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Lawrence Hill reflects on dealing with literary criticism and winning Canada Reads twice

Back in 2002, a radio program dedicated to uplifting and highlighting Canadian literature launched. Coined a “literary Survivor,” Canada Reads has artists, celebrities and prominent Canadians debate books in order to determine which title will be crowned the one book the whole country should read.

To celebrate 20 years of Canada Reads, we are looking back on the show’s dramatic history to bring you interviews with past panellists and authors.

Canada Reads1:37:20Canada Reads 20th anniversary special

We’re celebrating the great Canadian book debate’s 20th anniversary! Host Ali Hassan looks back at some of the most dramatic and unexpected moments in the show’s history and speaks with past authors and panellists to find out what their Canada Reads experience means to them. 1:37:20

Lawrence Hill is the only author to have won Canada Reads twice. In 2009, his novel The Book of Negroes was crowned champion after it was successfully defended by filmmaker Avi Lewis and Olympian Clara Hughes led his fourth novel, The Illegal, to victory in 2016. 

The Book of Negroes, a portrayal of the brutal realities of the slave trade told through one woman’s life, was adapted into a six-part miniseries, which can be streamed on CBC Gem. The Illegal tells the plight of refugees who risk everything to start over in a country that doesn’t want them.

Hill’s other books include the novels Some Great Thing, Any Known Blood and the memoir Black Berry, Sweet Juice. He delivered the 2013 Massey Lectures, Blood: The Stuff of Life and his first children’s book, Beatrice and Croc Harry, is set to be published on Jan. 11, 2022.

Ali Hassan spoke to Hill about his Canada Reads experience. 

Do you remember what it was like to get the call when The Book of Negroes was selected for Canada Reads?

It was thrilling, really thrilling. There are various literary prizes. I was actually passed up for most of them in the early phases of The Book of Negroes. I think this is really one of the best because people talk about the selections, along with the winner, for quite some time. Whereas if you win a typical prize, the length of the conversation is much shorter, and it doesn’t necessarily project in people’s car radios and living rooms and kitchens. So I was quite excited because it seemed like a popular way to celebrate and talk about books, including mine.

What do you remember about that show in 2009? 

I remember Avi Lewis was an incredibly passionate defender. I had no idea what was going to happen to the book. It had finally started doing quite well after about a year of being quiet, in terms of sales. It started picking up volume before Canada Reads. I thought that maybe the other defenders would collude to throw it off to make sure it got out of the running early. I was sort of expecting that might happen, but thankfully it didn’t. I remember having some really lovely chats with Avi about what people might say that was negative about the book, so that we could prepare a strategy for him to counter those potentially negative arguments.

What was it like having your book critiqued on such a public platform? 

Some authors say — I sometimes have trouble believing it — that they never read criticisms of their books, but I feel that I have a moral obligation to read what people have to say about my work — what the critics say, what a reviewer is saying, including when it’s bad — because I go to all the trouble to put a book out there and I’d like to see how the world is responding to my art and maybe learn a thing or two from the responses that my work generates. And so, The Book of Negroes sailed through most reviews and wasn’t criticized very heavily. But I have faced much more intense criticism for earlier books, so I was steeled for it.

I was also ready for the knives to come out. In some Canada Reads, people really do bring out the elbows and say some pretty nasty things about books. But I listened to everything and I felt OK with it. I think having been a journalist myself and having read the reviews of my books in the past, including the negative ones, I was emotionally prepared to have the book slapped around a little bit.

This image released by Entertainment One/BET shows Aunjanue Ellis, left, and Cuba Gooding Jr. in a scene from The Book of Negros. The six-part miniseries received 11 Canadian Screen Award nominations in television and one in digital. (Joe Alblas/Entertainment One/BET/Associated Press)

I guess it’s good that you were ready for that in 2009 because in 2016, the elbows did come out. Adam Copeland called The Illegal a Will Smith action movie, and he didn’t mean that in a positive way. What did you think about comments like that? 

I actually like Will Smith and I don’t mind action movies either, so I wasn’t too troubled by that. The Illegal is meant to be like an action movie, in the sense that you open the page and it should feel like the first step of a marathon. Because the protagonist is an elite marathoner in desperately difficult situations as an undocumented refugee, the whole book should feel like you’re running in a fast-paced marathon. From end to end, it is full of action and I liked it that way. It’s meant to be a book with a heavy plot. A lot worse things can be said about a book. 

I feel like will, determination and perseverance are these prevailing themes, from you as a human being to your characters in the book to Clara Hughes defending your book.

I’ve always admired Clara Hughes. I was a failed runner. I hoped to be an Olympian. I hoped to win the gold medal in the 5,000-metre race when I was a young boy. I raced and raced and raced and never could become a great runner. I did not have the body to go along with the will. So my dreams burned up when I was 17 and I realized I wasn’t ever going to be that elite runner that I tried so hard to be. I’ve always followed individual track, cycling and speed skating events — the cardio events that involve individual strength and endurance have always been the ones that attract me the most. So I’d followed Clara’s career with great delight. And it was so amazing to have a book that features an elite marathoner represented by one of the greatest Canadian athletes of all time.

It was so amazing to have a book that features an elite marathoner represented by one of the greatest Canadian athletes of all time.

I think one of the things in life — and I talk to young people about this — is to find the thing that you really love and to be aware of the fact that your first dream might burn up in ashes, as mine did. Often the people who are most joyous are the people who failed at something, pivoted and found something else to really focus on.

So it’s not true that you can do anything you want if you try hard enough. Not everybody’s going to win an Olympic gold medal in the 5,000-metre race and not everybody is going to win Canada Reads or become an astronaut. But it is true that life is so much more interesting if you’re going after the things that you love.

How do you feel about the concept of the show?

I love the concept because it brings — to the kitchens, car radios, bedrooms and living rooms — conversations about books extended over several weeks. In my experience, watching what’s happened to other people who were nominated but didn’t win, a number of people still do very well after having been shortlisted and discussed on Canada Reads. It does elevate the profile of books, including those who don’t win.

I have stood in lines in bookstores where the people ahead of me said to the salesperson, ‘I want to buy all the Canada Reads-nominated books this year.’ I’m in favour of it because I feel it popularizes literature and gets ordinary folk talking about books. 

As a celebrated author, as somebody who writes continuously, what do you hope to see happen in, let’s say, the next 20 Canada Reads

I’d like to see it continue to be popularized. I’d love to see the conversations that emanate from Canada Reads projected to and involve high school students. Those are often readers who, if they get excited as teenagers, will continue to read with great passion through their lives. 

I hope that Canada Reads will find ways to continue to celebrate Black, Indigenous and writers of colour because we have a long way to go before there’s parity and equality in Canadian society.

I don’t know exactly how this would translate into action, but I also still feel very strongly that Black and Indigenous writers and writers of colour are still vastly underrepresented in the world of literature. It’s very hard for us to make inroads internationally, and winning and being involved in competitions like Canada Reads helps us not only in Canada, but also out into the world; it gets attention and sales, which is a very difficult thing to do. I hope that Canada Reads will find ways to continue to celebrate Black, Indigenous and writers of colour because we have a long way to go before there’s parity and equality in Canadian society and those inequalities show up in the world of publishing too.

Lawrence Hill’s comments have been edited for length and clarity.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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