The Next Chapter

Lawrence Hill on humanizing the refugee experience through fiction

Lawrence Hill discusses his timely new novel, The Illegal.

Lawrence Hill had a monster hit with The Book of Negroes. The novel won the  Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and Canada Reads, and last year became a television miniseries that was broadcast on CBC. How would he possibly follow that? By writing another timely, expansive novel, as it turns out. The Illegal is the story of Keita Ali, a young marathon runner who flees a repressive regime in his native country. His new life is spent in the shadows, dodging capture and taking up residence in a ostracized community of other refugees called Africtown.


It did help to have been trained as a journalist. The idea of pacing and just moving things along and not wasting any time was exciting. I wanted to write a book that had a lot of energy on the page and that really moved. I wanted to be entertaining and have a light touch narratively, but also deal with issues as painful and difficult as what I wrote about in The Book of Negroes. My aim was to come at the reader in a different way that was more playful and more humorous. It felt entertaining for me, but it was also a challenge to manage all these pieces. It was a more complicated narrative structure than The Book of Negroes. It was hard to write, but also a lot of fun.


I've been thinking about stateless people for some time, it's a really rich and important vein to mine. There are millions of people in the world who are stateless or in hiding or are undocumented. We see people drowning in boats and doing desperate things, taking their lives in their hands by trying to jump on trucks or trains or getting on rickety boats and knowing there is a good chance you'll die but still be willing to do it anyway because it's better to take that chance and be killed than to die at home. It gives you a sense of how desperate people are. I don't think we really see these lives very clearly so I was hoping to shine a light on that.

Lawrence Hill's comments have been edited and condensed.