Taking readers from the shores of Africa to North America and back again, Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes has been lauded as a masterpiece of historical literature and has struck a chord with audiences all over the world.
The talented writer from Hamilton, Ontario spent a good deal of time in Nova Scotia while penning his best-seller, which tells the story of Aminata Diallo, a young African girl who is taken from her home and sold into slavery. Her life story, a tale of survival and resilience, intersects with a little known period of time when 3,000 Black Loyalists and slaves left New England after the surrender of Britain during the American Revolutionary War. Their names were recorded in the "Book of Negroes," a catalogue of names and descriptions of numerous black people who were on their way to Canada, hoping to receive land and freedom in exchange for their loyalty to the British.
The book, which was chosen for Dal Reads last year, has won numerous awards, including the overall Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Ontario Library Association’s Evergreen Award and CBC Radio’s Canada Reads, as well as being longlisted for both the Giller Prize and the IMPAC Award.
In advance of his planned visit to Dalhousie University on Tuesday, September 21, Lawrence Hill spoke to Dal News via Skype from Norway, where he is currently promoting the Norwegian translation of his novel.
Dal News: What has the experience of writing and promoting The Book of Negroes been like for you?
Lawrence Hill: It's been exhilarating, and it's taken me to many parts of Canada and now other countries. It's also been pretty demanding.
Dal News: I'm curious as to the process that led you to write this story... what was your inspiration?
LH: The inspiration came from learning that in 1792, 1,200 African Nova Scotians sailed out of Halifax and went to found the colony of Freetown in Sierra Leone. Of these 1,200, a third of them were actually going back ... they had been born in Africa but enslaved in the Americas. It's such an unknown story in Canadian history. I just felt it had to be told in a novel form.
Dal News: The material in this book is at time emotionally difficult and heavy to read. Did you have any moments where you thought it might be too difficult or too heavy? Any doubts about whether you were going to be able to accurately portray the story?
LH: It wasn't so much a fear that I could accurately portray the story, but whether I could portray it in a way that would hold onto the interest of the reader. It's so unrelentingly painful, but I still wanted to write a novel that people would want to keep reading and not want to put down. The biggest challenge was staying true to the sense of tragedy that permeates much of my character's life.
Dal News: Did you feel a need to be very detailed and raw in your descriptions of Aminata's ordeals? She really doesn't get much in the way of a reprieve, with perhaps the exception of the ending.
LH: Another writer would have taken another approach. My approach was to choose to be unrelentingly difficult. I wanted to keep a hard edge to her life, I wanted her always to be hard, because that was the life I imagined was true to my perception of what this woman's life would have been like. I also wanted to shine a light on that hard life, so there would be a ray of hope and optimism everywhere. She feels a sense of light in spite of great deprivation, so why shouldn't the reader?
Dal News: One thing many people have said is that you have managed to effectively get inside the mind of a woman. How challenging was this for you?
LH: It was hard and it was also easy. It's hard in an obvious way to be someone you are not and to inhabit the mind of someone you will never be. But there's something very liberating about writing about a person you could never be. I find my best work takes place when I write [these] characters. I feel most insecure about my writing when I am writing about someone most closely aligned to what I am.
Dal News: I want to ask you about the title of the book. Some have thought it was quite a provocative choice, and the title was actually changed to "Someone Knows My Name" in the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
LH: I love the title…it has a biblical quality. I was trying to bring to the attention of Canadian readers a document that's of great historical importance but that we've conveniently forgotten. [The Book of Negroes] was central to the novel, I think it was appropriate to name it that way. I wasn't trying to be provocative, but I understand why some people might feel otherwise. Publishers were concerned the title would alienate black readers, and would offend them. To really address that issue directly, we have to admit that that word is a far more offensive word in the United States than it is here. In Canada it doesn't have the same incredibly negative connotation. The word has taken on a new meaning inside black culture [in the United States]. I was very angry that they made me change the title, but over time I've come to believe they might have been right. Many African Americans came up to me and told me they were glad I changed the title because they never would have bought it.
Dal News: Some of the book takes place in Nova Scotia, with one particularly harrowing and heartbreaking incident revolving around the sacking of Birchtown. This is perhaps one reminder of the fact that Canada does have a negative history to do with slavery. Why do you think it's important to bring stories of slavery home to Canadian soil, and do you feel as though we talk enough about this part of our history?
LH: We don't talk enough about it, we barely know it at all, and most of us have never heard of it. I think it's sadly ironic that you'd be hard pressed to find a single Canadian who has graduated from high school who doesn't know something about the abolition of slavery in the U.S. But you'd be equally hard pressed to find a single Canadian high school student who could tell you anything about Canadian slavery or its abolition. How is it that we are so aware of American slavery and so blissfully unaware of its Canadian counterpart? I don't think I'm beating up on anyone or Canadian history, I feel that we need to know these things and it's good to dramatize them. I just don't feel that we serve ourselves by ignoring our own history and our own truths.
Dal News: You've written a great deal about race, and your biography specifically mentions that you are biracial but grew up in a predominantly white neighbourhood. How have your personal encounters with issues of race informed your writing career?
LH: I mean, apart from the book I wrote about the war in Iraq, all the books I've written have touched down in some way on race and identity and black history. I guess you could say that I've used this subject material in different ways to explore more universal questions of the human experience. I feel my experiences growing up black in Canada and coming to terms with my own racial identity have informed everything about the person I've become. They're not the only thing, but that's been very central. It's made me who I am and it's made me develop into the writer I am. Not to be sort of self obsessed, but to have a strong foundation of self knowledge from which to write and radiate out into the world [is important]. I think if you have a strong sense of who you are you might be willing to explore other people.
Dal News: Does your personal experience growing up with activist parents inform your work?
LH: It informed my work completely. My politics are my parents' politics. They were American and then Canadian civil rights activists, both were pioneers in human rights movement in this country. As my parent's child, I embrace their values rather than rejecting them. I wouldn't be a writer without having been raised by my parents, who taught me so much, not just about black history but playfulness, storytelling, pacing, rhythm.
Dal News: I'm interested to know what you think it is about your book that has resonated with so many people. It seems to appeal to a very wide audience.
LH: I can answer this not so much out of instinct but what I've heard from people who have come to talk to me at readings. There seem to be a few things: one of them is that it's a story about a woman who will not be destroyed or overcome by her very painful circumstances. She's not a victim, she's a survivor, she has great dignity even in the face of a nightmare. I think people find that uplifting, that she survives in the face of adversity. The book seems to have a deep historical layer that surprises many Canadians and informs them of something they didn't know anything about before.
Dal News: And perhaps most importantly, and because I know many are eager to know, can you tell us a little about your next project?
LH: There have been a couple. I co-wrote the screenplay for the film version of the novel, that's done now. I'm also writing another novel which is about an illegal refugee in a rich nation, and what's that's like. It's a contemporary novel, entirely imaginary. It feels a lot freer. I'm more allowed to play around.
Dal News: And is there a publication date for that novel?
LH: Well, I have to finish writing it first (laughs).
The Book of Negroes can be purchased from local bookstores including the Dalhousie Bookstore. There is also a new illustrated edition of the book:
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