Merging history and fiction

Lawrence Hill, author of The Book of Negroes, talks about recognizing the human emotion behind history

Lawrence Hill
Image supplied by: Supplied Photo by Lisa Sakulensky
Lawrence Hill

Canadian author Lawrence Hill published his book Someone Knows My Name to rave reviews in the United States in November 2007. Earlier that year, the book had been released in Canada with a more explicit title—The Book of Negroes.

The title had to be changed because his publishers thought the word “negro” was too explosive for use in the United States.

Despite being initially annoyed with the change, Hill said he now supports it. He was also allowed to give the novel its new title.

“[The New York publishers] felt that the word “Negroes” would isolate and alienate African-American readers, and largely I think they’re right,” he said. “The publisher was trying to be sensitive to black American sensibilities and indeed, I’ve heard from so many African-American readers who’ve told me that they love the title just as it is in the States and they’re glad they’re not dealing with The Book of Negroes in the States.”

Hill, who’s speaking at Queen’s on Feb. 13 as the Robert Sutherland visitor, said the meaning of the word negro has become derogatory.

“It’s an explosive word with fairly negative connotations that has developed in the last 20 or so years in North America. It doesn’t mean what it meant when my father was born in 1923 as a black American who called himself a Negro proudly.

“A Negro is sort of a weak-kneed, cowardly black person with no authenticity and no sense of self. And so it’s a very insulting term now, and it’s acquired that hue in the last 15 to 20 years.”

Hill learned through his experience communicating with family members in the States, while living in Canada most of his life, that the word ‘negro’ resonates differently in both places, he said.

“It’s not a nice word anywhere these days. You don’t want to use it on the streets of Toronto either, but it resonates much more explosively in the States. The lesson for me was a lesson in relative linguistics—a word does not necessarily mean the same thing in Canada that is does in the States, even though we speak the same language.”

His original title worked in Canada though, because Canadians understand the term differently, Hill said.

“[The word] negro is 10 times more explosive in Brooklyn than in Saskatoon.”

Controversy aside, Hill said the title The Book of Negroes comes from a historical document he came across while researching his book about the black experience in Canada.

“[The Book of Negroes] is this British, military document, this ledger that the British navy keeps that’s recording details about thousands of blacks who are fleeing Manhattan at the end of the war—the Revolutionary war … and coming to Nova Scotia,” he said.

“This document was just absolutely stunning and riveting and it’s pretty well forgotten. I’m sure there are not more than 50 Canadians who have looked at it. So it’s sitting there waiting to be loved and waiting to be discovered.”

The original document contains more than 3,000 names in 150 pages. It gives the age and physical description of each person and notes whether they were enslaved or free.

Hill said he likes to imagine there’s a story for every one of those names.

“Some parts of it were totally seductive in their power because the documents spoke for themselves so richly,” he said.

The historical Book of Negroes is at the centre of the plot of Hill’s book. Aminata, the protagonist, comes to Nova Scotia from the States after the American Revolutionary War in 1792. She also works as one of the scribes putting the book together.

Eventually, Aminata takes part in the ex-slaves’ movement back to Africa, a part of Canadian history Hill said is largely neglected.

“It’s a history that’s sensational and that’s almost completely unknown and that seems to be what has drawn readers to the story,” Hill said. “[It’s] the story of the black Loyalists who came to Canada after fighting for the British in the American Revolutionary War and who were treated so miserably in Nova Scotia that they turned around and left and went to Africa, forming the first exodus of Africans back to Africa in the history of the world.

“This was a story I really needed to tell and wanted to tell. … It’s not about attributing blame; it’s about recognizing the drama and the sadness in our own history and bringing it to life.”

Hill said he named the main character after his daughter so that he could care about her like his own child. He said the hardest part about writing an entire novel from the position and perspective of a woman—something he hadn’t done before—was finding her voice.

“It was hard to find her voice. I played around a lot until I found a voice that seemed right,” he said. “Really I had to find a couple voices. I had to find her voice as an old woman, because part of the novel is told when she’s old and she’s looking back with kind of a wry, distanced tone. And so I had to find that old, black woman’s voice from 1802, and then I had to find a voice that would work as she’s describing her life unfolding in the moment.”

The Book of Negroes wasn’t the only book Hill published in 2007. The day after its release, A Deserter’s Tale: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from Iraq was published. Hill wrote A Deserter’s Tale in collaboration with Joshua Key, the titular soldier.

Hill said he heard Key interviewed on CBC and thought his story was fascinating and the next day his publisher approached Hill about doing the story.

Although A Deserter’s Tale doesn’t explicitly deal with the same issues of race as Hill’s other books—The Book of Negroes, Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada, Any Known Blood and Some Great Thing—he said there are similarities between his two 2007 publications.

“[The main characters are] both ordinary people who are drawn into a canvas of world events that they didn’t ask to be drawn into,” he said.

Hill also said he didn’t mind stepping out of his comfort zone when it came to telling Key’s story.

“In the case of The Deserter’s Tale, I was pleased to break out of the mold of writing about black issues.”

He also broke out of his typical writing mold by writing non-fiction. The Book of Negroes was a stylistic departure for Hill: his other books often use humour to soften tough issues. Hill said he looks forward to pushing boundaries in his style.

“If you accept that writing is a moral challenge—to empathize with other human beings—then it would be pretty self-limiting to just stay in your own backyard and write about yourself over and over again,” he said. “The challenge of writing fiction is to engage with and love other people, many of whom couldn’t possibly be you.”

As this year’s Robert Sutherland speaker, Hill will participate in a number of events over a three-day period, including giving a public lecture entitled Faction: The Merging of History and Fiction.

“I think that history and fiction are bed partners that are really underestimated and should be thrown together more often.”


Lawrence Hill will speak about his novel The Book of Negroes at 7 p.m. on Feb. 13 in McLaughlin Room of the JDUC. A reception and book-signing will follow in the Sutherland Room.

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