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Lawrence Hill

May 4, 2013 by Speakers' Spotlight

Book-Burning Intensified Lawrence Hill’s Censorship Battle

Lawrence Hill is still trying to come to terms with the burning of his novel, The Book of Negroes.

It happened in June 2011, at Oosterpark in Amsterdam, beside the monument commemorating the end of Dutch slavery.

The burning was carried out by a group of Dutch Surinamese, the descendants of slaves.

The Book of Negroes is the story of an African girl who is born free, kidnapped and then sold into slavery in South Carolina. But protestors took offence at the title: Het Negerboek, in Dutch.

The Hamilton writer was distressed: “To me, the entire point of the novel was to offer dignity, depth and dimensionality to a person whose very humanity would have been assaulted as a slave.”

Hill delivered a lecture on the incident to the Canadian Literature Centre that has recently been published by The University of Alberta Press. In Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book, he offers a thoughtful, sometimes comical, very personal meditation on literary censorship.

The irony of the book burning is not lost on Hill, who considers The Netherlands a second home. It was the first place he journeyed outside North America — the summer he was 17. He has returned several times and is profoundly sensitive to the nation’s slave history.

What ran through his mind when he heard about plans to burn his book?

“Salman Rushdie,” said Hill. “There’s a chill factor associated with people who make waves about a book. People can be very effective in shutting down a book’s prospects.”

That hardly seems likely. The blockbuster Book of Negroes has only grown in stature since it appeared in 2007. In March, the French edition, Aminata, won the francophone Canada Reads. “I was stunned the book would speak to a francophone audience,” he said.

Meanwhile, film director Clement Virgo is collaborating with him on The Book of Negroes mini-series.

Hill’s relationship with this novel seems as long and complicated as a marriage. “You’re right. It’s time for a divorce,” joked Hill. “I haven’t been able to leave the book behind the way as an artist I need to leave it behind. Then that guy burned it in Amsterdam … ”

Hill has repeatedly spoken out against censorship. In 1996, he opposed a Halton group trying to ban Foxfire by Joyce Carol Oates.

He protested again in 2006 when Three Wishes by Deborah Ellis came under attack. Hill’s stepdaughter, Eve Freedman, also eloquently defended the work, which concerns the plight of Jewish and Palestinian children.

In 2007, the 10-year-old Eve won Canada’s Freedom to Read Award. Hill received the honour in 2012 for his cool response to The Netherlands incident, but he likes to tell people that Eve got it first.

Growing up, Hill’s activist parents banned products from the home. Aunt Jemima was strictly persona non grata. Hill’s father fought to remove Little Black Sambo from the schools.

Hill understands where his parents were coming from:

“I’m as deeply offended as the next person by some racist or sexist book. I just don’t think it is the job of the parent or educator to burn or ban them. Despicable books should be able to exist as documents. It is our job to tell our children why we oppose what they represent.”

By Donna Bailey Nurse/Hamilton Spectator/May, 2013