Beginning in 2019, the McKenna Centre for Leadership began funding a one-week intensive residency each school year. The Scholar in Residence is able to host activities, and events to share their expertise, experience and knowledge. Last years Scholar in Residence was Dr. Adolph Reed Jr, who’s work concerning race and politics challenged students to think critically and engage in difficult topics.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s residency was done through online zoom events, rather than the traditionally in-person format. The online format proved just as effective, with strong turnouts to each event as the dynamic Scholar in Residence, Lawrence Hill, illustrated his journey in researching, writing, and life more generally. He shared his works, with a focus on the chosen book for “StFX Reads”, a university and community wide reading club, which was centred around his book “The Book Of Negroes”. The historical novel follows Aminata Diallo through her life, both as she is forced into slavery and as she forges her way to freedom. The Canadian fiction centres around race and gender, and it is truly thought provoking as it narrates how a strong black woman would have potentially have navigated the world during the era.
Of the several events Hill spoke at during the week of January 25-29, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend three. Truly a captivating speaker, I would have loved to have caught the rest but am happy I made the ones I did. I missed the nights of the 25th and 29th. The first talk was entitled “Adapting The Book of Negroes to Screen: The Perils and Pleasures”. I was looking forward to this talk, as I was a fan of the screen adaptation as well as the book, however I had another engagement and was disappointed to have missed this one. In 2015, “The Book of Negroes” was adapted into a six-part miniseries and coveted numerous awards shortly thereafter.
The second talk, “Researching and Writing Historical Fiction: How Not to Get Stuck in the Stacks”, featured a wonderful discussion about researching, and the importance of understanding the difference between writing a history textbook versus a historical fiction. As a history major, who also has an interest in writing, I was particularly interested in this talk. Hill emphasized that he is a huge fan of research, but referenced a time when he was working on an article with a deadline during his time as a journalist, where he was told by another writer to put away his notes. He recalls “don’t think, just write”, was the advice he was given. This truly resonates with anyone who understands just how interesting research can be. One can get lost, and fall down a rabbit hole, but unless you’re writing a textbook, little of that information will be used. Hill emphasized that as a writer of fiction, the story needs to flow properly, and the research should serve the writing in that. The balance of research to drama must be paid attention to.
Hill noted that you really only need a few details to make something feel realistic. Take for instance “The Book of Negroes”. Hill needed an explanation for how Aminata would have been able to survive in a time where smallpox was taking so many lives. Through research, he managed to find out that many black communities would make homemade inoculations. By including that detail, Aminata was able exist more realistically for the reader. Not all details however were always important to Aminata’s story, nor would they always fit into the book. Hill for example did extensive research on Indigo cash crops, much of which never dawned the pages of his book. Hill, through his writing career has become skilled at cutting things that do not add or detract to a story. A skill which he hopes to teach students in his creative writing courses at the University of Guelph.
The third lecture featured Hill’s personal life and familial roots in a night entitled “On Becoming a Writer: Hill’s personal and Family References”. As the son of American Immigrants, Hill mused that becoming an artist was last on the list of acceptable occupations for their children. He recollected a phrase his mother kept on the fridge that read: “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished”. First written by Czeslaw Milosz, and taken as a badge of honour by numerous authors since, Hill recalls his mother’s quote was from American novelist Phillip Roth. Hill inevitably also felt drawn to writing and the whimsy of words. He did however note that his joy for language came in part because his mother read poems to her children often, suggesting she was not as disdainful of writing as the quote would lead on to believe. Hill’s father also contributed to his writing, offering knowledge from his life. In this lecture, Hill also spoke about his upbringing in a predominantly white suburb, and how he struggled to navigate what he referred to as the “crucible of ambiguity”. Hill believes this ambiguity, and struggle with sense of self, pushed him and his siblings to explore themselves through writing.
By the fourth night of Hill’s lecture series, anyone who attended the previous night, I speculate, was surely hooked and back for more. “What Prisoners Have To Teach Us About Story: Lawrence Hill Reflects on Volunteering and Teaching in Federal Penitentiaries”, was a riveting talk on how Hill’s experience teaching and sharing his love of literature in the prison system has influenced his life. Hill’s first experience in sharing his expertise was with incarcerated youth. Hill was tasked with getting several young men to show an interest in reading. Despite the boys differing reading levels, and seeming lack of interest, Hill was up to the challenge. Hill noticed that the library was not frequented, and felt that meeting with the youth in a formal setting would have been counterproductive. Instead, he requested to meet with the boys during lunch. Here, he began to get to know the young men, until one day he casually handed a book to one of them about fishing, which the boy had previously mentioned he was interested in. The boy was surprised that he was allowed to keep the book, and indeed began to read the book. The ownership of the books seemed to empower the boys, and hill mused that even the ones who continually said that they ‘hated’ the books and their plots, they always came back for another book. Hill also has experience teaching those incarcerated through his job at the university of Guelph. He said that “Some of the most detailed discussions about [his] books came from those who were incarcerated”. In adult prisons, he notes, there seems to be more of a willingness to read freely, without being judged by others compared to juvenile prisons, and that the libraries are almost beloved.
To finish off the week long seminar series, Hill had a question and answer period which I sadly missed. Surely, it allowed many attendee’s to ask questions as Hill seemed most willing to answer questions on all fronts, whether it be about his books, creative writing or his life. It was a wonderful way to wrap up a week of powerful stories given by the author, and for those who have read any of his works. Now, having read “the Book of Negroes”, and picked the authors brain, I will definitely be making a trip to the book store for one of his other works. Hearing Hill speak about writing makes me wish I was in his class at Guelph, and I sincerely hope to incorporate some of the things I have learned from him during this lecture series into my own writing. I highly recommend, and look forward to seeing more of Hill’s writing on my bookshelf in the very near future.