Lawrence Hill reads from The Book of Negroes

On Jan. 19, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented acclaimed writer Lawrence Hill reading from his book The Book of Negroes. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

Let me begin with a caveat to any and all who find these pages. Do not trust large bodies of water, and do not cross them. If you, dear reader, have an African hue and find yourself led to water with vanishing shores, seize your freedom by any means necessary.

from The Book of Negroes
by Lawrence Hill

Though Lawrence Hill has become a big name author since his novel The Book of Negroes achieved both critical and commercial success, most of his friends call him Larry. Such is his casual charm that in conversation, he asks more questions of you then the other way around. Perhaps he has more than a little of his deceptively charming father in him, whom he describes in Black Berry, Sweet Juice as “a thief in the night. He’ll pocket your sympathy and allegiance before you even know he’s got them.”

Right: Lawrence Hill

Hill clearly had the allegiance of the many students and faculty who came to see him at the Canadian Writers in Person series and later at a reception held in his honour at the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on the Global Migration of African Peoples. Hill’s gentle humour, in person and on the page, often eases the way into pointed and painful discussions about history, race and family. However, for The Book of Negroes, he found that “it didn’t want to be told that way. I couldn’t use humour as a tool from my writer’s kit.” Instead, he focused on plot, a lot of historical research and his main character Aminata Diallo.

When asked about why he chose to write from the perspective of a woman, Hill replied, “She chose me.” He had been reading about the Black Loyalists who crossed the Atlantic from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone in the 18th century. On one of those ships, he pictured a woman who was returning to Africa after being stolen away as a child to become a slave in America. He wondered what she looked like, how she sounded, what she had done, and found himself compelled to write her into being. He also decided that for the purpose of dramatic tension, the character had to be a woman because “she had the most to lose.”

Though his novel has exposed many Canadians to a part of their history with which they weren’t familiar (or comfortable), Hill is quick to point out that he isn’t the first to write about it. “Historians such as James W. Walker have been writing about Black Loyalists for decades.” He claims that he has merely stood on their shoulders to dramatize it in a way that is more broadly accessible. However, just as Aminata finds significance in becoming a djeli, a storyteller, the value of Hill’s work is the way in which history is brought to life on a personal level.

Hill’s own history as a writer began at a young age. He would bang out stories on an old typewriter that were “horrible” because he tried too hard to be perfect. When he started travelling and writing letters, he discovered that these “energetic missives” had more “juice” because they were fast and uncensored. This led to his current process in which he writes as quickly as possible to release the energy without judging himself. Though his journalistic training comes in handy at the revision stage, for the first draft he prefers to “let it rip, no matter how messy.”

Hill also learned a lot from his parents, Daniel and Donna Hill, both civil rights activists and great storytellers who told the most oppressive stories with raucous humour. He once asked his father at what point in life would he become responsible for all that was wrong with the world. His father answered, “As soon as you are able to do something about the world, you become responsible for its condition.” Hill has carried that sense of responsibility into his writing, where he believes one must be true and courageous, especially if it is painful and uncomfortable. “Writing, at its core, is an assertion of my own morality,” said Hill.

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. Tonight, at 7pm in 206 Accolade West Building, York English Professor Michael Helm, a Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist for his 1997 novel The Projectionist, will read from his novel In the Place of Last Things (2004) and his forthcoming book Cities of Refuge (2010).