Skip to content

An Interview with Lawrence Hill (Part Four)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2017/01/22


An interview with Lawrence Hill. He discusses: success in the novels in humanization of the de-humanized; thoughts on the development of ideas about blood through non-scientific ideas as it relates to sexism; refugees crises informing The Illegal; ways the arts community can humanize the downtrodden, the desperate, the fleeing, and the suffering; family reaction to this fun and silliness, and the relationship between fun and silliness, and good prose; main message or messages of The Book of Negroes, The Illegal, Blood: The Stuff of Life, and Dear Sir, I intend to Burn Your Book.

Keywords: author, Lawrence Hill, novelist, writer.

An Interview with Lawrence Hill: Professor, Creative Writing, University of Guelph, and Author, Novelist, and Writer (Part Four)[1],[2],[3],[4]

*Footnotes in & after the interview, & citation style listing after the interview.*

*This interview has been mildly edited for clarity and readability.*

39. Earlier in the interview, your work, focus, and emphasis in literary work and in personal volunteer work is a humanistic perspective. I was half-right. Not half-wrong, I missed one crucial element. There is a humanitarianism. For example, The Book of Negroes and The Illegal aim to humanize the de-humanized. That is, the contextualization of the humanity of a slave and a refugee, respectively. Did these novels succeed in the humanization of the de-humanized?

I do not know if they have succeeded. I am not the best judge of my own work. Critics and readers are in a better position to judge my work. But yes, I did attempt to humanize the de-humanized in the world. Two types of people profoundly de-humanized in their experiences are those enslaved or subject to war and genocide — people forced to take refuge, often without legal documentation, in countries that don’t want them.

One of the justifications used by people who perpetuate genocide or state-sponsored oppression is to claim that the victims have impure blood, or are inferior human beings. It is almost a precondition to carrying out genocide and massive mistreatment of people. They are not the same as us. They are not human like us. They are less than us. Therefore, we can treat them badly.

In general, people hiding in countries where they do not belong – where they do not have any status as legal residents — are despised by the authorities. It is a negative thing living without legal right in a country that does not want you. You are made to feel base and less than human. You are not welcome. If you are caught, you may be deported. So how do you make a living? How do you care for your children? Who can help you if you are threatened or hurt? I tried in The Illegal and The Book of Negroes to give humanity to people whose humanity has been ignored.

40. Earlier in the interview and in the response, you mentioned the purity or impurity of blood. My favourite part of Blood: The Stuff of Life comes from discussion about misconceptions of menstruation. Those conceptions were wrong from modern scientific standards. It was used to see women as inferior. As you document, these wrong theories continue to arise. You showed non-scientific ideas can have terrible consequences. What are your thoughts on the development of ideas about blood through non-scientific ideas as it relates to sexism?

I do not know if we can blame sexism on Aristotle, but he did fulminate about the supposed inferiority of women’s blood and speculate about the reasons women’s menstrual blood makes them inferior to men

As far as I know, the Spanish Inquisition in Medieval Spain represents the first time that a state attempts to link the ideas of blood purity and race and uses this vile connection to perpetuate genocide, torture and deportation.

During the Spanish Inquisition, thousands of Jews and Muslims were burned at the stake, dispossessed or deported because their blood was deemed impure in relation to the reigning Catholic monarchs. Since that time, over and over again we have drawn upon absolute evil notions of blood to ‘whip up’ hatred and justify mistreatment of those that we wish to subjugate.

41. If you look at the early 20th century, we have The Holocaust. Similarly, if we look at the early 21st century, we have a singular tragedy in the Syrian refugee crisis. 12,000,000 Syrians are refugees, or more. By comparison with the total Canadian population, that is about 1/3 of Canada, at least. That rhetoric of those mentioned and unstated can be damaging to people in a similar manner as with blood or on being a ‘real [fill in the blank]’ (American, Canadian, and so on). These are individual human beings going through extraordinary circumstances.

You worked for the Ontario Welcome House at Toronto Pearson International Airport welcoming refugees at age 16.  My sense is deep empathy for refugees from you. Also, something unstated about them. This experience never leaves them. That is, it is important to get compassion right the first time. Related to The Book of Negroes, Aminata’s life is marked forever by the experience of being stolen and enslaved. Her entire travels, life story, and narrative of being taken against her will out of Bayo is ever after marked by this. This was important for The Illegal with Keita Ali as well. How did this and the current Syrian refugee crisis inform the foundation for this novel as the events in Syria progressed?

The refugee crisis in Syria did not inform the writing of The Illegal. Like many Canadians and most people around the world, I was not aware of the buildup of refugees in Syria when I wrote the novel. The novel was finished well before we talked openly in the West, about that particular refugee crisis. However, there were many other refugee crises in the world and they did inform The Illegal.

42. We have images of the Vietnamese woman fleeing napalm bombs, Aylan Kurdi, and so on. The phenomenon of genocide neglect is real. Individual images and stories move hearts more than statistics and news reports. How might the arts community humanize the downtrodden, the desperate, the fleeing, and the suffering?

There is a role for every type of person in talking about the downtrodden and the suffering, and in this case the plight of refugees. There is a role for great humanitarians in the field attempting to alleviate immediate suffering in refugee camps. There are advocates working for organizations. They speak up. They tell us the results of studies. There are activists and university professors.

There are lawyers. There are politicians learning a great deal about the plight of refugees. There are endless numbers of organizations from the United Nations onward. They produce reports for the public to read about it. There are people and organizations with things to share. There are journalists. They do a great job bringing the information about the world to us.

There is narrative too. Artists can more intensely, efficiently, and with more ardor, passion, and success than a typical historian, journalist or university professor excite and trigger the imagination. The artist is capable of taking somebody by the collar and saying, “Look at this person. Behold this humanity!”

