“I am forbidden, so are my children and my children’s children, forbidden for ten generations male or female.” With this opening line, Markovits immediately draws the reader in to a family saga of faith and long-hidden secrets, set among the Hasidic Jews of eastern Europe and spanning four generations…. VERDICT A stunning novel, the author’s first in English; highly recommended.”
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Wartime Europe Frames Study in Race, Society by Amy Smart, Times Colonist
It’s no surprise that globe-trotting author Esi Edugyan, whose novel Half-Blood Blues was recently longlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, is enchanted with themes of place and belonging.
The Victoria resident was born to Ghanaian émigré parents who met at a moon-landing party in San Francisco. She recently spent five years hopping from residency to residency across Europe, living everywhere from Iceland to Spain and Germany. And while she was born and raised in Calgary, she said she probably experienced it in a unique way.
“Every school I went to, there were like two black students,” she said. “I probably always felt slightly removed or slightly outside of things – even while feeling very much at home.”
It’s a theme that dominated her debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, about a Gold Coast emigrant who struggles with unrealized dreams in both Canada and the United States.
“There’s opportunity and then there’s the flipside of how a place can be malignant,” she said.
It’s a theme that she continues with Half-Blood Blues, which centres on the arrest of a black German musician by Nazis in occupied Paris. Edugyan conceived of the story while completing a residency in Stuttgart, Germany.
Half-Blood Blues, scheduled for release in Canada on Sept. 3, tells the story of a band of jazz musicians struggling to survive in Berlin during the Second World War. It opens with the arrest of the young and talented Hiero, a black German trumpet player. The narrative is told through the perspective of AfricanAmerican bandmate Sidney, decades in the future, as he pieces together the events leading up to the arrest.
“I like telling it from the perspective of Sidney, in terms of there being something unknowable or impenetrable about ‘The Kid,’ as they call [Hiero],” she said, of deliberately telling his story from the outside.
“There’s something unknowable about prodigy.”
Edugyan uses the multinational and multiracial band of musicians to explore varying levels of liberty they would have experienced in wartime Europe.
“The different ways that they can navigate society and the different restrictions that they face – I was very interested in exploring that,” she said. “And how that would create tensions between them.”
Light-skinned Sidney can pass for white, while his bandmate from Baltimore can’t. There is also a Jewish musician and an aristocratic German from the North, in addition to black German Hiero.
“That’s the one thing I usually don’t have problems with, is character,” said Edugyan, who holds a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars.
“It’s a weird thing, I always feel like they’re fully formed and I’m just kind of writing from their perspective.”
Half-Blood Blues is one of 13 works from around the world on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize, which “aims to reward the best novel of the year written by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland.”
The six-title shortlist will be revealed Sept. 6 and the winner announced Oct. 18.
The top prize is approximately $78,300, while each of the short-listed authors receives about $3,900.
Edugyan’s The Second Life of Samuel Tyne was named one of 2004’s “Books to Remember” by the New York Public Library, was nominated for the Hurston Wright Legacy Award and is part of Knopf Canada’s New Face of Fiction program.
Writing the Blues by Donna Bailey Nurse
After becoming disenchanted with literary life, Esi Edugyan found inspiration for her sophomore novel in an unlikely place
Not too long ago, Esi Edugyan grew dissatisfied with literary life. Her first novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, had been published in 2004 to international kudos and was part of Knopf Canada’s New Face of Fiction program. But Edugyan became deeply frustrated when the manuscript for her second novel – a project she has since put aside – was passed around without landing a publisher. At the time, she contemplated abandoning writing altogether.
“I thought I could have gone off and studied law,” says Edugyan, “or anything else with very tangible, forward-moving results.”
However, Edugyan had been accepted into residencies in Iceland, Hungary, and France, and felt she owed it to her patrons to put out another novel. In the German city of Stuttgart, she lived on the grounds of an 18th-century castle, in outbuildings that had been converted into studios for artists and writers – an experience that helped change her perspective. “The Europeans, especially the Germans and the French, are just amazing at supporting their artists,” Edugyan says. “[Artists] are almost hallowed.”
While in Germany, Edugyan studied the language and immersed herself in a totally alien culture. “There are so many amazing things about the country: its reverence for the arts; its reverence for beauty and thought; the strains of philosophy. And the landscape: it’s extremely beautiful.” At the same time, she acknowledges, “Germany has such a heavy history.”
