Roundtable

The Route of the Matter

Amatoritero Ede & Tom Ue in Conversation with Lawrence Hill, Novelist, essayist and Script Writer.

Author

Lawrence Hill is the author of seven books. His latest novel, The Book of Negroes, was published around the world. It became a national bestseller and won various awards including Canada Reads, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Hill is the son of a black father and a white mother who came to Canada from the United States. Growing up in Toronto in the Sixties, Hill was influenced by his parents' work in the human rights movement. Much of his writing touches on issues of identity and belonging. Hill, who speaks French and some Spanish, has traveled in Niger, Cameroon and Mali as a volunteer with Canadian Crossroads International, a non-profit organization which he continues to support. Lawrence Hill can be reached through his website, www.lawrencehill.com.

Amatoritsero Ede: It is great to be having this conversation with you. Please allow me to go off the beaten track by asking you first: what went through your mind during the recent earthquake in Ontario and part of Quebec, which covered a large swathe up to New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and probably passed through your backyard in Hamilton? I am trying to say that as a creative person who is close to the heart of things and feel the rhythms of life, what did this portend for you, for responsible art, for literature and the environment?

Lawrence Hill: Thank you for inviting me into a conversation with the Maple Tree Literary Supplement. I was writing at home when the recent earthquake shook people in Ontario, Quebec and elsewhere. Naturally, being a Canadian, I thought that this couldn’t possibly be an earthquake. Surely no earthquake would disrupt my quiet day of writing at home in Hamilton, Ontario. I stood up and looked outside to see if someone was drilling through concrete and causing my chair to vibrate. I saw no construction underway so I returned to work, and thought no more of it until an hour later, when I heard that we had just experienced an earthquake. Generally we think natural and social disasters affect other people in other places. I stand as guilty as any other Canadian on that count. Thankfully, the recent earthquake that touched parts of Canada and the USA did not turn out to be disastrous. But it led me to think, again, that natural disasters tend to be compounded by poverty and weak social infrastructure. If the earthquake that struck Haiti had hit Canada instead, lives would have been lost and the economic cost high, but we, in our economic and social fortune, would not as a country have been nearly as devastated as Haiti. So this is what the recent earthquake, which I shall call an “earthquick,” got me thinking about from the vantage point of the writing desk in my home in Hamilton. As an aside, I’m not entirely sure I’m comfortable seeing the adjective “responsible” beside the noun “art”. It’s as if the adjective is wagging a moralistic, judgmental finger at the noun: “you’d better behave, and you’d better do things acceptably, or we’re not sure how much we are going to tolerate you as an artist.” I accept that I have responsibilities as a citizen. As a father. Husband. Son. Friend. I even accept that I have modest responsibilities as the weekly sorter of family garbage into four blue recycling boxes for pickup by city employees every Monday morning. But I bristle to think that I must also have responsibilities as an artist. Who determines these responsibilities? What, exactly, are they? Might the responsibilities vary, according to the nature of the artistic work? Is my responsibility to myself? To the work? Or to those who will read it? This is a complicated question, and I won’t pretend to answer it fully here. But I will venture that not all artists share the same responsibilities, and that the responsibilities must surely emerge, at least in part, from the specific nature of the artistic project in question.

A.E.: In spite of the artist, I think a work of art is either intrinsically socially responsible or not depending on social intuitions on the matter. The word, “responsible” is more symbolic than literal. But I am directly referring to the eternal quarrel between 19th century French philosophy of “Art for Art”s Sake’ in opposition to an earlier Aristotelian edict of socially responsible art in The Poetics. The Book of Negroes is responsible art intrinsically. It is politically engaged and engaging without being didactic or preachy. Do you not think so?

L.H.: I believe that The Book of Negroes is politically engaged and engaging, and certainly hope that it is not preachy. Political and social issues become more important than physical geography as the backdrop of my novels. But I am not the right person to judge whether my own novel is “responsible.” I happily leave that subtle and murky task to you, or to someone else.

Tom Ue: Congratulations on your Honorary Doctorate from the University of Toronto! Would you ever consider working in academia—as a creative writing professor, for example?

L.H.: Thanks for the congratulations. It was my first honorary doctorate (which my eleven-year-old stepdaughter, Beatrice, mistakenly called an “honorary dicterate” on first reference), and I was very pleased. My father moved from the USA to Canada in 1950 to begin graduate studies at the University of Toronto, which became his first home away from home. He adored the university, and the university welcomed him very warmly as an African-American graduate student in the 1950s. He ended up earning a “real” doctorate in 1960, and was given his own honorary degree from the same university a few years before he died. The family connection added to the emotionality of the day, for me, in June of this year. You asked about creative writing and the teaching of it. I love to teach and have been told that I am a very good teacher of creative writing. I like to think that I come by this skill honestly, having worked for many years to hone my craft and having blundered through countless mistakes along the way. For the time being, I am happy to stay focussed on new writing and not to have the obligations that come with being a university professor. However, one day, if my writing schedule opens up a bit – say, I allow myself some breathing room as self-reward for having written more books – I would be delighted to teach again.

A.E.: You must find the next query tiresome, but please oblige me. True, publishers sometimes do change book titles to suit particular markets and marketing strategies. But would you say that only market forces were at play where the beautifully titled The Book of Negroes is concerned, especially in considering the embattled racialised etymology of the word, “Negro.” What does all this suggest about race consciousness or race relations in the age of Obama?

L.H.: This is a subtle question, which I will begin by repeating the kernel of the question, which I understand to be: were “only market forces at play” in determining the title of my most recent novel? I am not sure which forces were at play. Let me just say what happened. For the record, my novel first appeared in January, 2007 in Canada as The Book of Negroes. It was my title, of course, and I was proud of it. The title is derived from a fascinating but largely forgotten, 150-page British naval document that records the flight of 3,000 Black Loyalists from Manhattan to Nova Scotia (for the most part) in the latter half of 1783, immediately after the Americans won their Revolutionary War. The document plays prominently in my novel, and I was looking to dramatize the story of the Black Loyalists and to bring their adventures—as well as the British naval ledger—into the consciousness of Canadians. I do not use the word “Negro” in my day-to-day language. It is antiquated, to say the least. And it is highly offensive, to say the most, because it suggests that the person so designated is an ineffectual, weak-kneed person who has no pride or self-respect as a Black. But I felt the word could leap over its social hurdles, given the historical authenticity of the document and the fascinating, rhythmic, perhaps even Biblical tonality of the words “The Book of...” Since we have time in this electronic format, I will also share the observation that language that purports to define people by race will always fail, because it is fundamentally absurd. You cannot define a people by something that does not exist, except as a social phenomenon. Well, you can try, but you will fail. I can pretty well guarantee you that whatever way people of African descent define themselves racially and find themselves defined widely by others in the year 2010 will diverge radically from terms that our grandchildren and great grandchildren are using. Our great grandchildren will be poking each other in the ribs at community picnics, laughing, and saying: “Can you believe they called themselves African-Canadians? Or Blacks? And that others called them that too, and were allowed to get away with it?” But a word from the wise to the unborn: laugh all you want. Your own unborn will one day be laughing at you! Coming back to the gist of your question. Why the title change? I was required to change it at the last minute when the American publisher, WW Norton & Co, was preparing to send it to the printer in late 2007. This came as a surprise to me, as “The Book of Negroes” had been accepted when Norton first acquired U.S. rights to the novel. However, Norton’s decision at the last minute was unequivocal. I was frustrated, to say the least, but did not want to fight a losing battle or to alienate myself from my new American publisher just as it was readying to bring my book to market. Also, I wondered if the American publisher’s concerns were perhaps well-founded. What if the title would indeed offend many Americans? What if African-Americans ignored the novel like the plague, and didn’t have the patience to read 300 or so pages before discovering the historical reason for the title “The Book of Negroes”? I felt I had no viable choice but to accept the publisher’s decision, but I did come up with my own new title for the American market: Someone Knows My Name, which also ended up being used in Australia and New Zealand. As an aside, now that the novel is being translated into a few languages, the question of the title is being raised again. In Norway, the first country to publish a translation of the novel, the title derives closely from Someone Knows My Name. In Quebec, where Les Éditions de la Pleine Lune will publish the novel in French in 2011, the title is still undecided, but I do not feel that a literal translation of “The Book of Negroes” would work well or make sense. For one thing, the “Book of Negroes” as the name of an actual historic document would be lost in translation, and the French word “Nègres” comes across as even more pejorative than the English “Negroes”. Let me return to the question of the title in the United States. I do not know for sure what would have happened if “The Book of Negroes” had been retained as the American title. But I do know my own subsequent anecdotal experience—many African-Americans have approached me on book tours in the USA to say they are pleased that I changed the title and that they wouldn’t have touched the novel with a ten-foot pole if it had been called The Book of Negroes south of the border. This demonstrates to me the variability of language. A word used in Canada does not necessarily have precisely the same heft in the United States. In Hamilton, if you use the word “Negro,” the person who hears you say it will likely wrinkle their nose and wonder if you’ve opened a newspaper in the last three decades. In Brooklyn, using the word “Negro” might invite the listener to break your nose. More explosive, for sure, in the land of my ancestors.

