The YMCA Greater Toronto hosted a Black History Month event featuring Lawrence Hill, and I immediately obliged when my friend invited me. As a self-proclaimed book-worm, I knew it would be a great experience to meet the author of one of your all-time favourite books.
The evening started off with a lovely rendition of the Negro National Anthem “Lift Every Voice” followed by a short reading by a Trinidadian author Stachen Frederick from one of her books. The audience was then introduced to Mr Hill and we were immediately captivated by his great story-telling. He read – actually he barely read, more like recited – an excerpt from his novel The Book of Negroes, talked about growing up in Toronto with American immigrant parents and regaled us with the experience of receiving an email while he visited The Netherlands from Suriname-Dutch Victims of slavery advocate named Mr Groenberg, who threatened to burn his book because they were offended by the use of the word “Negroes” (refer to an article). We all got a good laugh at his “very Canadian” response to a heated attack on his prized novel. The evening was indeed off to a great start.
What surprised me the most was his sense of humour! Granted, I didn’t know what to expect as I’d only ever read about him (see our feature on him, his brother and their father here) and seen his pictures, this was definitely a pleasant surprise. He made fun of himself and some of his experiences, but with everything you never lost sight of his passion for writing. The funniest anecdote he shared was that he always had to write letters to his father if he ever wanted anything – like the kitten when he was a little boy – explaining in detail why he wanted it. He ended with saying “It’s really my father’s fault I’m a writer, because I was always writing. If he ever wanted me to be something else, he shouldn’t have made me write all those letters!”
He sat in an interview setting with the evening’s host (I really should start making note of names, shouldn’t I?) who asked him questions about the books he’d written, where he’d gotten the inspiration and also about books he’d read. My curiosity was piqued about one of his other books Any Known Blood which apparently has an interesting and surprising beginning! I shall be checking that out very soon. Notice how I didn’t give anything away? I guess you’ll just have to read it as well.
The evening then went on to an interactive portion, where persons from the audience were able to ask him questions. And boy were they ever eager. We found out the origin of The Book of Negroes main character’s name Aminata (it’s his daughter’s middle name) and how he was able to write from a little girl’s into a woman’s perspective. The history of the title of the book is the real reason behind him writing it, and looking at it through his daughter’s eyes helped place his mindset into that of a woman. The Book of Negroes is an actual document that lists the names of 3000 slaves who had migrated from the States to Nova Scotia. His dream is to one day see the actual book, which is currently stored in England.
After the Q&A period had ended and Mr Hill had gotten the deserved standing ovation as a thank you for his appearance, he stuck around for a book signing session. Thank you to my friends who provided me cash (everywhere should have debit!) so I could purchase of copy of The Book of Negroes and partake in this humbling experience of meeting a great Canadian author. If you’re interested in any of his books, then definitely visit his website for a full listing. I am certain you will not be disappointed by any of his work.