Bokelskerinnen intervjuer: Lawrence Hill

For kort tid tilbake leste jeg en utrolig flott roman: "Noen kjenner mitt navn" skrevet av den kanadiske forfatteren Lawrence Hill.

Hill er vokst opp i Toronto, Canada med en svart far og en hvit mor. Han har tidligere arbeidet som journalist og har skrevet tre romaner, to dokumentariske bøker og stått bak en filmdokumentar. "Noen kjenner mitt navn" har vunnet flere priser og mottatt mye ros fra kritikere i de landene den er utgitt.

Romanen ble boende i meg lenge etter at siste side var snudd, og jeg hadde lyst til å vite mer om hvordan Hill hadde gått frem for å skape den. Og det resulterte i intervjuet du kan lese under.

(Bildet er lånt fra forfatterens hjemmeside)


First of all, thank you so much for accepting this interview and congratulations with writing such a great and gripping book as “Someone knows my name” truly is. The book have received many awards and a lot of praise. How does that feel?

You are very welcome, and thank you for your kind words. It feels wonderful to have found peers and readers in a number of countries. It is always a challenge for writers to connect witn new audiences in other countries, so it is deeply gratifying to have found an audience in Norway. I have always wanted to visit Norway, and look forward to seeing Bergen and Oslo in September, when I will come with one of my daughters to take part in a literary festival in Oslo.

How did you first come up with the idea for this book?

I learned almost twenty years ago about the so called "Black Loyalists". They were African Americans who fled slavery to serve the British on the losing side of the American Revolutionary War, 1775 - 1783. When the British lost the war, they fled New York City and brought about 3,000 newly freed blacks with them to Nova Scotia, Canada. This constituted the first massive migration of blacks into Canada.
But many were treated badly, subjected to slavery, segregation and anti-black race riots. After ten years of neglect and oppression in Nova Scotia, these disheartened Black Loyalists left again, accepting an offer from british abolitionists to sail accros the Atlantic Ocean to found the colony of Freetown in Sierra Leone, on the coast of West Africa. It turns out that many of the black loyalists sailing from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone were not merely traveling to Africa, but going back to the continent from which they had been stolen and sent into slavery. decades earlier. It is an epic story, so I sat on it for about 15 years before I felt ready to write the novel.

The book is quite strong when it comes to the historic details, and it is very clear that you have done extensive research. How was the process from you got the idea to the book was finished? Did you do all the research in advance, and then sat down and wrote the story, or did you write and do research all at the same time? 

I researched and wrote for five years, and the two processes were simultaneous. Had I waited to "finish" the research, I am afraid that I would never have done any work. Research is a great way to avoid the hard work of writing, so I try not to fall into that trap.

You must have read a lot of sad stories during your research, and many must have had a great influence on you and the story. Were there any stories that made more of an impression that the others? 

The stories that moved me the most were the slave narratives, which are autobiographical accounts of former slaves, men and women who had escaped slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries, who wrote their life stories to assert their humanity and equality.

The book was first called “The Book of Negroes”. Then the name was changed to “Someone knows my name”. Why did you change the name? 

I called the novel "The Book of Negroes" in the first edition, published in Canada, bacause that was the title that spoke to me most intimately. The title derives from a British naval ledger by the same name, which recorded the exodus of 3,000 blacks from Manhattan to Nova Scotia in 1783. This document, known as "The Book of Negroes" and constituting the first formal document of thousands of African Americans in the United States or Canada, is housed in the national archives of the United Kingdom.
In the novel, the blacks who are fleeing New York City at the end of the Revolutionary War are required to prove that they served the British during the war and to have their names entered into "The Book of Negroes" before they are allowed to sail from Manhattan to Nova Scotia, Canada. This becomes central to the novel itself, and I chose the title to make readers more aware of a forgotten aspect of African Canadian and African American history. However, the American publishers were concerned that the word "negro", which now has negative and insulting meaning in urban black culture, would offend African American readers. I was required to drop the word "negroes" from the American title so I came up with a new title for the American market, which is "Someone Knows My Name". I also like that title, and it forms the basis of the Norwegian title of the novel.

