A Conversation with Lawrence Hill
Volume 36, Number 1, Winter 2013
Winfried Siemerling, Professor of English
University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
When Paul Gilroy in The Black Atlantic offered an alternative account of modernity that placed transnational, black transatlantic lives and cultures at the center, Canada was not on his map. Slavery, however, did not stop at the borders first of New France and then the Canada’s until it was abolished in the British Empire in 1834, and the Underground Railroad made Canada an important site of black writing especially after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. To be fair, the current surge of impressively strong African Canadian writing, heralded by some authors and anthologies since the 1960s and 1970s, was still gathering steam in the early 1990s.
Lawrence Hill, a novelist and nonfiction writer whose parents immigrated to Canada from the United States after WWII, has become one of the most important contributors to black culture here. His first novel, Some Great Thing (1992), was followed by Any Known Blood (1997), a multi-generational border-crossing novel in which the allusively named Langston Cane V explores his own mixed race and family. In the process, he uncovers a forebear’s slave narrative that recounts his involvement in John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Hill’s third novel, The Book of Negroes (2007), is a neo-slave narrative in its entirety that redraws the map of Gilroy’s black Atlantic. The protagonist Aminata, abducted in West Africa, flees first from slavery in South Carolina, then from Americans taking control of New York in 1783, and finally from Nova Scotia to return to Africa. She travels to Sierra Leone in 1792, and from there sails to London to support the abolition of the slave trade. In Hill’s transfiguration of these historical events, Aminata herself becomes a scribe of Guy Carleton’s “Book of Negroes,” recording the 1783 black exodus from New York. The use of the word “Negroes” in Hill’s title, although taken from that historical document, has proven controversial, and the novel appeared in the United States, New Zealand, and Australia as Someone Knows My Name. A breakthrough for Hill internationally, the novel won among other awards the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.
Hill’s work offers United States readers an especially inviting entrance into contemporary black Canadian literature, not only because of his fiction’s frequent transborder thematic but also since his nonfiction—for example Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada—often speaks to issues of race from a United States-Canadian comparative perspective. The following interview conversation, though concentrating on the novels, seeks to provide an introduction to his entire career, including his formative travels in Africa. It is divided by short subtitles for orientation and ease of reading.
Early Writing and Travels in Africa
In your last novel, The Book of Negroes (named after a historical document but published in the United States as Someone Knows My Name), you thematize the back-to-Africa journey of 1,200 people from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone in 1792, and you talk about the fact that it is the first one historically. We also know that for many people still today it is a very emotional and important event, to “go back” to Africa.
Yes, and many people of African American or African Canadian origin are seeking some sort of validation from or connection with the motherland. It’s a connection with one’s extended family, metaphorically. Of course, why should a typical African who is selling coffee in his street stand in Niamey, Niger, look at some kid from Toronto and say “hey, here’s my brother.” Sorry, that’s just not going to happen, especially with the way I look, which to many of them was white. Many African Americans and African Canadians have observed this kind of rocky reception that they received. When I went there, I wanted to be welcomed as one of the race and have my blackness celebrated. I wanted to be brought into the arms of my people, in a way. And it’s a natural thing for a twenty-two-year-old to…