The role of the artist is to connect with the humanity of the individuals perceiving the art. It is to excite and stir and provoke people.

It is the work that I do in life. It is my contribution. I do not want to overstate it. I do not want to understate the role of the artist. The artist is not unlike the rabbi, the imam, or the priest. A person who evokes the story of humanity to evoke or elicit faith. We all need story to understand ourselves. We need narrative to understand the world and our place in it.

Some of us look to religion. Others look to art for the same thing: guidance. For words that tell us how to be, remind us of the deeper truer values, that set us on the right path. Religion plays a similar role in satisfying a fundamental need to be told a story, how to be, and how to be good in the world.

43. In the Hill household, you are known as the broom dancer, especially to some good R&B music. You mentioned the playful tone of A.A. Milne’s Disobedience. What R&B music? What is the family reaction to this fun and silliness? What is the relationship between fun and silliness, and good prose?

All great R&B music whether Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, and everything in between. There were several forms of music that dominated my childhood: jazz, blues (thanks to my mother and father), and R&B music. R&B music was ascendant as I entered into the teenage years, which was natural for anyone in my generation. I’m 59. It was a musical household.  I played poorly.

My brother went on to become a professional musician. My parents weren’t musicians. However, they played music in the house and sang all the time. R&B, jazz, and blues were staples of our musical expression in the living room and the kitchen in the household. It affected all of the children. My brother, sister, and I were affected profoundly. It emerges in our work too.

Playfulness and silliness is vital. You could not love well without being relaxed and able to be playful. You cannot learn language well if you’re too uptight and unwilling to make mistakes. One key to learning new languages is willingness to make mistakes and make a fool of yourself. Of course, if you’re a child or an infant, you do not need to worry about those things. You haven’t learned those worries.

You have to relax to love well. You have to relax to learn language. In my experience, you have to relax to produce good art. You have to be able to be fun, silly, playful, and to rejoice in life in all of its forms.

If you do not relax, you will not get the most out of your mind. As a writer, you should be rejoicing in human play and the play of language.

I tend to be too serious most of the time. So, people like to see me fool around, dance with brooms, and play with and entertain children – who are now grown. They still like to see it.  My father was an incredibly serious man in his role as a human rights activist and historian.[5] He would wind down by watching Westerns, boxing, or track-and-field on television, maybe football.

He would holler at the TV. He needed to relax to be able to go back the next day to work that was often soul crushing. Most people who have healthy balance in life would appreciate and need to be silly and playful. It takes a certain amount of trust to know that the people around you will not judge or despise you because you are letting your guard down in being playful and silly.

Without that, there’s no hope for humanity.


44. If we take The Book of Negroes, The Illegal, Blood: The Stuff of Life, and Dear Sir, I intend to Burn Your Book, you more well-known works at least. What is the main message or set of messages that you wish to get across?

I always have trouble answering that type of question. I do not think about the message with a capital “M” when I write a work of fiction. Let’s set aside non-fiction for a minute, that is a little different. Readers do not like to be preached at or to be told what to think or feel. One stance to take as a writer is to assume that your reader is smarter than you. The reader does not need to be lectured on how to read or interpret things.

People come to their own conclusions. Present the story that you are able to present. Most discriminating readers react negatively to being held by the hand and told how to read, and having everything explained to them. It is dangerous to come to the job with a message to hammer into the heads of your, in my case, readers.

I do not begin writing a novel with the idea of disseminating a set of messages. Most writers of fiction hope that their messages will be a happy byproduct of drama. In my fiction, I meditate on the resilience of the human spirit and the miracle of being caring and loving even after suffering abuses of the worst kinds. Millions of people continue to display that resilience today. It is not Aminata Diallo or Keita Ali alone.

Many, many of them are showing the same resilience Aminata showed in The Book of Negroes. One message is to pause and appreciate the resilience of the human spirit. I do not try to jam that into the prose or attempt to willfully insert a message. I try to write a story. I hope that somehow between the lines the reader will divine the other things.

Thank you for your time, Larry.

I thank you for your time. I have to say that I don’t think I’ve ever been interviewed by somebody who had such a profound grasp of such a wide variety of things that I’ve shared, written, or spoken about whether they are personal, professional, or things to do with my books or my family life. I’ve been quite astounded by the reach of your work and I can only imagine that you’ve invested a huge amount of time in getting your head around a person’s life and expressions, in this case mine. Thank you for that.


  1. A. Milne. (2016). InEncyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from
  2. [Kelly Mark]. (2013, October 21). Hold On – Dan Hill. Retrieved from
  3. Hill, L. (2013). Blood: The Stuff of Life. Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press.
  4. Hill, L. (2013). Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book: An Anatomy of a Book Burning. Edmonton, AB: The University of Alberta Press.
  5. Hill, L. (2007). The Book of Negroes. Toronto, ON: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
  6. Hill, L. (2015). The Illegal. Toronto, ON: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
  7. Hill, K. (2016). Café Babanussa: A Novel. Toronto, ON: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
  8. Milne, A.A. (n.d.). Disobedience. Retrieved from
  9. Ontario Ministry of Government and Consumer Services. (2016). The Freedom Seeker: The Life and Times of Daniel G. Hill. Retrieved from
  10. The Canadian Encyclopedia. (2016). The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Professor, Creative Writing, University of Guelph; Author; Novelist; and Writer.

[2] Individual Publication Date: January 22, 2017 at; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2017 at

[3] B.A., Economics, Laval University; M.A., Creative Writing, John Hopkins University.

[4] Photograph courtesy of Lawrence Hill and photograph credit to Lisa Sakulensky.

[5] Ontario Ministry of Government and Consumer Services. (2016). The Freedom Seeker: The Life and Times of Daniel G. Hill. Retrieved from


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: