I went to hear Lawrence Hill read from The Book of Negroes with fellow Book Babes, Nicki and Virginia.
When he read the opening few pages of his novel, I shut my eyes and heard a middle-aged man turn into an old, black woman.
What a fascinating premise... an eleven year old child is abducted in Africa and transported to work on a plantation in South Carolina. Being abducted into a new world could be compared to an alien abduction.... how could a young black girl in Africa imagined life in South Carolina? How could anyone carry on, after something like that, without falling apart. But she does, along with hundreds of others, and eventually returns to Sierra Leone in a back-to-Africa odyssey of 1,200 slaves.
Lawrence Hill took three years to write the first draft of this novel and then spent the next two years reworking the flow. He said the first draft bears little to no resemblance of the final published work. During that whole time, he read no fiction, but devoured historical information and first-hand narratives that could inform the story... portraits of baby-catchers, slaves, abolishonists, home remedies.
The book is dedicated to one of his five children, Genevieve Aminata. He found his central character's voice when he imagined events through his daughter's eyes.
I asked him if the book was available on audio casette - the way the story is told, it makes sense to be read as an oral history. He said it was available but he had never listened to it, he had no desire to either narrate the story or to listen to the recordings. Ten drafts later, he didn't want to hear anymore. He also didn't want to hear a voice that would be so different from his imagining.
I had heard the book went by a different title in the States, that 'The Book of Negroes' was too inflammatory. At first it seemed a bit of a cop-out, but as the author talked about the 100+ African Americans who approached him on tour, saying they would never have purchased the book with that title, in the end he recognized the wisdom of the publisher. The same word spoken in another culture, even when spoken in the same language, has an entirely different impact. In Canada, someone using the word "Negroe" is a bit out of touch, but in the States, "Negroe" is uttered with slanderous intention. It is not just politically incorrect but incendiary.
There were only 35 - 50 of us there at the Toronto French School, so it seemed like we were in someone's living room, it was very intimate. Lawrence had a very gentle and soft-spoken demeanor, but when he spoke as Aminata, I heard a definite shift in tone, a different musicality and lilt that hadn't been in the voice before. He recited the first few pages from memory, the book a mere prop in his hands. He literally became someone else before all our eyes.