Hill, who will be in Edmonton this coming Tuesday (4/17/12) to deliver the University of Alberta’s annual Henry Kreisel lecture, knows how to follow up a smash hit. He’s just not letting it bother him much.
“I have a little mantra and it’s that I can’t really be responsible for a book’s commercial failure or success; all I can do is write the best book that I can,” Hill said in a telephone interview from his home in Hamilton, Ontario.
For his appearance next week in Edmonton, in a billed speech “On Banning, Burning, and Other Inspired Responses to Books,” Hill will reflect back on some not-so-positive experiences with his novel, The Book of Negroes.
The 2007 book is inspired by a little-known historical document of the same name, copies of which can be found in the New York Public Library, the Rockefeller Library at Colonial Williamsburg, and the U.S. National Archives in Washington D.C. In Canada, it can be found in the National Archives of Canada.
Set in the 18th century, it tells the story of a young African girl who regains her freedom after being sold into slavery; the novel won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize in 2007 and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize a year later. The year after that, it won the annual Canada Reads showdown on CBC-Radio, a literary popularity contest that skyrockets the winner’s sales. All those triumphs helped the book’s publication launch worldwide- but they also pressed some buttons.
Although The Book of Negroes is the title of an actual historical document, publishers in the United States, Norway, New Zealand, and Australia insisted the novel’s title be changed to Someone Knows My Name. In Quebec the book is titled Aminata, the name of the main character.
The most ominous response came when Hill received a letter from Roy Groenberg on behalf of the Dutch group, the Foundation to Honor and Restore Victims of Slavery in Suriname, who was offended by the use of the word “Negro” in the title. The group, who are descendants of the former Dutch colony in Suriname, gathered in an Amsterdam park last June and symbolically burned a cover of The Book of Negroes.
To many, the Dutch protest seemed eccentric and laughable, but Hill didn’t see it that way, and he warns that we laugh off such actions at our own peril.
In a statement from the book’s Dutch publisher, it was explained that the title was kept “as-is” to help highlight an issue that doesn’t get a lot of attention in the Netherlands.
“Slave history was horrid. We Dutch played a large role in it,” read the letter.
In the New Amsterdam colony (the original name of what is now New York) Dutch slave traders were among the first to import African slaves into the United States.
Hill responded by explaining that he based his title on the historical document that was used to record the names of over 3000 slaves who were British Loyalists during the American Revolution who were evacuated by the British and sent to Nova Scotia. Ship lists, physical descriptions of the slaves, and where they were bound were included. Hill’s intention was to bring this little-known piece of history to light. “I have found that when given the opportunity to see what I am doing in this book and with this title, readers understand that the title is not intended to be offensive, but that it is used historically, to shed light on a forgotten document and on a forgotten migration.”
Hill’s entire response to the Dutch group was published by the Toronto Star.
“I think we underestimate the impact that censorship and the fear of controversy have on the free circulation of books and ideas in public spaces, including in the public schools.”
As an example, Hill finds it “almost surreal” that one of the most frequently-banned books across North America today is the Harry Potter series. J.K. Rowling might be able to withstand the onslaught of countless schools removing the young wizard from their shelves, Hill notes, but for many other writers that sort of response would severely hamper their ability to enter the free market of ideas.
“I think that one of the most worrisome aspects about hostile reactions to books is the chill that it puts in other people. The degree to which it makes them fearful about the book in the classroom, because you’re afraid you’re going to get hammered by parents or others in the public if you do teach it, so why go through that anxiety, why not just pull out a safe book that nobody’s objected to for the last 50 years?”
“It puts a chill on teachers, publishers and booksellers, especially if they’re dealing with a work that isn’t already enshrined in the canon of acceptable, famous lauded literary work.”
Greg Hollingshead, chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada, stated in a press release that “the burning of books represents censorship at its worst. While we recognize the sensitivity over the use of the word ‘Negro’ in the book’s title, The Book of Negroes is a real document and Mr. Hill uses it deliberately to underscore the plight of African Americans being shipped from New York to Nova Scotia in 1783.”
Plans for a movie adaption of The Book of Negroes with filmmaker Clement Virgo have stalled and Hill and Virgo are now reworking the material for a possible TV miniseries.
The Kreisel Lecture: “On Banning, Burning, and Other Inspired Responses to Books” takes place at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, April 17, 2012, at the Timms Centre for the Arts, University of Alberta.
For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at http://www.deepforestproductions.com/BBARK.html
Sources: Wikipedia, Edmonton Journal, CBC, Toronto Star, The Guardian
© 2012 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions