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Terrible Journey, Beautiful Tale

Lawrence Hill creates a remarkable character — and challenges notions of Canada as the slaves' Promised Land.

By Catherine Pierre
Art by Joe Ciardiello

We meet Aminata Diallo in London in 1802. She is an old woman who, as she says, seems to have trouble dying. Born in a West African village called Bayo, she was captured and sold into slavery when she was 11. She has survived the Middle Passage, bondage in the United States, freedom in Canada, a war, the loss of her family, the theft of her children, and too many ocean passages. She has spent her lifetime trying to return to her homeland. But now, able to read and write and to speak boldly and eloquently, she is in England to tell her story and put a face on the abolitionist cause.

Aminata is the heroine of the latest novel, Someone Knows My Name, by Lawrence Hill, A&S '92 (MA). Hill began thinking about the character of Aminata some 15 years ago, after he read a historical account of the Black Loyalists, former slaves who fled Manhattan for Nova Scotia right after the American Revolutionary War. Met with hostility, discrimination, and violence, about 1,200 of them, many born in Africa, accepted an offer from the British government to found the colony of Freetown in Sierra Leone — what Hill calls the first "back to Africa" movement of the Americas. "I said to myself, Wow, what kind of life might a woman have had if she were on one of these vessels?" Hill says. "Where was she born? Where was she abducted? Where was she raised in slavery and how on earth did she get to New York and then to Nova Scotia? And why would she leave after all of this? I tried to flesh out what seemed almost impossible — which was to visualize the life of a person caught up in this movement back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean in the 18th century."

Hill chose to make his protagonist a woman because he likes to "locate drama in the shoes of the character who has the most to lose," he says. "In this case, Aminata is a midwife who catches other people's babies while losing her own. It was a woman's story that jumped out at me from the word go."

Someone Knows My Name traces Aminata's life from her childhood in her village — where her mother took her along when she'd deliver babies and her father taught her to write a few prayers in Arabic — through her captivity and escape, to her voyage back to Africa, and finally to England. As we follow Aminata on her epic journey, we do indeed see how much she has to lose. But she is a tremendous character to travel with — smart, self-educated and surprisingly well read, and possessing a deep sense of who she is. And Hill is an accomplished storyteller. The novel, released in the United States by W. W. Norton last November, first appeared the previous January as The Book of Negroes in Canada, where it spent 13 weeks on the bestseller list. It was named one of the 100 best books of 2007 by Toronto's Globe and Mail, and recently won the 2008 Commonwealth Writer's Prize for best book (Canada and Caribbean Region). Hill has been much more acclaimed in Canada than in the States, but Someone Knows My Name might change that: Both The New York Times and The Washington Post published reviews in February.

Hill grew up in a well-to-do white Toronto suburb called Don Mills. His father, Daniel, who was black, and his mother, Donna, a civil rights activist, who was white, had met in Washington, D.C., and married in 1953, to the great distress of some of Donna's family. They left for Canada the next day, not interested in struggling to be together and raise a family in segregated Washington. Daniel Hill was a well-known Canadian human rights activist and intellectual; he served as the head of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, co-founded the Ontario Black History Society, was Ontario's ombudsman, was a professor of sociology, and wrote The Freedom Seekers, a history of blacks in Canada. He expected great things from his three children. "He was obsessed with the idea that we should become high-achieving professionals — doctors, lawyers, engineers," says Hill. "We were singled out for these careers before we could even breathe. But all of us embraced the arts." (Hill's older brother, Dan, is a singer-songwriter best known for his 1977 ballad "Sometimes When We Touch"; their younger sister, Karen, is an aspiring poet.)

When Hill and his siblings were little, their father would make them write letters if they wanted something — a kitten, for instance. Seven-year-old Hill had asked repeatedly, and his father finally told him, "Larry, if you really want it, go up to your room and write me a letter and tell me why you deserve to have a cat, whose allowance will pay for cat food, and how you'll prevent it from having babies in the closet. And if you can write me a well-rendered letter with no spelling mistakes, I'll give your request due consideration." Hill got his kitten. And, he says, his father "opened the door to the possibility of my getting what I wanted if only I wrote a persuasive letter. Unwittingly, he was making me a writer."

