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Author Hill speaks on race, place, and identity at 'City of Words' series


by Kurt Kleiner

Writer Lawrence Hill has always felt attachment to people, not places. Nevertheless, the place he grew up – Don Mills in the early 1960s – shaped him as a person and as a writer.

Hill is the best-selling and critically acclaimed author of The Book of Negroes and many other works of fiction and non-fiction. He spoke at UTSC on Feb. 1 about the importance of a sense of place to a writer, about the surprise success of The Book of Negroes, and about the new novel he is just completing.

Hill, the son of a black father and a white mother, grew up in an all-white neighborhood. He had good friends, did well in school, played hockey, and usually faced no questions about his racial identity – until suddenly someone would fling a racial slur at him.

“I was so confused about who I was and how to perceive myself,” he says. “Nine days out of 10 I’d just be sailing along ... It would come out of the blue. But that ambiguity was a great crucible in which to become a writer.”

The City of Words reading series is intended to give voice to writers who come from or write about Scarborough. More generally it examines the role of geography in shaping a writer, says Karina Vernon, professor of English at UTSC and lead organizer of the reading series. Not only is Don Mills right next door to Scarborough, but many of Hill’s experiences there are similar to those of people growing up in Scarborough now.

“Lawrence Hill is one of the most gifted authors in Canada today, and one of the foremost theorists of the black and mixed-race experience in Canada,” Vernon said as she introduced Hill.

Hill’s parents met and married in Washington, DC, and immediately moved to Canada to avoid the racism they would have faced in the United States. However, Canada was not free of problems. For instance, in order to rent their first apartment in Toronto, Hill’s mother had to find a white man to temporarily pose as her husband.

Still, his parents saw a suburban house in Don Mills as a refuge from racial politics. For Hill, things were more complicated. He was close with his father’s family, which contributed strongly to his identity as a black man. But growing up, some of his friends didn’t identify him as black, while other people would use racial insults. “It was destabilizing,” he says.

In Black Berry, Sweet Juice, Hill writes about his experiences and those of 34 other Canadian mixed-race people he interviewed. For Hill and the people he talked to, geography strongly affected their sense of identity, depending on whether they grew up exclusively around whites, around blacks, or around other mixed-race people.

“Clearly my own setting, growing up in a very white middle class suburb, profoundly influenced my own sense of self and my own need to read and write to assert myself, and to locate myself in the world,” Hill says.

When Hill was writing The Book of Negroes, which was first published in 2007, he already had two novels to his name. But like many other Canadian writers, publishing into a relatively small domestic market, he had to do other work to make ends meet. “I was just slogging away ... just like so many others, just publishing to very modest acclaim.”

The Book of Negroes tells the story of an African woman captured and sold into slavery in the 18th Century. Critically well received, it had respectable but not outstanding sales in its first year. But the book gradually gained an audience, Hill says, largely through word of mouth as book club members discovered it. Today it has sold 500,000 copies in Canada alone, and Hill is working on a screenplay with director Clement Virgo for a movie version.

Hill also read from a novel in progress, which is set in the year 2018 and takes place in an invented country. Hill says that after the careful historical research required for The Book of Negroes it was liberating to be able to make up his setting. Nevertheless, the novel – about a black refugee from a poor country escaping to a predominantly white, wealthy country – continues to explore themes of race and justice.

At the end of the talk, Hill speculated that his grandchildren would likely have very different ways of seeing and talking about racial issues. He pointed out that some people had objected to his use of the word “negroes” as insulting, even though the book is named after an actual historical document.

“I think we're never going to be satisfied with the way we talk about racial identity because it's inherently absurd,” says Hill.  “It's inherently ridiculous to try to define somebody racially. So we'll always be dissatisfied, we'll always be searching for a new way to talk.”

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