Although he had written two books before, author Lawrence Hill broke out onto the literary scene in a big way in 2007 with his historical fiction novel The Book of Negroes. That story has taken on a life of its own, still retaining a spot on the bestsellers list eight years later. Hill is back with his latest The Illegal, the story of an elite marathon runner who becomes a political refugee, and recently took part in a reading and interview as part of this year’s International Festival of Authors at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre.
Set in the near-future, the story of The Illegal follows Keita Ali, a citizen of a poor fictional island country called Zantoroland who dreams of becoming an elite marathon runner, something his country is known for. When a military coup takes down the government, the new leader comes after Keita’s father, a journalist working to expose a massive story of corruption, murder, and bribery. After the journalist is killed, Keita is desperate to flee the country for fear his life is next. Keita signs on with famous coach Anton Hamm and he soon enters a race in neighbouring Freedom State, an island that is one of the richest countries in the world. While there he attempts to become a refugee, illegally hiding in a makeshift community called AfricTown, ruled by self-declared-Queen Lula DiStefano. The government of Freedom State is determined to deport any Zantoroland refugees caught living in the country so Keita must hide and rely on the assistance of others willing to help him. When the government of his native country kidnap his sister and hold her for ransom, he must race in a marathon to win to earn the money he needs to free her. He is now running to save both of their lives. Finding himself in a life-threatening mess, he has now become part of the criminal activity his father had worked to uncover.
The reading and interview took place at the Fleck Dance Theatre at the Harbourfront Center. The evening was introduced by local movie critic and entertainment reporter Richard Crouse. The evening was also co-sponsored by the Amnesty International Book Club, which selects and supports books and authors raising awareness of important human rights issues through their writing. Lawrence Hill began the evening with a reading from his book The Illegal and provided some background on the ideas and characters that came together to form this story. He explained that he was heavily influenced by personal experiences from throughout his life.
Hill then sat down to speak with Crouse in an interview that spanned many topics including this latest novel, additional details about his personal stakes in this new story, the lasting impact The Book of Negroes has had on literary audiences, the adaptation of that book into a successful CBC miniseries, discussion about his writing process, and advice to young writers.
Influences for the new novel included the job Hill worked when he was 16 years old with the Ontario Welcome House organization at Pearson International Airport helping refugees from other countries find their first footings in Canada, learning about the plight of illegal African refugees trapped in Germany while visiting his sister in West Berlin in the 1980s before the Wall came down, and researching the very worst anti-immigration and xenophobic policies in the world to get an understanding of the contemporary struggles these people face. These elements all combined to determine and inform this story of Keita and the world around him.
Following the discussion with Crouse, the floor was opened up for audience questions. They ranged from Hill’s thoughts on the adaptation process of turning his book into a television program, asking for writing advice, going into greater detail about his research methods, to what is coming up next for the author. Hill was then available for personal book signings in the lobby of theatre, meeting fans and taking further questions.
Once again the IFOA continues its important cultural work of bringing the world’s best literary talent to Toronto for thought-provoking discussions and exciting interviews. It’s a book lover’s dream as they continue to help foster a love of reading and promote literacy. The organization has no intention of slowing down and will be back again in 2016 for its 37th year with a full slate of events showcasing the very best the world of books has to offer.