Lawrence Hill: A World Class Citizen

September 14, 2015 | Sarah Weinrauch

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On Tuesday, September 8, internationally acclaimed author Lawrence Hill was welcomed to the Bram & Bluma Appel Salon by an audience of fans eagerly anticipating his first novel in five years, The Illegal. Hill catapulted to international success after the release of The Book of Negroes, winning multiple awards including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and CBC Radio’s Canada Reads. The interviewer for the evening was CTV’s Marci Ien.

Author Lawrence Hill with CTV's Marci Ien at the Bram & Bluma Appel Salon.
Author Lawrence Hill with CTV's Marci Ien at the Bram & Bluma Appel Salon.

The IllegalThe spark for the story came to Hill when he was in Paris on tour for The Book of Negroes.  At the time, the presidential elections were underway. “Seventeen percent of the popular vote of France goes to a far right party [Front National] that’s devoted to getting rid of immigrants and refugees,” recalled Hill. “That’s a staggering percentage… It was a pretty sobering statistic. It was a conundrum; the idea that one of the most powerful nations in the world could become openly hateful to the idea of refugees in their land.”

The novel begins in Zantoroland, a country in upheaval. As the result of his father’s outspoken political views, marathon runner, Keita Ali must flee or face persecution. He escapes across the border into Freedom State and finds himself living in the underground community of AfricTown, a place where tens of thousands of people deemed to be “illegal” live below the radar of the police and government officials who seek to deport the illegal residents. Keita keeps on the move, training in secret and eluding the officials. From time to time he surfaces to earn cash prizes by running local races but with each race the stakes get higher and higher – life or death.


Lawrence Hill on stage with Marci Ien
Marci Ien welcomes Lawrence Hill to the Appel stage.

On writing a fictional book based on issues that are all too real historically and in present time, Hill consulted experts and specialists who could provide the intimate details and capture the molecular nuances that provide believability while still evoking imagination and emotion:

“There were lots of bits of research here and there. On the other hand, because it’s a novel that’s made up, in two countries that I made up, I was able to be free and create a world that seemed just right to me and didn't have to hinge on research. I was happy to bust out of the intense, intimate, restrictive obligations of writing historical fiction; just write freely and with imagination about a world I was making up and not have to tell the reader ‘Well, this is how it works in Canada or this is how it is in Australia.’”

Lawrence Hill in conversation with Marci Ien.
Hill and Ien discuss The Illegal, the migrant crises in Europe, and compare AfricTown (in the novel) to the historical community of Africville in Halifax, Canada.

Throughout the conversation, it became clear characters from The Illegal were drawn from issues and circumstances that parallel Hill’s own life experiences – immigration, a bi-racial background, a passion for running, dreams of being an Olympian, journalism, mental illness – and from current and historical political practices and ethical treatment of refugees. With the real-life migrant crises in Europe reaching a critical state, the story is timely in its examination of people and societies who have turned their backs on undocumented refugees.

A native of Don Mills, Toronto, Hill gives a nod to his Canadian heritage by placing a Tim Hortons in the novel and noted some of the scenes he envisioned for the book were inspired by the bank of computers on the first floor of the Toronto Reference Library!

Other novels written by Lawrence Hill include:

The Book of Negroes   Any Known Blood   Some Great things      


Non-Fiction Books:

Blood   Dear Sir I Intend to Burn Your Book   The Deserter's Tale Book Jacket    Black Berry Sweet Juice  Women of Vision   Trials and Triumphs

Hill has no intention of slowing down in the near future. He has already sold the film rights to The Illegal and is working collaboratively on the screen play with Clement Virgo who co-produced the CBC mini-series, The Book of Negroes. Additionally, he continues to work as an activist and humanitarian with various organizations.

In his parting words, he entreated the audience to examine the treatment of “illegal aliens”:

“[It is] my hope the novel will encourage Canadians and others to take a second look at the humanity of these people that are either here with us already but can’t get their lives going, or are trying to get in [and away] from desperate situations. If we can see, imagine, and feel their humanity as equal to ours, then we are more likely to act as world citizens - act with conscience and step up.”


Larry Hill Book Signing at the Appel Salon
Lawrence Hill signs his fans' books.

Watch the full interview with Lawrence Hill and CTV’s Marci Ien on the Toronto Public Library’s YouTube channel and follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #AppelSalon