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.
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).
“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.”