by Maranda Moses
The fictional story of heroine Aminata Diallo’s harrowing journey through the Transatlantic Slave Trade has earned author Lawrence Hill bestseller status in his native Canada. Since the release of Someone Knows My Name, Hill has received a number of accolades for his book —his seventh among a bibliography of both fiction and nonfiction publications. A former reporter, and the biracial son of American immigrants with roots in the Civil Rights Movement out of Washington, DC, Hill was a finalist for the 2008 Hurston/Wright LEGACY Award. Someone Knows My Name was also on the list of the top 100 books of 2008 on Amazon.com, but his sweetest victory to date is probably the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book.
Maranda Moses: In Canada and the UK, your book’s title is The Book of Negroes; however, it is known as Someone Knows My Name in the US, Australia, and New Zealand. Firstly, why did you choose The Book of Negroes as the first title? Secondly, what led to the book undergoing a name change?
Lawrence Hill: I chose the original title to reflect the historic document known as The Book of Negroes, which recorded details about the flight of blacks from Manhattan to Nova Scotia at the end of the American Revolutionary War. It’s a real treasure trove of information about British, American, and Canadian history involving the migration of Blacks. It’s such a fascinating document that I wanted to resurrect it and bring it to public attention in the world. However, after selling the book to W.W. Norton & Co, at the last minute just before going to print, they decided to change their minds about going with the original title, requiring me to change it for the American market. So I really had 48 hours to come up with a new title for the US edition.
I spent a weekend on the Baltic Sea in the former East Germany wondering what I was going to call this thing. I finally came up with Someone Knows My Name, which I like very much. It’s a hats off to James Baldwin who, of course, wrote Nobody Knows My Name. It also gets at the issues of identity, the loss of identity, and the loss of African identity that so accompanies the movement into slavery from Africa.
Americans felt that it would be just too incendiary to have the word “Negroes” appearing in the American edition of the novel. That decision was imposed on me, but later on I came to feel that it was the right decision. So many African Americans have come up to me on book tours and told me that they’re very glad the book changed titles. They wouldn’t have bought it or even looked at it if it had been called The Book of Negroes. I resisted at first, I resented it at first, and I’m now at peace with it.
MM: You really created a stunning fictional memoir of Aminata. How did you begin the process of weaving together such an epic life?
LH: Well, I guess it was a combination of imagination and research. Research, of course, will only get you so far, and if you try to be too wedded to history or to the facts then you’ll have a wooden, clunky, didactic novel. So the imagination and the heart have to kick in awfully fast for a novelist. I guess it was just a question of finding the right balance between really captivating historical detail, the story of a woman’s life, and the drama that people could relate to, regardless of historical accuracy.
I tried to imagine Aminata, the protagonist, to be my daughter. I gave her my eldest daughter’s name. I did that to try to feel the character more deeply as I wrote the story.
MM: How many months of research went into this book?
LH: I worked on the research throughout the entire writing of the novel. The whole novel took about five years from start to end. I never really stopped reading and gathering details. The more I wrote, the more detailed the research became. At the beginning it might have been to spend a few weeks boning up on the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its generality to be sure that I understood the overall picture pretty well. I re-familiarized myself with that history. But as I went on, of course the research bore down into more detailed examinations, like what homemade inoculations were blacks from South Carolina using to protect themselves from small pox? Or what kind of herbal remedies might a woman in the American colonies use to catch babies during the 18th century?
The research got more and more specific as I kept writing, so I was truly researching until the very last minute.
MM: Why did you choose to write the novel from the point of view of this elderly woman?
LH: Well, she sort of chose me. I really never thought about narrating it from anyone else’s viewpoint. From the moment I learned about 1,200 Blacks who fled Nova Scotia in 1792, and sailed across the ocean to create the colony of Freetown in Sierra Leone, I started to ask myself what would a woman look like on one of these ships? What might she walk like? How would her voice sound? Did she have children? Did she have a lover? What happened to her parents? Can I color in this life and find a character to represent and embody this story of migration back and forth across the ocean?
I never really thought about anybody other than a woman. It was a woman’s story that came to me when I first imagined this migration. It was that woman’s story that I chose to write and that chose me to write it.
MM: Aminata is abducted from West Africa, and then brought to the American south and north and then to Nova Scotia, then back to Africa again. Finally, she agrees to lend her support to the Abolitionists. Sadly, she never quite establishes a home for herself in her later years, does she?
LH: No she doesn’t. She never really does find home. Her entire novel is a search for home. From the time that she’s abducted as an eleven-year old, she wants to go home. And it seems to be one of the driving emotional impulses in her life. It’s what keeps her going. It’s what fuels her desire to keep living. It’s hope (as hopeless as hope seems) that keeps her going. But of course in fiction you can never really give your characters exactly what they’re looking for. Life never works out the way the reader hopes it will or it’s not a very good novel.
It just didn’t seem right to give her everything she wanted. She came close and ultimately she has to find home within, as we all do.
It’s an interesting meditation on home, homelessness, and the loss of home. I guess in some ways it’s an observation that when you are ripped from your home, you can never really go back entirely to the way things were. I’m not saying you can never go back physically, but you can never really go back to the person you were and to the way you used to live, when you’ve been stolen from your home and taken away for most of your life. Everything changes.
