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On the run: Hill's new novel a timely look at the plight of refugees

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/9/2015 (1225 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For every image in the news of a distressed refugee, there is a heart-wrenching story. But viral images can only tell so much of an individual's complex life experiences. Enter Lawrence Hill's riveting and humane third novel, The Illegal.

The Illegal is a page-turning political thriller that makes the idea of "running for your life" literal. It starts with the story of Keita Ali, a talented long-distance runner who must flee his fictive homeland in the Indian Ocean, Zantoroland, after his dissident father is murdered by a corrupt regime. He travels to the closest colonial power, Freedom State, which is run by an anti-immigrant government intent on deporting anyone without documentation. Keita joins thousands of other "illegals" in AfricTown, where people live in shipping containers at the mercy of an organized crime queen.

As Keita goes underground, the novel opens up to other stories: the immigration minister who is the reluctant spokesperson of an increasingly xenophobic government; a wealthy senior citizen whose right to independent living is being challenged by her feckless son; the female police officer who is working from within the system; a teenage filmmaking protege whose education is taking place on the streets; a brutish elite marathon manager who claims 90 per cent of his runners' prizes; and a wheelchair-using sports journalist hoping to be taken seriously as a political investigator.

Hill invents Zantoroland and Freedom State, placing them off the east coast of Africa. Because it is set in 2018 in a fictional geography of state violence and intensified surveillance, it might be tempting to call The Illegal a dystopian fiction along the lines of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. But the events of The Illegal are much closer to our present reality -- even more than Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake or PD James's Children of Men, Hill's novel imagines a near future both highly plausible and alarmingly recognizable.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/9/2015 (1225 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For every image in the news of a distressed refugee, there is a heart-wrenching story. But viral images can only tell so much of an individual's complex life experiences. Enter Lawrence Hill's riveting and humane third novel, The Illegal.

The Illegal is a page-turning political thriller that makes the idea of "running for your life" literal. It starts with the story of Keita Ali, a talented long-distance runner who must flee his fictive homeland in the Indian Ocean, Zantoroland, after his dissident father is murdered by a corrupt regime. He travels to the closest colonial power, Freedom State, which is run by an anti-immigrant government intent on deporting anyone without documentation. Keita joins thousands of other "illegals" in AfricTown, where people live in shipping containers at the mercy of an organized crime queen.

Lawrence Hill

SUPPLIED PHOTO

Lawrence Hill

As Keita goes underground, the novel opens up to other stories: the immigration minister who is the reluctant spokesperson of an increasingly xenophobic government; a wealthy senior citizen whose right to independent living is being challenged by her feckless son; the female police officer who is working from within the system; a teenage filmmaking protege whose education is taking place on the streets; a brutish elite marathon manager who claims 90 per cent of his runners' prizes; and a wheelchair-using sports journalist hoping to be taken seriously as a political investigator.

Hill invents Zantoroland and Freedom State, placing them off the east coast of Africa. Because it is set in 2018 in a fictional geography of state violence and intensified surveillance, it might be tempting to call The Illegal a dystopian fiction along the lines of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. But the events of The Illegal are much closer to our present reality — even more than Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake or PD James's Children of Men, Hill's novel imagines a near future both highly plausible and alarmingly recognizable.

Hamilton-based Hill is at the forefront of contemporary Canadian writing. He grew up in Newmarket, Ont., in a mixed-race family of human rights activists. After giving up his dream of becoming an Olympic runner, he became a writer of fiction and non-fiction. He has published 10 books, won numerous awards, received five honorary degrees, delivered the 2013 Massey Lectures and is a member of the Order of Canada.

Hill became a household name when his second novel, The Book of Negroes, won the CBC Radio Canada Reads, the Commonwealth Prize for Best Book, and was selected by Oprah's influential O magazine as a summer read. A television miniseries aired recently on CBC and its director, Clement Virgo, has also obtained the film rights to The Illegal.

Running is a major feature of this novel, and part of what makes it such a heart-pounding story. The only way Keita can raise the money he needs to survive is by winning races. Hill takes us inside the mind and body of an elite marathoner strategizing over start positions, calculating split times and psyching out his competition.

Running also makes plausible the otherwise-unlikely meetings between characters. Worlds collide as the disparate characters group together at race starts and pass each other on training courses. It is an effective narrative device and a leveller: even the most privileged runners in their pricey gear cannot beat Keita's graceful athleticism.

Like The Book of Negroes, The Illegal does not flinch from depicting the violence and suffering inflicted on black bodies as a result of imperialism, colonialism and racism. At the same time, The Illegal is a return to Hill's first novel, Some Great Thing, published in 1992 and set in Winnipeg.

This earlier novel is based on Hill's time as a parliamentary correspondent for the Winnipeg Free Press. It introduces two of the characters in The Illegal. Keita's father, Yoyo, is a Cameroonian journalist visiting Winnipeg. The man who goes on to be his New York newspaper contact in The Illegal, Mahatma Grafton, is the protagonist of Some Great Thing.

These connections are a pleasant reward for readers of Hill's earlier work, but are also symbolic. They remind us that the protagonist of one story is always a minor character in someone else's. Hill has moved on to the next generation in The Illegal, and while his characters have left Winnipeg, their lives continue to touch each other's.

The narrative structure of The Illegal is artful and suspenseful, the themes it addresses timely and prescient. Most of all, it is a thrilling story that paints a rich portrait of complex experiences too often reduced to a single media image.

 

Candida Rifkind teaches Canadian literature and graphic narratives in the department of English at the University of Winnipeg.

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History

Updated on Saturday, September 12, 2015 at 8:13 AM CDT: Formatting.

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