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.”

Daniel Barrow Brings Art to Life

Daniel Barrow in action (photo: Sonia Yoon)

While mainstream animation keeps trying to look ever more realistic, Daniel Barrow is a dab hand at keeping things as simple as possible. Since 1993, the Montreal-based artist has been performing his famed “manual animations” using little more than outdated overhead projectors, CD players, live narration and slide projectors to create complex narratives through comparably simple techniques of layering and manipulating his own drawings by hand.

Now, the prestigious $50,000 Sobey Art Award-winning Barrow will be sharing his techniques and performing as part of the long-running Visiting Artist program in UVic’s Visual Arts department. His free talk and performance begins at 8 pm on Wednesday, February 22, in room A162 of UVic’s Visual Arts Building.

“Helen Keller in the Scuplture Garden,” from the 2008 performance “Every Time I See Your Picture I Cry”

Barrow, last seen locally as part of Intrepid Theatre’s 2009 Uno Festival, has performed and exhibited widely in galleries and festivals throughout Canada and around the world. As both an image-maker and live performer, he has developed a personal visual language over the past 20 years that draws mixes imagery from the cultural and digital past with emotional, usually melancholic, content.

As the 2010 Sobey jury panel said, “Over the past 15 years Barrow has created a unique, self-sustaining fictional world composed of drawing, storytelling and manual animation . . . [and] his virtuoso performances awaken a sense of empathy in the viewer. Wry, politically astute, and strangely heartbreaking, his comic narratives address love, loss, gender, and media culture. The crux of Barrow’s practice is the problem of how we are all obliged, in order to proceed with our lives, to continually strive to better ourselves and the world around us, in ways misguided or not, transforming the abject into the sublime, heartbreak into redemption.”

Don’t miss this opportunity to hear and see one of Canada’s top artists in action. Daniel Barrow is only the latest in this year’s Visiting Artist program (still to come this season are author and noted visual art writer Lee Henderson on February 29, and acclaimed New York City artist Allan McCollum on March 21). Designed to introduce both students and the general public to some of the top artistic talent at work in the visual arts field today, the Visiting Artist program regularly brings in acclaimed national and international artists working in a variety of mediums.

Live at Open Word, It’s Sheila Heti!

If you haven’t been to an installment of  “Open Word: Readings and Ideas” series yet this season, you’ve got the perfect excuse this week—and appearance by acclaimed writer and cultural innovator Sheila Heti! Sheila will read at 7:30pm on Feb. 21 at Open Space (510 Fort, by donation) with a live interview by UVic fiction professor Lee Henderson to follow. She’ll also be appearing on campus at 3pm Wednesday in room D107 of the MacLaurin Building.
The Toronto-based author of five books (including the novel Ticknor and the book of “conversational philosophy” The Chairs Are Where the People Go), Heti also tapped into the American zeitgeist in 2008 by creating The Metaphysical Poll, a headline-making blog that collected actual sleeping dreams people were having about then-presidential candidates Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Heti also made her mark by creating Toronto’s popular Trampoline Hall lecture series, where people lecture on topics outside their areas of expertise—which has been running monthly since its 2001 inception, and has sold out every time. An editor, playwright and artistic collaborator, Heti is currently writer-in-residence at the University of Western Ontario.

Open Word
is a partnership between UVic’s Department of Writing and Open Space, and has a long history of pairing the finest writers with fascinating live interviews. As award-winning local poet and author Steven Price put it, “I think the series is a godsend to the city’s writers and book lovers.”

Medieval Television?

Director of Medieval Studies and History in Art associate professor Marcus Milwright furthered his current standing as one of the most buzz-worthy Fine Arts faculty members with his weekend appearance on CHEK News.

Milwright was briefly interviewed as part of CHEK’s coverage of the 25th Annual Medieval Workshop on Saturday. We’re not exactly sure what was so funny that it made the newscaster laugh through half of the clip, but perhaps it was the mere sight of women wearing wimples. Decide for yourself by clicking here, then scrolling along to Feb. 4 and the “Medieval Fair” clip.

Charlotte Gill visits UVic

Charlotte Gill

Noted Canadian author Charlotte Gill—currently in the running for the $25,000 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction (alongside Writing’s own Madeline Sonik)—will be appearing at UVic for a special reading and book signing event this week.

Gill, whose tree-planting memoir Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber and Life with the Tree-planting Tribe earned her the Taylor Prize nomination, will be reading from 1-2pm on Tuesday, February 7, in room B111 of the Cornett Building. She will also be doing a reading alongside UVic grad  Barbara Stewart, author of the oil-patch camp memoir Campie author at 7pm Tuesday at Cabin 12 restaurant, 607 Pandora. (Be sure to check out the original “Eating Dirt” essay from Vancouver Review that grew into Gill’s highly acclaimed memoir.)

Eating Dirt was also nominated for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize and the B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. A former professional tree planter herself, the Sunshine Coast-based author’s previous book, Ladykiller, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award and winner of the B.C. Book Prize for fiction. Her work has appeared in Best Canadian Stories, The Journey Prize Stories, and many magazines.

“I sowed my first seedling when I got a job on a reforestation crew in northern Ontario,” Gill recalls. “I was 19 years old and an undergraduate at the University of Toronto. Before tree planting, I didn’t know anything about hard physical labour. I arrived in a remote and snowy camp in the boreal forest with half the necessary camping gear and all the wrong clothes. But I was instantly hooked on the tree-planting life—a job most of us grow to love and hate in equal measure.

“Since those early days, I’ve worked on the Canadian Shield, in the foothills of the Albertan Rockies and in many parts of British Columbia, including the breathtakingly primeval Great Bear Rainforest. Like thousands of planters all over Canada, I’ve left my handiwork in muddy swamps and on high mountaintops, in sandy loam and rocky barrens. I’ve commuted to work in float planes, offshore tugboats, diesel trucks, helicopters, rowboats, ATVs, inflatable dinghies and amphibious military vehicles. I’ve crossed paths with whales, eagles, dolphins, flocks of migrating cranes, moose, newborn fawns and grizzlies. In my silvicultural travels, I met all kinds of weird, brilliant, fascinating people. They’re still some of my closest friends.

“In 17 seasons I planted more than a million trees. I don’t do it for a living any more, but for some strange reason it took me a whole book to explain, I miss it every day.”