Book Review|Esi Edugyan Revives Black Stories, to Move the Margin Into the Center
When you purchase an independently reviewed book through our site, we earn an affiliate commission.
OUT OF THE SUN
On Race and Storytelling
By Esi Edugyan
In a 2003 interview, Toni Morrison issued a warning to Black writers everywhere who have tried to wrestle onto the page the sense of their own invisibility. “The title of Ralph Ellison’s book was ‘Invisible Man,’” she said of the 1952 novel. “And the question for me was, invisible to whom?”
“Not to me,” she said. Black life is, of course, knowable, and known to those who exist within it. Morrison’s own characters, from Pecola Breedlove to Sethe to Milkman Dead, move the center to what white readers have considered the margins.
I thought of Morrison’s reproof while reading the Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan’s latest work, “Out of the Sun.” The essays in this slim volume are drawn from the Massey Lectures she will give on CBC Radio in November. Addressing race and representation, memory and belonging, Edugyan — whose novels “Half-Blood Blues” and “Washington Black” both won Canada’s Giller Prize and were shortlisted for the Man Booker — explores with empathy what it means to be seen, and who remains unseen, in our current identity-conscious, visibility-obsessed culture that seems to be limping toward a new aesthetic order and politics of power.
For that new culture to break into a stride, Edugyan writes, “we must first acknowledge the vastly unequal places from which we each speak, the ways some have been denied voices when others are so easily heard.” Mixing memoir and social history, she offers “meditations” on an array of Black figures from around the world. There’s Angelo Soliman (born Mmadi Make), who was enslaved in Borno State (in modern-day Nigeria) and taken eventually to Vienna, where he rose through the ranks to become a chief servant and royal tutor for a prince — only to be deprived of a proper Christian burial upon his death, his body “skinned and his skin used to cover a wooden frame in the shape of a man” to be displayed in a museum’s “cabinet of curiosities.” And there’s the contemporary portrait artist Kehinde Wiley, whose empowering paintings of Black subjects, including President Obama for the National Portrait Gallery, have put him at the forefront of what Edugyan calls a “movement of artists pointedly taking charge of their own representation.”
In five essays divided geographically among Europe, Canada, America, Africa and Asia, Edugyan turns over the details of these lives with care, examining them for a transfiguring lesson that can better us now, like a balm patiently applied to skin after a day out in the sun. Marie-Joseph Angélique was an enslaved Black woman in Montreal who in 1734 was accused, without evidence, of burning down the city — and hanged for it. Her ghost is said to linger in Old Montreal to this day. “Ghost narratives in which Black people feature are rare,” Edugyan writes. “In granting this particular woman a spectral afterlife, in persisting with her mythology, we have made a point of willfully remembering her. She is part of our cultural inheritance, someone we cannot turn from.”
Like all representation, the stories Edugyan tells in “Out of the Sun” can’t undo centuries of inequality and erasure; but her point is less to change our culture than to reflect it back to us. Edward Makuka Nkoloso, the director of Zambia’s National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, sought to disrupt the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union by sending Zambian “Afronauts” to the moon by 1965. “Five years before Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon,” Edugyan writes, “Nkoloso was already trying to blow apart that narrative.” His mission was unsuccessful, the mockery the white world made of it betraying its “absolute disbelief at the idea that Black ingenuity might put mankind into space.”
The stories we tell ourselves define us, Edugyan says, and at present they are missing something. They do not bind all of us. “Out of the Sun” offers refuge at the very least, if not a way forward.