Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Stirrings of Personhood: Ondjaki and Esi Edugyan

There was a delightful mistranslation when Ondjaki, a writer from Angola who works in Portuguese, spoke about his books “who are here in English.” He’d meant to indicate, during his conversation with Adrian Harewood, there were a variety of his works that were available at Perfect Books’ booth in the hallway outside the event.

I found it apt to think of books as persons since both Ondjaki, and the acclaimed Canadian novelist, Esi Edugyan, his fellow panelist onstage, produce work which gives presence to the invisible in our society.


Edugyan was propelled to literary stardom in 2011 when her novel Half-Blood Blues won both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. (The latter is an under-appreciated prize which honors work which makes “important contributions to our understanding of racism and our appreciation of the rich diversity of human cultures.”) Edugyan’s latest novel is Washington Black, a story about a Barbados-born slave in the early nineteenth century, and his relationship with his master’s liberal-minded younger brother. Edugyan’s talents and work have rightly been met with continued acclaim. Washington Black has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and Edugyan was recently featured on The New York Times’ Book Review podcast.


Ondjaki’s work exemplifies the richness of global literature available to Anglophone readers in translation. Ondjaki’s list of literary awards are legion. His most recently translated work, Transparent City, won the 2013 José Saramago Prize. While casting its primary gaze toward urban decline in his native city of Luanda in Angola, Transparent City features a protagonist who grows transparent or invisible even as the familiar landscape slowly decays and disappears.

Much of Edugyan and Ondjaki’s conversation explored the twin, seemingly opposing, features of life: that of sorrow and humour. Edugyan’s work emerged out of her labours into historical research. She mentioned her deep desire and curiosity to enter and live out the psychology of a young man who would have been a slave. While she also spoke sympathetically about Whites who expressed solidarity with Black slaves and worked to free them, Edugyan also notes that “a true and equal friendship [between them] is not possible.” There is always a distance, and this is woven into the many interactions that the eponymous protagonist of Washington Black has throughout the course of his adventures, and it is especially so in relation his master’s brother. Edugyan mentioned how writing the violence in the book was difficult, because human cruelty, which our society specializes in obscuring, is jarring. But she continued her writing with an artistic sense of duty to faithfully recreate history so that the past confronts us fully.


Ondjaki touched on a few sensitive subjects with a lot of wit and directness. One was the quip that while reality often was stranger than fiction, Ondjaki is not being a sociologist, but is weaving narratives, adding in exaggerations to make a point. Simply recording real-life incidents into a thinly-veiled fiction would not be enough. Ondjaki respects his readers to not be condescended to by over-explaining the mise-en-scène. He wants to over-stress a point to absurdity and “not [be] blinking [sic] to the reader.” He credits some of the inspiration of this approach to the French-Romanian playwright, Eugène Ionesco. Ondjaki also vehemently stated that he was not conscious of writing for a Western audience. With respect to his voice as a writer from Angola, Ondjaki did not see it necessary to have his authenticity questioned or validated by Western interlocutors, who even while good-intentioned, may not actually know about what local audiences themselves feel. With only slight sarcasm, Ondjaki quipped, “Africa is a big country! Come and see!” The audience also got a sense into his method as a writer when he joked that “once in a while the story tells you that you can’t be short!” That some things can’t be pre-planned. That some things take time, more words, more revisions, to render them truer.


Adrian Harewood, ever thoughtful, noted during the conversation that freedom may not be comprehensive, that “agency” alone is not complete freedom. All of us also need to be nourished and have meaningful relationships for our freedom to be complete. The evening with Harewood, Ondjaki and Edugyan was a wonderful reminder of these verities.