Canadian literature and identity

By Tamara Cottle

Canadian writer Lawrence Hill, author of The Book of Negroes and Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada was in Calgary last weekend for the Calgary Public Library’s annual One Book, One Calgary event. The event is the library’s city-wide reading initiative. His award-winning novel, The Book of Negroes, was chosen as this year’s selected reading. The Book of Negroes won the 2007 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Hill’s latest book, Blood: The Stuff of Life was released Sept. 28, 2013.

The Gauntlet: What makes a book a classic, in my opinion, is its ability to have an impact. The Calgary Public Library is talking about how The Book of Negroes is fast becoming a Canadian classic. How do you think The Book of Negroes can impact an individual, a city or even a nation?

Lawrence Hill: Somebody else, like a critic or an English prof or a fan or a reader, or somebody else is better equipped than the writer to say what their impact really is. Answering that question is like standing on a rooftop and beating your chest and saying I’m great. But let me try to find a way out of that question even though it makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.

We really don’t know ourselves all that well in Canada. We like to think we’re morally superior to those nasty Americans and the people of South Africa during the regime of apartheid and all those other places in the world where awful things have taken place.

Canada is a fabulous country but to deny our past and to not know who we truly are and how we treated each other over the centuries is really preventing us from obtaining major growth culturally and socially within our borders.

So I guess one impact of The Book of Negroes is through a woman’s story, through an individual trajectory that’s really quite dramatic and introduced Canadians to what life might have looked like for at least one woman living as a black loyalist coming in and out of Nova Scotia and travelling around the world free, enslaved and free again later.

It kind of forces a reader to enter a world that is largely unknown in our common conversations in Canada and to open their eyes to this world. But the book is not just educating people, it’s also inspiring through a story and that’s where a novel really can do something a history book can’t do — dramatize an event in human life to really wallop the reader and draw the reader into this beautiful, fictional bubble. The idea of a woman maintaining her spirit and refusing to lie down and be trampled emotionally, still wanting to live and love and give even with all the deprivation and insults she has endured, this to me is the transcendent quality of Aminata (the main character of The Book of Negroes).

G: Having been awarded the Canadian Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Ontario Library Association’s Evergreen Award and the Bob Edwards Award from Alberta Theatre Projects, it seems like Canadians have really embraced your work. How much of your writing has been influenced by your Canadian heritage or by being Canadian?

LH: I write about Canada. I mean, my novels and non-fiction touch down on other countries and Canada’s intersection with other countries, especially when it has to do with the movement of people of the African diaspora.

I’m thoroughly Canadian. I was born and raised in Canada. I’ve lived in other countries but I’ve lived almost all of my life in Canada.

So I really don’t know how to answer that question except to say every book I’ve written, with the exception of The Deserter’s Tale — which is about a guy who deserts the war in Iraq — eight of my nine books and all of my short stories and essays have dealt with Canada and my connection to it.

I also write about things of global interest. I don’t think that a Canadian writer has to write about Canada or being Canadian. I think that a Canadian writer should write whatever they damn well please. And it doesn’t make you any less Canadian if you write about Sri Lanka or India but you happen to be living in Calgary.

If you’re Canadian your work is Canadian even if you’re dramatizing it and writing about other corners of the world and that’s of course what Canada is. It’s a land where we feel free as writers to intersect with other corners of the world.

G: In a day and age where Americans elect a black president, where black people occupy very high stations in all walks of life, do you think race is still an issue?

LH: Were the first words of your question “in the United States”?

G: Yes, but also in Canada we have a lot of well-to-do black people.

LH: Sure we do. We have lots of well-to-do black people in Canada and in the States. And Barack Obama occupies the White House for a second term.

But does the fact that some black people have succeeded phenomenally, and reached incredible stations of life politically, socially, economically in North America, does that mean we’re living in a post-racial world? I find that term and the idea very troublesome. We’re not living, in my opinion, in a post-racial world.

Ask an 18-year-old black kid who is driving his mother and father’s car at two o’clock in the morning and is pulled over by a police officer if he’s living in a post-racial world.

Ask children who are growing up and being disrespected in the education system because they’re black or more likely to be shot on the street because they’re black, who may have trouble finding the job and the education that they desire or deserve because they’re black or who gets looks walking into stores or walking into restaurants because people might be a bit afraid of them.

Ask your average high school student in a multiracial high school who is sitting in a segregated fashion because all the black kids sit over here and all the white kids sit over there and all the Asian kids sit over here. I see that over and over again in high schools.

Ask those people if they’re living in a post-racial world. Well the answer is of course not. It’s some fantasy we employ to make us feel good about each other. Many people are still held to account so to speak, because of how people perceive their skin colour or their race.

So no, I don’t think that Barack Obama sitting in the White House really changes all that much on a day-to-day basis for ordinary African Canadians, and ordinary African Americans. It’s a great achievement, and I wish him the best, and I wish he weren’t so paralyzed by Congress. Is his presidency a symbol that we no longer have to think about racial injustice? Absolutely not.

