The Place in Between: An Interview with Esi Edugyan

Posted in Articles, Europe, Interviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2013-05-20 04:42Z by Steven

The Place in Between: An Interview with Esi Edugyan

Volume 36, Number 1, Winter 2013
pages 46-51
DOI: 10.1353/cal.2013.0070

Maaza Mengiste

Esi Edugyan’s 2011 Man Booker Prize finalist, Half-Blood Blues, opens with the lines, “Chip told us not to go out. Said, don’t you boys tempt the devil.” It is 1940 in Nazi-occupied Paris and the “boys” include Afro-German, Jewish, and African-American members of a jazz band who have recently fled an increasingly dangerous Berlin. They are living under a terrifying regime, trapped as much by the color of their skin as the curfews and constant presence of the Gestapo. Told from the perspective of Sid, an African-American bassist who left pre-civil rights era Baltimore to escape racial segregation, it is Hiero, the incomparably gifted trumpeter player, who holds the band together. But Half-Blood Blues is more than a book about music. Edugyan illuminates one of the forgotten victims of Nazi Germany’s ruthless quest for a racially “pure” state: the “Rhineland Bastards,” mixed-race Germans whose stories were lost when they went into hiding, fled, or disappeared into concentration camps. Hiero is one of those “mischlings,” and through him, we begin to understand how encompassing a denied history can be. But perhaps more than anything, this is a story about friendship, betrayal, loyalty, and the possibility of redemption through music. To read Half-Blood Blues is to hear jazz and the ache of regret through prose. Garnering nominations and awards internationally, the book has kept Edugyan on a busy, hectic schedule. It was my honor to have the chance to catch her in a quiet moment to talk about her book.


I want to just jump right in and talk a little bit about the book’s setting and its characters. Part of the story takes place in 1940 Paris and Nazi Germany. What was your motivation for writing about this moment in history? What got you really interested in it, and these characters?


I think I’ve always had a fascination with that period of history. It was such an extreme time in terms of what was happening everywhere, but especially in Europe, in those initial months when the Third Reich came to power. It was very fascinating for me. I had been living in Germany for about a year and a half, over two separate periods. The first time I was there for about thirteen months, learning German and really trying to immerse myself in the culture. And being a black woman living in Southern Germany, I started to wonder about the history of black people in Europe in general, but specifically in Germany. And so I did some research and discovered the story about the Rhineland Bastards—or the so-called “Rhineland Bastards.” That’s how I came to focus on this period that I had done quite a bit of reading on over my lifetime. It was interesting to me.


When you were researching these Rhineland Bastards, these children born to black soldiers and German mothers in the period following WWI, what guided your decision to make your characters musicians?


I have a very strong interest in music and grew up with a very strong interest in music even though I was never able to play the instruments very well. So, I’d been working on a project about a different kind of musician, a classical musician. And when I was in Germany, I started putting that aside and turning my sights to jazz musicians. And this was, in large part, because I quite love jazz. I’m not a huge expert on it, I’ll admit that, but what I’ve heard I really like. But also because I knew that Germany had gone through a big jazz age in the twenties, you know, there was a big avant-garde time after the First World War. So then you start to think about “well, what would happen to all of those musicians once the Third Reich took power?” And, you know, it was something that I certainly didn’t know anything about, so I just had to do…

Tags: , , ,

Jazz, Race Collide With War In 1930s Europe

Posted in Articles, Audio, Canada, Europe, History, Media Archive, United States on 2012-10-10 03:55Z by Steven

Jazz, Race Collide With War In 1930s Europe

Tell Me More
National Public Radio

Jacki Lyden, Host

The novel Half Blood Blues explores an often overlooked slice of history: black jazz musicians in Germany on the eve of World War II. The book moves from 1992 to 1939, from Baltimore to Berlin to Paris. It’s told by an elderly black jazz musician and his friend who survived the war. Guest host Jacki Lyden speaks with author Esi Edugyan.


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I’m Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is away this week. Now we’re going to take a trip back in time with the help of a prize-winning novelist.

The novel, “Half Blood Blues,” considers a slice of history that often gets overlooked: black jazz musicians and their fate in Germany just before World War II. The novel moves back and forth from 1992 to 1939, from Baltimore to Berlin, Berlin to Paris and it’s told through the eyes of an elderly Baltimore black jazz musician, Sid Griffiths, and his lifelong friend, Chippewa Jones, all in invented period slang.

The novel was short-listed for the Booker Prize this year and won the Giller Prize in Canada and its author, Esi Edugyan, joins us now from member station KUOW in Seattle. Welcome.

