Lawrence Hill on editing his sister's novel, Café Babanussa, after her death

Karen Hill's Café Babanussa is the tale of Ruby Edwards, a mixed-race Canadian woman coming of age in West Berlin. Ruby's story mirrors that of Karen's own life in the bohemian city, where she lived for nearly a decade in the 1980s. It was during that time that a debilitating mental illness first emerged in Karen.

Karen worked on Café Babanussa for over 20 years before her death in 2014. It was accepted for publication by HarperCollins after she died, and carefully edited by her brother Lawrence Hill (The Book of Negroes, The Illegal) and editor Jennifer Lambert. Below, Lawrence discusses the process of bringing Karen's hard-fought story to the world.

karen-hill-babanussa3.pngKaren Hill was 56 when she died. Royalties for Café Babanussa will go to her daughter, Malaika. (Linda Monteith Gardiner)


I saw many hard copies of the novel in draft because Karen was always looking for encouragement and advice about how to manage her stories. Was she going to write a memoir? Was she going to write short stories? She played around with it before finally hitting on a novel. I've always shared drafts of my books with Karen and my brother Dan before publishing, and Dan has always shared his stuff with us. I believed Karen felt I could be helpful, acting as sort of a brotherly mentor.

I told her things that I often tell myself. Cut out the fat. Don't repeat so much. Don't feel you have to hold so closely to autobiographical truth.

Karen didn't talk to me about the process of writing, except one thing, and that's how difficult it was to write when her mind was addled and slowed down by antipsychotics. Karen hated the drugs that were necessary to keep her in a state of mental balance because they killed some of her creative juices.

I understood her longing to shake her brain free of those drugs, and my advice was fairly conservative and brotherly: Please talk to your doctor. If you're reducing your medicine, please do it in consultation with your psychiatrist. I wanted her to stay out of the hospital and to avoid relapses, which were indescribably painful.


I had to think a lot about how to edit the book without Karen's input. I have never been involved in a posthumous publication before. I decided pretty early on that it would not be right to make any alterations to the novel, except basic edits like stripping out repetitive words, redundancies or flat writing. You can improve a page a lot by just hacking out a quarter of it and letting the remaining three-quarters stand.

I made 10 or 20 suggestions about things that could be taken out. My role was really to support editor Jennifer Lambert. She was fantastic and she totally understood my idea. When somebody dies and leaves a book, it's no longer just a book to be edited. It becomes an archival document and I felt that we should respect its integrity. Does the book have flaws? Absolutely. Everybody's books have flaws. We just felt that it wasn't our role to fix those flaws - the role was simply to give it the edit every author deserves.

Lawrence Hill's comments have been edited and condensed.

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