Esi Edugyan is known for breaking barriers. The daughter of Ghanaian immigrants to Canada, she was the first black Canadian woman to win the Scotiabank Giller prize, in 2011, for her novel Half-Blood Blues. In 2018, she repeated that success with a win for her third novel, Washington Black. On Monday, March 9th, Obama Book Club members and Class of 2020 seniors had the chance to hear from Ms. Edugyan herself about her life and work.
In preparation for Ms. Edugyan’s visit, organized by Ms. Prezioso and the Obama Speaker Series in partnership with Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures, seniors and Book Club members spent time reading Washington Black (in full as well as excerpts) and learning about Ms. Edugyan’s background. The Thursday before Ms. Edugyan’s visit, Book Club members gathered during lunch and after school to discuss their impressions of her novel. Mr. Denlinger held class discussions with his seniors about an excerpt of the book and some of Ms. Edugyan’s other writing that they read.
On Monday itself, Ms. Edugyan’s visit had a bit of a pall cast over it due to COVID-19 fears. Students were informed just before the visit that there would be no book signings (the school later received signed bookplate stickers). A large bottle of hand sanitizer was discreetly placed next to Ms. Edugyan’s chair on the auditorium stage.
Hygiene concerns notwithstanding, the visit went splendidly. From 1-2 PM, about ten students asked Ms. Edugyan questions about her writing process, elements of Washington Black, and her thoughts on racial issues. Two of the students’ questions—junior Ashanti Anderson’s about whether Ms. Edugyan considered herself a good writer and junior Charlie Schwartz’s about deus ex machina and coincidence in Washington Black—received particular note. They were later asked by Stephanie Flom, Executive Director of Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures, to Ms. Edugyan during the official Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures lecture Monday night.
Ms. Prezioso, who attended the Monday night session, said that both Ms. Flom and Ms. Edugyan shared with the audience that they had been highly impressed by Obama’s students. Likewise, Obama students The Eagle heard from said that they had enjoyed hearing Ms. Edugyan speak. The significance of Ms. Edugyan speaking at a mostly African-American, mostly female school should not be lost on anyone. Senior Chazzlyn Burke remarked that she had a “lovely voice” and called the talk “inspirational,” especially for “young writers and women.”