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Phoebe Robinson: There's No Excuse For The Lack Of Diversity In Comedy

Phoebe Robinson has set out to change the demographics of comedy: "It's a very white male, straight male-dominated industry — and that can be exhausting," she says.

31:08

Other segments from the episode on October 15, 2018

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 15, 2018: Interview with Phoebe Robinson; Review of the book Washington Black; Interview with Esi Edugyan.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, comic and actor Phoebe Robinson, is the co-host and co-creator, along with Jessica Williams, of the comedy podcast 2 Dope Queens, which also had a series of HBO specials this year. Robinson also hosts the interview podcast, Sooo Many White Guys. She was a writer for the TV series "Portlandia," and next year she'll be in the movie "What Men Want" starring Taraji. P. Henson. Robinson's book "You Can't Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have To Explain" was a best-seller. Her new book, "Everything's Trash, But It's Okay," is a series of funny, conversational personal essays on subjects including being a feminist, nearly getting evicted when she was going broke trying to make it as a comic, going from a four-year relationship to being single again, and then being in a relationship again and what it's been like as a black woman to be in interracial relationships.

Phoebe Robinson, welcome to FRESH AIR. It is a pleasure to have you on our show. So you started in comedy about eight years ago?

PHOEBE ROBINSON: Ten years.

GROSS: Ten years. OK, OK.

ROBINSON: Yeah.

GROSS: So what was the gender-race atmosphere in comedy clubs like for you then?

ROBINSON: I think it's the same as it is now. It's a lot of straight white guys, some women, some people of color, a few queer people, you know? It's a very white, straight-male-dominated industry. And that can be exhausting, I think is probably the most polite way to put it. There's just a way that it seems like a lot of the white straight guys want comedy to be done.

And if you don't do it that way - if you don't do sort of the hanging out that you do, I think it can feel sort of lonely in a way that I would say almost none of the other things that I do - writing, acting, 2 Dope Queens. That stuff doesn't feel lonely. But a lot of times, stand-up feels incredibly lonely for me.

GROSS: You know, you're right that male comics talk all the time about their body functions and their man parts. But if women do it, it's considered gross. So what kind of reactions did you get when you were starting in comedy? When you started to talk about...

ROBINSON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Body issues and things like menstruation...

ROBINSON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And there were a lot of, you know, men in the audience.

ROBINSON: Yeah. I mean, I think - just - I just want to be clear that when anyone starts doing stand-up, like, you're full trash. You know what I mean? Like, you're just, like, not that great. You're really sort of coasting on personality. And you're hoping your jokes are kind of funny. And, you know, I've been doing comedy for 10 years. And I think I've finally gotten to a place where I - can I curse? Is that allowed? No.

GROSS: We'd have to bleep it. So why bother?

ROBINSON: I don't want to do that.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ROBINSON: Yeah, I don't want it. I don't want to do it. I'm not Lil Wayne, OK? I'm not going to curse.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: So I just really got to a place, you know - I think, honestly, the place that I got to happened when I went on tour last fall with Ilana Glazer. We did our YQY tour across America. And we were both kind of being like, oh, we're funny. We've been doubting ourselves this whole freaking time, and a lot of that has been informed by the fact that we have different energy than a lot of the male comics. We carry ourselves different. Maybe we tell our jokes in a different way or a different style.

And we were beating ourselves up and allowing that sort of - kind of patriarchal sort of energy to affect our self-esteem. And then I was like, yeah, I'm good at this job. I was going to - I was going to quit doing stand-up. Honestly, after that tour, I was going to be like, all right. I did one stand-up tour. I'm done. I won't do stand-up anymore. I don't fit in. And then I was like, why are you allowing this to overpower you?

GROSS: OK. You also say, in your book, that you made jokes when you were starting that you wouldn't dream of making today. Can I put you on the spot and ask you for an example of a joke you wouldn't dream of making today?

ROBINSON: Yeah. I had this one joke that I used to do pretty early out. And I took all my early, like, stand-up clips off YouTube because who needs to see that train wreck? I don't. I was just Dunkirking (ph) it up. But anyway, so the joke basically is I was watching the slavery documentary with a white friend of mine. And it got like really awkward. And I was, like, oh, don't worry about it. I - because I'm lighter skin, I would've been in the house. And it always got a laugh. And I would, like, go and, like, make jokes about, like, you know, me and Thomas Jefferson. And it always just kind of like - now I'm like, are you kidding me, dog?

GROSS: (Laughter).

