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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Yukon Employees’ Union says a lack of staff training and high turnover at the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter is creating a dangerous situation for underpaid workers. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon Employees’ Union says lack of training at emergency shelter leading to unsafe situations

Health and Social Services Minister Pauline Frost said the staffing policy “is evolving”

Justice Karen Wenckebach will begin serving as resident judge on the Yukon Supreme Court early next year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
All-female justice roster ‘a good step’ for diversity in Yukon Supreme Court

Karen Wenckebach is the third woman appointed to the Yukon Supreme Court in history

The Liberal government blocked a motion by Yukon Party MLA Brad Cathers that would have asked the federal government to provide the territories with more than a per capita amount of COVID-19 vaccine doses during initial distribution. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon Party says a per capita distribution of vaccines would leave Yukon short

The opposition is also asking the government to release their plan for vaccine distribution

asdf
WYATT’S WORLD

Wyatt’s World for Dec. 4, 2020

Dawson City’s BHB Storage facility experienced a break-and-enter last month, according to Yukon RCMP. (File photo)
Storage lockers damaged, items stolen in Dawson City

BHB Storage facility victim to second Dawson City break-and-enter last month

A sign outside the Yukon Inn Convention Centre indicates Yukoners can get a flu vaccine inside. As of Dec. 4, the vaccinations won’t be available at the convention centre. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Whitehorse Convention Centre ends flu vaccination service early

Flu vaccinations won’t be available at the Whitehorse Convention Centre after Dec.… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Nominations continue to be open for Northern Tutchone members of the White River First Nation to run for councillors in the 2021 election. (Maura Forrest/Yukon News File)
White River First Nation to elect new chief and council

Nominations continue to be open for Northern Tutchone members of the White… Continue reading

The Town of Watson Lake has elected John Devries as a new councillor in a byelection held Dec. 3. (Wikimedia Commons)
Watson Lake elects new councillor

The Town of Watson Lake has elected John Devries as a new… Continue reading

The new Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation council elected Dec. 1. (Submitted)
Little Salmon Carmacks elects new chief, council

Nicole Tom elected chief of Little Salmon Carcmacks First Nation

Submitted/Yukon News file
Yukon RCMP’s Historical Case Unit is seeking information related to the unsolved homicide of Allan Donald Waugh, 69, who was found deceased in his house on May 30, 2014.
Yukon RCMP investigating unsolved Allan Waugh homicide

Yukon RCMP’s Historical Case Unit is seeking information related to an unsolved… Continue reading

A jogger runs along Millenium Trail as the sun rises over the trees around 11 a.m. in Whitehorse on Dec. 12, 2018. The City of Whitehorse could soon have a new trail plan in place to serve as a guide in managing the more than 233 kilometres of trails the city manages. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
2020 trail plan comes forward

Policies and bylaws would look at e-mobility devices

Snow-making machines are pushed and pulled uphill at Mount Sima in 2015. The ski hill will be converting snow-making to electric power with more than $5 million in funding from the territorial and federal governments. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Mount Sima funded to cut diesel reliance

Mount Sima ski hill is converting its snowmaking to electric power with… Continue reading

Most Read