Saturday, January 10, 2009

Book of Negroes

I went with fellow Book Babes Nicki and Virginia to hear Lawrence Hill read from the Book of Negroes. There were about 30 or so of us at the reading, in the library of the Toronto French School. A real privilege to hear the author speak in the voice of a character he'd cultivated for so many years.

I closed my eyes and listened as a middle-aged man turn into an old black woman. What a story...

Abducted as an eleven year old girl in Africa, Aminata becomes a slave in South Carolina and eventually returns to the coast of Sierra Leone in a back-to-Africa odyssey with 1,200 slaves. Based on true, historical events from the mid 1700's.
The book is dedicated to Lawrence's daughter, Genvieve Aminata. He said he found the central voice of the character by imagining what it would be like for his child to undergo similar events. Being captured in Africa at that point in time would be like being abducted by aliens, it would be something so unfathomable.

During the five years it took to write the book, he read no fiction. Lots of historical information, especially first-hand accounts from abolitionists, baby-catchers (mid-wives), slaves and others. When uncertain of his facts he had them vetted by historians.

Interestingly enough, The Book of Negroes is known by a different name in the States. In Canada, using the word 'Negro,' simply demonstrates you are a bit out of touch. But in the States, the same word in the same language has an entirely different and inflammatory connotation... saying it aloud is like inviting a punch to the face. The author came to see the wisdom of using a different title, especially after 100+ African Americans approached him, saying they would never have purchased the book with that word on the cover.

When we first arrived at the reading, the author pulled up beside us in a mini-van, and I was struck... no, not by the van... (lol)... but how ordinary the arrival was. Where was the paparazzi? This guy won the Commonwealth Prize for Literature and met the Queen, for goodness sake. A bit incongruous, to add such riches to the world and be so incognito. On the other hand, what else do you drive with 5 kids in your family?

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