Black History Month: An interview with Lawrence Hill

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Lawrence Hill is the award-winning author of ten books. He has written non-fiction books such Blood: the Stuff of Life, the subject of his 2013 Massey Lectures. Mr. Hill has also penned much-lauded fictional works, such as The Book of Negroes, which won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Commonwealth Writers’ prize for best book, as well as both CBC Radio’s Canada Reads competition and Radio-Canada’s Le combat des livres. The book was also turned into an acclaimed television miniseries. His most recent work is called The Illegal and was published in Canada in 2015.1 Mr. Hill recently talked to us about his work, human rights and the significance of Black History Month.

A head-and-shoulders image of author Lawrence Hill. He is wearing a dark collar shirt and looking directly at the camera.
Lawrence Hill. Photo: Lisa Sakulensky


Is Black History Month important to you?

Yes, but it's too bad that it's the coldest and shortest month of the year! How about July? To be serious, it's vitally important. Black history is Canadian history and it's also world history, but it is a slice of history that far too few Canadians know about. How is it that we know more about American slavery or the American civil rights movement than their counterparts in Canada?

Your parents were involved in human rights work in the fifties and sixties. Can you tell us a little about that?

My parents married interracially in Washington DC in 1953 and moved the next day to Canada. They co-founded, with friends, the Ontario Black History Society and each wrote a book about black history, too. My father served as the first director and then chairperson of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, so human rights issues circulated around our kitchen table and became a conversational staple. Some children turn away from their parents' values, and other children embrace them. I fall into the latter category: my parents' own lives at the forefront of the human rights movement influenced me profoundly as a person and as a writer.

What inspired you to write The Illegal?

I travelled to West Berlin a few times in the 1980s to visit my late sister, Karen Hill. As I travelled to the USA and to Africa to find and assert my own black identity, Karen went to Berlin and began to get involved with people in the Sudanese community there. I was fascinated and touched to watch Sudanese expatriates struggle to get on with their lives in a country where many of them did not have citizenship or fully legal status, and ever since then, I have been thinking about the plight of stateless people. The Illegal is a novel about an elite marathoner who flees violence in his homeland and takes up residence as an undocumented refugee in a rich nation that does not want him.

What role do you think literature has in promoting racial inclusion and human rights?

Literature has a profound role to play in this regard. It awakens our consciousness and prods us to think about painful and disturbing truths about how human beings act and should act. I’m proud to follow my own passions and to be a writer.



1 Information from Lawrence Hill’s website: lawrencehill.com