Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book

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First aired on Q (16/04/13)

Lawrence Hill's bestselling novel The Book of Negroes is the story of Aminata, who was abducted by slave traders in the mid-1700s and taken from Africa to America. It won numerous literary honours, including the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for best book in 2008. Recently, the French translation was crowned the 2013 winner of Radio-Canada's Combat des livres, making it the winner of Canada Reads in both official languages.

However, the book garnered different headlines a couple of years ago when it was published in Dutch in the Netherlands. A group called the Foundation to Honour and Restore Payments to Victims of Slavery in Suriname threatened to burn the book because of the use of the word "Negro." In the end, they burned only the cover of the book, because they said they had no objection to the novel itself. But it was still disturbing to author Hill. He writes about the experience in his latest book, Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book: An Anatomy of a Book Burning.


Lawrence Hill was in the Q studios on April 16, the day after the bombing of the Boston Marathon. In the introduction to the show, host Jian Ghomeshi addressed the incident, and Hill started the interview by referring to those remarks and speaking about his own reaction to the atrocity, as someone who has run marathons in the past. They then turned to talking about the threat to burn The Book of Negroes.

It started when Hill received "the strangest email I've ever received in my life" from a man called Roy Groenberg. "Basically it said, 'Dear sir,' in this over-polite tone, 'Dear sir, I intend to burn your book.'" Groenberg wrote that he was offended by the use of the word Negro in the Dutch translation of the title, and so he intended to burn the book in protest.

"I wondered at first if it was a joke, because the language was so at odds with the purpose. The language was so polite, and yet the purpose was so violent," Hill said. But it also upset him, because Groenberg identified himself as a member of the Dutch-Surinamese community, which Hill felt connected to emotionally. "To have somebody from within the black community come at me because of this deemed offence was painful."

The novel's title is based on a historical document called the Book of Negroes, which "basically provides detailed information about the exodus of 3,000 African Americans who were leaving New York City and coming to Nova Scotia at the end of the American Revolution," Hill explained.

Hill was worried that the incident might escalate, and he wrote a polite email in reply. "I explained the historical origin of the novel and the title and I asked him if we could have a discussion before he proceeded to burn the book." Groenberg knew about the historical origins (he'd actually attended a talk that Hill gave in Amsterdam) but that made no difference to him. In the end, a small protest group burned images of the book cover.

Asked if it made a difference to him that they didn't object to the actual contents of the book, Hill said no. "I would have preferred an objection to the contents, because that might have opened up the possibility of an actual dialogue and discussion. In a way it was more disturbing because it shut down the possibility of a discussion."

The fact that the book has been so wildly successful didn't offset the disturbing nature of the incident for Hill. "When something really unpleasant happens, unfortunately the natural human instinct of mine wasn't to think about all the good things that have happened to me or to the book." And even though it involved a relatively small, marginal protest group, Hill saw the action as significant in a larger context. "This was one of many incidents that we find every year around the world where writers and artists, thinkers and bloggers, musicians [and] filmmakers, are subject to attempts to shut down the free circulation of their work."

Hill decided to research the history of slavery in the Netherlands and the ongoing racism, in an attempt to understand Roy Groenberg's context better. "It helped me understand more fully where Roy Groenberg was coming from. And I think he's coming from some very legitimate places." When Hill wrote Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book, for the 2012 Henry Kreisel Lecture at the University of Alberta, "I didn't want to just make fun of him or pillory him," he said. "I wanted to understand where his objections were coming from in order to really embrace the issue." Hill found that the Netherlands has a long history of racism, much like Canada, and there are "all sorts of images that are still very hateful and stereotypical of blacks in contemporary Dutch popular culture."

Hill's personal experience made him delve more deeply into freedom of expression issues, which he discusses in his book. He was asked if Canadians are somewhat complacent when it comes to freedom of expression. "I think fundamentally we do believe, profoundly, in the necessity of freedom of expression, the freedom to read and to write, but I think we are often complacent about various efforts to stymie it."

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