Lawrence Hill delivers Massey Lectures

Elaine Corden Special for the News Lawrence Hill doesn't have the voice you'd expect just from reading his writing.

Lawrence Hill doesn’t have the voice you’d expect just from reading his writing.

The critically acclaimed author, whose 2007 novel The Book of Negroes won the 2008 overall Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and was named the official selection for the 2009 edition of CBC’s Canada Reads, is commanding on the page, evoking the bass or baritone of a confident valedictorian.

But in person – out loud – Hill is soft spoken, a natural high tenor with a tendency to talk in a near whisper.

It’s a fact Yukoners discovered when Hill was writer-in-residence at The Berton House Writers’ Retreat in Dawson City in the spring of 2012. There, Hill, who insisted new friends call him “Larry,” impressed Dawsonites with a genuinely humble approach to spending three months in the Klondike.

Rather than regale those clamouring to have the respected author at their dinner parties with well-practiced writerly anecdotes, Hill made for an interested, undeniably curious guest – as dedicated to finding out about his hosts as he was to sharing his own stories.

After he departed, those same dinner party throwers were delighted to find Hill had not forgotten them. Gifts arrived – stock pots for those who’d cooked him soup, presents for the young child of another dinner host, simple notes of thanks. Hill is a clearly a man made of no small amount of grace.

It will be fascinating then, for them and others to tune in to CBC Radio One’s Ideas this week, where every night the program will rebroadcast one of the five Massey Lectures that Hill delivered to live audiences across Canada this past October. Entitled Blood: The Stuff of Life, and adapted from a new book by Hill of the same name (his eighth), the lecture series addresses how much the red stuff coursing through our veins shapes who we are, how we think, and what we’re willing to die for.

As Hill’s writing tends to draw on the personal and place it in the context of the political or social, perhaps these lectures provide some insight into what makes Hill such a generous and gracious soul.

On the phone from Lester B. Pearson International Airport, waiting for a plane that will take him to Calgary, which has chosen The Book of Negroes for its 2013 One Book, One Calgary event, Hill is sometimes barely audible beneath the background bustle around him.

“It was a year and a half ago when they asked me to be the (2013 Massey lecturer),” says Hill of the honour, which has previously been bestowed on world-renowned thinkers including Martin Luther King Jr., Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, and Noam Chomsky. “At first, I had to think really hard about what kind of book and lectures I was going to create. I’ve always loved to challenge the two sides of myself – the pure and creative novelistic side where I spend most of my time, but also more as a public intellectual. Which is another way of thinking and another way of entering the world that I very much wanted to develop. So the invitation came along at a time when I very much wanted to develop my skills as a public thinker.”

The topic on which Hill eventually settled is hardly surprising for those familiar with his work: for years, Hill has written about being a person of mixed race in Canada, and what role his genetic makeup – his blood – plays in who he is as a human being. He’s also been a keen advocate for social justice, a pursuit whose very aim is to prevent that fluid’s spillage.

Still, blood, that common matter on which we are all dependent, creates all kinds of uncomfortable reactions, some as innocuous as fainting over a paper-cut and others as horrific as mass genocide.

“I want to talk about things that I feel people don’t like to think about, or places where we have a lot of unexamined conversations, whether that’s about how we think about blood and race, or who we will allow to donate blood, or embryonic stem cell research, or doping in sports,” he says, adding that at his first lecture in the series, held at Concordia University, he did indeed have an audience member pass out in the first minute.

“My own son, who’s 19, when I was researching the book and talking to him about it, would say, ‘I just can’t handle this, Dad.’” says Hill.

Hill’s familial relationships are just one of the elements of blood he addresses in his lectures and book. The child of a black father and a white mother, Hill writes of being confounded by his “true” identity until a life-saving blood transfusion in Niger in the late 1970s released him from the idea that his blood defined his personhood.

Likewise, Hill scoffs at the idea that his writing abilities came via the “blood” of his mother and father – both noted intellectuals. Hill even rejects the idea that parental love itself is blood-bound, citing his five children (three biological and two step-children) as irrefutable proof that blood is not the sole fuel of familial love.

Unsurprisingly for a subject as universal as blood, Hill’s lectures and book meander all over the map, weaving in personal stories, war histories, art theory, feminist politics, iconic cultural moments, and well-researched science to illustrate how key the matter is to all of our human interactions. One gets the feeling he had far more than five lectures’ worth of material.

Still, he’ll eventually move on to the next topic that interests him, when the world will finally let him.

First off, though, there’s rounds of interviews about the Massey Lectures, then there’s working on drafts of his next novel, about a marathon runner (a subject dear to Hill’s heart – he trained as a teen to make the Canadian Olympic team for the 26.2-mile race, only to be told upon testing that he had the blood of a 40-something smoker and should pursue writing).

In spring 2014, he’ll be in Nova Scotia to supervise the miniseries adaptation of The Book of Negroes, which was optioned for adaptation by CBC (Canada) and BET (US) last fall.

Eventually, though, he’ll return to the north of Canada, to finish working on a book he began researching during his Berton House residency – a story focusing on the 3,000 black Americans brought from the southern United States to help build the Alaska Highway. Hill says he has collected a massive amount of research on the issue, and is just waiting for the time to work on it all.

Right now, it seems time is almost as precious as blood for the in-demand writer. So Yukoners will just have to settle for hearing that soft tenor of his on their radio: a voice in the blood, if not the flesh.