That apparent dichotomy – between the richness of German culture and the darkness of its history – inspired her latest novel, Half-Blood Blues, which is being published by Thomas Allen Publishers in September. The novel’s main action takes place in occupied Paris, where Hiero, a brilliant young Afro-German jazz musician, is arrested by the Nazis and never heard from again. The son of a white German mother and black African soldier, Hiero is one of the mixed-race Germans that came to be known as “Rhineland bastards,” a despised population who were denied citizenship and persecuted by the Nazis. A member of an interracial jazz ensemble, Hiero’s life is doubly imperilled: the Nazis condemned jazz as the degenerate music of blacks and Jews.
“We all know about the Jazz Age in the 1920s, and how African-American performers were going overseas to perform in Germany and, especially, in France,” Edugyan says. “But then came 1933 and the Third Reich. What happened to some of the African-American musicians who may have stayed behind? What happened to their fellow German musicians? A lot of them were Jewish.”
Edugyan possesses an original literary mind – it’s hard to think of another contemporary novelist who could fuse jazz, Jews, blacks, and the Holocaust into a cogent, riveting story. Yet, Half-Blood Blues also fits comfortably into a tradition of black Canadian literature that includes Lawrence Hill’s Any Known Blood and Kim Brunhuber’s Kameleon Man, in which biracial experience symbolizes the challenge of reconciling black and national identities.
“Hiero feels very German at his core, but he can’t just slip in with the majority. And so he is forced into this feeling of otherness. There’s this sense of helplessness about it,” Edugyan explains.
“[Suppose] someone was telling you all the time, ‘You’re not Canadian. You’re not Canadian,’ and you felt very deeply that you were Canadian,” she adds. “There’s a tragedy there. You’re not allowed to be what you feel yourself to be.”
Edugyan, 33, was born and raised in Calgary. Her parents, Ghanaian emigrants, settled in Alberta, where her father worked as an economic forecaster and her mother was a nurse. She is a petite, glamorous woman with a creamy, dark complexion and a mass of curly hair that she wears tied back in an unfussy style. When we met in Toronto in April, Edugyan, who was five months pregnant at the time, wore a lilac dress with an elegant cut that skimmed her body. She has smiling eyes, but her expression is enigmatic – she’s still more than a little wary of the ups and downs of the publishing process.
Edugyan began writing in earnest in her teens – “terrible poems,” she insists. Nevertheless, a high school teacher recognized her talent and directed her to the creative writing program at the University of Victoria, where she met her husband, the poet and novelist Steven Price. The couple, who both studied under the novelist Jack Hodgins, continue to be each other’s toughest critics, Edugyan says.
Half-Blood Blues appeared first in the U.K., where it was published by the venerable literary house Serpent’s Tail in June. In Canada, the novel was originally picked up by former Key Porter Books editor Jane Warren, but publication was delayed when the company went on permanent hiatus last October. Edugyan’s agent, Anne McDermid, eventually sought a new home for the novel with Thomas Allen, which had published Price’s debut novel, Into That Darkness, earlier this year.
Thomas Allen publisher Patrick Crean, already a fan of Edugyan’s work, read the manuscript in two sittings. “It was a slam dunk,” he says. “There was the compelling nature of the story – a group of jazz musicians caught up in Nazi Germany. The editing had already been done. We were a lucky publisher to have this wonderful book land in our lap.”
For Edugyan, at least, it seems the vicissitudes of literary life are paying off.
Rhineland Bastard was a derogatory term used in Nazi Germany to describe the children of mixed African and German parentage. Under Nazism‘s racial theories, these children were considered inferior to pure Aryans and consigned tosterilization.
The term “Rhineland Bastard” can be traced back to World War I, when French troops occupied the Rhineland. Some of these troops were from France’s colonies in Africa and were known locally as Neger (negroes) or the “Black Disgrace” in Germany’s race-conscious society. A handful of German women married soldiers from the occupying forces, while othershad children by them under wedlock. In Mein Kampf Hitler described these children as an “insult” to Germany. He detested the German women who gave birth to these children, and referred to them as whores and prostitutes. It should also be noted that most of the Blacks in Germany were children of German colonists in Africa who either married local women or had children with them. With the loss of Germany’s colonies after World War I, some of the colonists returned to Germany with their mixed-race families.
While the Black population of Germany at the time of the Third Reich was unsubstantial (around 500-800 in a population of 60+ million), the Nazis despised Black culture, which they considered inferior, and even took action against musical forms such as jazz. Nevertheless, no official laws were enacted against the Black population, or even against the children of mixed parentage that Hitler loathed. Unofficially, however, a group named “Commission Number 3” was created to resolve the “problem” of the “Rhineland Bastards.” Organized under Dr. Eugen Fischer of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics, it was decided that the children would be sterilized under the 1933 Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Defects (see compulsory sterilization).
The program began in 1937, when local officials were asked to report on all “Rhineland Bastards” under their jurisdiction. Altogether, some 400 children of mixed parentage were arrested and sterilized.