ROBINSON: Why would you ever make that? It's so ignorant. And it's so just kind of, like, you know, when you're early, you're like, oh, I got to be provocative. I have to be edgy. I have to, like - if I'm going to talk about race, I have to do it in, like, this crazy way that I think has never been done and make people uncomfortable or make people, like, really just, like, kind of laugh out of, like, shock rather than laughing out of, like, truly, like, enjoying that joke thoroughly.

And that is a joke where I'm like, maybe you, like, just don't need to joke about slavery like that. I'm sure there's a great slavery joke. But I haven't cracked that nut yet. And it's fine for me to not tell garbage ones in the meantime.

GROSS: So you talked about your discomfort in comedy clubs performing when you started out, and it took you until like last year (laughter)...

ROBINSON: Yeah, I know (laughter).

GROSS: ...To feel like you could really do it. But You and Jessica Williams started the comedy podcast 2 Dope Queens. And, you know, you also just talked about wanting to do comedy in an environment where queer people and trans people could come and not feel like they risked being the butt of a joke. But that's how it is on 2 Dope Queens.

I mean, when you and Jessica Williams, who's your partner on that show, put it together, like, what was your goal in terms of the kinds of comics you wanted to showcase? Because it starts with you and her, you know, talking in a funny way about things recently happened to you. And then you bring up several, you know, stand-up comics to perform it. And it's done from a theater.

ROBINSON: Yeah.

GROSS: So what was your goal in terms of showcasing comics and creating a type of environment for the audience and for the performers?

ROBINSON: The fact that it's on HBO now - we started working together four years ago - is truly bonkers, crazy, banana sandwich in the best way possible. And when Jess and I met and just - even before her and I met, I just would always notice, like, I would watch these late-night shows. And it'd usually be, you know, straight white guys getting these opportunities. And every once in a while, you'd see a woman or every once in a while you'd see, like, a black guy.

And I would just see it. And I'd be like, oh, OK, yeah. All these people are funny. I'm not taking anything away from the people that did get those spots. But I'm like, I'm surrounded by so many funny women, so many funny people of color, so many funny queer people who might not get those same opportunities to submit their tape to a book or to get greenlit to talk about different things from their perspective.

And so when Jess and I met, we were just kind of like, we know so many hilarious people who don't have maybe the platform they can to express themselves in a way. And we're like, well, it would be really dope - no pun intended - but it'd be really dope to not only have a show that sort of showcases, you know, my improv and Jess's improv abilities both singular and together, but also use the show as a platform to just bring our friends along and be like, we're supporting everybody.

This is a show for everybody. If you are funny, there's no reason why you're not going to be on this show. And I think a lot of times, you would just hear, you know, in the industry, oh, they're just like aren't - just like aren't any funny black women or we just, like, don't know where to look. And I'm like, that excuse doesn't fly with me anymore. There are so many talented, amazing people. And if you're not booking them, it's either out of laziness or the fact that you really don't care.

GROSS: So you're pretty successful now in comedy and with your podcast and the HBO specials of 2 Dope Queens, but for years, you made next to nothing as a comic.

ROBINSON: Yes. Oof.

GROSS: Yeah. And you were getting, like, dunning calls from the student loans that you owed. You were nearly evicted from your apartment. But you were given a reprieve of, like, several weeks or a couple of months to raise the $5,000 that you needed to stay in your apartment. How did you handle the anxiety of not being able to pay your student loans and then not being able to afford to have an apartment and nearly being evicted?

ROBINSON: Yeah, you know, there were a lot of tears, just, like, not being able to sleep at night. There was a lot of feeling like a failure, of feeling like maybe me trying to pursue comedy is a little nutty - because I really didn't start making a really solid living doing comedy until eight and a half years in. And, you know, I was kind of like, well, maybe it shouldn't take this long. There are other people around me where it's like, it's not taking them eight years to, like, sort of, like, you know, get their career going in the way that they want it. And you know, looking back on it now, I'm just kind of like, you can't control when that happens.

I think, yes, it was kind of irritating that it took me this long. But I think I was so fully ready for the opportunities that arose by that point. So like, you know, 2 Dope Queens being on HBO didn't scare me. Having to write a book didn't scare me. It's like, OK, I've been blogging and writing for three, four years making - what? - 50 bucks a blog post. OK, yeah. I can - this - writing this book is going to be hard. But I'm not going to run away from it.

GROSS: Well, let me re-introduce you here.

If you're just joining us, my guest is comic and actor Phoebe Robinson, who hosts the podcast and HBO specials 2 Dope Queens with Jessica Williams. And she has a new book, which is called "Everything's Trash, But It's Okay." We're going to take a short break and then be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AWREEOH'S "CAN'T BRING ME DOWN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comedian and actor Phoebe Robinson, who hosts the podcast 2 Dope Queens with Jessica Williams. They co-host it together. And they also have a series of four HBO specials by the same name. And they have four more set for 2019, right, Phoebe?

ROBINSON: Yes, I'm so excited...

GROSS: Yeah. And now Phoebe has a new book called "Everything's Trash, But It's Okay." You and your brother went to a private Catholic high school. And you say that you were one of two or three black students in the whole school. And you were the only black person in your graduating class. Why did your parents send you there?

ROBINSON: Oh, I was the only black girl in my graduating class. There...

GROSS: Oh, OK.

ROBINSON: Yeah. So there was four of - wait. Yeah, four of us black students in the graduating class, and I was the only black girl. You know, my parents are huge into education. And they are just like, that is the key to everything. They were like, if you want to have, like, a really full, happy, like, fulfilled life, education is the way to go.

So they sent us to Gilmour Academy. And it was - my brother totally, like, excelled and, you know, was, like, an A student and, like, Mr. Popular and, like, truly just, like, rocked it out. And I was a hot mess. Like, I, like, was such a slacker. But, yes, I ended up going to Gilmour. And I was kind of, like, coasting and, like, not really, like, living up to my potential, which infuriated them so much. But, yeah, they - I think they just wanted us to have, like, all the advantages they could possibly give us in life.

And I think even though I was kind of like a crummy student there, I think I did learn a lot. Like, I did work study there. So I think from, like, a young age, like 14, 15, I always, like, was learning, you have to, like, earn your keep. You have to, like, work hard to be able to be in a place that you're in.

GROSS: So when you weigh the discomfort of being, like, the only black girl in your graduating class with the fact that you probably did get a really good education, how does the balance come out?

ROBINSON: I think in the end, I think it was worth it. I will say it would have been nice if there was another black girl in my grade. I think there was, like, one black girl in my class. And there was one Indian girl and one Asian girl. And I'm sure we - you know, not to be like, it's nice to have, like, a matching set. But it would've been nice if we could've each, like, you know, looked across, you know, during Mass and saw someone else who looked like us.

Whenever we talk about, like, representation and, like, diversity, I don't think, sometimes, people fully understand how hard it is to not see yourself. Especially if you're living in a society or a culture where you are so reflected at every possible turn, I think it's hard to, like, imagine what it's like to not have that. And so, you know, I do think that, like, if there was, like, a 2 Dope Queens, that would've been a game changer for me, to just, like, hear two black women - like, young black women. LOL, I'm, like, 34. But I'm like, young black women.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: But, you know, to hear two, like, young black women talking about, oh, this one time I got my hair done at this salon. And they did this to my hair. And it, like, totally, like, messed it up. I couldn't talk about my black hair woes in high school with, like, Laura (ph). She doesn't know. She doesn't - she just wakes up, and she has flawless, like, straight hair. Like, she didn't have to go through, like, what I had to go through. And so I think in the end, it worked out OK. But I did have to do a lot of work on myself. I did have to kind of, like, be OK with being outnumbered, in a way, and not letting that make me so sad.

And then, also, I think I was very lucky to be a child in the '90s with, like, "Moesha," you know, "Martin," "Family Matters," and "Girlfriends" and all these sort of shows where you could still see, you know, like Tracee Ellis Ross. Or I could still see, like, Queen Latifah or Kim Fields and be, like, oh, OK, cool. So I could kind of see what I could be like if I was, you know, an older black woman.

GROSS: You write about body image in your book. And you say...

ROBINSON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...That since you were 14, your brain has been consumed with all the ways your body is, like, not good enough, meaning not attractive to straight dudes and for failing to meet fashion industry standards. And you say even at age 34, with a deeper understanding of how we've been conditioned to have unhealthy relationships with our bodies, you're still kind of fixated on it.

So how have you tried to, like, overcome that? Because it sounds like your, like, intellectual knowledge of how women have been expected to conform to certain body standards is at a different place than your just kind of visceral, like, I-gained-too-much-weight kind of feelings.