ESI EDUGYAN: Thank you.

LYDEN: Esi, just to establish, you are a Canadian author.


LYDEN: And you live in…

EDUGYAN: I was born and raised in Calgary.

LYDEN: Born and raised in Calgary, of Ghanaian parents and you live in Victoria?


LYDEN: Well, please tell us about this novel, which has had so much success. Tell us about the men at the center of your story. They’re jazz musicians from a group called the Hot Time Swingers. We meet them in Paris. They already have escaped from Berlin. They’ve met Duke Ellington and at the center of the group is this really intriguing character you’ve invented called Hieronymus Falk. And he is eventually picked up by the Gestapo in June of 1940. Tell us about these fellows and Hieronymus.

EDUGYAN: Well, essentially, the novel is told in two parts and the first part centers around the Hot Time Swingers who, you know, are a jazz band who’s had quite a bit of success playing in Berlin. And, you know, now the Third Reich has been ushered in and they’re trying to decide exactly how to proceed now that they’ve been prohibited from playing in public.

And so the band consists of two African-American players, Sid and Chip from Baltimore, as well as the German players, Paul, who’s a pianist who has a Jewish background, and Ernst. And then Hieronymus Falk, who is an Afro-German, the child of a French colonial soldier and a German mother, and he’s the trumpet prodigy.

LYDEN: Hieronymus Falk really intrigued me, Esi Edugyan. He is, you say in the novel, the German word was mischling. He is of mixed race and there really were such Afro-Germans prior to the Nazis taking power…

Read the entire transcript here. Listen to the interview here. Download the interview here.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Donna Bailey Nurse: Addressing mixed race in literature

Posted in Articles, Canada, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2012-03-01 16:32Z by Steven

Donna Bailey Nurse: Addressing mixed race in literature

CBC Books

Donna Bailey Nurse

Throughout February and March, literary journalist, teacher and author Donna Bailey Nurse will be blogging for CBC Books about black Canadian writers and their important works. In her third post, she explores the complex subject of mixed race and how different authors address have addressed it.

I read a lot about race, and I write a lot about race. I also talk a lot about race—too much—as most of my friends, white and black, will tell you. But I can’t help it. The topic rivets me; I’m especially fascinated by contemporary issues of race; by how race plays out in our modern, everyday lives.

However, the historical angle preoccupies me as well: the eras of civil rights and of Jim Crow and slavery. In fact, I am just heading out to buy a copy of Rosemary Sadlier’s biography of Harriet Tubman. Tubman, an escaped slave, led more than 300 African American slaves to freedom. I’ve been thinking about her since I was a child. I still can’t figure out how she found the courage.

Every time I read about slavery I learn something new. Lately I’ve been obsessing over information in a book by Randall Keenan. Most of us know that during slavery many white masters—often married men—fathered children with their female slaves. As a rule, the disparity of power between masters and slaves defines their sexual encounters as rape. But Keenan explains how, on occasion, affectionate, enduring relationships developed. Some white men would send the children from these unions north to be educated; and some left wills that provided for the welfare of their black families. Naturally, their white wives were enraged and humiliated. They often contested these wills and in time legislation was enacted that made it illegal for a white man to leave property to his black mistress. However, just think: There was a historical moment when a handful of white masters were prepared to publicly acknowledge their black children—a fleeting opportunity for redemption…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , ,

The New Black

Posted in Articles, Canada, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2012-02-04 18:09Z by Steven

The New Black

The National Post
Toronto, Canada
The Afterword: Postings from the literary world

Donna Bailey Nurse

The day after the Giller Awards I had breakfast with a friend at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto. The ceremony had been held there the night before and as I savoured my bagel and lox we discussed Esi Edugyan’s thrilling win for Half-Blood Blues.
“She seemed genuinely surprised,” said my friend, who was describing the event, for she had attended the gala and I had not. “She looked gorgeous. Her dress was amazing. Oh look,” she broke off, “there she is!”
I turned in my chair to see Edugyan and her husband, Steven Price, being seated at the table behind me. What good luck. I had been hoping to catch up with her at some point to congratulate her in person. Happily, here she was…

