Washington Black is a novel about a boy of precarious visibilities: he is all too visible to those who would demean his humanity; he is all too invisible to those who might recognize his gifts and value his very real potential to make great contributions to the world. Born an eleven-year old field slave in Barbados, Washington has known no other life but one of savagery and brutality at the hands of his masters. He is destined for extinction.
And yet one day he is taken in to live with the most unlikely of people– his master’s more enlightened brother, who goes by the name of Titch. What Titch sees in him, at first, is what every other white man sees in him– the useful object of his body. Washington is the perfect size to act as ballast for an aerial contraption Titch is building. Only after many months of conversation and collaboration does Titch begin to truly see Washington for who he is: an astonishingly intelligent boy with natural gifts in science and illustration. And it is this seeing, this being seen, that gives Washington his first stirrings of personhood. It leads him, in a very visceral way, to the idea that he too might have something to offer the world.
What a difficult space a boy like Washington would have occupied– wrenched unaccountably from one world to be thrown into societies wholly unlike all he’d known, societies in which, after the first blush of freedom, he’d come to understand that no matter how talented he was or how hard he worked, all he set his hand to would never be seen as his own.
The novel has its origins in the Tichborne Claimant case, one of the longest-running criminal trials in British history. I wanted to tell this strange and elaborate story from the perspective of its “footnote”: an ex-slave called Andrew Bogle who’d been stolen off a plantation in the Caribbean by a member of the Tichborne family, and who’d come to spend all his adult years as their manservant, and eventually act as main witness for the defense. And yet as I set out to write it, the details began to shift and change. I understood that rather than the outlandishness of the trial, it was the voice of its narrator that interested me most. I wanted to write about the traumatized psychology of someone like Bogle: a man who’d left behind one harsh life to inhabit a second one no less brutal in its new visibility.
What delights me most about this honour is the way it takes a story like Washington’s, like Andrew Bogle’s– men historically fated for erasure– and insists on their being seen. The light it throws on these lost lives.
The plaque for the 2019 PNBA Book Award for Washington Black will be presented to Esi Edugyan at an independent bookstore, location and time TBD. nwbooklovers is posting original essays from this year’s award winners as featured posts in January and February. You can enjoy essays from past winners of the PNBA Book Award in our archive.