- The Place in Between:An Interview with Esi Edugyan
Esi Edugyan's 2011 Man Booker Prize finalist, Half-Blood Blues, opens with the lines, "Chip told us not to go out. Said, don't you boys tempt the devil." It is 1940 in Nazi-occupied Paris and the "boys" include Afro-German, Jewish, and African-American members of a jazz band who have recently fled an increasingly dangerous Berlin. They are living under a terrifying regime, trapped as much by the color of their skin as the curfews and constant presence of the Gestapo. Told from the perspective of Sid, an African-American bassist who left pre-civil rights era Baltimore to escape racial segregation, it is Hiero, the incomparably gifted trumpeter player, who holds the band together. But Half-Blood Blues is more than a book about music. Edugyan illuminates one of the forgotten victims of Nazi Germany's ruthless quest for a racially "pure" state: the "Rhineland Bastards," mixed-race Germans whose stories were lost when they went into hiding, fled, or disappeared into concentration camps. Hiero is one of those "mischlings," and through him, we begin to understand how encompassing a denied history can be. But perhaps more than anything, this is a story about friendship, betrayal, loyalty, and the possibility of redemption through music. To read Half-Blood Blues is to hear jazz and the ache of regret through prose. Garnering nominations and awards internationally, the book has kept Edugyan on a busy, hectic schedule. It was my honor to have the chance to catch her in a quiet moment to talk about her book.
I want to just jump right in and talk a little bit about the book's setting and its characters. Part of the story takes place in 1940 Paris and Nazi Germany. What was your motivation for writing about this moment in history? What got you really interested in it, and these characters?
I think I've always had a fascination with that period of history. It was such an extreme time in terms of what was happening everywhere, but especially in Europe, in those initial months when the Third Reich came to power. It was very fascinating for me. I had been living in Germany for about a year and a half, over two separate periods. The first time I was there for about thirteen months, learning German and really trying to immerse myself in the culture. And being a black woman living in Southern Germany, I started to wonder about the history of black people in Europe in general, but specifically in Germany. And so I did some research and discovered the story about the Rhineland Bastards—or the so-called "Rhineland Bastards." That's how I came to focus on this period that I had done quite a bit of reading on over my lifetime. It was interesting to me. [End Page 46]
When you were researching these Rhineland Bastards, these children born to black soldiers and German mothers in the period following WWI, what guided your decision to make your characters musicians?
I have a very strong interest in music and grew up with a very strong interest in music even though I was never able to play the instruments very well. So, I'd been working on a project about a different kind of musician, a classical musician. And when I was in Germany, I started putting that aside and turning my sights to jazz musicians. And this was, in large part, because I quite love jazz. I'm not a huge expert on it, I'll admit that, but what I've heard I really like. But also because I knew that Germany had gone through a big jazz age in the twenties, you know, there was a big avant-garde time after the First World War. So then you start to think about "well, what would happen to all of those musicians once the Third Reich took power?" And, you know, it was something that I certainly didn't know anything about, so I just had to do research on that too.
This book also includes...