Lawrence Hill's new book couldn't have come at a better time. The Illegal is the story of a man fleeing his own country for a better life. But, he finds his new home not ready to welcome him. The novel follows Hill's award-winning story The Book of Negroes.
The Illegal is a book that might help readers understand what life is like for refugees trying to survive in a strange new land that doesn't make survival easy.
The book comes as the world is dealing with a refugee crisis. Four million Syrians have already fled the country, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which estimates that another 7.6 million people are displaced inside Syria.
On Wednesday, the CBC's Conrad Collaco spoke with Hill about The Illegal and what part he thinks Canada should play in responding to the refugee crisis. Below, read an abridged and edited transcript of the interview with Hill. Listen to the full interview by clicking the image at the top of this page.
Lawrence Hill, author of The Illegal and The Book of Negroes
Q: What made you want to tell the story of a refugee?
I've been thinking about the plight of refugees and what it must be like to be stateless ever since I travelled to West Berlin to visit my sister who was living there for a decade. She was beginning to hang out with a community of Sudanese ex-pats who had come in through the Berlin wall from East Germany and settled in West Germany where they weren't welcome. They had entered legally but couldn't function legally once they were there. They couldn't work or get there lives going. It was troubling to see the lengths these Sudanese ex-pats had to go to survive in a country that didn't want them and was doing everything it could to incite them to leave.
Q: What is life like for your main character, Keita Ali, when he arrives in his new country?
He is in so much trouble that he doesn't have time to reflect on the pain of his loss of leaving his home country. He is in such desperate straights hiding. He's really on the run. This novel follows two or three months arriving in Freedom State in his very tumultuous life. He doesn't have time for pain because he's got to survive.
Q: What made you want him to be a marathon runner?
It's a perfect metaphor. He is in flight. He flees a country where they want to kill him. He comes to a country where he is not welcome. He has to flee immigration officials who would gladly seize and deport him if they can catch him. He has to make money but he has no way to make money legally so he enters road races, 5k, 10k, half marathons, marathons to scrape together winnings from these races to buy food and shelter and pay a ransom for his sister who has been kidnapped. Running is about survival.
Q: He ends up in the fictional Freedom State, a country with a strong anti-refugee movement. Was this a place inspired by any real places?
It was inspired by lots of places — a little bit of France, Texas, Arizona, Canada, South Africa. I drew from the worst of many things I've seen in these countries to create a dystopia, just set a few years in the future, 2018. I drew from anti-refugee policies and hostile activities facing refugees around the world. He comes to a country that elected a government that has publicly campaigned on a plan to deport refugees without papers.
Q: How should Canada respond to the current refugee crisis?
We should open our doors much more widely. We have lots of room in our economy and our geography for more people and for more refugees. We need to process refugees much more expeditiously. It's ridiculous how long a refugee family can languish and perhaps die while waiting to be processed. We need to send federal officials to the places where refugees are languishing and trying desperately to get here so we can process them on the ground where they are. We've done this before.
When they do come to Canada we need to welcome them more fully. We shouldn't be stripping them of health care coverage which the federal government has done before. We shouldn't be throwing them in jail with common criminals. We need to use their skills in a way that we might benefit from them and they might benefit from us.
Q: How might your book change the perceptions your readers have about refugees?
I hope the novel will inspire readers to care more deeply and empathize more profoundly with refugees. If we care and empathize more perhaps we will demand more of ourselves and we'll also demand more of our elected officials.
Lawrence Hill is the award winning author of the Book of Negroes. His latest book The Illegal is out this month.