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Novelist Esi Edugyan On Depicting The 'Forgotten Figures' Of Scientific History


Now we're going to hear an interview with Edugyan. She's a first-generation Canadian whose parents emigrated from Ghana. Her last novel, "Half-Blood Blues," was about black jazz musicians living in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. It was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won Canada's prestigious literary award, the Giller Prize. She spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Esi Edugyan, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ESI EDUGYAN: Hi. I'm really pleased to be here.

BRIGER: The plantation of your novel is in Barbados. I gather you do a lot of research for your work. Did you find that plantations in Barbados were much different than the ones in the United States?

EDUGYAN: You know I'm not - you know, not a full-blown historian. But, you know, given my readings, from my sense of things, it seems as though life on plantations in the Caribbean was much more brutal. This is kind of an ironic thing to say, but the sense of preservation of of one's workers - you know, they were expendable. So the cruelty was - you know, the death rate was much higher. The conditions and circumstances of slaves' lives were much more dire. And, you know, quite horrific to have to do that research, but very important for me to show what that was like.

BRIGER: The main character of your book is George Washington Black, who goes by the nickname Wash. And he's a field worker on this plantation. But one day, he gets a call to go serve at the main house for dinner, which is a terrifying prospect. But the master's brother is there. His name is Christopher Wilde, who goes by Titch. There's a lot of nicknames. And he's a naturalist. And he's building a hot air balloon. And he requests that Wash be his assistant mainly just because he's, like, the right weight. He's - as for ballast for the balloon...


BRIGER: And it's a moment that changes Wash's life forever because a bond forms between him and this white man, Titch. And Titch will eventually help Wash escape. But it's such an arbitrary moment. And it's such an arbitrary change in this boy's life. And that arbitrariness forever haunts Wash.

EDUGYAN: Christopher does choose Washington because he sees him as, you know, being helpful to his experiment and that he is, you know, precisely the right weight to man his aerostat, which is, you know, kind of a cruelty in itself to look at somebody and think that of them. But then Washington really surprises him with his natural gifts. Like, he has no idea, you know, that this young man is just completely, you know, so naturally gifted at drawing. And he has a good sense for aeronautical methodologies and all of this. He really comes into his own under Titch.

But, you know, there is that sense. And part of what I was trying to suggest or explore in Titch's character is, you know, although he's an extremely liberal-minded man for his time, you know, there are limits to his thinking, that he is in a lot of ways still tethered by certain ideas and notions of his era, you know? He's an abolitionist, so he truly has a very general belief in the rights of man. It's kind of a very prescribed belief. But in terms of applying this personally to people, it's a little bit more difficult for him.

BRIGER: Right. And his argument for trying to end slavery is that it - slavery won't allow white people to get into heaven if they allow such cruelty.

EDUGYAN: Yeah. That's one of his main ideas about it. And, you know, this is kind of central to his philosophy about life. But, you know, having said that, he's somebody who very much does feel a great affection or comes to feel a great affection for Washington. And so there's that dichotomy in his personality that's so interesting to me.

BRIGER: So although Wash escapes from slavery and becomes a free man, he is not free from the time he lives in and, you know, is haunted by his time on the plantation. And I think one of the points you're getting at in the book is how much freedom is available to someone born into slavery and also, how free are the people complicit in the slave economy?

EDUGYAN: Yeah, exactly. I think that Titch, for instance, likes to believe that because he has these enlightened ideas that he is - and because he's actually trying to do something to end slavery itself, you know, I think he has a sense of himself as being quite a moral person. And he goes into the world with that feeling about himself and feeling quite good about his place in the world.

But he's not really thinking about the fact that, you know, for all of his scientific pursuits, this is being funded by slavery. And he's kind of turned a blind eye to that. And so he's profoundly affected by it because he wouldn't be able to do what he does without that dark commerce going on. And also, his family relationships are all tangled because of this. But by no means is his suffering anywhere near the suffering of somebody like Washington, who is not free. He's bodily not free. He's psychologically not free.

