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An Interview with Lawrence Hill (Part Three)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2017/01/15


An interview with Lawrence Hill. He discusses: most appealing ethical philosophy; humanistic tendencies; most appealing economic and political philosophy; reflection on Roy Groenberg and Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book: An Anatomy of a Book Burning (2013); emotion evoked from book burning; risks and benefits associated with the advent of the Internet and digitization of books; importance of freedom of speech, expression, and the press; The Book of Negroes (2007), transforming non-readers into readers, and the feeling that comes from this; means to volunteer for prisons; contents of the nightmares conveyed in The Book of Negroes; reason for the name Aminata Diallo; and The Illegal (2015) and The Book of Negroes common threads.

Keywords: Aminata Diallo, author, blood, Lawrence Hill, novelist, prisons, Roy Groenberg, writer.

An Interview with Lawrence Hill: Professor, Creative Writing, University of Guelph, and Author, Novelist, and Writer (Part Three)[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.*

27. What ethical philosophy most appeals to you?

I don’t have an answer in my back pocket.



Clearly, we can draw a great inspiration from the great religious traditions. Not harming people, and showing respect and love is a great start.

28. That sounds humanistic to me. Does that seem accurate to you?

Is that opposed to religion?

There’s humanism in and of itself.

Yes, that is accurate. It is possible to borrow, embrace, and accept the great traditions from religious texts without accepting the religious beliefs on which they are predicated. If I have to go to an ethical philosophy, not doing harm and trying to do good, and not showing hate and showing love toward all people in the world would be a good starting point.

I am going to confess. I don’t know the real meaning of humanism. You might attribute specific meaning to the term. I attribute the meaning in a general way. If humanism means that to you, that is wonderful. However, you might have a more complex and nuanced definition.

29. That’s a good coda statement on it. What economic and political philosophy most appeals to you?[5]

I do not believe in unfettered capitalism. I do not believe in the Adam Smith idea. That is, the pursuit of one’s own individual profit above all as necessary to ensure that people thrive in society. Clearly, in pure capitalism, we would see some people abandoned and starving.

For people to thrive, in a loving definition of the word “thrive,” I flirted with ideas of socialism and communism at an early age. I find much to admire in it, but I am not a socialist or a communist. I believe in the hybrid of socialism and capitalism.

I believe that people should be free to pursue their individual economic interests, but that they should support a strong, democratically-elected government that tends to those who are disenfranchised or not thriving, and that focuses on the development and protection of public goods and services such as roads, schools, hospitals, health care, our environment, our water supply, foreign aid and international relations.

I also want to live in a society that embraces and encourages volunteer activity, non-profit groups and organizations serving a wide range of community needs.

30. You write at home. You might write at a friend’s cottage. You leave a couple to a few times a year to enter into isolation to write, intensely. You wrote an essay entitled Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book: An Anatomy of a Book Burning (2013) based on a letter from a Surinamese Dutchman named Roy Groenberg.[6] You wrote back in an “outrageously Canadian” way – with tact and politeness. Based on that tone, in hindsight, what would have been the appropriate response to Mr. Groenberg at the time?

I do not feel my response was inappropriate. There would not have been a point in being aggressive. I do not know if I would have done anything differently, if it happened today. I offered an explanation about the origins of the title of my novel The Book of Negroes in my first email to Mr. Groenberg. He was not interested in explanations, in reading the book, or in talking about it.

He was interested in escalating the conflict. It is hard to talk to somebody who seeks to escalate conflict. There does not seem to be a point. The other possibility would have been to ignore him, and not to confront the issue in an essay for The Toronto Star.

I don’t know if I wrote things perfectly. I don’t walk around with a great sense of pride about it, but I do feel that I reacted to the issue in accordance with my own values. I would not have reacted any differently today.

