How I write: Esi Edugyan on “Washington Black”

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[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Sian Cain (The Guardian) writes, “A former slave’s travels, a violent Swat-team arrest, a war between humans and trees… Esi Edugyan, Rachel Kushner, Daisy Johnson, Robin Robertson, Richard Powers and Anna Burns on the real stories behind their novels.” In the first section of “How I write: Man Booker shortlist authors reveal their inspirations,” Esi Edugyan (Canadian author with Ghanaian roots) explains the origins of her novel Washington Black (Serpent’s Tail, 2018), which starts out on a 19th-century Barbados plantation and is inspired by the story of Andrew Bogle, born on Hope plantation in St Andrew, Jamaica:

[. . .] My book is about an 11- or 12-year-old field slave, Washington, on a Barbados plantation, who finds himself taken to live in the quarters of his master’s newly arrived brother, Christopher Wilde (or Titch). The prospect is terrifying. Every interaction with a white man has only begotten cruelty; he is convinced it is a death sentence. But Titch is a gentleman scientist, and most importantly, an abolitionist. It is through this reprieve from field life that Washington begins to see himself as a fully realised human being, one with his own gifts to offer the world.

The novel has its origins in the case of the Tichborne Claimant. A decade ago, I read a story by Jorge Luis Borges in which he touches very lightly on the case. At the time, I’d believed he had made up every outlandish detail. How surprised I was, then, to walk though the National Portrait Gallery in London years later and see depictions of all the flesh-and-blood people involved.

Something of a cause celebre in Victorian England, pitting the working class against the gentry, the Claimant case centred around Roger Tichborne, a 25-year-old aristocrat who was shipwrecked and presumed dead. His mother, Lady Tichborne, consulted a clairvoyant who assured her that Roger was living under an assumed name in a far-off part of the world. She put advertisements in newspapers, and some years later made contact with a man in Australia who was claiming to be her son. She was fully convinced, but wanted someone who had known Roger in his youth to make the final identification. By chance, Andrew Bogle, one of her old servants, had retired to Sydney and would eventually act as the main witness for the defence when the question of the claimant’s identity went to trial.

I was interested in the psychology of a figure who had been plucked quite unexpectedly from brutal circumstances.

In Elizabethan England, “Bogle” meant phantom. This seems fitting for a man whose place in history remains so ghostly, so illegible. What we know of his early years can be reduced to his status as a slave: he was born on Hope plantation in St Andrew, Jamaica, property of the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos. Bogle was secretly stolen away by Sir Edward Tichborne, who had come to do some brief work at the estate and for unknown reasons decided to leave with him. From there on, what we know of Bogle’s life is minimal: he travelled all around Europe as Sir Edward’s valet; he became a devout Roman Catholic; he married an Englishwoman called Elizabeth Young, and when she died, married again. The breadth of his legacy, then, is defined entirely by his entanglements with the Tichborne clan. He remains nearly forgotten, his inner life wholly unknown.

It was that inner life that most interested me. In beginning Washington Black, I set out to write a novel that depicted the case through the lens of Bogle. But almost from the outset, the story began to drift and stray, evolving so far from Tichborne that only the barest of details remain: Roger’s family background and nickname; Bogle’s origin story. Less than the trial’s machinations, I found myself interested in the psychology and voice of a figure like Bogle, who had been plucked from the brutal circumstances of one existence and taken to places that were drastically different from all that he had known. What complications would such a life hold? [. . .]

[Tichborne Claimant himself lived in/or traveled through Chile, Peru, Argentina, Jamaica, and Mexico, before re-appearing in Autralia. IR]

For the full article, see https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/oct/13/booker-shortlisted-authors-novels-inspiration

For more information on Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, see https://serpentstail.com/washington-black.html

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