Tag: Esi Edugyan

We Need Diverse Books

Over the past week or so, I’ve been quietly watching and listening to the We Need Diverse Books campaign and conversation. Being white, straight, and able-bodied, and generally pretty privileged, I felt like listening was my job. But I also need to speak up at least long enough to say that I read and support diverse books, and I want more of them. It’s wonderful to see myself in literature, but it would be pretty damn boring if every character was just like me. I want to hear from, and about, people from all walks of life. Here are some fantastic diverse books that I have enjoyed:

Cover image for The Buddha in the Attic by Julie OtsukaWritten from the perspective of a collective “we,” Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic relates the experiences of the Japanese picture brides who came to America in the early 1900s. Betrothed to men they had chosen from photographs, and promised a more comfortable life across the sea, these women left their homes and families for a hard new life on America’s frontier. Many arrive to realize that the husbands they were promised were mere fictions, and the men they are expected to marry are poor migrant agricultural workers. The lives they are able to build for themselves over years of hard work are abruptly yanked away from them with the onset of World War II and the institution of the Japanese internment camps.

Cover image for Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

In Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan takes us back to World War II Europe, as jazz musicians Chip Jones and Sid Griffiths relive their memories of that time. They lost many of their friends and fellow musicians, first in Nazi Berlin, and then in occupied Paris. But none of those friends haunt them quite like Hieronymous Falk, also known as The Kid, a jazz horn player who could have been the next Louis Armstrong. Hiero was a Mischling, a black German made stateless by his race. Just hours after laying down the legendary track known as Half-Blood Blues, Hiero was captured by the Germans, and sent to an internment camp. Everyone agrees that Hiero died in the aftermath of the war, although there are many competing theories about how he met his fate. Chip and Sid are about to travel back to Berlin for the premiere of a documentary on Hiero’s life and music, but just before they depart, Chip receives a letter from Poland from someone who claims to be Hieronymous Falk. 

Cover image for Golden Boy by Abigail TarttelinIn Golden Boy, Abigail Tarttlein tells the story of Max Walker. Smart, athletic, and popular, Max seems to have everything going for him. He is loved by his parents, idolized by his younger brother,  and adored by his peers. But all his life, Max and his parents have been hiding a secret; he is intersex. Dating makes it hard enough to conceal this fact, but when Max is raped by a childhood friend, it seems that his secret will inevitably come out. The upheaval comes at the worst possible time; Steven Walker is about to stand for Parliament, and the ravenous British paparazzi that ran the previous candidate out of office may descend on the Walkers at any moment.

Cover Image for The Silvered by Tanya HuffCanadian LGBT author Tanya Huff often writes about straight protagonists, but in every book, you will find queer secondary characters, and wonderful female heroes. IThe Silvered, she reworks the concept of the werewolf, creating a complex social structure which combines werewolves and mages. Their country and their culture are under siege by an ever-expanding, Napoleon-esque Empire which regards the Pack as abomination. Bigotry, xenophobia, and racism complicate novice mage Mirian Maylin’s efforts to save the Mage-Pack after five members are kidnapped by the Emperor. 

Cover image for Maggot Moon by Sally GardnerMaggot Moon is the story of Standish Treadwell, a dyslexic boy keeps his mismatched eyes downcast, and tries to be invisible at school. In the dystopian society where Standish lives, being different is dangerous. Dyslexic herself, author Sally Gardner has created a wonderfully relatable hero whose learning disability isn’t a secret super power. This novel is best read with as few spoilers as possible. 

 

Cover image for The Black Count by Tom ReissSometimes truth is better than fiction, and more diverse, too. In The Black Count, Tom Reiss profiles Alexandre Dumas, father of the famous novelist. The son of an itinerant French nobleman and his black slave mistress, Dumas was born on Saint-Domingue, and became a free man when his father took him to France, where slavery was illegal. He received a traditional French education before joining the army. As a person of colour, Dumas arrived in France at a peculiar moment in history, when rising Republican ideals would enable him to achieve incredible military acclaim despite his race, eventually becoming a general in the French Revolutionary Army. Unfortunately for Dumas, the window of opportunity was short, and when Napoleon rose to power, the fortunes of the gens de couleur did not rise with him. 

 

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Canada Reads Along: Half-Blood Blues

Cover image for Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyanby Esi Edugyan

ISBN 978-1-4668-0284-1

Look, kid, don’t be sore. You hit them skins good for you age. But playing good for you age don’t mean you playing good for the ages. ‘Less you a Bolden, or a Jelly Roll or something. And they don’t come along but maybe twice a century. Listen, jazz, it ain’t just music; it life. You got to have experience to make jazz. I ain’t never heard no one under eighteen even sound like he know which end of his instrument to hold.”

Chip Jones and Sid Griffiths have been friends since they were little boys in Baltimore. Now they’re old men in Baltimore, but in between, they were jazz musicians, caught in Europe during World War II. They lost many of their friends and fellow musicians, first in Nazi Berlin, and then in occupied Paris. But none of those friends haunt them quite like Hieronymous Falk, also known as The Kid, a jazz horn player who could have been the next Louis Armstrong. Hiero was a Mischling, a black German made stateless by his race. Just hours after laying down the legendary track known as Half-Blood Blues, Hiero was captured by the Germans, and sent to an internment camp. Everyone agrees that Hiero died in the aftermath of the war, although there are many competing theories about how he met his fate. Chip and Sid are about to travel back to Berlin for the premiere of a documentary on Hiero’s life and music, but just before they depart, Chip receives a letter from Poland from someone who claims to be Hieronymous Falk. The letter forces the friends to relive the war and face up to the consequences of their choices.

Narrated in the person person by Sid, Half-Blood Blues has an almost musical voice. It takes some time to settle into the colloquial style, but ultimately Sid’s voice is one of the strongest aspects of the novel. Equally compelling is the way in which Esi Edugyan brings jazz-age Europe to life, highlighting the plight of black people caught under the Nazi regime, a topic which is rarely addressed in World War II fiction. Half-Blood Blues is an education in jazz music and black European history and a counter-point the better known story of the persecution of the Jews. Although we know what is coming in the war, Edugyan creates tension within the personal narratives of the characters, recounting old grudges and misunderstandings. The chapters about the war are interspersed with the chapters about Sid and Chip’s journey back to Berlin, and on to Poland. The unfolding backstory increasingly contextualizes Sid’s anxiety about coming face-to-face with Hiero again, forcing him to confront his profound jealousy of Hiero’s talent, and his own contradictory self-image.

On Canada Reads 2014, Half-Blood Blues was championed by Olympian Donovan Bailey. Samantha Bee, Stephen Lewis, and Sarah Gadon cast the three votes which made it the second book to be eliminated, after Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. While the panelists acknowledged the literary merits of Half-Blood Blues, Bailey failed to make a convincing argument for the contemporary relevance of the book as one that will inspire change in Canada today. Bailey actually made some of his most salient points in the Q&A after the debate, pointing out that racial profiling still affects freedom of movement in the modern world, a theme which is prevalent as the characters try to escape Nazi Germany and then German-occupied France. On literary merit alone, Half-Blood Blues is an extremely strong contender but this year’s theme of inspiring social change proved to be its downfall.

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More World War II Fiction:

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka