When I arrived at Pointe-Claire City Hall twenty minutes early (!) on Wednesday evening (March 2nd), you could hear the buzz upstairs. It sounded like a cocktail party. When I entered the main assembly room, most of the seats were already taken and yet dozens of people were huddled around the right side of the room where Lawrence Hill was standing, engaged in conversation and signing copies of his most recent novel, The Illegal.
Then he was introduced to us, and there was a hush as he approached the lectern. I had never seen Lawrence Hill except on book jackets and online photos, but I had listened to him on the radio for hours: with Shelagh Rogers, speaking about The Illegal on CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter, and especially during the course of several evenings on CBC’s IDEAS with Paul Kennedy, which broadcast Hill’s 2013 Massey Lectures series, titled « Blood: the stuff of life ».
I had listened to him and knew his remarkably youthful tenor and also his unassuming, conversational, considered way of speaking. When he introduced himself, his voice was exactly the one captured in my memory, and he looked like every photo I’ve ever seen. In this way, a complete stranger felt instantly familiar to me.
As is often the case with events held to present a recently published work, though many had managed to read the book in time, most had not, which meant that both Hill and his audience were in a constant state of spoiler alert, tiptoeing around the plotline or any details about the characters that might give away too much.
These restrictions didn’t dampen a thing.
Though the novel is set in the very near future (2018), in the fictional countries of tiny and impoverished Zantoroland and indecently prosperous Freedom State, everyone in attendance understood and accepted that these were more than satisfactory stand-ins for such places as Haiti, Rwanda, Sudan or Syria; or the United States, Canada, Germany, South Africa or Hungary, and that lots of ground could be covered without compromising the intrigue.
Hill read two excerpts from his novel which were designed to give us a feel for Keita Ali, the protagonist; for the characters in the world in which Keita finds himself both lost and found; and for the subtle humour and playfulness running through a story which explores painful subjects.
The Illegal, which Hill started roughly six years ago, is so timely, it’s disheartening.
It’s about Keita’s traumatic escape from his homeland, a place that the author described as « a world gone to hell with hatred » and his under-the-radar flight into a « safer» country. It’s about a cast of characters who are not family and who inhabit an emotionally half-dead Keita’s life mostly because they want something from him. And, above all the rest, it’s a meditation on statelessness, which is the plight of so many refugees—a life lived in the shadows: paperless, undocumented, underground and always unsafe.
It was clear, listening to the questions from the floor, that despite its thriller-like pacing, the deeper message of the book spoke to readers and a significant portion of the Q&A period was taken up with discussions about the parallels that can be drawn with the current Syrian refugee crisis, about the smug back-patting of some host countries, and about the unspoken reality of racism and our neglect of refugees from war-torn African countries, specifically.
To all of this, Lawrence Hill responded mostly by underlining the importance of integrating refugee populations as quickly and fully as possible and recognizing « all they want to give and all they have to give».
Among the many delightful revelations made by him on Wednesday night is the fact that competitive and distance running was an important part of his life too, until recently (though he was modest enough to add that he never had Keita’s world class talent) and that his understanding of the non-life of undocumented refugees comes from up-close and personal familial experiences.
There were other captivating moments as well.
When asked who or what his inspiration to write was—not an unexpected question—Hill answered that it’s his belief that we never forget the novels we read and loved as teenagers. I couldn’t help but smile and immediately drifted back into my memory of those years, wondering if that’s also true for me. I’m sure I wasn’t alone.
In fact, it’s at about the age of fourteen that Hill began reading seriously. He mentioned that it was from his parents’ collection of African American literature that he chose James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison and so many others, pointing to the immediacy of the writing in that tradition.
Finally, when asked why he bothered setting his novel so near in the future (only two years hence), Hill surprised everyone, I’m sure, when he began telling a story about working in summer camps when he was a young adult, and how the most successful campfire stories—those that were sure to terrify at least a few—were the ones featuring characters that he had sufficiently tweaked that they resembled, in a few significant ways, the kids sitting around the fire.
In The Illegal, therefore, his idea was to create a made-up place that freed him from the constraints of historical accuracy while feeling just familiar enough to be relatable, and to make it easier for readers to drop their defenses and step into a difficult world.
It appears that he was correct. Listening to the people around me, it was clear that while The Illegal captivated many readers and caused their pulse to quicken more than a few times, its lingering effect was far more introspective, as thoughts turned to the millions of Keitas here, in North America, and everywhere else in the world.
I. For the complete bibliography of Lawrence Hill’s work:
II. Titles at the Pointe-Claire Library
– Any Known Blood (2011)
– The Book of Negroes (2007)
– The Illegal (2015)
III. Here is a list of complimentary reading material and other thought-provoking sources that may interest you:
« The refugees of the Dabaab »: a brilliant piece of reporting recently aired on CBC’s The Current.
« […] But, inside the world’s largest refugee camp, 2015 was just another year that came and went, with very little attention paid by the wider world. That camp is an inhospitable corner of northern Kenya, in the desert, where only thorn bushes grow. That camp is Dadaab, and it’s home to more than half-a-million people. »
Pico Iyer, TED Talk: Where is Home?
Morgan Spurlock, 30 Days: Immigration
District 9, directed by Neill Blomkamp
A terrific novel that also made brilliant use of a fictional setting and humour to tackle painful subjects:
Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman
For more information about statelessness: