Lawrence Hill discusses The Illegal
The Book of Negroes author is back, with a thrilling novel about a marathoner, er, on the run.
Lawrence Hill had a monster hit with his last novel The Book of Negroes. It 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 will he follow that? By writing another timely, expansive novel. 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.
Like The Book of Negroes, The Illegal is a timely work of fiction. The UN says that this year the worldwide displacement of people is at its highest level ever - almost 60 million people walking across borders, clinging to boats, crammed into trucks, desperate to escape war and persecution. But it's also a very different book. While Hill took many elements from real-world events, the culture, history and countries found in The Illegal were invented by Hill.
Lawrence Hill spoke to Shelagh Rogers at the Writers at Woody Point Festival this past summer.
ON WRITING A BOOK THAT WAS DIFFERENT:
"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 fully as painful and difficult as The Book of Negroes but came at the reader in a different way, more playful with more humour. 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."
ON WRITING ABOUT A STATELESS PERSON:
"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."
ON MAKING UP TWO COUNTRIES:
"It felt like tremendous fun. I was free of the things that bound me to historical reality in The Book of Negroes. I was free of the restraints involved in having to reflect the sociopolitical history of Canada or the United States or Africa. It allowed me to be free in the creation of facts and a social environment but also helped me be freer on the page and more playful in a narrative way. I loved writing something more playful and truly imaginative. It was really fun to create two countries in my mind and then to draw them so readers can actually see them it was an interesting challenge."
Lawrence Hill's comments have been condensed and edited.