The Next Chapter

Lawrence Hill on inventing countries and telling refugee stories

Lawrence Hill talks about The Illegal, which is in the running for Canada Reads 2016.
Lawrence Hill's novel The Book of Negroes was the 2009 Canada Reads champion, and he's back in competition this year with his new novel The Illegal.

Telling a complicated story through the life of one character is something Lawrence Hill did with great success in The Book of Negroes, which took home the Canada Reads title in 2009. This year, Hill is back in the running for Canada Reads with his new book The Illegal, the story of a young runner who flees a repressive regime in his native country only to find himself in the shadows, dodging capture.

Lawrence Hill spends his summers in Woody Point, NL, and that's where he finished writing The Illegal. Shelagh Rogers interviewed him in Woody Point when the novel came out in August 2015.

On the symbolism of running

I love the idea that [the novel's protagonist] Keita is an elite marathoner, but he's not chasing Olympic glory or big money. He's just trying to stay alive. He's using his body to run, to generate meagre funds to buy himself food or shelter and to just stay out of harm's way. As a novelist, I love the idea that it's a metaphor not just for the beauty of the thing he's doing — which I do find quite beautiful, the act of running marathons — but also he's using it to flee violence, political repression and rising genocide against his ethnic group.

On giving a voice to a stateless character

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. For me, to categorize a person as "illegal" is thoroughly offensive to the concept of humanity. But we use that language widely, so that's why I use it in the title. Keita has come to a country that's elected a government that's expressly bent on deporting people who are defined as "illegals." And I use that to represent the worst of human thinking about the plight of migrants and refugees.

On creating fictional countries

Creating two countries — something I've never done before — felt like tremendous fun. First of all, I was free of the things that bound me to historical reality in The Book of Negroes, and free of the restraints involved in having to reflect sociopolitical history. It allowed me to be free with the creation of facts and the social environment, but it also allowed me to be freer on the page and to be more playful in the narrative. It was a really interesting challenge, and fun.

Lawrence Hill's comments have been edited and condensed.