TORONTO — Colwood author Esi Edugyan has won the $100,000 Giller Prize for a second time. The award, for her novel Washington Black, felt all the more meaningful amid a climate in which truth is “under siege,” she said.
The novel follows the saga of an 11-year-old boy who escapes slavery at a Barbados sugar plantation with the help of the owner’s kinder brother.
Edugyan won the top prize after a season flush with acclaim for Washington Black, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Writers’ Trust fiction award.
As she took to the stage Monday night at the Ritz-Carlton in Toronto, Edugyan sighed, saying she didn’t prepare a speech because she didn’t expect to win.
“In a climate in which so many forms of truth telling are under siege, this feels like a really wonderful and important celebration of words,” she said.
Runners-up included Patrick deWitt for French Exit, Thea Lim for An Ocean of Minutes, Sheila Heti’s Motherhood and Songs for the Cold of Heart by Eric Dupont, translated from French by Peter McCambridge.
Edugyan’s first Giller win was for Half-Blood Blues in 2011, when she also beat out deWitt.
In an interview after the ceremony, Edugyan said she felt like she was taking a risk with the subject in Washington Black. “I sort of feel maybe that it’s opened me to writing about anything,” she said. “Stories of the marginalized, it’s extremely important to get those out there, and for us to be reading them, and trying to imagine ourselves into other skins, and not closing ourselves down.
“It’s part of, I think, keeping the dialogue alive, and keeping empathy alive.”
Edugyan said she hopes her success empowers readers underrepresented in literature. “To see a black woman win the prize … that’s huge. For me, when I was growing up in Calgary in the [1980s], there weren’t a tonne of Canadian models in terms of people who had my background.”
A five-member jury praised Washington Black as “a supremely engrossing novel about friendship and love and the way identity is sometimes a far more vital act of imagination than the age in which one lives.”
Celebrating its 25th year, the Giller awards $100,000 annually to the author of the best Canadian novel or short story collection published in English, and $10,000 to each of the finalists.