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.


Writing grad Esi Edugyan makes shortlist trifecta

Booker, Giller and Writer’s Trust shortlists for Esi Edugyan

Most writers hope their new book will get some attention—a review, maybe, or an author profile. But getting attention hasn’t exactly been a problem for Esi Edugyan. Not only is she one of six authors shortlisted for the prestigious £50,000 UK Man Booker Prize, but she is also one of six authors on the $50,000 Giller Prize shortlist and one of five authors up for the $25,000 Writers’ Trust fiction award. That makes a trifecta of shorlists for her second novel, Half-Blood Blues, published in Canada by Thomas Allen.

“It’s amazing, like nothing you could expect,” says Edugyan, a former Department of Writing sessional instructor and graduate of UVic’s Department of Writing. Half-Blood Blues is set in the world of black jazz musicians in Nazi Germany and occupied Paris, and 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.”

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 just do what you like and 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.”

Given the reception Half-Blood Blues has been getting, Edugyan is doing just fine doing what she does.

The winner of the Man Booker Prize is announced October 18, with the winner of the Writer’s Trust Award announced November 1 and the Giller Prize announced November 8.