MM: That was actually one the thoughts I had later on in the book when she’s in Nova Scotia and is reaching a point where she’s not able to find her daughter. She says in the novel “The pain of my loss, it never really went away. The limbs had been severed and they would forever after be missing, but I kept going. Somehow I just kept going.” It’s so tragic that this woman has to continue moving forward because there really is no other option, is there?
LH: Yes, her life is one constant migration. That presents its own dramatic challenges, when you can’t really have a person settling anywhere for most of her life. But you’re right—she doesn’t have many options. She wants to keep going.
I’m astounded at her resilience and her courage. How is it that she doesn’t give up? How is it that she doesn’t become a hateful, embittered, angry, murderess, suicidal person? It’s just astounding. Ordinary people like this are born and survive every day—people going through the war in the former Yugoslavia or the Rwandan genocide. Just pick any horrific insult to humanity and just think of the survivor. Some people not only survive, but emerge with their souls in tact and still want to be loving, rich individuals. That to me is the miracle of human strength.
MM: One of the very important aspects about the slave trade you touch on in this novel is the fact that Aminata is abducted by black Africans, her own people in her community.
LH: My perception is that if I talk to Canadians, Americans, or Europeans for that matter, very few people seem to be able to imagine or see behind the opaque mask of slavery. I think that’s one of the challenges in history. Slaves don’t have lovers, or children, they don’t have individual struggles, they don’t have work. They have nothing except manacles on their wrist. That of course is terribly limiting. I wanted to get beyond that and to help readers step into a world where they could see a person intimately.
Slavery is not the sole defining factor of Aminata’s life by any means. To establish her humanity, I felt it was necessary to begin her story in Africa. In this case, in the country that later becomes known as Mali where she’s born and raised, and eventually from which she’s abducted. The story begins with her village life as a free girl with parents who love her. It was working relatively well for her before the big moment. It becomes necessary not only to show her early years, but also then to show how she became captured.
The sad truth of the matter is that in the middle of the 1700s, which is when she’s abducted, Europeans were not traveling deep into the heart of West Africa. They weren’t conducting the slave trade from within the continent. They were sitting on the coast using weapons and goods to bribe, pay, or induce African intermediaries to bring captives to them. That’s how it worked. It’s not for me to dress it up, it’s just truth. I guess I was looking to tell a real story and not flinch from uncomfortable or disturbing facts.
What I was hoping to dramatize was that so many different people of different backgrounds were poisoned and had their lives affected by the slave trade. Obviously, we can think of first and foremost the captives who were taken into the Americas as slaves, but there were many other practitioners. There were Europeans, there were Africans, there were people in North America, there were so-called Christians and self-professed Jews, there were so-called Muslims and all sorts of people who were involved in one way or another in the slave trade and affected by it. I deliberately chose to have people of various backgrounds drawn into the practice of the slave trade. It was one of the most international forms of commerce that existed in that time.
MM: You actually had the opportunity to travel to the UK to meet the Queen of England, as well as see the real The Book of Negroes. What was that experience like for you?
LH: That was fabulous! I’ve been fortunate enough to win some prizes for this book and one of them was the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. Traditionally, the winner of that prize goes to meet the Queen as part of the package. I got the prize in South Africa in May 2008, and then in July I was brought to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace. It was just a short twenty-minute meeting in her apartment.
The next day, since I was in London, I gave some readings, met the press, and did some interviews, but I also had to go to the National Archives. I chose to go because I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to go to Kew, which is a suburb of London and where the National Archives is located. By far, the most exciting aspect of that trip was the opportunity to go see the original Book of Negroes. It’s a huge document.
MM: The book has opened up a new understanding about Black history for younger readers. There are now high school students in Canada participating in book clubs to read and learn more about this story.
LH: It’s just so fantastic. When I’ve gone in to speak at schools across Canada, which I’ve done dozens of times, frequently the only book on the curriculum having to do with Black history is To Kill a Mocking Bird. It’s so quintessentially Canadian that an American book that’s seven decades old by a white American is the one book that is used to expose Canadian students to Black history. It’s kind of sad in its myopia. Going into these schools and having an opportunity to talk about the book and seeing that some students in some schools are already reading and studying the book is incredibly gratifying. It means that the range of conversation about the story of Blacks in Canada and in the world opens up.
MM: What’s a day of writing like for you?
LH: It depends on the cycle of a book. A writing day might be writing 10 hours if I’m in the thick of it, or it might be no writing at all from being on book tours in other countries. There can be about a six-year cycle: five of them are research and writing, and one of them is touring. And then, back to research and writing again.
I’m winding up the touring cycle and stepping into the writing cycle, and I’m busy working on a new book. Those days I’m getting up fairly early to write before the kids are up, and then getting them off to school, and then getting back to writing.
MM: You mentioned you have another book in the works. Is it too preemptive to ask what that book is about?
LH: It’s a contemporary novel, purely imaginative, and it feels good to be writing on a purely imaginary basis. It’s more playful in terms of its style and story.