British Columbia

Lawrence Hill's The Illegal focuses on plight of refugees

Author says it is "obscene and heartbreaking" how long it takes for a refugee to arrive in Canada.

Author says Canada must open its doors more widely for refugees

Lawrence Hill has wanted to write about displaced persons since visiting West Berlin in the 1980s. (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Though the setting and characters are fictional, Lawrence Hill's new book The Illegal could easily be referring to real places and people.

The Ontario author's new book tells the story of a man who flees the genocidal violence in his home country of Zantoroland, a fictional island in the Indian ocean, only to end up in Freedom State, a country with a strong anti-refugee movement.

This comes as the world is dealing with a very real refugee crisis, with many countries struggling with how to manage millions of people fleeing Syria as well as other troubled nations.

The Illegal is Hill's latest novel.

Hill told The Early Edition that The Illegal could easily have been set in a real country.

"It was inspired by a little bit of Canada, a little bit of Arizona...Texas, a bit of France, a bit of South Africa, it was inspired by things I've observed or seen all over the world," Hill told host Rick Cluff.

Inspired by real refugees

Hill, who wrote the award-winning novel The Book of Negroes, wanted to write about the struggles of displaced people long before the recent headlines.

While visiting his sister in West Berlin in the 1980s, he became interested in the Sudanese expats and refugees that she was spending time with.

"They couldn't really get their lives going legally once they arrived in West Berlin, so watching how they had to struggle and innovate — and be creative to stay alive and help each other — got me thinking about issues of statelessness," he said.

"I've been dreaming about writing a novel about it ever since."

Hill said he chose to invent countries for his novel because it allowed him more creative freedom, and allowed him to make the novel more dystopian.

He does however draw inspiration from real places and events.

Africtown, the all-black settlement in Freedom State, was inspired by the townships in apartheid-era South Africa.

Throughout the novel the government of Freedom State threatens to bulldoze that settlement — bearing similarities to the eviction and eventual destruction of Africville, a black Nova Scotian community which existed in Halifax from the 1840s to late 1960s.

Canada must do more

Now, as the world grapples with a refugee crisis, Hill said Canada must accept more refugees, process their applications more efficiently, and welcome and support them when they arrive in this country.

"It's obscene and heartbreaking how long it takes to bring a person to Canada who is a legitimate refugee with legitimate papers," he said.

Hill would like The Illegal to help Canadians "feel more empathy for the individual plight of refugees."

"We're talking about people who have mothers, and lovers, and children and skills, doctors and engineers and lawyers and road builders and cooks and just about everybody in between, on the move and in desperate need of safety," he said.

"I'm hoping that Canadians will care more deeply and recognize the humanity of those who are trying to seek shelter and safety so we can do more and be better world citizens."


To hear the interview listen to the audio labelled: Lawrence Hill's The Illegal focuses on plight of refugees

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