Lawrence Hill is the son of American immigrants — a black father and a white mother — who came to Canada the day after they married in 1953 in Washington, D.C. On his father’s side, Hill’s grandfather and great grandfather were university-educated, ordained ministers of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. His mother came from a Republican family in Oak Park, Illinois, graduated from Oberlin College and went on to become a civil rights activist in D.C. Growing up in the predominantly white suburb of Don Mills, Ontario in the sixties, Hill was greatly influenced by his parents’ work in the human rights movement. Much of Hill’s writing touches on issues of identity and belonging.
Hill’s first passion was running, and as a boy he dreamed of winning an Olympic gold medal in the 5,000 meters. But despite years of intense training and thousands of kilometers, he never managed to run quite fast enough. As a teenager, he consoled himself by deciding to become a writer instead, and at 14 he wrote his first story on his mother’s L.C. Smith typewriter. It was a bad story, and a good beginning.
Hill is now the author of nine books of fiction and non-fiction. In 2005, he won his first honor for his work, a National Magazine Award for the article “Is Africa’s Pain Black America’s Burden?” published in The Walrus. But it was his third novel, The Book of Negroes— published in some countries as Someone Knows My Name and in French as Aminata —that brought his writing to broad public attention. The novel won several awards, including The Rogers/Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, both CBC Radio’s Canada Reads and Radio Canada’s Le Combat des livres, and The Commonwealth Prize for Best Book, which came with a private audience with Queen Elizabeth II. Since 2008, Someone Knows My Name has quietly sold over 150,000 copies.
For nearly five years, the publishing world has been waiting for Lawrence Hill to deliver his next great novel. The Illegal. Keita Ali has nothing: no bank account, no papers, no legal identity. A runner, he has fled home—a brutal dictatorship that produces the world’s fastest marathoners—to live as an illegal refugee in a wealthy western nation, surviving on winnings from local races. But the government is cracking down on illegal immigrants, so Keita—who will be executed if he is deported to his homeland—goes underground. Now, a series of crises call for him to earn quick money: an unscrupulous businessman targets him, a serious health problem erupts, and, most troublingly, officials in Keita’s native country kidnap his sister, threatening to execute her unless he pays a ransom. As Keita struggles to resolve these problems, he discovers a troubling political connection between his native and his adopted country. The Illegal is a rich, riveting novel that weaves a complex moral and psychological web.
The Highway is tentatively scheduled for an April 2015 release. Four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1942, Clayton French, a 22-year-old African-American engineer stationed in Camp Livingston, Louisiana, is ordered from his bed and barracks and put on a train with hundreds of other African-American soldiers. After nearly two weeks on a train with no idea of its destination, it turns out that 4,000 African-American soldiers are to be employed, along with thousands of other white American soldiers, in the construction of the 1,500-mile Alaska-Canada Highway. Passing through northern British Columbia and Yukon en route to Alaska, the Alaska-Canada Highway was ordered built to defend against a possible invasion by Japanese forces through Alaska. The highway brought thousands of African-American soldiers for the first time into the far north of Canada and Alaska, where they inalterably changed the social and physical landscape of northern Canada and Alaska.