I was very impressed by the way you have written about Aminata and for example her thoughts - it actually felt like I was reading the thoughts of an actual eleven year old girl. And you have also managed to let her grow so slowly into adulthood that every thing we read feels so authentic. How did you accomplish to get under the skin of your main character like that?

I tried to imagine that Aminata was my own daughter, and asked myself the question: How would my own daughter have survived, both psysically and emotionally, if it had happened to her. And to step more fully into that imaginary state, I named the main character after my eldest daughter. 

Did you become a writer so that you could shed a light on all the wrong doings towards your father’s people or was it out of totally different reasons? 

I became a writer because I need to write to make sense of the world, and my place in it, and because expressing myself creatively is my way of juggling with the world, coming to terms with it, and expressing my love of life. 

Which authors have inspires you the most? 

The African - American writers whom I first started reading around 1971, when I turned 14 years old: Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Eldridge Cleaver, and others too.

A lot of your writing, with “Someone Knows My Name” as no exception, has touched upon issues of identity and belonging. Have you ever felt that you didn’t belong and struggled to find your place in the world? 

As a child and teenager I had to work to develop a sense of myself, racially, as I was the son of a mixed race couple (black father, white mother) in an otherwise entirely white neighbourhood in Toronto. My parents had met in the USA and left their native country the day after they married in 1953. My father came to Canada because he wanted to live outside a segregated country. His first taste of living free of segregation took place in Oslo, shortly after the end of World War II. After the war, during which my father was an American soldier, he studied for a year at the university in Oslo, and fell in love with the country, and vowed upon his return to the USA that he would never live again in a country that practised racial segregation. So that is why he and my mother moved to Canada, a few years before I was born.

Many of the readers might feel compelled to read more about the transatlantic slave-trade and slavery in America after reading your book. Which books do you recommend for this? 

There are hundreds of books, so it is difficult to know where to start. Naturally, I am tempted to suggest my second novel, which was called "Any Known Blood" and published by HarperCollins Canada in 1997. But as far as other writers are concerned, one interesting and less stereotypical point of entry into African  American literature is to read the slave narratives written by former slaves, themselves. The African American scholar Henry Louis Gates assembled an anthology called "The Classic Slave Narratives". That would be a good place to start.

“Someone Knows My Name” is being made into a movie. Can you tell us more about that? When is the film going to be shot? 

I have recently finished co-writing the first draft of the screenplay for the film. Rights to the movie have been acquired by Conquering Lion Pictures, a Canadian film company. The director will be Clement Virgo, who is a well known and widely respected African Canadian film maker. It is too early to say exactly where the shooting locations will be, or when the film will be finished. We are in the early stages and it takes years to make a film. The next steps are for the film company to set ut internation co-productions and financing, and to come up with a good cast of actors.

What do you think about when I say Norway? 

I think about how Norway showed my father, right after he served as an African American soldier in the highly segregated American army in World War II, that is was possible to live in a country that did not practice racial segregation. My father fell in love with Norway, when he came to live there for a year around 1949, and I have always wanted to visit the country that helped to liberate him and open up his own life. So I will be happy to visit Bergen and Oslo in September, and to take part in the literary festival in Oslo.

And last: What is your favorite book?

My favourite book is always the last book that I read and truly loved. Two of the novels that I have most recently adored are "Bel Canto" by Ann Patchett and "Brooklyn" by Colm Toibin.

Ønsker du å vite mer om forfatteren, kan du besøke hjemmesiden hans, som du finner her.

Hvis du kunne tenke deg å møte Lawrence Hill, har du mulighet under Bokfest i Operaen 17 - 19. september. Da er han en av gjestene.

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