A.E.: Definitely having a background of highly educated activist parents, and being Black and White in Canada (Black Berry, Sweet Juice, 2008), especially at the time you were growing up, is significant. In how far has this background influenced your worldview, your interest in questions of identity and belonging, of social equality and in people on the fringes?

L.H.: I’m not sure what to say that does not sound like a cliché, so I’ll keep this answer short. My family background and experiences with my parents form the bedrock of my worldview and world interests. Some people grow up and diverge profoundly from the points of view of their parents. Some switch from capitalism to communism, or vice-versa, or change faiths, or abandon and rise up in revolt against everything – or almost everything – their parents stood for. But not I. I am my parents’ child, for sure. They were activists. I am a writer. But our core values coincide and I believe that my art reflects my parents’ beliefs.

T.U.: In your introduction to the illustrated edition of The Book of Negroes, you mentioned coming across that actual historical ledger (which your novel’s title echoes) containing names of Black Loyalists at The National Archives in Kew, London, UK. What feelings did seeing and maybe touching this living memory of pain-laden artefact evoke?

L.H.: I had cameras from “The National” (CBC TV) shining on me when I first stepped into the room in the UK National Archives to see the original copy of “The Book of Negroes,” so mostly I felt self-conscious. I had just met with the Queen, in her apartments in Buckingham Palace, as part of the process of winning the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. She was interested in the “Book of Negroes” (document) and CBC was filming my comings and goings in London for a news feature that would run a few days later. I had wanted for years to see the original “Book of Negroes” document, but did not have the resources (to be perfectly frank) to travel to London during the five-year period of researching and writing my novel. So I will allow myself to redirect your question, if I may, so that I may answer its true core. If the question becomes “how did I feel when I first saw the ‘Book of Negroes,’” I will say that I was completely overwhelmed, fascinated, and struck with the clarity of purpose: come hell or high water, I just had to write a novel that dramatized the life of a person who might well have had her name entered into this document. I just had to write about person who had been born in Mali around the middle of the 18th century, stolen from her village, sent in chains into the Americas, only to liberate herself in New York City during the American Revolutionary War, serve the British there in drafting the “Book of Negroes” document, and travel with the Loyalists to Nova Scotia and ultimately to Sierra Leone in 1792. When I first saw photocopies, microfilm and other reproductions of the original “Book of Negroes” (they are not hard to find in the Nova Scotia Public Archives, the National Archives of Canada, or in the New York Public Library, and I even saw snippets of copies of the original in the Black Loyalist Heritage Society offices in Birchtown, NS), I felt awe at the sight of living, breathing history, and I felt that I had an instant responsibility to dramatize what I was feeling, seeing, touching and imagining.

T.U.: The illustrated edition of your The Book of Negroes contains over 150 images of historical maps and archival photos. It is absolutely beautiful. Please tell us about the research process.

