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Celebrated Author Lawrence Hill Speaks About His Newest Novel

What do turquoise crocodiles and gifted children have to do with the aftershocks of the transatlantic slave trade? Award-winning writer Lawrence Hill (The Book of Negroes) spoke with us about his new novel, which he launches in a January 11 virtual event hosted by the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.

Beatrice and Croc Harry tells the story of a 12 year-old girl who wakes up in a treehouse in a forest with animals that can talk. She doesn’t know how she got there. In her quest to rediscover her path and get home, she befriends a 700-pound crocodile with an expansive vocabulary.

Your previous novels have been for adult readers. Why did you want to connect to younger readers?

In my heart, I’ve written a novel for children and for adults. I hope that adults will enjoy the book every bit as much as children will. I feel that we make this arbitrary distinction between children’s literature and adult literature when, in fact, there are great intersections where children and adults are both reading the same books.

The origins of this book are in telling your daughter, the real-life Beatrice, bedtime stories.

I just made up stuff. Eventually, we got on these stories about a girl with her name- a fictional girl who every night would almost get devoured by a crocodile. Every day she would just manage to out-fox the crocodile. The crocodile was very sneaky and used all this loving language and he was very playful with words. He’d lure her near and then SNAP, he’d try to eat her, and every time she’d find a way out. She made me promise then that I’d write a book around these stories. But it’s taken me 15 years to do so. The novel had to progress and to be bigger than just whether or not the girl would be killed by a crocodile. It had to move in a much more worldly way.

Why have you chosen to launch the book here at the Museum?

My ancestors on my father’s side were forced across the ocean as enslaved Africans and I’ve been interested in issues of migration, forced and voluntary, for all of my life. It seems that every work of fiction I’ve written, in one way or another explores somebody’s personal movement through space.

Here we have a girl, whose situation really parallels the aftershocks of the transatlantic slave trade. She’s been severed, through no choice of her own and through no fault of her own, from her homeland. She has to define herself, with amnesia initially plaguing her. So, it’s a story of migration, in a way: forced initially and then voluntary as she tries to reconstruct herself and her identity.

Beatrice is smart. She sees injustice and calls it out. She doesn’t stand on ceremony. She insists on being on a first-name basis with royalty. She negotiates uncompromisingly when she’s offered a job. As a young person, alone in a new place, her confidence and gumption are striking.

I think we project the things we’d like to be onto our characters. I’ve never been that consistently strong or fearless in negotiating or demanding my rights, and there have been times when I’ve failed to stand up when things were wrong and I felt ashamed that I didn’t go for it in the moment and fight- verbally fight. I’d like to be as full of confidence and negotiating skills as she is.

But there’s something else. Over and over and over again in film and on stage and in literature, Black people have been described as either victims or as perpetrators of crime. They’re hapless if they’re victims and if they’re perpetrators they’re just monstrously evil people. I really did want to have a young Black girl who was strong and confident and capable and loving language and loving the play of language. I wanted to create a lively, strong, intellectually gifted girl who was Black, who could feel - once she figured out that she was Black, which wasn’t obvious to her because she’s alone, at first - who could feel good about who she was.

This is a novel that will challenge and expand the vocabulary of all readers, not just young ones. Can you talk about your love of words?

My mother read to us and what she most loved to read when I was very young was kind of nonsense poetry. She read a lot of playful, silly, over-the-top poetry that luxuriated in the absurdity of language. My father told us bedtime stories and he would make up words. And he made up words in the course of our day to day life, and the ones that weren’t made up were often sort of African American- he was raised in the states (as my mother was), and Black language, the language of the South, very much was reflected in our day to day upbringing in white, suburban Toronto in the sixties. So much so that teachers and other people would try to correct me quite harshly, and say, “that’s not how we pronounce it” or “that’s not even a word”. And of course, they were words in my household and I didn’t even notice that some of them were entirely made up. And others were just colourful - they were words but they just weren’t words in the lexicon of a typical Toronto white teacher in the 1960s.

My parents brought us into a world where there was a lot of play of language, whether it was African American diction or whether it was highfalutin PhD talk. My father had a doctorate and worked as a professional and could do that code-switching where he’d slide from speaking in a down south down-home kind of way in one part of the day to speaking like a university professor in the other part of the day. I found those moments fascinating and initially kind of bewildering. It was like he was changing language – and he was changing language.

To me, language is at its most entertaining when it is idiomatic and ridiculous. And I love the ridiculousness of language and so I tried to go for it in this book. And I could do that because it was for children. Whereas normally you couldn’t get away with that in a book for adults. I felt that I had permission to go over the top and just revel in the play of language.

You are the son of immigrants. Can you talk about your parents and how they ended up in Canada?

I had a Black father and a white mother. They married in the south in 1953. In many parts of the states, it was still illegal to be interracially married. I think that most Canadians who aren’t older don’t even know or appreciate how thoroughly segregation ruled America right through the 1950s and 60s. And how it was also very much a fact of life in Nova Scotia, and Ontario especially, right through the 60s in our school systems and so forth. And so, they left the states the day after they married, interracially, in Washington DC, and they moved to Toronto where they hoped they would have an easier life together.

And it was still difficult. They couldn’t rent an apartment together initially. My mother had to use a white friend who stood in as her surrogate husband and they rented a place and then he moved out and my dad moved in and that was the only way my mom and dad could rent a place in Toronto in 1953.

So, it wasn’t just the states, but obviously, it was worse there. Segregation was more viciously enforced and it was pretty well impossible to have a public life as an interracial couple. And so, they came to Canada. My father had already begun his graduate work at U of T and went home for a year between his masters and his PhD to teach in DC and there he met my mother. She was a civil rights activist already in the early 1950s in DC. And they fell in love and came to Canada the day after they married and they never looked back.

Register here to see Lawrence Hill read from and discuss Beatrice and Croc Harry on January 11, part of our Canada’s Storytellers series.