ROBINSON: I think that everyone has that sort of battle inside themselves about something, whether it's body or, you know - I'm a writer with no other analogies. Great, moving on.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: But you know what I mean. There's always that thing that - it's like that you - mentally, you know better. But conditioning still makes that self-doubt come. And so I think what I have done is I have chosen to refocus that energy. Like, I'm getting back into exercising, but not - like, I don't have a scale in the house. I'm like, it is not about a number. If you're just going, like, I need to make sure I'm strong enough to get through the day rather than I want to make sure I look good in these pair of jeans, I feel more powerful.

The little bit of experiences that I have gotten with, like, styling and doing like these photo shoots - and, again, these are champagne problems. I just want to preface, I know that. But they're - they'll be like, oh, yeah, we only have a size 4. And it's like, that is unacceptable to me. To only have a size 4 is truly ignorant and inexcusable. Or I go to these, like, shoots. And I tell people, I'm a 10, 12. That's just what it is. And they'll be like, here's a 6. It's like, how dare you? Truly, it's like, how dare you be like, oh, well, we couldn't find anything in your size? You didn't look because I dress myself every day...

GROSS: (Laughter). Yeah.

ROBINSON: I dress myself every day. And I find everything I need. I - this sort of, oh, well, we only have a zero, 2, 4, so you either fit in that or you're screwed is not how you should treat anybody. I would do these fittings, and 90 percent of the stuff I wouldn't fit into. And every time I didn't fit into something, I'd be like, I'm sorry - every single time...

GROSS: You'd be apologizing?

ROBINSON: I would apologize. After every single outfit didn't fit, I'd be like, I'm so sorry. And I'm like, they knew what size I was for weeks before I showed up. It is not my fault I'm the size that I am.

GROSS: There's an afterword - an addendum to your book. And part of your book is about being single and the ups and downs of being single. And then the addendum is, I have a boyfriend now. Well, I had a BF at the time I turned this in to my book editor. So you're still together?

ROBINSON: Yes, we are still together. We - we're going - we're, what, 15 months? 16 months? I'm pretending like it's a child. 16 months. We're doing great. And we just moved in together.

GROSS: On which coast?

ROBINSON: Yeah.

GROSS: Because he was from Portland, I think - living in Portland. And you're in New York.

ROBINSON: Yes. He's originally from Bournemouth in the southern U.K. And then he moved to Portland. And now he moved to New York for me. I do my terrible British accent all the time for him, and he loves it. Not at all.

GROSS: So you were single for at least two years in between...

ROBINSON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Your previous boyfriend and the person who you're with now. What have you learned about yourself from the periods where you were single and lived alone?

ROBINSON: Before I met British Bake Off - that's what we call him. Before I met him, I really just was - I really love romantic comedies. And I really was, like - wanted to have that moment in my life where I'm, like, dating this guy and then he just is, like - gives his verbal approval or whatever about me and is like, you're amazing. And then that would make me realize I'm amazing. And then we would have this happy life together.

And so that was, like, one of the biggest lessons was, like, not looking for this great relationship to sort of define me or make me realize that I'm lovable. I just had to sort of figure that out for myself and be OK if I don't date someone for two years or two and a half years or five years. And if I haven't, like, found my soulmate or my partner by then, does that mean that I'm a terrible person? You know what I mean? It's, like, all these, like, value systems you, like, place on yourself. And it was all predicated on what someone else thought about me. Never once did I check in and see how I felt about myself.

GROSS: Did you have to learn how to fully enjoy yourself when you were not with somebody, whether it's going to a movie by yourself or having dinner by yourself and just feel like, I'm consuming this. I'm watching this, and I don't need somebody with me to fully appreciate the experience.

ROBINSON: Absolutely. I mean, I did all that stuff, where I just - and you always think - like, you go out to, like, a diner or a movie. And you go by yourself, and you think everyone is just, like, dropping - like, you're at a restaurant. Everyone's dropping their forks and are going, there is a woman, single, by herself. Ain't nobody - they're all, like, focused on their quinoa. They are not thinking about you, you know?

And it was just - was so sort of, like, self-absorbed where I'm like, everyone's judging me for being single. And yes, there are certain people in everyone's lives who will, like, judge them for being single. But it was just kind of like, who cares? Big whoop. Am I not going to enjoy my life? Am I just going to put my life on pause until I find a partner to do stuff with?

