With two new books out this spring, 2007 is shaping up to be a breakout year for author Lawrence Hill. In January, HarperCollins Canada published his new novel, The Book of Negroes. In February, House of Anansi Press published The Deserter’s Tale, which Hill co-authored with Joshua Key, a former American soldier whose shocking experiences in Iraq led him to desert after seven months and seek asylum in Canada.
Born in Toronto in 1957, Hill is the son of a black man and a white woman, civil rights activists Daniel and Donna Hill. His African Canadian heritage and mixed race identity frequently inform his writing. The Book of Negroes is his third novel, following Some Great Thing (1992) and Any Known Blood (1997), which HarperCollins Canada has just reissued in a new edition. Norton has bought the American rights for The Book of Negroes and plans to publish it there this fall.
Hill came upon the idea for The Book of Negroes in a book he borrowed from his parents about 20 years ago. The Black Loyalists, written by historian James Walker and published in 1980, tells how black Americans settled in Nova Scotia after serving the British in the Revolutionary War. Walker described how many of these men and women later abandoned harsh racism in Nova Scotia for life in Sierra Leone. Canada, Hill learned, was home to the world’s first “back to Africa” movement. What most captured his imagination, however, was this single, astonishing fact: A number of the blacks travelling to Sierra Leone had originally been born in Africa.
“Wow! What a story,” Hill recalls thinking at the time. “What kind of person – what kind of woman – might have lived in such a way as to be born in Africa, shipped into slavery in the United States, made it up to Canada, and then chose voluntarily to go back to Africa? I was very impressed by the idea.”
It is just such a person Hill brings to life in The Book of Negroes. Aminata Diallo, a pretty, precocious 11-year-old, lives with her doting parents in Mali in 1745. Her father is a jeweller, her mother a midwife, and one day, on the way home from helping her mother deliver a baby, Aminata is abducted by African slavers. After a harrowing voyage aboard a slave ship to America, Aminata is sold to an indigo plantation on an island off the coast of South Carolina.
The book builds upon the form of the traditional slave narrative and is capacious and quite Victorian in scope and tone. “I do love the big story,” says Hill. “I admire Dickens a great deal. I carry the influence of his focus on plot and character and unashamedly so. Black American writers I admire were also very big on plot…. You never read Richard Wright without knowing exactly where you are and exactly what the social setting is.”
In creating the character, Hill turned to his relationship with his daughter, named Geneviève Aminata after a striking midwife he met in Mali, where he has travelled three times to work as a volunteer for Crossroads International. His daughter is 16 now, but she was about 11 when he began working on the book. Says Hill, “I couldn’t help but think: “My goodness. What if this were my daughter? How would she have coped? How would she have managed?”
Hill’s Aminata becomes a woman with a facility with languages, which she applies to great advantage, learning to read and write and keep the household books, and developing a passion for literature. “The word slave means almost nothing,” Hill says. “It sounds like such a vacant term…. It doesn’t really tell us anything about the person’s passions and loves and the way they walked and the things they said. Did they walk around 24 hours a day thinking of themselves as slaves or did they have a thousand other ways of thinking of themselves? But we call them slaves today, looking back.”
Aminata’s skills allow her to support herself in New York after her escape. In the final stages of the Revolutionary war, the British hire Aminata to write down the names of the blacks who will accompany the loyalists to Nova Scotia. The register, the Book of Negroes, based on an actual historical record, was the first of its kind in North America.
Hill’s passion for the stories of such courageous survivors is evident in both The Book of Negroes and in The Deserter’s Tale. “Joshua Key went from being a patriotic, unthinking, southern trailer park boy, blindly doing his president’s bidding, to becoming an incredibly passionate, articulate critic of the American military experience in Iraq,” Hill explains. “Key said, ‘I’m not going to participate in the abuse and murder of Iraqi civilians. I won’t do it.’ I think he is an incredibly courageous human being.”
Hill’s agent, Denise Bukowski, came up with the idea for a book after hearing Key discuss his plight on CBC Radio and then sought out a writer to help Key tell his story. “I thought Larry would be perfect for the job because he is a trained journalist,” Bukowski explains. “I knew he would be passionate about the topic because of his background in civil and human rights.” Before its Canadian release, The Deserter’s Tale had already sold in 10 territories including the U.S., where it will be published by Atlantic Monthly Press. With that, and The Book of Negroes out in Canada and the U.S., Hill seems primed for a year in the international spotlight.