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New book "Emancipation Day" frees Grady from enduring questions on family tree

TORONTO – Facts, the saying goes, are often stranger than fiction. And if there’s anyone who can attest to whether that adage rings true, it’s certainly Wayne Grady — a prolific and esteemed non-fiction author and translator of French fiction who, on the same day he turned 65, released his very first novel, “Emancipation Day.”

A story nearly two decades in the making, the book was spurred by Grady’s filial desire to give his father the gift of learning about his lost ancestry. Over the course of poring through censuses, the Kingston-based Governor-General’s Award winner for translation found a remarkable detail: that his family tree listed his “milk-white” Irish father’s parents as black, from America.

“I was completely amazed. Actually, I was happy, because the whole family’s history was gone — my father always said there was no family history, all the records were burned in a fire somewhere. … Now we’ve got a history. It was like I’d been given a whole family suddenly,” he said in a recent interview.

“And my second thought was, ‘I’ve got a book here.'”

The elegiac “Emancipation Day” tracks the World War II love story of Vivian Fanshawe, a 19-year-old who has never left the then-colony of Newfoundland, and Jack Lewis, a Sinatra-channelling Navy musician with a mysterious past. Both are seeking their own kind of escape; in an era of heated race relations, both find it in each other.

Both Grady’s mother and father died within 10 years of his revelation, and until his dying day, Grady’s father never confessed to anything. The book became an outlet to answer Grady’s central question: Why would his father leave his Windsor community, a place full of secrets where he was theoretically recognized as something he didn’t want to be seen as, only to return later with a bride?

“He always said, ‘You may be right (about his ancestry), I don’t know, but it’s news to me.’ How can it be news to you, that your parents are black?” said Grady with a laugh. “For him to have passed without a slip for 75 years, he had to have believed what he was saying…. It’s possible he actually believed that he was white.”

That’s when Grady’s non-fiction instincts kicked into gear. He read up on the history and psychology of people who had “racially passed,” who had integrated completely into a cultural community they did not belong to. It began as a memoir, but Grady realized it would become tedious to cite what would eventually become pure guesswork.

So Grady dipped his toe into the world of fiction, excited to be loosed from the restrictions of research and gleeful at the prospect of unbridled creativity after 35 years of non-fiction — but it didn’t quite work out that way. He admits that he excised some awkwardly fitting curios from his earlier drafts, from a Ghanaian soccer team to the long-dead French poet Victor Hugo.

“I thought it was going to be easier. After writing 14 books of non-fiction, I thought, ‘I can just make stuff up now.’ … I really thought I could put anything in there I wanted to, and it would just be really interesting because I’m such a good writer. Turns out it’s not like that,” he says, with a laugh.

“I realized that yes, there are a million things I can have (characters) do, but there’s only one right thing for the book, and finding that one right thing is hard, hard, hard.”

On top of that, he says he was haunted by his father’s voice in those early drafts, the story so deeply entwined in his family’s life.

“(But) the (book’s) characters at one point sat down to tell me to stop writing stuff they wouldn’t say: ‘You’re not writing about your parents, you’re writing about us now,'” he says.

So with every draft, the novel became what he described as a “creative non-fiction with a lot of imagination” — more and more true, but full of inserted metaphors. Windsor became a reflection of the black community; Newfoundland became the picture of white. He chose to couch the story in the dichotomy of the jazz scene his father (and Jack) played in, of black men playing big band music, of whites riffing experimental material. He chose to write Vivian with an improbably authentic Newfoundland lilt, a difficult tongue for any writer, much less one inventing dialogue for the first time.

“I think there’s a really healthy dose of non-fiction in every novel, and I think every novelist uses reality and real people and situations as models. But they also assign motivation, they fill gaps,” he says.

“I think writing is writing, I think good writing is good writing, and I’d like to be thought of as a good writer of either fiction or non-fiction.”

As for the answers he sought but never got from his father, Grady feels “Emancipation Day” gave him the satisfying closure he was after.

“I’d like to think that both he and my mother would say, ‘I don’t know how you did it, Wayne, but you got it right. That’s what I was thinking at that time.’ … I’ll never know.”