GROSS: My guest is Phoebe Robinson, co-host with Jessica Williams of the comedy podcast and HBO specials 2 Dope Queens. She also hosts the interview podcast Sooo Many White Guys. Her new book is called "Everything's Trash, But That's Okay" (ph). We'll talk more after a break. Maureen Corrigan will review the new novel "Washington Black" about a runaway slave. Then we'll hear from the author, Esi Edugyan, who will find out tomorrow if her novel has won the Man Booker prize. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE AND GEORGE DUKE'S "MCDUKEY BLUES")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with comic and actor Phoebe Robinson. Along with Jessica Williams, she co-founded and co-hosts the comedy podcast and HBO series 2 Dope Queens. She also hosts the interview podcast Sooo Many White Guys. Now she has a new book of comic personal essays called "Everything's Trash, But That's Okay." When we left off, we were talking about being single. Her book ends with her being in a committed relationship.

Your boyfriend is white.

ROBINSON: Yes.

GROSS: And you say that...

ROBINSON: He's OG white because he's British, honey.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...You write, when you're in an interracial relationship, you get mail or queries from black men wanting to know why you're not with a black man. And then you write, funny, when I'm single, these same black dudes aren't asking me out. So elaborate on that for us.

ROBINSON: Well, you know, I just want to preface - most of my life is me not getting asked out. Like, this is not - you know what I mean?

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: Just to be clear, I'm not Rihanna, where guys are throwing themselves at me. So I just think in general I'm, like, not getting asked out a lot. And I used to just be like, I will just wait for a guy to ask me out. Like, I really was sort of - and my mom didn't teach me that sort of, like, cuckoo behavior. But I was like, I'm just going to wait for a guy to - so that's, like, truly, how I was dating. And I would just wait for someone to ask me out. And if no one asked me out, I just wouldn't date, which is so ignorant and also like, huh? What you talking about? You got a job. You can ask people out. So, you know, that's just really where I was.

And so, you know, I think interracial dating is just really tricky for a lot of people because I think, a lot of times, people want to find a reason for why you're not dating within your tribe. And I'm always just kind of like, you just meet who you meet. And if the timing is right - like, I met British Bake Off at a U2 concert. LOL - truly, like, hilarious because his band was opening for U2 at the time. And, you know, we sort of hit it off - like, not even right away. I was like, I don't care about this guy. I'm just, like, focused on U2. But, like, eventually, I realized British Bake Off was kind of dope. And then we just ended up dating from there. But, again, that was not - it just wasn't preplanned. I, like, didn't even, like, really give them a second glance when I met him.

GROSS: So I've mentioned that you and Jessica Williams host 2 Dope Queens. You have your own podcast, called Sooo Many White Guys, in which you interview people, as opposed to doing stand-up. And...

ROBINSON: I interviewed you. It was a great episode.

GROSS: And that was really fun. I really enjoyed that a lot. I was really glad I did that. So how did Sooo Many White Guys get its name?

ROBINSON: Well, because, you know, most podcasts are hosted by white guys.

GROSS: OK.

ROBINSON: And then they interview other white guys. And you're like, cool.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ROBINSON: So you're just going to have - you're going to have steak and eggs every day? OK. Enjoy your life. And so I just kind of wanted to be like - I'm going to poke fun of like, there's so many white guys. But actually, the thing is there's only one token white guy for a season. The rest of the episodes are just women, queer people, people of color. And those are, like, the majority of the guests.

GROSS: So now that you're starting to be cast in roles, do you look at casting calls or the equivalent - 'cause you write something very funny about that in your first book. But are there kind of casting calls where you know that they are not - they're definitely, like, not entertaining the idea of having a black person in that role. Like, is there any kind of coded language that you can see when a black person would even conceivably be cast in the role?

ROBINSON: The lead. You're like, oh, so the lead's going to be Renee Zellweger? Cool.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ROBINSON: OK. So I'm the best friend? OK. Cool, cool, cool. I got that. You want me to sound like this? OK. I'm not going to do that. But I'd say there were two big things that I - you know, when I started acting, like, pretty recently, I had to have a conversation with myself before even, like, going to my agents or whatever. And I was always like, I don't want the thankless part of a wife answering a damn phone call from her husband and giving him some motivation. I don't want to do that. I don't want to be on the other line, being like, you got this, baby.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ROBINSON: I have no agency, no life. I'm just at home, holding unfolded laundry. I will never - you will never see - I hate to use the word never, but you will never see me on screen holding a basket of unfolded laundry. I will not do it (laughter).

GROSS: But wait, wait, wait. If you were living alone and doing your own laundry, that would be perfectly fine.