L.H.: For the most part the research process for the illustrated edition took place during the research of the actual novel. I read many books and articles about subjects related to the arc of my novel, and I also consulted atlases, letters, newspaper clippings, maps, and diaries. It seemed a pity that I could only share the tiniest fraction of all this research with my readers. I wrote a detailed non-fiction piece for The Beaver magazine (now referred to as Canada’s History) about the “Book of Negroes” document, but that did not satisfy my desire to share all this information with readers. When HarperCollins Canada suggested that we develop an illustrated edition, I agreed instantly and began to thumb once more through all the books and articles I had combed some time earlier, to suggest images for the new edition. HarperCollins also hired a researcher to hunt for additional images that had escaped my attention during the research. I’m very pleased with the final product, and I will add, playfully, that I learned that in this world there are captions, and then there are captions. I wanted very much to write lively, engaged, interesting captions for the images, and tried to do so. I feel that the illustrated edition exists for readers who are interesting in knowing more about the social and historical underpinnings of the novel.

A.E.: Is The Book of Negroes – I love this title – to some extent an exploration of self, of roots, Black roots even? Is the central character, female as she is, an alter ego? Could one safely make an analogy (in terms of a probing of beginnings) between this your novel and Alex Haley’s Roots, which became a smash hit TV series in the late 1970s and popularized African-American interest in genealogy?

L.H.: The question is whether Aminata, the protagonist in The Book of Negroes, is an alter ego? I am not sure. What am I to say? Of course she is, in some respects. All honest fiction is profoundly autobiographical, in that it reveals the shadings of the writer’s soul. If you have read the novel, you have pretty well held my heart in your hand. But is Aminata an alter ego? It seems a bit braggardly to stand up on the rooftops and say “Yes she is!” I didn’t think so when I was writing. I thought of her as my own daughter, and gave her my eldest daughter’s middle name. I asked myself always, “What if she were my own child? How would she have survived? How would she have kept going?” So let’s leave it at that. I thought of her as my own child. It is up to the reader to decide if it’s more accurate to think of her as my own alter ego. As for Roots, I devoured the novel when it was published. It affected me (and millions others, of course) immensely. I was a competitive runner back in the 1970s and 80s, and while out for 15-kilometre training runs, when I was feeling particularly strong and energetic, to the point that even a steep hill wouldn’t defeat me or slow my pace, I used to sometimes shout out the name of the protagonist, “Kunte Kinte!” It made me feel good and alive to shout his name out at the top of my lungs. Embarrassed the dickens out of my friends, but I didn’t care. Roots is the gold standard. Roots was the first “back to Africa” novel I read. But Roots is about the exploration of African-American genealogy, tracing a family’s roots back to Africa, and my novel is not about genealogy at all. It is about one woman’s life, in and out of and back to Africa. I’m not sure that I could have imagined my novel, were it not for Roots. I stand on the shoulders of Alex Haley. We all do. I owe him a great debt. But The Book of Negroes is its own “thing”, and a radically different sort of literary beast. Roots is about back-to-Africa genealogical exploration, discovering an almost indiscoverable family tree. The Book of Negroes sits, by contrast, in the tradition of the slave narrative. “This is my name. This is who I am. This is where I came from, and this is how I got here. I am going to tell you my story now, so sit back and listen.”

A.E.: Would you do a DNA (genealogical tracing) if you had the opportunity? I gather the National Geographic have a kit each for either a maternal or paternal or both genealogies.

L.H.: I might do it for fun. But I distrust the process, and doubt the veracity of the results. It looks to me like a fad and a money grab. A sort of tourist’s venture into DNA.

T.U.: How do you feel about Clement Virgo’s upcoming film adaptation of The Book of Negroes? Can you tell us more about the production?