G: Most of your work to date explores the element of race. Will your next book do the same?

LH: Yes. I mean, that’s such a huge term, I don’t think it really tells us much to say they explore elements of race. We could equally say they explore elements of identity and belonging and humanity and universal questions that we all face. If a white writer writes about white people and exploring issues of identity and belonging, we don’t call that writing about race. They’re just writing about people who happen to be white. But when a black writer writes about people who are black, suddenly they’re writing about race. I do note the irony there.

But yes, I’m interested in the interactions of people of various racial backgrounds and I’m interested in dramatizing and documenting the experiences of people of African descent.

One of the major characters in the novel that I’m just finishing up is white. It’s not that I’m only interested in writing about black people.

Writers who are white don’t get asked that question. It’s only if you’re black that you’re asked why you’re writing about race. I hope, fundamentally, that I’m writing about universal human experiences and any reader with an open heart could possibly be moved by this.

G: Your book, Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada examines your experience and those of others growing up in Canada with an interracial background. In the book you say that you identify more with being black than white. Can you talk about this and have you ever explored the white side of your background?

LH: My mother is white. There are people in mother’s family, especially her twin sister, who are white. When I was growing up, most of my mother’s family, with the exception of her twin sister, rejected her because she married a black man. So the family connection that I had as a child, growing up in a suburb of Toronto in the 1960s, were primarily black. My mother’s twin lived very far away and we saw her very rarely, but my father’s family was much closer to Toronto, in DC and Brooklyn and North Carolina. And so that was the family it only made sense to identify with. But it doesn’t mean that I neglect, reject or don’t love my mother or my mother’s family, or that I don’t happily acknowledge that part of my ancestry too. My ancestry is complex. All Canadians’ ancestry is complex if you really scratch beneath the surface.

Now publicly, politically and socially I identify as black more than white. I don’t identify as white. I’m not white. I could never really pull that off. But black is something that could be negotiated I discovered as a child and as a teenager when I was trying to figure out my path. And that’s kind of the way I went. There are many people who are the same and there are many people who are different. There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s not for me to tell a person this is how you should see yourself.

Indeed when you talk to people who are in a black and white family as I am, and there are many siblings, often two or three siblings will have very different ways of seeing each other or themselves and why shouldn’t they? Why should everybody see themselves the same way racially? I accept and embrace the parts of my heritage that go back to Europe and date back to people who are white. But publicly I align myself and think of myself, when I am required to by the world, as black. You know, you’re never really made to see yourself as white if you’re of a mixed race in my experience. But you’re often made to, whether you like it or not, as black. It’s not really on the table to walk around and call yourself white unless you look so white that you can pass for white. It’s really a complex issue, but I’m very happy with who I am and I fully accept all of my heritage including my white ancestry.

G: Why is The Book of Negroes called Someone Knows My Name in the States, Australia and New Zealand?

LH: The publishers required a title change because they weren’t happy with use of the word “negro” in the title.

G: And I guess sort of adjunct to that question — Roy Groenberg, from the Netherlands burned The Book of Negroes in 2011 because he was offended by the use of the word “negroes” in the title. In response to this you declared your opposition to censorship and said that there is sometimes room to use words like nigger to reclaim our own history. Can you explain?

LH: Well I don’t use the word nigger to reclaim history. I was referring to the use of the word “negro” when I said that I believe. But I don’t say the word “negro” in common speech either. The words “nigger” and “negro” don’t appear in my day-to-day vocabulary but many people do. Hip hop artists use the word “nigger” and “nigga” all the time. I don’t particularly dig that, but it’s done by hundreds and thousands, or even millions of listeners perhaps, and by many, many artists.

Many people use terms that were once considered to be offensive and reclaim them in order to assert who they are. Just look at the word queer. Just look at all the people who are gay or lesbian but proudly adopt the word queer as a term of self-pride in the year 2013. I respect the fact that some people who are gay or lesbian choose, as an act of political assertion, to call themselves queer in order to assert who they are and reclaim a path, in a language that before was hurtful. Same thing with “nigger.” Some people do it. I don’t. Some people play around with it and think it’s kind of funny to take the sting out of it. But there’s more than that, and at a deeper level I am reclaiming the word “negro” when I use it in the title of The Book of Negroes.

I’m not reclaiming it in my daily language, but I’m reclaiming it for what it was. I’m reclaiming the document The Book of Negroes which was pretty much entirely unknown to ordinary Canadians and Americans and other people of the world until I wrote that book. Nobody even knew, unless they happened to be historians studying that very part of our history, that there was a document called The Book of Negroes that documented the exodus of 3,000 African Americans from New York City to Nova Scotia in 1783 after the Revolutionary War ended. This is a massively important document. It sits in the National Archives of the U.K., in the Nova Scotia Public Archives, in the National Archives of Canada and in the New York City Public Library. People should know about this document and should celebrate it in all it tells us about the interconnections of African people between Canada, the United States, Europe and Africa.

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