Half-Blood Blues, like Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, has become a bestseller. Some critics are surprised by the wide appeal of these two books, but it makes sense to me. Black stories are popular because they touch on two concerns close to every human heart: the desire for acceptance, to feel as though we belong; and the desire to be free to be who we are meant to be. Black Canadian stories feel quintessentially Canadian. The early novels of Austin Clarke, for example, started a vigorous discussion of hyphenated identities — the idea that we are either Irish-Canadian or Italian-Canadian or black-Canadian or Asian-Canadian, and that being Canadian means being two things (at least) at once.
As a literature of the diaspora, black Canadian novels are destined to make their mark: They articulate a language for black experience in an ostensibly post-racial world. Currently, African-American writers and black British writers — and black writers practically everywhere — are attempting to express what it means to be black in a world that claims race doesn’t matter. In this, black Canadian writers have been given a huge head start: Canada has always professed colour blindness…

…Bi-racial heritage is emerging as this literature’s dominant theme. Half-Blood Blues, Lawrence Hill’s Any Known Blood and Kameleon Man are all titles that allude to its significance. Even The Polished Hoe concerns a heroine that is black but looks white. Nearly every major character in Half-Blood Blues is mixed race; not only Afro-German Heiro, but also Sid, who is undoubtedly descended from a slave woman and her master. Chip, as it turns out, may possess Native-American blood.
Mixed heritage proves a wonderfully fruitful symbol. It is sometimes used to scrutinize the bi-racial dilemma of being caught between duelling cultures. Or it may address the anxiety fair-skinned blacks may feel about whether or not to pass for white. It can symbolize the struggle of black Canadians to reconcile the African and European aspects of their culture. A turbulent interracial romance may represent the overall challenges of race relations. Bi-racial anxiety and alienation lie at the heart of Half-Blood Blues. Altogether,  the title refers to a song the band records, the characters themselves, and a world where few accept that we are all at least two things at once…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , ,

Review: Giller winner recounts struggles of mixed-race jazz musicians in prewar Europe

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Canada, Media Archive on 2011-11-11 06:01Z by Steven

Review: Giller winner recounts struggles of mixed-race jazz musicians in prewar Europe

Ottowa Citizen

Julian Gunn

Half-Blood Blues By Esi Edugyan, Thomas Allen, 2011.

I remember waiting for a bus and listening to a literary podcast when I heard that Victoria, B.C. author Esi Edugyan’s second novel, Half-Blood Blues, had made the Man Booker Prize long list. The book had already received strong support: Lawrence Hill, Austin Clarke and other literary figures wrote glowing responses.

The book was subsequently shortlisted for the Booker but lost out to Julian Barnes. It was also shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Writers’ Trust Award. And it won the Giller Prize this week.

Half-Blood Blues binds together disparate human behaviour — celebration, community and violence — in telling the story of a band of jazz musicians struggling to exist in Berlin on the cusp of the Second World War.

American and German, dark-and light-skinned, gentile and Jewish, the members map complex racial and national identities. The musicians aren’t targets only because of their skin colour or religious identity; they’re also playing “degenerate” music, according to the SS. That’s a double whammy…

…Hiero is Hieronymus Thomas Falk, a German citizen with a Rhinelander mother and an African father whose precise story shimmers elusively in the history of colonialism and war. “He was a Mischling,” Sid explains, “a half-breed.”

Sid himself is “straight-haired and green-eyed” and light-skinned enough to pass, but ambiguously: “a right little Spaniard,” he says wryly. Though he’s a foreigner, he’s often safer than his friend in Hiero’s own country. Hiero, Delilah and Sid move through a shifting triangular relationship where music plays as important a role as love….

Read the entire review here.

Tags: , ,

Half-Blood Blues

Posted in Books, Europe, Media Archive, Novels on 2011-11-11 05:53Z by Steven

Half-Blood Blues

Picador (an imprint of Macmillan)
304 pages
8.5 X 5.5 X 0.9 in
Cloth ISBN:9780887627415
Paperback ISBN: ISBN: 9781250012708

Esi Edugyan

  • Winner of the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize

Paris, 1940.  A brilliant jazz musician, Hiero, is arrested by the Nazis and never heard from again.  He is twenty years old.  He is a German citizen.  And he is black.

Fifty years later, his friend and fellow musician, Sid, must relive that unforgettable time, revealing the friendships, love affairs and treacheries that sealed Hiero’s fate.  From the smoky bars of pre-war Berlin to the salons of  Paris—where the legendary Louis Armstrong makes an appearance—Sid, with his distinctive and rhythmic German-American slang, leads the reader through a fascinating world alive with passion, music and the spirit of resistance.

Half-Blood Blues, the second novel by an exceptionally talented young writer, is an entrancing, electric story about jazz, race, love and loyalty, and the sacrifices we ask of ourselves, and demand of others, in the name of art.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,