ROBINSON: That's OK. But if I'm, like, on the phone with Channing Tatum and he's out, you know, freaking saving the president and I'm at home stepping on a Lego, folding his, you know, gym shorts, that's not the part for me. You know, I think the language in a casting call is like all-American is white. Beautiful but doesn't know it is white. And then usually, It'll be, like - open to all ethnicities is when you know that that is - oh, that's a role that - they can envision someone not white doing it. But it's like all the roles should be open to ethnicity. Do you know I mean?

Like, there is no reason why it took, you know, 20-some odd years for that to be a "Crazy Rich Asians." There's no excuse for that. They could've been leads in romantic comedies this whole time. And so whenever I see that stuff, I always, like, think about, like - because I have a niece, and she's 5. As long as it's, like, not inappropriate terms of language or sex, is this a part that, when she gets older, would I be embarrassed to show her that I did? You know what I mean? And so that's kind of always, like, sort of my needle in how I operate.

And it's hard being in an industry where, you know, if you're not the mainstream sort of thing, you're just not going to be considered. But I think on the flipside, what's great right now is that this is an industry where creators shine, where they can swim, where you can have, like, an Issa Rae. You can have, you know, a Phoebe and Jessica do 2 Dope Queens. You can have an Abbi and Ilana. You can have all these sorts of people sort of just creating their own opportunities and their own lanes.

GROSS: Well, Phoebe Robinson, it's just been great to have you on our show. Thank you so much.

ROBINSON: Terry - and honestly, this has been a delight of my life. And we got to hang out. I know we were supposed to see Bruno Mars together, and we couldn't do it.

GROSS: No, because we're both working so hard (laughter).

ROBINSON: Yeah. So just let me know. Who do you want to see? Def Leppard? Who do you want to see in concert?

GROSS: I'll pass on that one.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: We'll get it together.

ROBINSON: Let's go see Beyonce.

GROSS: Sure, yeah.

ROBINSON: We'll see Beyonce.

GROSS: Yeah, you get the tickets.

Phoebe Robinson's new collection of comic personal essays is called "Everything's Trash, But That's Okay." After a break, Maureen Corrigan will review the new novel "Washington Black" about a runaway slave. Then we'll hear from the author, Esi Edugyan. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE INTERNET SONG, "STAY THE NIGHT")

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Esi Edugyan is a Canadian writer whose third novel, "Washington Black," has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, an award given annually in Britain to a novel written in English and published in the U.K. The winner will be announced tomorrow. We'll hear an interview with Edugyan. But first, our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review. She says "Washington Black" is a vivid travelogue through some strange territory.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Esi Edugyan's new novel, "Washington Black," opens on wretched terrain that will be familiar to anyone who's read slave narratives. The year is 1830. The location is a sugar plantation in Barbados. Our narrator, an enslaved 11-year-old boy named George Washington Black, Wash for short, tells us that the old master has recently died. Wash is now standing to attention as a carriage carrying his new master arrives. He's a pale-looking looking man named Erasmus Wilde. Looking at him, Wash comments, he owned me, as he owned all those I lived among - not only our lives but also our deaths. And that pleased him too much.

Readers will naturally anticipate that a tale of brutalities, small moments of grace and thwarted escape attempts will follow, except that's not quite what happens. In short order, two escape attempts here are successful. Wash breaks away from that plantation via a hot air balloon, no less. And Esi Edugyan also breaks away - in her case, leaving behind the confines of the conventional historical novel and transporting readers into the giddy realms of Romantic-era travelogue and scientific exploration. In "Washington Black," Edugyan has created a wonder of an adventure story, powered by the helium of fantasy but also by the tender sensibility of its aspiring young hero, Wash Black. Let's backtrack a second to that opening scene at the plantation.

The new master is not the only white man who steps down from that carriage. His younger brother, Christopher Wilde, nicknamed Titch, also alights. He turns out to be a rather decent man of science who's brought along the materials to assemble what he calls a cloud cutter, a hot air balloon attached to a boat-like gondola. Titch enlists Wash as his assistant, teaching him to read and, in the process, discovering that Wash possesses a skill for executing detailed scientific drawings.

Across the color line, the two strike up a kind of friendship, so much so that when it seems likely that Wash will be killed in wrongful retaliation for the death of a white visitor to the plantation, Titch fires up the gas canister, cuts the ropes that tether the cloud cutter to earth. And together, the two ascend into a tempestuous nighttime sky. I began to cry, recalls Wash, thinking of this extraordinary moment. The air grew colder, crept in webs across my skin. All was shadow, red light, storm fire and frenzy. And up we went into the eye of it, untouched, miraculous. If only that escape were the soaring conclusion to Wash's adventures, not just the beginning. But inevitably, the friends' attempt to float above the consequences of race springs a leak, and their balloon comes crashing down to hard, historical realities. A multitude of plot twists ensue, taking first Wash and Titch and then Wash alone to the Arctic, Nova Scotia, London and even to the bottom of the sea.

