the most popular title ever published by Thomas Allen & Son, with 100,000 copies on the market and a stable perch overlooking James Patterson and Stephen King on Canadian best-seller lists.”

Edugyan, who earned her BA from the Department of Writing back in 1999 and was also a former Writing instructor at UVic, now joins previous DA winners Deborah Willis (2010) and Paul Beauchesne (2011), as well as earlier Legacy Award winners Eden Robinson (2001), Eve Egoyan (2002), Gail Anderson-Dargatz (2003), and Eric Jordan (2004).

TA11 Half Blood BluesSelected.indd“I am really honoured to be accepting the Distinguished Alumni award,” she says. “I studied with so many great teachers at UVic, the caliber of guidance was amazing. Patrick Lane was my first great teacher. I found myself following poetry because he was so inspiring. Jack Hodgins, Lorna Crozier, Bill Gaston . . . there was such a high level of instruction. They can’t teach you to write if you’re not inclined that way. But what [school] does is cut the apprenticeship time down. Peer reviews prepare writers for working with an editor in a professional capacity.” Indeed, retired Writing professor Jack Hodgins recalls being “amazed at her ability to inhabit the voices of vastly different characters authentically.”

With a Masters in Writing from Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, Edugyan’s work has appeared in several anthologies, including Best New American Voices 2003  and Revival: An Anthology of Black Canadian Writing (2006). Her debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, was published internationally and was nominated for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, was a More Book Lust selection, and was chosen by the New York Public Library as one of 2004’s Books to Remember. Edugyan has held fellowships in the US, Scotland, Iceland, Germany, Hungary, Finland, Spain and Belgium. She has taught creative writing at both Johns Hopkins University and the University of Victoria, and has sat on many international panels, including the LesART Literary Festival in Esslingen, Germany, the Budapest Book Fair in Hungary, and Barnard College in New York City. She is also the wife of fellow UVic Writing instructor Steven Price, with whom she had their first child in August 2011.

Edugyan is philosophical when asked if she felt pressure to follow up her first novel with something equally powerful. “I was only 24 when my first book came out, and I felt a lot of pressure and felt quite tossed around in the publishing industry,” she says. “But now, I just feel grateful. I honestly don’t feel any great pressure to produce something that people will love or will get me critical acclaim. There’s no formula . . . you write what you want to write. I don’t think anybody can predict in this business what’s going to do well. Things become popular that you would never think would become popular; something that worked last fall won’t necessarily work next year. You just do what you do.”

Writing alum Esi Edugyan wins $50,000 Giller Prize

Congratulations to Esi Eudgyan on her Giller Prize win! (photo: Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Whew! What a week for the Department of Writing. First, longtime instructor and beloved poet Lorna Crozier received the Order of Canada at a ceremony in Ottawa Friday night, then acting chair and acclaimed playwright Joan MacLeod won the $100,000 Siminovitch Prize for Theatre on Monday night—now, Writing graduate and former instructor Esi Edugyan has won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for her book, Half-Blood Blues. With a prize of $50,000, the Giller is awarded annually to Canada’s best English-language novel.

“A prize like this does so much to promote literature in Canada and the world,” Edugyan said in her acceptance speech. “It’s been the greatest privilege to be one of the nominees and to be shortlisted with such brilliant writers.” Like Edugyan, fellow nominee Patrick DeWitt was also on the same four-award shortlist—the Giller, the Man Booker Prize, the Writers Trust Award and the Governor General’s Literary Award; DeWitt won the Writers Trust, and the Governor General’s will be announced next week.

Esi Edugyan gives her acceptance speech at the Giller Prize in Toronto (Photo: Tyler Anderson, Postmedia News)

Focusing on four black jazz musicians in Nazi-occupied Germany, Half-Blood Blues is the second novel for the Colwood-based Edugyan, who is married to award-winning poet, author and UVic Department of Writing instructor Steven Price. As well as being a Writing graduate, Edugyan was also a sessional instructor with the Department for two years, specializing in fiction writing. (Edugyan and Price also celebrated the birth of their first child in late August of this year, making the past two months a dizzying time indeed.)

The Giller jury praised Half-Blood Blues as a “joyful lament,” noting that “any jazz musician would be happy to play the way Edugyan writes.” Ironically, while Half-Blood Blues had been released in England earlier this year, it was almost not published in Canada following the bankruptcy of original publisher Key-Porter Books. “The book was actually homeless for a few months until it was bought by Thomas Allen Publishers,” Edugyan said back in August. “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.”

In addition to her BA from UVic, Edugyan has a Masters in Writing from Johns Hopkins University and she has held fellowships in the US, Scotland, Iceland, Germany, Hungary, Finland, Spain and Belgium. Her well-received debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, was also published internationally, and her work has appeared in several anthologies, including Best New American Voices 2003 and Revival: An Anthology of Black Canadian Writing (2006).

The other Giller Prize finalists, each of whom receive a $5,000 prize, include David Bezmozgis (The Free World),  Lynn Coady (The Antagonist), Patrick deWitt (The Sisters Brothers), Zsuzsi Gartner (Better Living Through Plastic Explosives) and Michael Ondaatje (The Cat’s Table). The Giller was founded by Jack Rabinovitch in 1994 in memory of his late wife, literary journalist Doris Giller.

Other notable prizes for the Department of Writing this year include alumnus DW Wilson‘s
£15,000 win of the BBC National Short Story Prize (nearly $24,000 Canadian) and current student Erin Fisher‘s $2,000 first-place win in the PRISM International poetry and fiction contest, plus retired Writing prof Jack Hodgins recent City of Victoria Butler Book Prize win. Congratulations to all!

Esi Edugyan gets another nod

Chad Hipolito snapped this shot of Esi Edugyan for the Globe & Mail

And the accolades just keep on a-rollin’ in for Department of Writing alum and former instructor Esi Edugyan, whose widely acclaimed second novel Half-Blood Blues is now on the list for the Governor General’s Literary Award. (For those keeping track, Esi’s name is also on the shortlist for the Giller Prize, the Man-Booker Prize and the Writer’s Trust prize.)

Keep up on all the Edugyan news by reading this recent profile in the Globe and Mail, hearing a podcast of her interview with Michael Enright on CBC’s The Sunday Edition (around the 1:07 mark), and seeing what she had to say to Adrian Chamberlain of the Times Colonist.