Author Lawrence Hill hopes readers marvel at hero in newest book Beatrice and Croc Harry
Hill hopes readers 'laugh along with the playful side of the book'
Author Lawrence Hill is known for his adult books: The Book of Negroes, The Illegal and Black Berry Sweet Juice.
He now has a new novel designed for a younger demographic called Beatrice and Croc Harry.
Hill spoke about his new book at an event hosted by the Congress for Black Women, Waterloo Region and the Kitchener Public Library earlier this week. He joined CBC K-W's The Morning Edition's host Craig Norris ahead of that event.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. Audio of the interview is available below.
Craig Norris: Where did the idea for this [book] come from?
Lawrence Hill: Well, I have been interested for decades in issues of identity and the development of a positive racial identity and moving into a sense of Black identity. These issues were front and centre in my own childhood growing up in a mixed race family in Toronto in the early '60s.
But this particular idea seeded back about 15, 17 years ago when I was telling my youngest daughter, Beatrice, bedtime stories about a girl with the same name. I was duelling a crocodile and I was narrowly escaping the jaws of death. And Beatrice, my god, was so entranced by these stories about a girl with the same name duelling a crocodile that she made me promise that one day I'd turn them into a novel. And here we are 15 years later.
Craig Norris: Wow, that's pretty good impetus and pretty good inspiration for writing a book for younger readers. What did you enjoy most about writing this book? Was it different from past books?
Lawrence Hill: It was such a riot. It felt like the roof was blown off all the constraints and limitations I might have felt writing earlier novels for adults like The Book of Negroes and The Illegal.
Somehow writing about a girl and a crocodile, writing an allegorical story about the evolution of racial identity and confronting injustice, but being playful with talking tarantulas and a fast-talking crocodile and all of whom can communicate with this girl, Beatrice, it made me feel kind of joyous and imaginative, and it sort of brought me back to being a bedtime storytelling dad on the page.
So I felt I got to come out and dance on the page much more exuberantly, as I do in previous books.
Craig Norris: When we wade into this allegory, Lawrence, what do you hope we take away from Beatrice and Croc Harry?
Lawrence Hill: Well, I hope that all readers, especially young readers, take away a sense of marvel at Beatrice's confidence, her self pride, her affirmation of self as a young girl and as she begins to realize, as a young Black girl — because initially waking up in amnesia in a massive forest, [she doesn't] understand that she's Black because there's nobody around to remind her of this since there are no other humans in this forest where she awakens.
It's not always easy for young people, especially people who are racialized or who have been historically mistreated, to feel good about themselves, their hair, the way they look, the way they feel and Beatrice does.
And so I guess first and foremost, I'd like the reader to marvel at Beatrice's self-confidence — with self-confidence, you can go anywhere. And I think that also I'd like the reader to enjoy and fall into and laugh along with the playful side of the book that really engages in a lot of exuberant language.
Craig Norris: You're taking part in a talk [Thursday] night. It is a Black History Month event. What do you hope to touch on during that talk beyond the subject of your latest novel?
Lawrence Hill: The Congress of Black Women in Kitchener-Waterloo region has been inviting me to Kitchener for decades. And this particular chapter of the congress was created in 1988, and that's a 34 year history.
But of course, associations of Black women, really vibrant, vital associations of Black women in Canada, go back to 1950 and of course before.
I guess I'd like to take away a sense of reconnection with a really wonderful, vibrant community, and Black women are very much at the heart of many Black communities around this country.
We do always need to remember where we came from and what we struggled through and what we survived.
But I think we also need to celebrate our joy and our passion and laughter and playfulness, our resilience and imagination. And so I guess I'd like to send us deep into that sense of playful family that you feel sitting around a bedtime, telling a great story, whether they're with older people or little children.
Craig Norris: We've had a lot of conversations this month and all through the year about Black history and Black heritage, and that seems to be the running theme, is to focus on joy. I spoke with some youth, and that's the one thing they said was we need to talk more about the joy of this.
Lawrence Hill: Yes, well if all you talked about is pain and the survival of, say, slavery or something like that, then you're suggesting that the only thing that's synonymous with the Black community is pain and suffering, which of course, is ridiculous.
There's not a human being on Earth whose people speak or represent only pain and suffering.
There's dance and there's music, there's success in business and community gathering and of course, there's faith and there's community building. There's so many dynamic aspects of the Black experience in the world and in Canada; 400 years of Black history in this country, 400-plus years.
I think it's important to kind of leaven the pain with the laughter. And that's exactly what I've tried to do in this book because Beatrice's journey is difficult and she's been expelled from the human race for reasons of violence that will only slowly dawn on her.
But I have to let a lot of shafts of light and laughter and … to help, especially a young reader, move through this project and feel good.
And so I think it's important in our own communities to not just remember our pain and what we survived, but also remember our joy, joy and our strength of hearts. So, you know, I think that speaks to the human experience — a little bit of both goes a long way.
- CBC Books: Read an excerpt from Beatrice and Croc Harry
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.