Saturday, January 10, 2009

Lawrence Hill

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 in the library of the Toronto French School, and we listened as this middle-aged man transformed his voice into that of an old, black woman. He held the book in his hand but it was only a prop, the words of the opening pages fully committed to memory.

And what a story! Based on real events from the mid 1700's, Aminata Diallo is abducted from her native Africa at eleven and eventually becomes part of a back-to-Africa odyssey of 1,200 former slaves. It took five years to finish the book, three to complete the first draft and two for painstaking revisions. During this entire time the author read no fiction, but focused on historical writing, particularly first-person accounts of slaves, abolishonists, "baby-catcher" midwives and others. When unsure of his facts, he had them vetted by historians.

The book is dedicated to his daughter Genevieve Aminata, in part because he was able to feel more fully the events when he imagined them happening to his own child... How much like an alien abduction it would have been to be taken from African soil and transplanted to an entirely different place...

This novel has won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for 2008 and was short-listed for the Giller. A Canadian bestseller, the book is sold in the United States, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as Someone Knows My Name. In Canada, using the word 'Negroe,' 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 at book readings, saying they would never have purchased the book with that word on the cover.
Lawrence Hill spoke with CBC Arts Online about the history and his novel. You can read the interview here.

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