With five children, Lawrence Hill has, like many dads, read a lot of stories. He read the Harry Potter canon with them and, while sitting on the edge of a child’s bed, he even made up a few things.
Now, the Southern Ontario writer, beloved for his adult books including “The Book of Negroes” (and the television miniseries that followed) and “The Illegal,” along with non-fiction work including “Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada,” has written his first book for children, based on the stories he told his daughter Beatrice, who is now 22, when she was young. We spoke to Hill via Zoom ahead of the publication of “Beatrice and Croc Harry.”
This is quite a departure for you, writing for this young audience.
This book was something special to write. It allowed me to go to a place that I’ve never been able to go to in writing typical literary fiction for adults. It allowed me to be ridiculously over the top with language and with playfulness. It allowed me to enter into a made-up world, and just throw off a lot of the limitations of literary fiction. It allowed me to be just that dad, you know, at the edge of the bed, making up all sorts of stuff, but hopefully doing a good job of it.
What made the time right to turn them into a book?
I was stuck with another book, and it was very frustrating. I’ve never had that experience before, of not been able to get traction in a book. I got tired of just hitting my head against the wall and I thought, “Come on, write something.” (And then I asked) that question we all ask ourselves when we are writers: “What can I write? What’s bursting to come out? What can I draw upon?” And what was ready was this novel, so I wrote it because I guess I felt I could.
What did writing in this genre allow you that other genres — fiction, non-fiction — haven’t?
It allowed me to try something that I think is really difficult, which is to write with a light touch about deeply painful issues. It’s dangerous, you can offend people, you can go too far, it’s easy to make a mistake, when you’re writing about serious issues, trying to be funny, or at least light and have a light touch. Writing for children allowed me to try that. And to try to bring up my funnies and my sillies while writing about things that I really cared about.
Beatrice wakes up in a tree house, which on the one hand seems a lot of fun, but she doesn’t know her name, she knows nothing about herself, which is very disconcerting.
This is really what happened to African peoples who are hauled across the ocean. Their descendants could know nothing practical, nothing immediate, nothing lived, about their languages, or their homeland or even where their people came from. It was such a complete rupture from one’s past, and the language, family, knowledge of geography, everything, gone. I felt that I wanted to get at that idea, but in a whole different way, by dropping Beatrice in a forest where, through no fault of her own, she’s basically been excommunicated. She’s been sent away, without her agreement, to a place where she knows nothing. And that allows me to allow her to begin to discover her identity from scratch.
There’s a power in telling a fable, with animals and other characters, that allow us to get to truths that might be uncomfortable.
When I told Beatrice these stories 15 years ago — she 22 now — when she was five, six, seven (years old) they were about a girl who kept outfoxing a crocodile, and I would tell another variation the next day. And so, I started to ask myself what can the story really be about? I felt that I would write a story about the reassembling of a lost identity. This was another way to get at something that I’ve been pursuing for decades now, which is to explore and dramatize human identity.
There was also the giant, Brian, whose brain she enters. There’s something in there about mutual understanding.
Beatrice begins to discover the edges of the human world and to begin to perceive the extremity of hate in the world and just how deep seated and ugly it is. Rather than just having her perceive an unending wall of hatred, I wanted to give her an opportunity to attempt to make sense of it, to attempt to get in the head, literally, of a purveyor of hatred. What’s the sense of being completely two-dimensional about it? I wanted to give Beatrice at least a foothold in understanding the origins of hatred.
One of the things that Beatrice finds in her tree house is St. Lawrence’s Dictionary of Only The Best Words Real and Concocted words. A bit of fun, but also saying something about the power of language and creating your own words?
Well, I grew up hearing a lot of made-up words (from) my father. Words like gouzelum and willielumplump. These were words that completely populated my own childhood. I just loved them because they were so rich and colourful. We didn’t watch a lot of TV when I was growing up in Don Mills in the ’60s but one of my favourite activities was to watch my father watching TV, because he would throw such colourful insults at the tennis players or the boxers.
Beatrice’s hair is mentioned a lot in this book. Why?
Back in 2001, I brought out a kind of a memoir/essay book called “Black Berry, Sweet Juice,” which is on being Black and white in Canada. I thought that one chapter, (Hair Issues) might be considered too superficial, or too unimportant. I talked about Black hair and growing into an awareness of how I wanted to manage it as a teenager, but also talked to other people, men and women, about how they managed their hair and how their identity was tied up in hair issues. I think everybody can identify with the concept of hair issues, you don’t have to be Black, or a woman.
It seemed like a fun thing to put Beatrice through — it gave her something to do and something that focused on “How can I do something with my hair in this forest when I don’t have any hair products?” It also allows her to begin to discover her identity. And so as she as she begins to work with her hair, and have more success with it, I think she also begins to move very imperceptibly into a state of racial awareness.
How has your family, and Beatrice in particular, reacted to the book?
I have five children. They all read the novel. They all gave me comments. So did my wife, Miranda, who’s also a writer. Some of the children read it several times over the course of the creation, so that was really rich. Beatrice was the last to read it, I think because she was just afraid that it would move her too much to read this book that she’d been hearing other iterations of since she was young. But she did eventually read it, when it was still possible to make fixes. And that was a good conversation we had.
What’s your favourite word?
Gouzelum. I learned it from my father. As far as I know, it’s a made-up word. It refers to this organ in your body just a little bit north of the hippoflump. And this organ in your body really represents your soul. Not everybody gets to have a gouzelum. But if you’re a good person, and you do good things, well, maybe you’ll have (one). The gouzelum radiates goodness.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length.