Esi Edugyan Q&A: I like the here and now, despite the obvious chaos”

The writer talks Mad Men, Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water, and Harriet the Spy.

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Esi Edugyan was born in 1978 in Calgary, Canada. Her novels include “The Second Life of Samuel Tyne” and “Half-Blood Blues”, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize. Her latest novel, “Washington Black”, is longlisted for this year’s prize.

What’s your earliest memory?

Going to the movie theatre on my fourth birthday to see Spielberg’s E.T. I remember it all feeling so incredibly real to me, so vivid; the barrier between reality and make-believe was viscerally blurred.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was Harriet the Spy. I wanted to be just like her – the glasses, the notebook, the risk-taking to get at the heart of some mystery. My friends and I set up our own Owl Eye Spy Club and became the scourges of our neighbourhood. My adult hero is Gitta Sereny. I was so saddened when she passed away in 2012. I admired her unflinching eye and clarity of prose.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Barack Obama. He strikes me as an extraordinarily intelligent, deeply thoughtful man, which these days feels rare in politics.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water, about the Attica prison uprisings. I have not been that rattled by a book in a long time. I had a vague notion of the uprising having been about abuses in the prison system – I was astonished to learn of the utter callousness of the state, and its attempts to deceive the public about what really occurred. Thompson’s history is gut-wrenching, and should be required reading.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The 20th century novel.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I like the here and now, despite the obvious chaos of the moment. The past holds too many barriers for someone like me.

What TV show could you not live without?

I was a big fan of Mad Men when it was airing. Otherwise, there’s not much I feel very passionate about these days.

Who would paint your portrait?

Alex Colville. He managed to imbue even the most banal subject with a luminous strangeness. He was an absolute master.

What’s your theme tune?

Anything by Björk, or Louis Armstrong.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

Don’t be rash – have the patience to let things play out a few steps beyond the initial incident, as things are rarely as they first present themselves to be.

What’s currently bugging you?

The barrage of terrible happenings in the daily news feed. Sometimes I just want to crawl under a rug and disappear.

What single thing would make your life better?

The ability to function on little to no sleep – I could live a whole second life. 

When were you happiest?

I’m pretty happy right now – everyone I love is healthy, the days are rich and interesting, there’s plenty to hold on to.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

A criminal lawyer or an interior designer.

Are we all doomed?

If we don’t steeply shift course in our treatment of the environment, then yes, most definitely. 

“Washington Black” is published by Serpent’s Tail

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The return of fascism