31. On page 31 to 32, you closed:

The very purpose of literature is to enlighten, disturb, awaken and provoke. Literature should get us talking – even when we disagree. Literature should bring us into the same room – not over matches, but over coffee and conversation it should inspire recognition of our mutual humanity. Together. I can’t see any good coming out of burning or banning books. Let’s talk, instead.[7]

What emotion does book burning evoke you?

Fear and horror, a sense that we are witnessing a precursor to physical violence. It makes me think of people whose anger has run amok and are interested in wreaking vengeance and hurting. It makes me think of the Holocaust during which huge numbers of books by Jewish writers were burned.

It makes me think of a person or a group of people who have decided that there is no point in civil dialogue. It makes me think about people who want to intimidate, silence and hurt others.  I am troubled by book burning – even a book that I despise. Every person should be entitled to write a book, or to despise a book, but when we discover differences of opinion, they should be addressed through conversation and debate – not by means of book burning or violence.

32. With the advent of the Internet or the World Wide Web, and the distribution of books via digitization, are there greater risks or lesser risks with respect to that form of prevention of certain ideas getting out in books (or electronic books “e-books”) – whether someone hates them or loves them?

I am not sure. If you write a blog, you can disseminate your ideas infinitely faster than if you are writing a book. You have the potential to reach millions of people immediately. On the other hand, if you live in a country that oppresses freedom of speech, the state can use the same type of electronic technology to find you, punish you and stifle public discussion.

33. All texts, and therefore authors, are susceptible to this drastic and emotive form of censorship. What makes freedom of speech, expression, and press important to you?

As a writer in a democracy, and as a consumer of literature and media of all forms, I’m not alone in treasuring freedom of speech and expression, freedom of the press, and freedom to read. These freedoms are fundamental to democratic societies.

However, there are limits to such freedoms, especially when individual freedom collides with public interest. For example, I believe in anti-hate legislation. I don’t believe that you should be allowed to stand on a street corner and incite violence, or publish a document that advocates genocide, or publish child pornography.

So I believe in freedom of speech but recognize that in a few limited instances, the public good will outweigh individual freedom.

34. Your most well-known work, The Book of Negroes (2007)[8], took five years to write. Many consider The Book of Negroes a masterpiece and its author a genius. As discussed earlier, that is a long time to write a text, work within your own imagination, and not know if there is an interest in the general Canadian culture and the international literary world. You have a woman, a hairdresser, named Rebecca Hill – no relation. She cuts the hair for the family. She graduated from high school and never read a book. You gave her The Book of Negroes. She has become an avid reader ever since. You contributed to a non-reader becoming a reader in personal life. The novel has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, which means, statistically, this transformation of non-readers into readers seems reasonable to expect for numerous others as well. How does this feel to you?

To witness a person – and sometimes an adult – discover the joy of reading brings me great pleasure and satisfaction. Becky Hill is a friend of my wife, children and me. I gave her The Book of Negroes. She read it, loved it, and then let me know that it was the first book she had ever read. Since that day, she has become an inveterate reader and when I stop by to get my hair cut, she always tells me what she has been reading. When I come across a book that is “rooftop good” – good enough to shout about from a rooftop – I like to give it to her. Books have given us the means to share a friendship.

Years ago, I had a wonderful experience working in a prison for young offenders in Oakville, Ontario, for one school term. I was asked to work with a small group of incarcerated teenage boys. My job was to try to get them reading. They were reluctant to read, even though they knew how to read. By the end of the term, they avidly read.

It felt like a glorious achievement. To work with young people who are down on their luck and living behind bars, and to turn them into avid readers, felt like one of the greatest achievements in my life.

35. With respect to the prison population and literacy, how might someone volunteer for prisons in the area?

Often, one of the best things to do is to align with an active, reputable organization. I have been one of many volunteers for a non-profit, charitable group called Book Clubs for Inmates. It distributes books without charge to inmates in federal penitentiaries and organizes book club discussions in those same institutions.

