On Thursday, September 17th, Lawrence Hill will be speaking with CBC’s Margaret Gallagher on the ups and downs of turning his best-selling novel, The Book of Negroes, into a major TV miniseries, highlight to the 2015 Hapa-Palooza Festival.
Schema Magazine’s Beatrice Lew and Cristina Melo had the privilege of catching up with Lawrence Hill beforehand and previewing his thoughts on his literary work, writing practice, and hapa identity. His new book The Illegal is described by Hill as “a novel about an elite marathoner who flees violence in his homeland and becomes a refugee on the run in a country that does not want him.” Hill has also been very outspoken about Canada’s response to the world’s refugees.
Cristina Melo: In previous interviews, you have stated that you believe Canada could be doing more to assist and welcome refugees to the country. In the light of the Syrian refugee crisis, what do you think of how Canada or Europe is handling the call for help?
Lawrence Hill: We have shown generosity in the past, welcoming refugees from Uganda, Vietnam and Kosovo. But we have been heartbreakingly ungenerous in our response to the Syrian refugee crisis. We could do much, more more, by opening our doors more widely, sending visa officials into the field to process applications more quickly, and by doing all we can to help newcomers integrate into Canadian society.
Beatrice Lew: Since your new novel was inspired by the survival stories of undocumented refugees around the world, I’m curious to know why The Illegal isn’t set during a particular moment in history or a specific geographical location. Could you speak to that?
LH: It is set in a particular historical moment: 2018, at the time when a far right wing government has been elected to rule the world’s third richest country after campaigning on a promise to deport refugees and bulldoze their community. I created two new nations in this novel because I wasn’t writing specifically or solely about Canada, the USA or any other developed nation, but rather, looking to create a dystopia. I made the countries up, so the reader might find the story more universal.
BL: Growing up, did you have any particular memories of or interactions with refugees or immigrants? Did you draw from these for The Illegal?
LH: My parents are immigrants, who left the United States the day after they married interracially in 1953 and came to Canada. Also, at the age of 16, when I had my first summer job working at Pearson Airport in Toronto, many Ugandan Asians who had been expelled by Idi Amin were still finding their way to Toronto. I watched them coming through the airport all summer. For a boy from the suburbs, it was a stunning sight.
BL: How much time do you spend writing in a year and how is the rest of your time divided?
LH: In a busy writing year, I might spend eight or ten months of intense writing time, working a great many hours a day on a book. But some years, I am travelling, touring, reading and researching and don’t get much writing done at all. It all depends on which cycle I am in.
BL: Which books have most influenced your life?
LH: Alex Haley’s writing The autobiography of Malcolm X. All the poems of Langton Hughes , especially “Cross” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” James Balwin’s essays such as The Fire Next Time, and fiction such as Go Tell It On The Mountain.
BL: While both your parents were human rights activists, one was black and one was white. How did they help you navigate your identity as “hapa”? What did you learn from them about mixed heritage?
LH: I wrote a book about this, called Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada (HarperCollins, 2001). One of my most personal observations was that although my parents spoke to my brother, sister and me a great deal about human rights and black history — indeed, these subjects formed the staple of our kitchen table talk — they didn’t spend much time at all addressing our own specific heritage. My father, intending to be playful and affectionate, sometimes called me a Zebra, but that’s about as far as it went. They left the cauldron of racial politics in Washington, DC and raised three mixed-race kids in an affluent, otherwise all-white suburb of Toronto where they hoped that the politics of race would just disappear. So I grew up in a state of ambiguity and uncertainty about my own racial background, and dove into reading, writing and travelling to reach out to black communities and to find myself.
BL: How would you respond to someone who asked if you felt more connected to your African or American roots?
LH: I am connected to both. It is not a competition. The connections can both exist peacefully in my heart.
The Book of Negroes – An Evening with Lawrence Hill begins at 7 pm on Thursday, September 17th, at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. Tickets available online.
Hapa-palooza Festival is organized by the Hybrid Ancestry Public Arts Society (HAPAS), a non-profit society dedicated to bringing public programming that explores and celebrates mixed heritage.