Jeff Miller Reviews New Non-Fiction for EVENT 51/2

Jeff Miller Reviews:

Esi Edugyan, Out of the Sun: On Race and Storytelling, House of Anansi Press, 2021
Andrew Chesham and Laura Farina, Eds., Resonance: Essays on the Craft and Life of Writing, Anvil Press, 2022

Anti-Black racism is a narrative, a story about whose lives matter and whose don’t. In Out of the Sun: On Race and Storytelling, novelist Esi Edugyan examines the origins of this fiction and how it metastasized in different cultures around the world since the emergence of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Examining a number of artistic forms, including portraiture, film and literature, Edugyan traces how each has decentred narratives of people of African descent. Instead of representing Africans as ‘just human beings, living human lives,’ the arts have repeatedly portrayed them as outsiders, even as they have inhabited the centre of their own cultures.

Out of the Sun is the published edition of the 2021 CBC Massey Lectures, hour-long lectures broadcast on Radio One on consecutive nights in January. Edugyan uses geography as the organizing principle of her lectures. Focusing on Canada and the United States, as well as on the continents of Europe, Africa and Asia, Edugyan addresses a number of topics, including the omission of African-descended people from public history, the politics of passing, Afrofuturism and the fear of miscegenation. Out of the Sun is an artful patchwork quilt, constructed from existing scholarship in a number of fields and other sources.

In the first of the book’s five sections, Edugyan discusses the life and death of Angelo Soliman, an 18th-century enslaved man from West Africa, who travelled in European high society as an Italian prince’s valet. Ascending to the highest ranks of Viennese society, Soliman was viewed as a paragon of African assimilation into European culture. Despite his achievements, upon his death Soliman was denied a Christian burial. Instead, his body was desecrated. Skinned and taxidermied, he was displayed in the Austrian Royal Natural History Collection’s cabinet of curiosities alongside stuffed African wildlife.

Searching for clues to Soliman’s cruel fate, Edugyan suggests Soliman’s portrait by Johann Steiner hints at how he was seen by Europeans. Rather than representing Soliman in the garb of Viennese society, Steiner highlighted his difference through unsubtle ‘visual cues: the lands behind him are dotted with the pyramids and palm trees of Africa; the walking cane in his right hand is tipped with a golden lion; he wears…a bright white turban…a stand-in for the “Oriental,” the exotic. These signal his unbreakable link to Africa, to the world of the “other.”’ Even as Soliman took up European ideals, his African origins were central to how he was perceived.

The muteness of Soliman in his portrait and that of the other Africans represented in European portraiture as ‘footmen, slaves, lady’s maids, magi’ frustrates Edugyan. Even though we can see a representation of Soliman’s thoughtful gaze, ‘we do not know how Soliman saw himself, or his adopted home.’ A similar yearning for a glimpse at a historical figure’s inner life occurs in Edugyan’s summary of the life of Yasuke, a 16th-century African man who travelled to Japan with Portuguese Jesuits. Yasuke is an undeniably compelling figure. Speaking fluent Japanese, he befriended a feudal lord and became a samurai. Edugyan’s gifts as a novelist strain against her devotion to the historical record in this lecture format. While the past offers fragments from which to make meaning, Edugyan craves a glimpse of the interiority of Soliman and Yasuke. She repeatedly asks speculative questions, and the reader shares her frustration, wanting to turn these names from history into the kinds of fully realized characters she has developed in her own award-winning historical novels.

Nowhere is she more successful in this than in her discussion of the life of Marie-Josèphe Angélique, a Portuguese-born enslaved Black woman who arrived in Montreal in the 1720s. Drawing on the ground-breaking scholarship of Afua Cooper and Charmaine Nelson on Canadian slavery, Edugyan is able to portray Angélique as a fully rounded character. After she is captured following an escape attempt, we can feel Angélique’s lack of control as she is ‘simply returned, like a sweater or a book, to her mistress.’ When Angélique was baselessly accused of arson following the 1734 burning of Montreal, there is pathos in the descriptions of her horrific punishments. Canada has wilfully forgotten that it was a society with slaves, and the history of Blacks in Canada is rarely commemorated, part of a phenomenon historian Jill Lepore calls ‘an apartheid of the departed.’ Edugyan notes that ‘in persisting with [Angélique’s] mythology, we have made a point of willfully remembering her. She is part of our cultural inheritance, someone we cannot turn from.’

