The Book of Negroes author spoke at sold-out event about his new book, the plight of refugees, and inclusion on Monday.
Lawrence Hill — novelist, journalist, educator, activist, and volunteer — is the author of 10 books, including The Illegal andThe Book of Negroes. He is the winner of numerous awards including The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and a two-time winner of CBC Radio’s Canada Reads: first in 2009 for The Book of Negroes, and again just last month for his novel The Illegal, after a spirited defence by six-time Olympic medallist and philanthropist Clara Hughes.
He is currently writing a new novel and a children’s book, and co-writing a television miniseries adaptation of The Illegal for Conquering Lion Pictures.
The Illegal casts a satirical eye on the lives of undocumented refugees struggling to survive in an unwelcoming nation, and urges us to consider the plight of the faceless, the unseen and the forgotten.
UToday spoke with Hill before his sold-out April 18th discussion at the Calgary Public Library, an event co-sponsored by the University of Calgary’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Protected Disclosure and the Calgary Public Library.
Q: Congratulations on winning the 2016 Canada Reads for The Illegal. You’re currently co-writing the TV miniseries adaptation of The Illegal for Conquering Lion Pictures. Do you prefer writing novels or screenplays?
A: I prefer writing novels, but I do enjoy writing screenplays as well. Screenwriting is different — it’s interesting to be part of that team of other artists, and watching the story take shape in another form.
Q: Although The Book of Negroes and The Illegal are both fictional, the stories and characters could be mistaken for non-fiction. How did the TV miniseries adaptation of The Book of Negroes change the awareness level of the story and the issues you write about?
A: The Book of Negroes miniseries attracted millions of viewers in the U.S. and Canada, so it expanded the reach of the story. It’s thrilling to imagine how many more people became aware of the story and issues. Perhaps the same will be true of the miniseries adaptation of The Illegal.
Q: What inspires you to tell your stories? Is it more that you are intrigued by the subject matter, or do you feel driven to help people understand the struggles of immigrants and refugees?
A: We can lose sight of humanity of people caught up in major crises. But for the fluke of circumstance, they could be us, and we could be them. I’ve tried to give a human face to the experiences refugees endure. The scale of the refugee crisis is so massive, it’s difficult for many of us to get our heads around it. My primary goal is to paint a picture and encourage Canadians to understand and respond with humanity.
Q: It seems from your work and accomplishments in so many different areas, you are compelled to help people shift their thinking and make change happen. Would you say motivating others motivates you?
A: Exciting and motivating others motivates me. Writing The Illegal inspired me to work with my wife [writer Miranda Hill] and some of our friends to bring a refugee family here to Hamilton. I don’t know that I would have come to the experience of helping refugees settle in Hamilton without having provoked my own imagination and empathy by writing the book.
Q: Tell me about your experience so far in working to bring a refugee family to Canada.
A: Miranda and some of our friends and neighbours have pulled together to form a grassroots, informal group called Longer Table. Earlier, we helped out with some other events to assist communities to bring refugees to B.C. and to Ontario. Right now we’re working with the Anglican Diocese of Niagara to bring a family of seven to Hamilton. We have raised $30,000, and we will be responsible for helping them get settled and start a new life in Canada. We offer our support by helping arrange necessities like accommodation, schooling and education, health and medical support, friendship — really anything they might need.
Q: The current refugee crisis was front and centre as a global news story last fall, but it hasn’t been as high profile in recent weeks. Since Canada has been opening its doors to Syrian refugees over the past few months, do you think Canadians have gained a better understanding of the plight of refugees, and are more welcoming?
A: Canadians are and want to be generous people; they want to help. During other times of crisis in Canada’s past, Canadians have responded and have been moved to great action to help others. The current refugee crisis has provoked an awakening of Canadian consciousness. It’s not just government responding — small grassroots movements to help are springing up from coast to coast.
Q: You have said you hope The Illegal will inspire readers to care more deeply and empathize more profoundly with refugees. Have you had feedback indicating that readers are gaining a better understanding about diversity, inclusion, and belonging?
A: It’s difficult to measure or quantify whether a novel has played a role in promoting an understanding of concepts like inclusion and belonging. I suppose, and hope, a reader might be moved to be more involved. But the point of art isn’t necessarily to educate. The purpose of art is to awaken our imaginations to care; to stir us toward action and to take us to deeper places of empathy. The Illegal isn’t meant to be an instrument of education — it’s art, meant to move you to act or make you feel something very deep.
Q: You are still a young man. But I’m curious to know if you’ve ever thought about what you would like to leave as your legacy?
A: I’d like to be known as a good father, son, husband, friend, writer; someone who cared about Canada and the world and how we step up and act as citizens. And someone who inspired readers to think more deeply about these issues.
Learn more about the University of Calgary’s Support for Syrian Refugees program and how you can get involved.
Source University of Calgary