Canada Reads: In Defence of Lawrence Hill’s The Illegal

Canada Reads. 2016. CBC Books.

This year the theme of Canada Reads is “starting over.” Some of our writers decided to join in and defend some of the short-listed titles.

My siblings are second generation Canadians, but I, along with my parents, am first generation. The Illegal, Lawrence Hill, WW Norton, 2016My father came ahead of us to set up, while little me (at a year-and-a-half) and my mother followed suit. We all came for a better life, but no immigrant’s story is the same. My father was born in Somalia, but grew up in Kenya where he met my mom. My mom, however, didn’t go to Kenya because she thought she’d have a great time. She ran there with her family at fifteen years old when the Somali civil war broke out. Kenya was a forced new beginning, but Canada was her chosen second chance, her time to start over. What she went through doesn’t leave someone untransformed, and I’ve glimpsed those emotional scars over the years, but being my mother, she wanted my beginnings unhindered by her ghosts.

In choosing which book we were going to defend, Lawrence Hill’s The Illegal was totally accidental. I didn’t really know what the book was about and that it was written by one of the most well known Canadian authors, whose bestselling book, The Book of Negroes, was recently made into a CBC miniseries and was also declared the winner of 2009’s Canada Reads. I guess you could call this a returning champ defending their title and Clara Hughes—the defender of The Illegal in this year’s debates—knows a lot about that as a six-time Olympic medalist.

The Olympics plays a big role in the life of Keita Ali who aspires to run in it for his country: Zantoroland. Running is his passion, his drive, his source of survival and a saviour. He’s forced to run for his life, from his home, when he’s targeted by the Zantoroland government for his father’s outspoken political views and criticisms. He does so figuratively, but also literally as he signs with sports agent, Anton Hamm, and uses that opportunity to compete to hide in Freedom State—the democratic sister nation whose Family Party won on the campaign promise to deport refugees or “illegals” back home. The story involves multiple points of view, which are interlocking in ways that the characters themselves don’t realize until the very end. I’m always hesitant with multiple POVs, but Lawrence is a master at the game, and it got me turning the page wondering how and when this would all connect.

It’s a story about immigration, as well as racial politics. Freedom State had enslaved Zantorolanders for nearly 200 years before abolishing the practice and returning most of them back to Zantoroland. Zantoroland is a black nation and poor, while Freedom State is a mostly white populace that’s pretty wealthy, but the thing about slavery and colonialism that span centuries is that the act of just “returning” people to where they “come from” becomes complicated. You’re talking generations of people who called this place home despite how cruel it was to them and expecting them to go to a place they have no relationship with. The bodies and the immigration policies are racialized and it attempts to understand how someone can deem a human being’s existence illegal especially when these people aren’t just running towards opportunity but also running away from death. It’s about those fleeing as much about those who’ve every right to stay with roots there but no paper to prove it.

It’s a timely book with the influx of Syrian refugees around the world who have either been welcomed with open arms or in some cases, shunned for being suspected security threats. It matters because people of colour especially black americans have to deal with their citizenship scrutinized because official paper can only protect you up until a certain point. It’s cute when we talk of Canada the tolerant, but we must remember that racism can take many forms, like the shapeshifter it is, and we’ve just pushed it behind closed doors. Like the good Canadians that we are.

Hill has created two fictional nations to help remove histories and allegiances and allow us to examine the issue with some distance. Well, relative distance. I am, of course, a black Muslim woman with immigrant parents who is also technically an immigrant (but I can never remember that part). It’s a book about the type of second chance that Canada builds its reputation on and maybe a reminder of why being more receptive to refugees and those seeking a new life is important. We can’t expect people to hold out their hand for us if we don’t do the same.

Ardo Omer

Ardo Omer

Former WWAC editor. Current curmudgeon and Batman's personal assistant. Icon art by Diana Sim.