L.H.: I feel great about it. Clement and I have co-written the first draft of the screenplay. I don’t normally collaborate. I don’t even like the idea of collaboration. Half the reason I’m a novelist is that the art form allows me to work on my own for the most part. The screw-ups and the victories are mine and mine alone. But I loved writing the screenplay with Clement. We got along like a house on fire, fed very well into each other’s creative processes, and I also got to feel that I was learning a great deal about an art form that is new for me. The film is in its early stages. Now Clement and his business partner, Damon D’Oliveira, have the unenviable task of having to raise millions of dollars to finance the film. Fundraising, casting, shooting and so forth will be a multi-year process. I’m trying to not get too excited about it, given that the result is so far off. The best thing I can do is shut the windows, put my head down and hammer out another novel or two.

T.U.: You wrote the screenplay for Seeking Salvation, a documentary about the Black church in Canada. Could you tell us about the film?

L.H.: I was raised by two atheists, but I respect that the history of the Black church in Canada reflects in many ways the story of Blacks in Canada. Community and political stories are inextricably tied to the churches created by the Black Loyalists of Nova Scotia in the 1780s, and by Blacks in Upper and Lower Canada in the 1800s. Blacks were also tending to their spiritual and social needs in coastal British Columbia after some 600 African-Americans sailed from San Francisco to Vancouver Island in 1858, and worshipping in isolated communities in the Canadian prairies in the very early 1900s. I tried to write the story of the Black Church as one interesting aspect of the story of African-Canadians, but it was hard to do justice to the full story in a single film documentary.

T.U.: What is it like writing for different media?

L.H.: Most self-employed writers have to work in different media just to survive financially. This is certainly my case. My primary professional identity (public and private) is as a novelist, but I have also written non-fiction, journalism, and two screenplays. (Years ago, I also wrote speeches.) I like moving back and forth between different genres. It’s like cross-training for writers. I feel it makes me more vibrant, more flexible and less likely to burn out. Also, when one income stream or bout of energy is drying up or temporarily dead, there’s almost always something else to write in a different format. I want to spend most of my time writing adult fiction but there are a few other things I want to try: a children’s novel, a play, and a literary translation (moving from French to English). And I wouldn’t say no to another screenplay.

T.U.: You have also written four works of non-fiction. In your view, does writing prose fiction have the same satisfaction or impact as writing in different genres?

L.H.: No, they don’t have the same satisfaction or impact. All writing is hard to do well, but each form has its own demands. Personally, the most satisfying for me, to date, is fiction, because it is the form that most favours the imagination. Without it, the words are dead on the paper. But sometimes I want to engage part of myself that is more intellectual, analytical, and opinionated. That’s when I turn to non-fiction. By the way, I have noticed that some readers of my non-fiction would not normally turn to my fiction, or vice-versa. One of the advantages of writing in different genres is that it can the writer attract and engage a more diverse body of readers.

T.U.: Your new book Underground comes out next February. Can you tell us a bit about it as a foretaste for your readers?

L.H.: I am working on a new novel but it won’t be out as early as February. I like to bottle up a novel in progress and direct the full head of steam into the writing process (rather than the “talking about” process, which I am happy to do after the fact). It is a contemporary novel. I don’t believe it will be called Underground. I think I will hold off on further comment until I’ve tamed the beast. Could we discuss that novel when I have finished and published it? Wish me luck!

T.U.: Records have a way of telling us as much about the past as they do about the present, and, with The Book of Negroes, you revitalize an important and dramatic part of our national history. Thank you so much for your time!

L.H.: Thank you very much for your interest in my work, and for giving me this opportunity to express myself.

About the Interviewer

Author

Tom Ue is a graduate student in the Department of English at McGill University, where he holds a Joseph-Amand Bombardier CGS Master’s Scholarship and a Provost’s Graduate Fellowship. He researches in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British literature. His Master’s thesis focuses on the influence Charles Dickens had on Alphonse Daudet and George Gissing’s fiction. He begins a phD at Oxford shortly.

Amatoritsero Ede, ©Charles Earl

Amatoritsero Ede is a peripatetic, internationally award-winning poet and ex-Hindu monk born in Nigeria. He has been a Book Editor, was Editor-in-Chief of Sentinel Online Poetry Journal from 2005-2007, and Writer-in-Residence at Carleton University’s English Department from 2005-2006, where he is now a Doctoral Candidate.

Photo courtesy Charles Earl © 2010

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