Out of the Sun – Essays at the Crossroads of Race: A stunning collection

Book review: Esi Edugyan weaves solid historical research with clever analysis of popular culture

Out of the Sun:Essays at the Crossroads of Race
Out of the Sun:Essays at the Crossroads of Race
Author: Esi Edugyan
ISBN-13: 978-1788169905
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
Guideline Price: £16.99

Whenever you meet a person, you are actually meeting two. One is the human being, with all their human joys, fears and instincts. The other is a “bearer of racial features, and...culture”.

Booker-shortlisted Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan recalls the words of Ryszard Kapuscinski in her stunning essay collection “at the crossroads of race”. The issue is that some – specifically, black – people are liable to be viewed solely as “bearers of racial features and culture”, to the diminishment of their humanity.

This idea often resurfaces through the collection, borne out by striking evidence. We discover how the arrival of the African Yasuke in Japan in 1579 caused riots as crowds gathered to see him; how feudal king Nobunaga tried to rub the pigment from his skin and wondered if he was a god. We hear the disturbing story of Angelo Solimon, an 18th-century slave who, despite being a highly educated and respected member of Vienna’s elite social circles, was flayed after his death for a museum display.

What makes Edugyan’s account so strong is her ability to investigate the complexities of such narratives, weaving solid historical research – on, for example, the Japanese miners in 1970s Congo whose mixed-race children were reportedly killed when they left – with clever analysis of popular culture, including ghost stories and the 2020 blockbuster Black Panther.


Thus we are afforded a view of the portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle, born into illegitimacy and slavery to a white British father and African slave mother but raised as an educated freewoman in England. And I won’t be the first to learn the complex history of Rachel Dolezal – a prominent “black” activist outed as biologically white in 2015 – or Clarence King, a privileged and politically influential white man at the end of the 19th century who maintained a separate life as the black “James Todd”.

These stories soar off the page with Edugyan’s poetic, personally informed narration: we taste “dinners laced with overripe tomatoes, the sun sweet in their flesh” and hear the Beijing “night thrumming with the low, almost animal sounds of traffic”.

At a time when discussions of race are perhaps more fraught than ever, Out of the Sun provides an enlightening, multifaceted and thoroughly engrossing look at what blackness means and has meant through the centuries.