Further Reflections on “The Book of Negroes” Novel

A prior post summarized Lawrence Hill’s novel The Book of Negroes while another post provided a brief look at the relevant historical background of the novel–the fate of the Black British Loyalists in the American colonies during and after the American Revolutionary War.

Lawrence Hill
Lawrence Hill

Now we examine Hill’s own reflections about his novel and how his biography has influenced this novel and his other books. [1]

He first heard about the historical Book of Negroes in 1980 when he read The Black Loyalists: The Search for a Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, a scholarly book by Canadian historian James W. St. G. Walker.

Hill immediately knew from reading the Walker book that one day he would write the fictional story of a woman who had to have her name entered into the Book of Negroes.  But it took at least 15 years before he felt he was ready to tackle such a large project. In 2002 when he began to research and write the novel, he examined for the first time reproductions of the actual Book of Negroes. Another topic of his research was the activities of the British abolitionists. The size of this project is indicated by the five years it took to research and write the novel.

His greatest surprise from his research was discovering that among the Black Loyalists who left Nova Scotia for Sierra Leone in 1792 were some who had been born in Africa and thus were returning home. This back-to-Africa exodus took place 30 years before American slaves went to Africa to found Liberia and more than a century before Jamaican Marcus Garvey urged blacks in the Diaspora to return to the motherland.

From the moment of his conception of the novel, Hill said, it was a woman’s story. As a writer, he locates stories in the lives of the people who have the most to lose, and Aminata as a mother had the most to lose.

A constant question for him in all of his writing, he said, was how does someone survive horrible events in life. Every book or story requires an overarching theme, which for him is what does the main protagonist want. For Aminata in The Book of Negroes it is “I want to go home to Africa.”

Lawrence Hill’s parents — a black father and a white mother —were U.S. citizens who emigrated  to Canada the day after they married in 1953 in Washington, D.C.in order to escape racial discrimination and anti-miscegenation laws. Both of them were involved in the human rights movement, an influence Hill readily acknowledges.

Born in Canada in 1957, Hill was raised in a predominantly white Toronto suburb. He has a B.A. in economics from Laval University in Quebec City and an M.S. in writing from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Although Hill always wanted to be a creative writer, he immediately recognized that he needed to have some kind of gainful employment to support himself financially as he was starting his writing career. These sidelines, he acknowledges, helped his creative writing.

He spent three years as a journalist with Toronto’s The Globe and Mail and The Winnipeg Free Press and learned how to write quickly on short deadlines and to recognize that his words could be changed by editors. He then spent a year in Spain writing short stories, but realized that his quickly written letters from Spain to friends were more lively and better written. For the next 15 years he was a free-lance speech writer for Canadian politicians and in the process learned how to write for different voices.

Hill’s international travels have also influenced his writing, especially his volunteer trips to West Africa. While in Mali, for example, he met a midwife by the name of “Aminata,” which he used as the name of the main character in The Book of Negroes.

Now Hill is an accomplished and recognized author. In addition to The Book of Negroes, he has published two other novels, a memoir, three other non-fiction books and the script for a film.

He is a member of the Council of Patrons of the Black Loyalist Heritage Society. Hill has received the Diamond Jubilee Medal from Queen Elizabeth II, the Medal of Distinction from Huron University College, the Freedom To Read Award from the Writers Union of Canada, the Award of Excellence from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and the Rev. John C. Holland Award of Merit from the Hamilton Black History Committee. Hill also holds honorary doctorates from the University of Toronto, Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo.

This coming fall Hill will be Canada’s Massey Lecturer and has said the lecture’s theme will be “how beliefs, traditions, rituals, phobias, and obsessions about blood influence how we see ourselves individually and societally.”

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[1] This post is based primarily upon materials on Hill’s own website and his recent remarks at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference.

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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