The Eastern Fraser Valley Refugee Committee is hosting acclaimed novelist Lawrence Hill at a speaking event on May 11 in support of the local sponsored refugee families.
Hill’s work as an author is greatly influenced by issues surrounding human rights, identity and belonging.
As of the announcement in March, he is the first author to win two CBC Canada Reads competitions, in 2009 for The Book of Negroes (pub. 2007) and in 2016 for The Illegal (pub. 2015).
In his latest novel The Illegal, Hill’s protagonist Keita Ali was a marathoner, dreaming of becoming an elite Olympic runner. “But when his country descended into the hell of ethnic genocide, he had to flee,” Hill explained. “Now, he’s running for his life.”
In a time when the world is facing such an incredible refugee crisis, there are many stories to be told, much to learn, and much to discuss. As a character, Keita represents a person whose story often overlooked.
But it’s a story that Hill believes must be told.
“It’s hard for us to imagine the life of a refugee, particularly a refugee without papers,” Hill said. In The Illegal, he gave a face to the faceless, and a voice to the voiceless.
Hill doesn’t claim to be a refugee expert.
If a person’s goal is to find factual information about refugees today or in the past, Hill would direct them to a report by the United Nations or perhaps an immigration lawyer.
But as a novelist, he is an artist.
“If your goal is more subtle, perhaps to evoke empathy, expand your imagination, to think more richly and with more depth – a work of art might be your best ally,” he said.
The Book of Negroes was recognized with the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize (2007), the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (2008) and was adapted into a television mini-series in 2015, winning nine Canadian Screen Awards.
The Illegal will also be adapted into a television series, for which Hill is currently in the midst of co-writing the first episodes.
The upcoming Chilliwack event was the result of Hill’s conversation with Karen Medland, Reverand of Carman United Church and a spokesperson for the Eastern Fraser Valley Refugee Committee, at a refugee fundraiser that took place in Kelowna back in December.
In addition to planning the Chilliwack speaking engagement, Hill was “profoundly influenced” and motivated to action by the event.
“All these ordinary people were raising money to bring refugees to Kelowna. And it struck me that I could do the same.”
Much as several groups have done in Chilliwack, Hill and his wife Miranda started their own sponsorship group Longer Table in Hamilton, Ontario. With the help of friends, neighbours, volunteer organizations and Olympian Clara Hughes, they raised the $30,000 needed to bring a family of seven Syrian refugees to Canada.
“There is no more pressing humanitarian issue in the world today than the plight of refugees,” Hill expressed.
At the event, he’ll be speaking about The Illegal, including the writing process and a few excerpts, as well as why he wrote it and what the subject means to him.
He expects that the conversation will quickly evolve to include the modern-day refugee crises in the real world.
“This is an opportunity to talk and engage, share and put our heads together.”
Lawrence Hill speaks in Chilliwack about refugees, in his fiction and in the world, on May 11 at 7 p.m. at Cornerstone Reform Church (9800 McNaught Rd).
A full complement of the author’s books will be available for purchase and signing.
Proceeds from ticket sales go toward the work of the Eastern Fraser Valley Refugee Committee, the group of six churches who combine their efforts and resources to sponsor Syrian refugees.