And when he becomes physically free, he's somebody who's still not free. He's obviously suffering from having been born and raised in bondage. And he's somebody who - when he goes out into the world, he is still who he is. He's a black man. He's a man who's been disfigured as well. So he has that - a sense of being physically marked when he goes into the world and being recoiled from. And also, psychologically, he's still trying to sort out what that means to be free.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Esi Edugyan, author of the new novel "Washington Black," which is nominated for the Man Booker Prize. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Esi Edugyan, author of the new novel "Washington Black," which is nominated for the Man Booker Prize. It's about the adventures of a slave named Washington Black who manages to escape the plantation.

BRIGER: Wash has a scientific mind. He's a naturalist, and he likes to draw beautiful images of marine life. And he befriends this famous marine scientist and his daughter and eventually will go on to create the first aquarium in London. However, it looks like he's not going to get any credit for the creation. The marine scientists will take credit. And that's a subject you've written about in an essay recently, called "The Silencing Of Black Scientists."

EDUGYAN: Yes. So I was interested in the idea of just these forgotten figures in the history of science, forgotten black figures. And, you know, there was that wonderful biography of Henrietta Lacks and - did the harvesting of her cancer cells as being the foundation for research into cancer, which - the Rebecca Skloot book, which was so fascinating. And I think that that book really touched upon something for me, which was that when we think about the history of black people in science, and certainly putting this into search engines online, what comes up is the history of black people as subjects of scientific research rather than the history of black scientists. (Laughter) And so this was very interesting to me.

And so I - when I was asked to write an article about black people in science, I started really digging into it and came up with the story of a young woman called Alice Bell who, when she was in her very early 20s, developed, like, a serum using chaulmoogra oil - so this was oil from a tree that grows in Hawaii - to put leprosy into remission. And people knew that chaulmoogra oil was something that could put leprosy into remission, but it was - you couldn't take it orally because it would instantly come back up. It was just so bitter and terrible nobody could keep it down. And also, to just inject it, it was so - I guess - viscous that it would stay under the skin in, like, a bubble.

And so she developed a way for it to be absorbed into the bloodstream. And she did it when she was, (laughter) you know, 22 years old. And almost overnight, leprosy in Hawaii went into remission. It was really remarkable. And I just thought this is an incredible story, and I don't know why we don't know more about this. In the end, she ended up passing away at the age of 24, I believe. She was - and it was the advent of World War One. And she was teaching a lab on how to properly use a gas mask, and she ended up inhaling mustard gas. And she passed away. And unfortunately, she died before she could write up her findings and, you know, went to a - into an sort of official, you know, paper.

And so what happened was a colleague of hers at - or the - it was the president of University of Hawaii ended up co-opting them, like, stealing them and putting his name on the findings. And it was a while before her colleague, her other colleague, stepped forward and said, you know, no, no, no. This was not his doing. You know, he was already sort of looking for a way to patent this (laughter) serum that she had developed. And, you know, this was not an isolated - just looking at the history of black scientists, this kind of a theft wasn't abnormal. And so I was just really interested in that.

BRIGER: Esi Edugyan, thank you so much for being on FRESH AIR.

EDUGYAN: Oh, thank you. It was a pleasure.

GROSS: Esi Edugyan spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Her new novel, "Washington Black," is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The winner will be announced tomorrow.


GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk with another Book Award nominee. Jarrett J. Krosoczka is nominated for a National Book Award for his young adult graphic memoir, "Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, And Dealt With Family Addiction." It's about his childhood when he was raised by his grandparents because his mother was addicted to heroin. She died of an overdose after his own children were born. Krosoczka is also known for his graphic novels for young people, the "Lunch Lady" and the "Platypus Police" series and arcs in the "Star Wars: Jedi Academy" series. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

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Sam Briger