An icon of Canadian literature, Lawrence Hill is best known for the novels The Book of Negroes, which was adapted into a mini-series in 2015, and The Illegal. Last winter, he made his first foray into children’s literature with Beatrice and Croc Harry, an entrancing work of fantasy that mixes talking crocodiles and tarantulas with difficult yet pertinent issues like racial violence, oppression and the legacy of slavery. Hill spoke to Mzwandile Poncana.
Mzwandile Poncana: What first drew you to writing and literature?
Lawrence Hill: I had a disciplinarian father who didn’t want me annoying him needlessly. Starting at the age of six, when I asked for things — like permission to have a cat or get my first pair of blue jeans — he’d make me write letters for them and justify my requests. It made me very excited about writing because I started getting the things I wanted through my penmanship.
MP: Who have been your major literary influences?
LH: As a teen, I devoured James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Gwendolyn Brooks, among others. Currently, I really love Omar El Akkad’s work. We write about similar things: people who’ve been displaced; people who, for reasons of violence, have been forced to leave where they came from and go somewhere else for safety. Another is Susin Nielsen, the Vancouver author who writes fiction for middle-grade and young adult readers. She’s quite deft and funny. I was trying to be a little bit deft and funny with Beatrice and Croc Harry.
MP: Transitioning from writing adult fiction to children’s fiction must be tricky. Was the experience what you expected?
LH: It was more freewheeling and ecstatically fun than any writing I’ve experienced before. I was hoping the energy and joy and emotional playfulness that I felt on the page would radiate off it and readers would pick up on that exuberance. Maybe because I was constructing an imaginary world, I felt free to just let my imagination rip along and see what arose.
It’s definitely a book for children, but it’s also a book for anybody of any age willing to step into a story and have a young heart when they read. Some children’s books have enriched my life profoundly — even the ones I read as an adult. And I still love literature that’s primarily aimed at children.
MP: The book emphasizes the affirmation of Blackness, which is so essential to Black children. What was your personal relationship to your Blackness growing up?
Want to read more from Broadview? Consider subscribing to one of our newsletters.
LH: My parents were an interracial couple. Both Americans. They married in the South in 1953 and moved to Toronto, where they co-created the Ontario Black History Society. I was heavily steeped in Black culture, history and literature growing up. My parents were very vocal people; my father would share stories about growing up Black in America and as an African American soldier in the Second World War. His stories entranced my siblings and me.
On the other hand, I grew up in the early 1960s in a totally white suburb of Toronto called Don Mills — which is now thankfully more multiracial. I had to work at moving into a conscious and affirming sense of my own Blackness, and that did take some work. Part of it was through writing and reading, which opened up my world. And part of it was through travel — from visiting Black family in the United States, to living and working in various African countries.
MP: Writing has clearly played a part in shaping your identity. How has it affected your relationship to your Blackness?
LH: In every way. It’s been one of the tools by which I came to claim, affirm and celebrate my Blackness. Becoming an artist has been a way for me to explore and celebrate the experiences of the Black diaspora, too. For instance, I’m particularly interested in Black migration. Many people have the idea that Black experiences are quite distinct. In some ways, of course, they are. I want to bring them together by exploring the lives of people who move all over the place.
But writing about Black identity is also writing about the human experience. I’m focusing on a specific thing — primarily Black experiences — in order to get to a universal observation. When we read, say, Alice Munro, we don’t say to ourselves, “Oh, she’s writing about white people.” We just accept that her dramatization of those lives represents humanity in some respect. She’s just examining the corner of the world that she knows best.
MP: Do you hope the book helps to educate children about this history?
LH: Absolutely, but also — and I say this as a university professor who loves education — I don’t know so much that my book will educate readers as much as I hope it might inspire them to learn more. I love to explore Black history and culture, contemporaneously and historically, but sometimes, encountering the dramatic struggles of one individual is one of the most effective ways to excite the human imagination. It’s one thing to read a history book; it’s quite another to be swept up into the novel, stirred by it and swim through its imaginary world.
MP: Another prominent theme in the book is restorative justice. Why did you think this was a significant message to include?
LH: I’ve volunteered in prison book clubs for the past 15 years. That influenced the way I came to imagine Beatrice and Croc Harry. Early on in the novel, we discover that Croc Harry, who is one of the protagonists, has done something terribly wrong. He has a violent history, but that’s not how we initially meet him. The most interesting way to present him was to show his beautiful side first, before revealing his dark secrets. Then the reader has a chance to see his multidimensionality.
