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Conveniently Canadian

The Book of Negroes delves into one of the ‘neglected corners’ of Canada’s past



Who: Lawrence Hill

When: Saturday, May 8, 7 p.m.

Where: Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre

Cost: $20

The Black Loyalists are a part of Canadian history that has been conveniently omitted from the high school curriculum. In fact, many people are largely unaware of the fact that in the 18 th century, more than 3,000 black people, many former slaves, sought refuge in Nova Scotia after pledging allegiance to the British during the American Revolution.

One Canadian author has shone a spotlight on this shameful part of our country's history with his book, The Book of Negroes. But rather than get caught up in the anger and injustice the Black Loyalists suffered, he opted to focus on the inspirational side of the journey - the fact that many of these slaves managed to make it back to Africa, eventually.

"That people managed to get back to Africa after abduction to the transatlantic slave trade, that's almost inconceivable," author Lawrence Hill said in a recent interview.

The story of Black Loyalists and their connection to Canadian history is, by and large, not being taught in our public schools, and to Hill, this is a reflection on our society as a whole.

"The book's not about finger-waving or attributing blame, it's written not from an angry standpoint, really - although I could be angry, I'm not. It's written from a standpoint of admiration for the resilience of people like Aminata (the main character) in our past," Hill said. "But it's very Canadian to forget the painful and horrifying aspects of our own past and to think that these are more American issues and then maybe to stand up on a pulpit and feel a little more self-righteous about the good things in our past, such as, say, our perception of the underground railroad.

"We treated the Black Loyalists of Nova Scotia so abysmally that they voted with their feet and created the first back-to-Africa migration in the history of the Americas, and that's coming from Canadian shores, from Halifax. So we really did perform abysmally in our moral duty towards these people that had been promised freedom and security and didn't get it... I wrote the book to dramatize and be interesting about one of those neglected corners of Canadian history."

The strength of Hill's story rests in these incredible historical roots.

Hill spent a lot of time researching and writing - almost five years, in fact. His Book of Negroes is based on a real document by that same name, which was created to record the flight of blacks from New York City to Nova Scotia at the end of the American Revolution, and to ensure that all blacks who were emigrating actually had their "Certificate of Freedom." But Hill knew very little about this British Naval registry when he began working on the project.

"I hadn't seen it, I hadn't pored over the details, I hadn't breathed in its antiquity and its colour and its horror."

On top of the amazing part of Canadian history that this book is based on, Hill also crafted a very believable, strong protagonist to lead the storyline from start to finish: Aminata. In The Book of Negroes he tells the story of Aminata's lifelong journey from freedom, to slavery, and back to freedom again.

While Aminata is entirely a product of Hill's own imagination - not based on anyone that he knew personally or encountered through research - she is named for his eldest daughter.

"The first thing I was thinking of was what this woman might sound like and walk like and look like..." Hill recalled. "I started to think of her, first, before anything else, before I really had a story for her I started to imagine her looks and her character. And then I had to hang a story on her shoulders."

It wasn't easy for him to write from the perspective of an 18 th century female slave.

"I worried all the time about doing a bad job or a job that was unconvincing or that women might sneer at and say, 'this is ridiculous.'"

Hill has authored six other books, but this was a very tricky project, as he had to balance information that respected actual historical events with engaging characters and a storyline to draw the reader through the book.

"The pacing and the actual story itself is probably the vehicle by which the readers step into the history," Hill mused.

He seems to have succeeded with this delicate balancing act.

Since its publication in 2007 The Book of Negroes has received a tremendous response from literary critics around North America. It was the winner of CBC's Canada Reads competition, received the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book, the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the Ontario Library Association's Evergreen. HarperCollins has recently released an illustrated version of the book. And now the author is hoping his latest work will reach a whole new audience with a film based on his book in the works.

The Book of Negroes has also gone on to be published in the U.S. and as far away as Australia and New Zealand, but interestingly, publishers in those countries opted to release it under the name Someone Knows My Name, instead.

"Because the word 'negroes' was too 'incendiary' for publication in the American market, first, and the American publisher refused at the last minute to take the title," Hill said.

In the United States, moreso than here in Canada, the term "negro" is considered by many to be very offensive.

"In fairness, the word is very offensive in African American culture. It's offensive in African Canadian culture, too, but it's more explosive south of the border, and it's taken on, really, a new meaning. I mean, when my father who was an African American and was growing up in the States, 'negro' was kind of the word of choice if you wanted to be polite and respectful when referring to black people. But he was born in 1923, and that's another generation."

Hill will speak about The Book of Negroes during an event at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre on Saturday night. Tickets are available at www.theviciouscircle.ca.