Certainly, much of the pleasure of reading Washington Black derives from a Edugyan's ingenious storytelling gifts. But her novel is more than just a buoyant bauble. Wash is weighted down throughout his travels by the burdensome question of identity. For one thing, he can never predict how other characters, whether they be black or white, will see him. The prized scientific education he received from Titch elevates Wash but also makes him a curiosity, much like the solitary, little, orange octopus he captures on his underwater dive to later exhibit. Wash resolutely places his faith in science to advance human enlightenment. But midway through the novel, he experiences a harsh awakening. I had long seen science as the great equalizer, Wash says. No matter one's race or sex or faith, there were facts in the world waiting to be discovered. How little thought I'd given to the ways in which it might be corrupted by human beings.

"Washington Black" is an unconventional and often touching novel about the search for transcendence above categories. As she tries to do for her hero Wash, Esi Edugyan clearly aims to carry her readers up, up and away.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Washington Black" by Esi Edugyan.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Now we're going to hear an interview with Edugyan. She's a first-generation Canadian whose parents emigrated from Ghana. Her last novel, "Half-Blood Blues," was about black jazz musicians living in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. It was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won Canada's prestigious literary award, the Giller Prize. She spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Esi Edugyan, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ESI EDUGYAN: Hi. I'm really pleased to be here.

BRIGER: The plantation of your novel is in Barbados. I gather you do a lot of research for your work. Did you find that plantations in Barbados were much different than the ones in the United States?

EDUGYAN: You know I'm not - you know, not a full-blown historian. But, you know, given my readings, from my sense of things, it seems as though life on plantations in the Caribbean was much more brutal. This is kind of an ironic thing to say, but the sense of preservation of of one's workers - you know, they were expendable. So the cruelty was - you know, the death rate was much higher. The conditions and circumstances of slaves' lives were much more dire. And, you know, quite horrific to have to do that research, but very important for me to show what that was like.

BRIGER: The main character of your book is George Washington Black, who goes by the nickname Wash. And he's a field worker on this plantation. But one day, he gets a call to go serve at the main house for dinner, which is a terrifying prospect. But the master's brother is there. His name is Christopher Wilde, who goes by Titch. There's a lot of nicknames. And he's a naturalist. And he's building a hot air balloon. And he requests that Wash be his assistant mainly just because he's, like, the right weight. He's - as for ballast for the balloon...

EDUGYAN: Yeah.

BRIGER: And it's a moment that changes Wash's life forever because a bond forms between him and this white man, Titch. And Titch will eventually help Wash escape. But it's such an arbitrary moment. And it's such an arbitrary change in this boy's life. And that arbitrariness forever haunts Wash.

EDUGYAN: Christopher does choose Washington because he sees him as, you know, being helpful to his experiment and that he is, you know, precisely the right weight to man his aerostat, which is, you know, kind of a cruelty in itself to look at somebody and think that of them. But then Washington really surprises him with his natural gifts. Like, he has no idea, you know, that this young man is just completely, you know, so naturally gifted at drawing. And he has a good sense for aeronautical methodologies and all of this. He really comes into his own under Titch.

But, you know, there is that sense. And part of what I was trying to suggest or explore in Titch's character is, you know, although he's an extremely liberal-minded man for his time, you know, there are limits to his thinking, that he is in a lot of ways still tethered by certain ideas and notions of his era, you know? He's an abolitionist, so he truly has a very general belief in the rights of man. It's kind of a very prescribed belief. But in terms of applying this personally to people, it's a little bit more difficult for him.

BRIGER: Right. And his argument for trying to end slavery is that it - slavery won't allow white people to get into heaven if they allow such cruelty.

EDUGYAN: Yeah. That's one of his main ideas about it. And, you know, this is kind of central to his philosophy about life. But, you know, having said that, he's somebody who very much does feel a great affection or comes to feel a great affection for Washington. And so there's that dichotomy in his personality that's so interesting to me.

BRIGER: So although Wash escapes from slavery and becomes a free man, he is not free from the time he lives in and, you know, is haunted by his time on the plantation. And I think one of the points you're getting at in the book is how much freedom is available to someone born into slavery and also, how free are the people complicit in the slave economy?