Early in his career, Hill worked as a reporter for The Globe and Mail and The Winnipeg Free Press, where he began to hone the skills he would employ in his fiction. He lived for a while in Spain and France, writing full time. He also traveled to Niger, Cameroon, and Mali as a volunteer with Canadian Crossroads International, a nonprofit that does cultural exchange and development. His first novel, Some Great Thing, was published about the time he came to the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars in 1992. At Hopkins, he studied with John Barth and Stephen Dixon. Dixon remembers Hill both as a talented writer and as a gentle soul. At their one-on-one meetings after workshops, they would mostly talk about literature. "He was already such a pro — we were lucky to have him," Dixon says. "I didn't really have to do anything to help him. I kept my hands off his work.

"I have nothing but admiration and praise for him," Dixon adds. "It's not only his writing; he's just a lovely person — sincere, gentle, gracious, hardworking."

Hill says his time at Hopkins was exhilarating — "a time to write and not to have to do much else." He was married with two children. (He is now remarried with five children.) He had family in town, and he tried to get to know the city — background research for his second novel, Any Known Blood, which came out in 1997.

If you wrote it in a certain way, nobody would even want to turn past page one. So how do you write a story of horror — of an Atlantic holocaust — without killing a reader's interest?" Those first two books explore complications of race and identity, as does his bestselling memoir, Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada, released in 2001. These are issues much discussed and debated in the States, but less so in Canada, Hill says. "It seemed to me that many Canadians were loath to discuss matters of racial identity, and that many Canadians felt that even to have the discussion was demeaning and a sort of dirty affair. I wanted to bring it out and to openly discuss things that on the whole weren't talked about much in Canada."

Donna Bailey Nurse, a Canadian literary critic and longtime friend of Hill's, credits him with establishing these issues as literary themes and challenging long-held notions about slavery in Canada. It's generally accepted, she explains, that the States enslaved black people, while Canada offered them refuge — that reaching the Canadian border meant freedom. "Larry really complicates that," she says. "The American border used to be the great divide in the black story. But in Larry's work, it unites both sides of that story and turns it into one story. And that shakes up Canadians' notions of who they are."

In Someone Knows My Name, Aminata travels to Nova Scotia with the British, who have offered freedom and land to former slaves who served the Crown during the American Revolutionary War. Expecting to enter the Promised Land, she instead finds harsh winters; promises broken by the British government; unthinkable betrayal by a Canadian family she had come to trust; and violence when out-of-work mobs attack the former slaves, whom they blame for their own misfortunes. ("You get the feeling of, Crap, was it all for this?" Nurse says. "That's the bleakest part of the novel for me.")

While Hill's previous work explores complications of racial identity, race in Someone Knows My Name is comparatively uncomplicated. Despite her humor, her smarts, her self-assuredness, once she's taken from Africa, Aminata is bound, literally, by the fact that she is black. She is owned, sold, humiliated, abused, raped. The heartbreak is relentless. And yet, Hill gives his character such a strong sense of hope and determination and integrity, a reader is more enchanted than overwhelmed.

Hill says he had nightmares after immersing himself in the details of historical slave narratives and first-person accounts. "I'm glad to be through it," he says. "It's hard to write, and it's hardest of all to write it with enough lightness that a reader will want to ingest it. If you wrote it in a certain way, nobody would even want to turn past page one. So how do you write a story of horror — of an Atlantic holocaust — without killing a reader's interest?"

This is a lesson he learned from his father, a great storyteller, he says. "He had this way of walking through a story that made you laugh even when you wanted to cry. The intermixture of humor and tragedy is common in black literature. You find it all over the place — in Jewish and Russian literature, too, but definitely in African-American literature — an intermingling of humor and sadness. This seemed to be the defining approach to [my father's] storytelling. In that way, he passed it on to me."

Catherine Pierre is Johns Hopkins Magazine's editor.

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