Sunday, November 04, 2007

By the book

The fuss over the title of his novel taught Lawrence Hill there are bigger battles to wage.

The author of The Book of Negroes, who will read on Saturday at 1 p.m. at this weekend's Bookfest Windsor at the Art Gallery of Windsor, has agreed to rename his book Someone Knows My Name for its American release this month.

Published in Canada last January by HarperCollins, The Book of Negroes is a bestseller and was named among the longlist of nominees for the Giller Prize.

READER: Burlington-based author Lawrence Hill will read from his novel Book of Negroes on Saturday at the Art Gallery of Windsor during Bookfest Windsor.

READER: Burlington-based author Lawrence Hill will read from his novel Book of Negroes on Saturday at the Art Gallery of Windsor during Bookfest Windsor.

It relates the fictional odyssey of an African woman who is sold into slavery in the mid-1700s, then makes her way back to her homeland. Aminata Diallo, or Meena, is an imaginative composite from the personal diaries and books of 18th-century slaves.

Hill, who is the mixed-race son of human rights activists, discovered

old feelings die hard in the U.S.

The Canadian title is taken from an actual historical document. The original Book of Negroes was a list of about 1,200 black Loyalists who shipped out of Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone in Africa in 1792.

But Hill's American publisher, W.W. Norton, balked.

"They were concerned about two things," said the 50-year-old Burlington, Ont., writer, whose older brother is singer/songwriter Dan Hill, 53. "First, they thought a reader might think the book is non-fiction. But mostly it was because the word Negroes might turn off a certain readership."

The word pushes hot buttons in today's world, Hill conceded. Yet even his own father, Daniel G. Hill, who was a noted black American civil rights activist and first director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, used the word into his 60s. Daniel Hill and his white wife, Donna, were born in the United States and emigrated to Canada in the 1950s.

"My father was born in 1923 and he spoke of Negroes proudly right through the 1980s," Hill said. "It was really the word of choice if you were referring to black people."

But the connotations are much more negative south of the border, he said. So to help ensure his story would be read, he agreed to the title change.

"This was the first back-to-Africa exodus in North America," Hill said, "and many of the people on those 15 ships were originally from Africa. I wondered what sort of life a woman might have led up to that point. From where had she been taken? How did she end up in Nova Scotia of all places? Why did she choose to leave and return to her homeland?

"I wanted to put a human face on a mysterious, historical event."

Hill's volunteer work for Canadian Crossroads International in Cameroon, Niger and Mali came into play in describing Aminata's early life. He also did extensive research in South Carolina, where many African slaves first landed, as well as New York City and Nova Scotia, which were stops along Aminata's long journey.

The book relates in often vivid detail what life was like on a slave ship, the wretched conditions and brutality suffered by American slaves, their efforts to find freedom with the help of the British, and the urge of many native Africans and their descendants to return home. Apart from a vicious slave owner, a few vigilantes in New York, and white rioters in Nova Scotia, Hill's book is remarkably free of evildoers.

"What would be the point of that?" he asked. "It would have been easy to create a monster, and there was terrible brutality inflicted on the black slaves by their white masters.

"There is violence in the book. It would have been irresponsible to underplay it or sugar-coat the dark elements. But the most interesting characters in fiction can be those who do evil but have a human side, people who are torn by their actions.

"I don't personally believe in black and white as it applies to personality, that a person is either totally angelic or totally diabolical. I think we all have a bit of the positive and the negative within us."

Hill set himself the task of writing from a woman's perspective, a cross-gender story which seems to come easier for women than men.

"On one hand, it was intimidating. But on the other, it was liberating to step away from your own biographical experiences and bring to the page a person who couldn't possibly be you."

Hill's previous novels, Any Known Blood and Some Great Thing, contained some autobiographical elements. He also wrote the bestselling non-fiction study, Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada, based on his own experiences. Apart from using his daughter's middle name, Aminata, for his heroine, Hill mines very little of his personal family history in the novel.

"You can't write carbon copies of yourself your whole life," he said. "You'd be the most boring writer in the world."

Hill hopes all races, not just blacks or whites, read and learn from the hardships suffered by Aminata.

"Perhaps that stems from my own mixed-race status," Hill said. "I think what I'd like a reader regardless of racial background to take from the novel is that, wow, what a life this woman led.

"What courage and strength she must have possessed, not only to survive but to survive emotionally. At the end of it all, after everything she has endured, she is still willing to give to the world."

The Book of Negroes is available in Canada for $34.95 and in the U.S., under its new title, for $24.95.

By the book