Along with Soliman, Yasuke and Angélique, Edugyan tracks many other lives. There’s Charles King, a prominent white scientist who passed as African American, marrying and raising five children in secret, while still operating in Yankee high society. There’s Edward Nkoloso, founder of the ad-hoc Zambian Space Program, made up of three ‘Afronauts’ and 10 cats. There’s Chinese Admiral Zeng He, who in the early 15th century led one of the greatest navies ever assembled on seven globe-trotting expeditions ‘in a show of cultural and military power.’ Each section of the book represents another moment in time, brimming with historical personages. But as she skates over so many histories so quickly, recapitulating scholarly monographs in a few pages, Edugyan’s expansive vision is limited by the Massey Lecture formula. The format prevents her from digging deeper.

One character I wanted to learn more about was Edugyan herself. She offers glimpses of her life: a haunting encounter at a student house party, watching her young children playing in her yard, how her Ghanaian parents met as international students in California at a party to watch the 1969 moon landing. Her set pieces about spending her 20s at art residencies in European castles, or getting lost on the Great Wall of China after being invited to a book festival in Beijing, are moments from a very fancy writer’s life. But when she alludes to other moments of simple joy—in a line here, a short paragraph there—it feels like another, more personal, book is buried within this one.

The most evocative of these autobiographical tidbits is her story of watching the 2018 Marvel blockbuster Black Panther with her father. She recalls he laughed at how all the African accents put on by Anglo-American actors represented different corners of the continent. In half a paragraph, Edugyan dispatches a moment that could be spun out into a vivid scene or a full essay. I would love to read Watching Black Panther with My Dad by Esi Edugyan. She dispatches a vividly suggestive visit to a subterranean bookstore in Beijing with similar briskness. In these moments, Edugyan’s measured Massey Lectures-tone burns off, and her prose approaches the luminosity of her novels. We can hope that further autobiographical writing is to come.

Successful creative writing programs are a jostle of talents and toolkits. A well-assembled writing faculty can guide emerging poets, novelists, essayists and screenwriters into new disciplines and ideas. Students often find that the tradecraft of one discipline is applicable to others; for instance, the strong emphasis on plot in screenwriting can also bring fiction to life. Cross-pollination and polyphony abound.

But if the academic approach to teaching writing is polyphonic, why are so many of the craft books published each year written by a single author? Of course, these books distill a life of learning from their author’s own instructors and editors and from years of experience. But every writer has their own predilections and lacunae. In a change of pace, Resonance: Essays on the Craft and Life of Writing gives emerging writers a glimpse of the multivocal richness of a creative writing program. Emerging from the community of writers surrounding Simon Fraser University’s celebrated Writing Studio, Resonance compiles short craft essays from more than 40 writers. Reaching out to their community, editors Andrew Chesham and Laura Farina asked writers, ‘What’s one thing you wish other writers knew?’ This turned out to be a generative prompt, as the essays collected here are both illuminating and expansive.

Structured to mirror the writing process, the book gives insights on how to develop ideas early on in a project’s life, then moves through drafting and revising. The collection ends with two thoughtful essays on publication from editors Andrew Steeves at Gaspereau Press and Leigh Nash of Invisible Publishing and now House of Anansi. All essays are accompanied by fresh writing prompts to help writers who find themselves stalled at any of these stages in the creative process.

The variety of contributors in Resonance ensures that any emerging writer, regardless of genre, will find something valuable in these pages. Carleigh Baker writes about her autofiction practice, which begins with transcribing memories of conflict. Over the course of the revision process, Baker forgives the real people who populate her stories: ‘Once I could see them… through a lens of compassion, I could bring them to life…like truly fictional characters.’

Elsewhere, Kayla Czaga intriguingly writes about how rereading helped her find her voice as a poet. J.J. Lee offers a compelling exercise for memoirists. Jónína Kirton writes tenderly about the artistic process, giving suggestions for how to make room for creative work.

Particularly illuminating is Wayde Compton’s essay on ‘the rupture’ in the writing process, which he describes as the moment when the original framework for a project proves to be inadequate for what the work is becoming. He writes that the rupture is how ‘an idea you are not quite ready for at the start can find its way through,’ and that ‘it’s usually the better idea because it’s the one that arrives out of the writing itself.’ Compton reframes this moment of existential crisis as a positive, seeing it as necessary in all his projects.

The wide variety of experience and thought on display in Resonance makes it a compelling and welcome craft volume, one that should find its way onto the shelves of many emerging writers and creative writing instructors.

Jeff Miller