q&a with author lawrence hill

After I read The Book of Negroes, I wanted to tell Lawrence Hill how much I loved the book. I also had a few questions about the book and his writing, which he was kind enough to answer by email.

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Aminata says several times, "We are a traveling people". I felt this was a comment on the African diaspora in general. Your thoughts?

Yes, I did intend the lines to refer to the ongoing migrations of African peoples. It seems to me that one of the most striking aspects of Aminata's life is that she is frequently in a state of geographic upheaval, leaving one place and arriving in another. Some of these migrations are forced, and others are voluntary, but they all turn her world upside down, over and over again.

Aminata tells her story throughout the book, but towards the end, she very consciously becomes an "official" storyteller. That seems to align her with you, the writer - to fuse your role and hers. Are there other ways that Aminata is Lawrence Hill?

I wouldn't say that there are overt parallels, other than the ones you have pointed out. I named my protagonist Aminata after my eldest child, whose middle name is Aminata. During the writing, I asked myself "What if this were my child? How would she have survived, not just physically but emotionally? How would she have managed to overcome all the oppression and abuse that she suffers, and still be a gentle, loving, caring soul?

Without giving a plot spoiler, one way this story can be read is of every human's need to know their roots, to know where they came from, to be with people related to them by blood. Was writing The Book of Negroes partly that journey for you, to understand where you came from, in the larger sense?

It was not a journey to understand who I am or where I came from. That was more the emotional driver for the writing of my second novel, Any Known Blood (William Morrow, New York, 1999). I would say The Book of Negroes was a journey to pay tribute to the strength of the men and women who have gone before me, faced some of the worst abuses that humans can throw at each other, and still come out deeper, richer, wiser and more loving people.

And finally, I wonder about the emotional toll your research may have taken on you. I remember how drained - and frightened - I felt after visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. Of course that museum is disturbing for everyone, but as I am Jewish, I felt something very personal. I kept thinking, this would have been done to me. How difficult was it for you to approach this material? If it's not too personal, how did you cope with it?

It was very difficult. I had many nightmares in researching and writing the first 100 pages of the book. I tried to push through those sections as quickly as I could, so as not to dwell in them too long. I coped with it by relying on my very generous family and friends, and by believing that there was great beauty layered over all of that pain. I felt that I had something rich to mine in my own heart, and that the painful journey would be worthwhile in the end. It certainly was.

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I purposely only asked Hill a few questions, to be respectful of his time. To add to the above, here's another Q&A about The Book of Negroes, from an interview with Rachel Giese on the CBC website.
Q: The title is taken from the original historical book and is such a provocative and profound name for a novel. When did you decide to use it for your story?

A: I first thought of calling it Migrations, but it sounded too stilted and academic and boring. Then I got more into the original Book of Negroes and decided to have Aminata not only have her name entered into it, but to participate in writing it as a scribe working for the British in Manhattan. So, using it as the novel's title began to seem like the right thing to do. I'm not a religious person – I was raised by two atheists – but I love the religious ring of The Book of Negroes. It sounds like something straight out of the Bible. I think it says everything.

Q: This book is in many ways about storytelling. Aminata asks, "What purpose would there be to this life I have lived, if I could not take this opportunity to relate it?" And there are many scenes in the book where captive Africans call out their names to each other and tell some of their history. It seems that storytelling might be the ultimate act of resistance.

A: Absolutely. [The slave traders] can do what they want to you but if you can at least say your name and have someone else say your name back to you, it seems like the most gratifying thing in the world for these poor, wretched captives in the holds of slave ships. To have somebody else say your name is like saying, "I acknowledge your humanity," while you are trapped in a totally dehumanizing process. I was very touched as I tried to envisage these scenes where people were desperate to have their names be said and stories told.

Q: I imagine in researching a book like this, the small, everyday details of what people ate, or how they spoke, would be the most interesting. Was that the case for you?

A: Oh, yes. The most interesting thing was reading first-person accounts by black people and by Europeans who were living in the time. I read every single memoir I could find from the period. One in particular, which was published in 1789, was by Olaudah Equiano. He was an African who was kidnapped as a child, like Aminata, and taken to the Americas and got free over time. The book made him very famous in London when he published it. He wrote about seeing his breath in the cold for the first time and he thought his mouth was on fire. That was a fascinating detail, which I borrowed and used in the book.

Another incredibly interesting detail came from Anna Maria Falconbridge, whose husband helped establish the colony of Freetown in Sierra Leone as an abolitionist. She goes to what was called a "slave factory," where people were held off the coast of Africa until they are sent away in ships. She describes what it looks like to see the men and women chained in this pit of mud, out in the open, exposed to the sun and rain, like pigs in a pen. And she was shocked because she was this white, privileged woman from London and she wasn't supposed to see or know about these things.

It was these kinds of stories that really helped me write the novel, not the scholarly stuff. This was the stuff that told me what they were wearing, what they were feeling, where their scars were, how were they made to walk and how they were chained together.

Q: Aminata is such a strong and compelling female character. Did this story have to have a woman at its centre?

A: It had to be a woman. I believe you locate the story in the shoes of the person who has the most to lose. And for dramatic purposes, this woman needs to catch babies as a midwife and she needs to lose her own babies as a woman and as a mother. There's so much irony and the sadness in that. There was just no way it could be anything but a woman's story. I just felt it in the gut.

Q: Lately, there's been a greater willingness to acknowledge offences like Native residential schools or the Chinese Head Tax in the discussion of Canadian history. But there still seems to be a reluctance to address Canada's involvement in the slave trade. Why is that?

A: I think we have this innate emotional need to think of ourselves as morally superior to those Americans who did all those dastardly things down south in slavery. And, often, we who think that don't know that slavery existed in our own backyard. There's a great resistance to looking at the fullness of our history. Often, we look at it in a congratulatory way: We have multiculturalism and we're a tolerant nation and we look after each other.

I love Canada and I choose to live here and I'm proud of that, but I don't think it serves us to sugarcoat our history. I'm not interested in pointing fingers or apportioning blame. I just wanted to dramatize and bring [this history] to the forefront so that we understand and appreciate it. And that's not just that we were a haven for slaves along the underground railroad. But, also, that we practiced slavery here, too. And that we brought these Loyalists to Nova Scotia and betrayed them terribly and treated them in the worst possible way. And this isn't just black history. It's Canadian history.

My post about The Book of Negroes is here.

Lawrence Hill also co-authored The Deserter's Tale, which I blogged about here. You can read the intro here.

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