Why The Book of Negroes Matters

By Donna Bailey Nurse

Last spring, novelist Lawrence Hill, author of The Book of Negroes, headed to Jamaica with his teenage daughter, Caroline; he was slated to appear at the Calabash Literary Festival. I flew in from Toronto on the same flight. We landed in Kingston around 3 p.m. and drove all the late afternoon through a lush green heat to Jake's, a resort in the Parish of St. Elizabeth where the event is held.

We arrived at dusk, in time to sit down for the lively welcome dinner. It had been a long day and I retired shortly afterward. I wanted to hit the beach early the next morning, before beginning a hectic day interviewing authors. "I'll join you for a morning swim," Hill said as I was leaving the table. I asked, "You'll be up before 6?" I was highly skeptical.

But early the next day, as I sat reading on the porch, Hill came round the corner in swim trunks and sandals, a towel slung over his shoulders. He had already been for a run. We followed a gently winding path to the seaside. The sky was white, overcast, but the water was deliciously mild. We dove right in.

"Hey Donna," Larry called after he had swum some distance away. His voice carried across the glassy surface of Calabash Bay. "How did the salt get in the ocean?"

"I don't know, Larry," I said. "How did the salt get in the ocean?"

"Well," he said, paddling closer. "What if there was a giant truck, and what if it was carrying a big load of salt, and what if it was driving along the coast, and what if, then ..."

And so began an outrageous story. Hill was grinning and playful, giddy as a boy, a far cry from the reserved, soft-spoken man who had nodded modestly the previous evening when introduced to the dinner crowd as a special guest. The Book of Negroes had won the overall Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book a few days before. But this is the first thing to know about Lawrence Hill: He is a compulsive storyteller in the oral, African-American tradition. He comes by this gift honestly. His father, civil-rights activist Daniel G. Hill, had a famous penchant for the hilarious tall tale. Aspects of Hill's previous novels -Some Great Thing and Any Known Blood - recall Langston Hughes's humorous stories of black everyman Jesse B. Semple.

Hill's irrepressible curiosity and daunting intellect compel him constantly to ask "what if?" His astonishing The Book of Negroes, champion of this year's literary love-in, Canada Reads, began with a big "what if?" Hill had read in a history book that a third of the black loyalists who abandoned Canada for Sierra Leone in the late 18th century had actually been born in Africa. That meant they had been kidnapped from Africa, sold into slavery, perhaps in the American South, had escaped north, settled in Canada and then eventually returned to Africa, a trajectory Hill has described as "a milk run all around the world."

What if a little girl had been kidnapped in Africa and enslaved in South Carolina, Hill wondered. What if she escaped north to serve the British in the American Revolutionary War, wound up in Canada and then returned to Africa. What if she had been involved in the struggle to abolish slavery? What would her life have been like?

Hill's answer is the story of Aminata Diallo. Hill draws upon the traditional slave narrative, real and fictional accounts of black people who endured slavery and their perilous flights to freedom. Toni Morrison's Beloved is perhaps the best-known contemporary example of the form. Hill differentiates his narrative in a couple of ways: For one thing, we meet Aminata when she is a little girl, well before she is sold into slavery. Because of that, we never see her primarily as a slave.

More significantly, we know her people: Her father is a respected jeweller who begins teaching her to read the Koran; her mother is a midwife who teaches her how to deliver babies. They reside in the prosperous and bustling village of Bayo (in modern-day Mali). This knowledge of her roots develops in us a deeper regard for her experience.

To the slave narrative, Hill joins elements of the 19th-century novel, with its frequently vulnerable protagonists, its picaresque plots, its unlikely coincidences, and its historical and social accuracies. As with Victorian novelists, he focuses on character and plot, and yet his intimate grasp of the mechanics of fiction allow him to maximize the potential of these traditional elements.

Aminata's tale arouses in the reader a paradoxical blend of horror and delight. "Delight" seems an impossible word to reconcile with a slave account, yet Hill does just that. He does not present us with happy blacksà la Margaret Mitchell; he writes more in the mode of Charles Dickens's tales of exploited urchins. Think Oliver Twist, a novel that examines child labour, poverty, street kids, petty crime, unwed mothers, domestic violence and murder, which Dickens seduces us into reading in entertaining ways.

Likewise Hill, in The Book of Negroes, transforms traditional slave narrative - with its myriad brutalities - into an old-fashioned, rip-roaring story: He kisses steely realism goodbye.

Aminata's particular gifts - her ability to read and write and to deliver babies - allow Hill to place her at the centre of historical events. This endows her with a measure of influence. After she escapes in Manhattan during the American Revolutionary War, British officers pay her to deliver the babies of their black mistresses. And later, the navy hires Aminata to list the names of all blacks loyal to the crown who have earned passage to Nova Scotia. This giant ledger - an actual document - is called The Book of Negroes.

Only about a quarter of the novel unfolds in Nova Scotia, but I would argue that it is essentially a work of black Canadian experience. Not only does Hill dramatize the trials of the black loyalists, he asserts that the American Revolutionary War, rather than the American Civil War, is central to black Canadian history. It is the American Revolutionary War that brought the first major group of black settlers to Canada; they arrived in the late 18th century, at the same time as the white Loyalists about whom history students learn so much, and a good century before most groups of European settlers.

On their arrival in Shelburne, N.S., Aminata and the other blacks are greeted with stunning racial malice. Few stores will serve them, few businesses will hire them; they are taunted and beaten; Canada's first race riot explodes onto the streets. This really is one of the bleakest passages of the book. Hill shows racism to be a homegrown affair rather than an imported evil. To this day, the experiences of black immigrants to Canada are often inexcusably, shamefully harsh. Disproportionate numbers continue to live in poverty.

Finally, Hill's idiomatically Canadian depiction of slave history in the story transcends borders. He started exploring this perspective with his previous novel, Any Known Blood, a fictionalized account of his family history that moves back and forth across the U.S.-Canada border, essentially erasing its existence. Aminata's life takes her from Africa to South Carolina to Manhattan to Canada to Africa again and then to England. Borders do little to hinder or improve her experience.

Today, the geography of Aminata's life remains eerily familiar, a restless route that keeps many black people travelling in circles in search of home. The best black Canadian writing articulates a diasporic experience arising from the cultural collisions of the Atlantic slave trade. And nobody does this better than Lawrence Hill. 

A version of this piece appeared previously in The Globe and Mail.