Friday, December 21, 2012

Q&A with author Lawrence Hill

Lawrence Hill is the author of several fiction and non-fiction books, including the novel Someone Knows My Name and the memoir Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada. He has worked as a journalist for The Globe and Mail and The Winnipeg Free Press, and lives in Hamilton, Ontario.

Q: The main character in your novel Someone Knows My Name, Aminata Diallo, remains in a reader's mind long after he or she finishes reading the book. Is Aminata based on a real person, and why did you decide to write the book from the perspective of a female character?

A: Aminata comes straight from my imagination. She is not based on a real person, although I did give her the name of my eldest daughter, whose name is Genevieve Aminata Hill.  As I wrote the story, I tried to imagine the character Aminata as my own daughter and to ask: "What would she do, and how would she survive --not just physically, but emotionally?" I chose to write from the point of view of my heroine, because I felt she offered the richest entry point into the novel: slavery, freedom, human dignity and -- after deracination -- the never-ending search for home. Although Aminata's personal story is imagined, I intend the social and political issues in the novel to be as true a representation as I can offer of the history of the time.  It took five years to write the novel, and I conducted research from the first day to the last.
Q: Someone Knows My Name is the book's title in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. In Canada, Great Britain, South Africa, and India, it was published as The Book of Negroes. Why were there two different titles for the book, and which do you prefer?

A: There are two titles in English, and various other titles in translation.  In France and in Quebec, for example, the French translation goes under the title Aminata. However, to return to your question, my first and preferred title for the novel was, and remains, The Book of Negroes

I like the title, because it resurrects a nearly forgotten British military ledger dating back to 1783, the purpose of which was to document the names and various biographical details of 3,000 Black Loyalists who had flocked to Manhattan to serve the British on the losing side of the American Revolutionary War, and who then fled by ship at war's end to Nova Scotia, on the east coast of Canada. Aminata, like the other Black Loyalists, is only able to flee New York and to escape the hands of those who would re-enslave her by proving that she has served the British during the war, having her name entered into The Book of Negroes and then being allowed to sail from the Hudson River.  This nearly forgotten exodus forms one of the key historical foundations of the novel, so I was pleased to name my novel after it.  

My American publisher felt that the word "Negroes" in the title would offend American readers, so I came up with a new title -- Someone Knows My Name -- for the American market.  Although there is never complete consensus on such matters, most African-American readers who have approached me on book tour in the United States have emphasized that they would never have bought or read the novel if it had carried the Canadian title.

Q: You have written, in both fiction and non-fiction, about being biracial in Canada. Your parents came from the United States, and you have relatives there. What would you say are some of the differences, and similarities, in how the two countries look at racial issues?

A: As you say, there are both differences and similarities, far too numerous and complex to address in a short reply here.  One of the most significant similarities relates to the personal, family histories of people in the African Diaspora, regardless of their country of residence. My own family and personal history -- at least, as they relate to the development of my own identity as the son of a black father and white mother who left the United States in 1953, the day after they married -- is described in my memoir, Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada (HarperCollins Canada, 2001). 

Migration seems to be a defining factor, as does an awareness of the multinational origins of one's family over time.  My second novel, called Any Known Blood, followed five generations of a Black family that moved back and forth across the US-Canada border, with a man from each generation of the family leaving his birth country and moving to the other.  So, at the personal level, family and other personal experiences can tend to blur the lines of firm national borders, and evoke much deeper points of connection through shared experiences and common ancestors. 

However, at the social and political level, one can point to many differences between how racial issues are considered in each country.  To begin with, it is important to remember that while slavery was a defining pillar of America's early economy and society, the despicable institution never became a bedrock of Canadian life. That is not due to any moral superiority north of the border that we share. Indeed, many of early Canada's prominent politicians were slaveowners and the institution of slavery did not formally die in Canada until 1834, when it was abolished throughout the British Empire.  But Canada had no climate conducive to plantation slavery, and no economic need for millions of slaves to enrich its country by working the fields of cash crops.  Slavery in Canada became a primarily urban phenomenon, and was limited to Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime provinces in Atlantic Canada.  

The number of slaves in Canada never reached a slim fraction of the number of American slaves -- in absolute or in proportional terms -- and so the fact of slavery, anti-slavery, liberation and social integration has never registered in the Canadian psyche the way it has in America. In the United States, you would have to be pretty well brain-dead not to know that the country was built by slaves, and that even presidents such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. The long fight to eradicate slavery and to desegregate America fits entirely into the historical identity and the collective memory. 

In Canada, we are still in denial. Many Canadians still have no idea that slavery existed in their own land, and many others fear that the mere fact of discussing racial issues somehow debases us. Couldn't we just ignore that ugly stuff and move on?  So, one of the most fundamental differences between our two countries is that racial history and racial issues have, traditionally at least, been discussed and debated far more openly in the United States than in Canada, because the sheer magnitude of the issues made them impossible to ignore.

Q: Could you tell us more about your novel Any Known Blood?

A: Any Known Blood is an intergenerational novel that follows the lives of five men, each in a successive wave of the same family, that moves back and forth across the US border with each family.  Each man carries the same name: Langston Cane. Langston Cane the First flees slavery in Maryland and comes to what is now Ontario, Canada, via the Underground Railroad. Later, he returns to the USA as a member of John Brown's abolitionist raid on Harpers Ferry. The novel is narrated by the fifth and last Langston Cane in this family saga: a contemporary, failed man who tries to save himself by leaving his home in Ontario and moving to Baltimore, where he will embark on a project to unearth his own family history.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on a new novel about an illegal refugee, and am writing a book of non-fiction about the ways that we see, imagine and understand our own blood, and how these perceptions shape the ways that we identify ourselves individually and collectively in society.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am also co-writing the film adaptation (for a six times one-hour TV miniseries) of the novel Someone Knows My Name / The Book of Negroes. The Toronto film production company Conquering Lion Pictures purchased film rights to the novel, and I have been busy co-writing a six part TV miniseries with director Clement Virgo.  Clement Virgo and his business partner are currently scouting film locations in Nova Scotia and in South Africa, and hope to move into production next year. It is the first time that I have written drama for television, and have been enjoying the process very much. Since the novel is so sweeping, it is lovely to have six hours to tell it on TV.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb


  1. Enjoyed reading this interview! We've just voted to read SOMEONE KNOWS MY NAME in July. Looking forward to it.

  2. So glad you liked the Q&A--the book is really wonderful, and I'm sure you will have a lot to discuss!