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Exploring Identity & Belonging as an African-Canadian

By Karl Whitmore

Lawrence Hill writes fiction and non-fiction with equal acclaim. And the work of this Oakville-based writer is of critical importance to our understanding of ourselves as racially diverse Canadians.Lawrence and his brother Dan Hill, an equally famous singer/songwriter, and sister Karen are the children of a black Human Rights activist, Dan Hill Sr. and a white mother who left the United States to live in Canada, defying social convention as a bi-racial couple.Hill’s online bio states that Much of his writing touches on issues of identity and belonging. It is a point underscored by African-Canadian literary critic, Donna Bailey Nurse. She points out that Hill’s 1997 novel, Any Known Blood is “the first time we see an uncertain biracial identity as a metaphor for the black Canadian experience.” Nurse adds that, “it is also the first time we see the border used to unite rather than divide black history in North America.”

Hill has written six books to date. His latest, The Book of Negroes, a novel, published by HarperCollins Canada. It blends historical fact with fiction and depicts the life of a black female, pre-teen, Aminata Diallo from the West African country of Mali. She escapes slavery in America, finds racism and bigotry in Nova Scotia, and becomes part of a back-to-Africa movement from Halifax to Sierra LeoneThe well-traveled Hill speaks both French and Spanish. He’s a former reporter with The Globe & Mail and Winnipeg Free Press has he has traveled to the West African countries of Niger, Cameroon and Mali. He has a B.A. in economics from Laval University in Quebec City and an M.A. in writing from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Speaking on CBC Radio recently about his parent’s influence, Hill acknowledges that they share the same values. “I didn’t become the Human Rights activist, or lobbyist that my parents were. They’d actually hoped that we’d all become professionals and make more money than human rights activist and do better in the world than people who walk around waving placards and so forth. So initially they were hoping we’d doctors and lawyers and engineers — but none of us turned out that way. You know Dan became a singer/songwriter and my sister Karen writes poetry. And I became a novelist. So I’m not doing their work but I feel that I’m standing on their shoulders and I feel that I’m intimately connected with their values and those same values recur in those same works that I put forward.”


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