So a person who is interested in promoting reading and literacy among prisoners might choose to volunteer for a group such as Book Clubs for Inmates.

I have recently become a professor of creative writing at the University of Guelph in Ontario, and one form of community service that I have been contemplating would be to be a mentor or teacher of creative writing to prison inmates. That is something I plan to explore.

36. The Book of Negroes discusses the narrative of Aminata Diallo. A young African stolen from Bayo, Mali and sailed to America and enslaved. She was the same age as your eldest child at the time. You had nightmares in constructing this narrative. It was painful. In fact, you worked to write past this part, quickly. What were the contents of those nightmares?

People being murdered, orphaned, thrown overboard into the sea, watching their families or villages being burned down. All of the things that happened in the book.

37. You’ve volunteered with Crossroads International in Cameroon, Mali, Niger, and Swaziland. To name your protagonist, you used the common Malian name Aminata based on meeting a midwife in Mali. The name means “trustworthy” and Diallo means “bold.” Selecting the name for a character is vital, why this name?

It is vital. It is a beautiful name. It is a common name. It is as common as Mary and Joanne in Canada. I could have chosen another name. It struck me as an immensely beautiful name. It is a mouthful, Aminata, but not too much of a mouthful. In North America, it seems foreign, but accessible. I love the sound of it. All of the vowels. It evokes the name of a midwife who was dignified, splendid, and courageous in her work. With my daughter, it helped me imagine a young woman who was in a way my own daughter.

38. Your recent novel, The Illegal (2015), focuses on a man that runs in a literal and metaphorical way.[9] For instance, he was in a place, Zantoroland, where there were great runners. He hoped to join the Olympics. That was shoved to the side in a moment. He was running for life. In one part of The Book of Negroes, I noticed Aminata described African peoples are “travelling people” and moves out of necessity, akin to Keita Ali, throughout the novel from Bayo to Carolina to New York to Nova Scotia to Mali to London. I note a thread through these two texts with movement, history, ownership, literacy, bonds, and survival. Each seem like threads in The Book of Negroes and The Illegal. What were some other threads brought into the novel that reflect personal concerns about the downtrodden for you?

I am interested in movement, voluntary and involuntary. We can agree Aminata’s abduction in Africa, being sent to North America, and enslaved until freeing herself is a form of involuntary migration. She did not choose to leave a village in Africa. She did not choose to move to America and leave Africa. That was involuntary. Keita’s movement in The Illegal might be considered voluntary. He chooses to leave the country. Although, it is a country where he is not welcome. His movement is voluntary on the one hand, but he does not have many options. If he does not leave his country, he will be killed.

In an earlier novel of mine called Any Known Blood (1997), I followed a family of five generations of men who move back-and-forth between Maryland and Ontario.[10] Each generation leaves one jurisdiction and goes into the other over five generations. Those were, for the most part, voluntary as well, but we have people escaping slavery.

For instance, we have the underground railroad. You might see that as voluntary, but attempting to save their lives and freedom at the same time. I am interested in migration, dislocation, and alienation. I have an interest in how identity alters in one’s eyes and in the eyes of those around you, especially as you move across the world or a piece of land. These seem to be continually arising issues: dislocation and marginality.

Many writers have themes to which they return in their books. For example, the Canadian novelist Jane Urquhart writes about people in the Irish diaspora and explores the lives of visual artists, over and over again in her books. My work is preoccupied by dislocation, migration, and alienation.

Appendix I: Footnotes

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

[2] Individual Publication Date: January 15, 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] Mr. Hill earned a B.A. in Economics from Laval University.

[6] Hill, L. (2013). Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book: An Anatomy of a Book Burning. Edmonton, AB: The University of Alberta Press.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hill, L. (2007). The Book of Negroes. Toronto, ON: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

[9] Hill, L. (2015). The Illegal. Toronto, ON: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

[10] Hill, L. (1997). Any Known Blood. Toronto, ON: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.


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.

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