“I don’t believe in talking down to children. I think that they’re far more intelligent and aware than we give them credit for.”
When I go to prisons, I don’t ask people what they’re in for. It’s not my business. I’m either there as a creative writing teacher or as someone to chat about books with. Meeting prisoners and listening to their stories before I find out what they’re in for — if I ever do — has been a way for me to learn something about their humanity before I learn about the bad things.
I do believe that we have to give people a chance to engage in restorative justice. Even if it’s a perpetrator of a terrible crime, we have to give that person an opportunity to make amends. Perhaps some people will never make amends, but we need to believe in the concept of rehabilitation — that the human spirit can be uplifted.
MP: We often think of children as unable to understand difficult ideas. You’re challenging this. Why?
LH: Children live in war zones. Children today are seeing people bombed and killed. They see their parents drowning as they’re trying to get across the Mediterranean and flee horrific situations. They experience the most devastating things any humans can experience. I don’t see why they can’t read about them too.
I don’t want to condescend to children or just write pleasant fairy tales for them. I think some children will be ready for this book and some children won’t. But I don’t believe in talking down to children. I think that they’re far more intelligent and aware than we give them credit for.
MP: In our society, would you say there’s an aversion to talking about difficult topics in general?
LH: Yes. In some quarters, people don’t want to be confronted with these things and don’t want their children confronted with them. Sometimes, even inside the Black community, people have come to me and said, “Can’t you just write about a happy role model? Why do we need more stories about pain?”
Every generation is going to have to find ways to come to terms with the human experience, human history and human atrocity, as well as human goodness. Our great-grandchildren will be talking about the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide, and why shouldn’t they? Those living long after we’re dead will be interested in understanding where we’ve gone wrong and where we’ve gone right. Why shouldn’t they be examining these issues?
I want to be at the forefront of that effort. Obviously, I know that my book’s not for every child or for every parent. But I’m hoping that some children and some parents will be happy to step into some of the challenging themes that are raised in it.
More on Broadview:
- Manock Lual is using his talents on the court to help kids in his hometown
- Tomson Highway on the magic of Cree and power of myths
- In ‘Rehearsals for Living,’ two writers envision a path to a more just future
MP: Do you think consciousness of Black history in Canada has been raised in recent years?
LH: When I grew up in school in Toronto in the 1960s, there wasn’t a single reference to Black people in any respect whatsoever — from public school to university. The things I learned about Black history as a child, I learned from my parents and my own investigations. We’ve come a long way; now, there are some teachers who teach Black literature and embrace Black history. Maybe they’ll invite a speaker during Black History Month, which I think is both a good and challenging thing.
We shouldn’t be limiting these things to the coldest and shortest month of the year, but I do like the idea that we’re celebrating the history. I’d give Canada a C. We’re doing better than an F, but we’re a long way from an A.
MP: How do you feel about Black History Month, then? Is there room for improvement?
LH: When my parents co-created the Ontario Black History Society in 1978, one of their first initiatives was to celebrate Black History Month. The idea of it is important given that many people in this country are unaware of Black history, experiences and culture. Most Canadians can tell you a little bit about Martin Luther King Jr. or that slavery existed in the United States, but can tell you nothing about Canadian history. I think that speaks to our Canadian identity and desire to feel that we’re morally superior to other people — by focusing on their problems and not our own.
Can Black History Month be better? For sure. Sometimes people ask me, “Could you come to speak to my school on Black History Month?” And I’ll say, “Well, I’m actually quite booked up in February. How about April?” And they’ll say, “No, we can only do this in February.” That’s wrong. We can celebrate and explore Black history at every time of the year.
Mzwandile Poncana is a journalist and writer in Montreal.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. It first appeared in Broadview’s January/February 2023 issue with the title “Young wisdom.”
We hope you found this Broadview article engaging.
Our team is working hard to bring you more independent, award-winning journalism. But Broadview is a nonprofit and these are tough times for magazines. Please consider supporting our work. There are a number of ways to do so:
- Subscribe to our magazine and you’ll receive intelligent, timely stories and perspectives delivered to your home 8 times a year.
- Donate to our Friends Fund.
- Give the gift of Broadview to someone special in your life and make a difference!
Thank you for being such wonderful readers.