EDUGYAN: Yeah, exactly. I think that Titch, for instance, likes to believe that because he has these enlightened ideas that he is - and because he's actually trying to do something to end slavery itself, you know, I think he has a sense of himself as being quite a moral person. And he goes into the world with that feeling about himself and feeling quite good about his place in the world.

But he's not really thinking about the fact that, you know, for all of his scientific pursuits, this is being funded by slavery. And he's kind of turned a blind eye to that. And so he's profoundly affected by it because he wouldn't be able to do what he does without that dark commerce going on. And also, his family relationships are all tangled because of this. But by no means is his suffering anywhere near the suffering of somebody like Washington, who is not free. He's bodily not free. He's psychologically not free.

And when he becomes physically free, he's somebody who's still not free. He's obviously suffering from having been born and raised in bondage. And he's somebody who - when he goes out into the world, he is still who he is. He's a black man. He's a man who's been disfigured as well. So he has that - a sense of being physically marked when he goes into the world and being recoiled from. And also, psychologically, he's still trying to sort out what that means to be free.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Esi Edugyan, author of the new novel "Washington Black," which is nominated for the Man Booker Prize. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEWIS PORTER, JOHN PATITUCCI AND TERRI LYNE CARRINGTON SONG, "PEOPLE GET READY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Esi Edugyan, author of the new novel "Washington Black," which is nominated for the Man Booker Prize. It's about the adventures of a slave named Washington Black who manages to escape the plantation.

BRIGER: Wash has a scientific mind. He's a naturalist, and he likes to draw beautiful images of marine life. And he befriends this famous marine scientist and his daughter and eventually will go on to create the first aquarium in London. However, it looks like he's not going to get any credit for the creation. The marine scientists will take credit. And that's a subject you've written about in an essay recently, called "The Silencing Of Black Scientists."

EDUGYAN: Yes. So I was interested in the idea of just these forgotten figures in the history of science, forgotten black figures. And, you know, there was that wonderful biography of Henrietta Lacks and - did the harvesting of her cancer cells as being the foundation for research into cancer, which - the Rebecca Skloot book, which was so fascinating. And I think that that book really touched upon something for me, which was that when we think about the history of black people in science, and certainly putting this into search engines online, what comes up is the history of black people as subjects of scientific research rather than the history of black scientists. (Laughter) And so this was very interesting to me.

And so I - when I was asked to write an article about black people in science, I started really digging into it and came up with the story of a young woman called Alice Bell who, when she was in her very early 20s, developed, like, a serum using chaulmoogra oil - so this was oil from a tree that grows in Hawaii - to put leprosy into remission. And people knew that chaulmoogra oil was something that could put leprosy into remission, but it was - you couldn't take it orally because it would instantly come back up. It was just so bitter and terrible nobody could keep it down. And also, to just inject it, it was so - I guess - viscous that it would stay under the skin in, like, a bubble.

And so she developed a way for it to be absorbed into the bloodstream. And she did it when she was, (laughter) you know, 22 years old. And almost overnight, leprosy in Hawaii went into remission. It was really remarkable. And I just thought this is an incredible story, and I don't know why we don't know more about this. In the end, she ended up passing away at the age of 24, I believe. She was - and it was the advent of World War One. And she was teaching a lab on how to properly use a gas mask, and she ended up inhaling mustard gas. And she passed away. And unfortunately, she died before she could write up her findings and, you know, went to a - into an sort of official, you know, paper.

And so what happened was a colleague of hers at - or the - it was the president of University of Hawaii ended up co-opting them, like, stealing them and putting his name on the findings. And it was a while before her colleague, her other colleague, stepped forward and said, you know, no, no, no. This was not his doing. You know, he was already sort of looking for a way to patent this (laughter) serum that she had developed. And, you know, this was not an isolated - just looking at the history of black scientists, this kind of a theft wasn't abnormal. And so I was just really interested in that.

BRIGER: Esi Edugyan, thank you so much for being on FRESH AIR.

EDUGYAN: Oh, thank you. It was a pleasure.

GROSS: Esi Edugyan spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Her new novel, "Washington Black," is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The winner will be announced tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk with another Book Award nominee. Jarrett J. Krosoczka is nominated for a National Book Award for his young adult graphic memoir, "Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, And Dealt With Family Addiction." It's about his childhood when he was raised by his grandparents because his mother was addicted to heroin. She died of an overdose after his own children were born. Krosoczka is also known for his graphic novels for young people, the "Lunch Lady" and the "Platypus Police" series and arcs in the "Star Wars: Jedi Academy" series. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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