By Gregory Betts
Hamilton author Lawrence Hill writes of black bodies moving through white spaces. His fame came from The Book of Negroes, an international best-seller about the experience of uneven abolitionism in North America. If you’ve even driven past a cottage in the past decade, you’ve probably read this book.
The end of slavery spread slowly — Ontario in 1792, the rest of Canada in 1833, and the United States in 1865 — creating confusion and violent turmoil along that shifting line. Hill evokes the horror, existential despair, and dogged hope of those living in that imbalanced, brutal terrain. Some staring into freedom. Some sucked back into that hell.
Although his most recent novel also deals with slavery, abolition, and the messy aftermath, The Illegals (2015) discards the historical fiction by presenting two invented island nations in an imaginary sea. Zantoroland is a pillaged colony of mostly black people struggling to get by in a failed state. Freedom State is a rich, white nation once boosted by slaves from Zantoroland. The freed slaves were encouraged to return from whence they were taken. Undocumented migrants and refugees from Zantoroland, however, continue to risk passage to Freedom State, despite its open hostility, precisely because of how bad things are back home.
The Illegals perfectly answers two Sunday afternoon questions: who are those amazingly talented African marathon runners that win or challenge every international race? and, how do they manage to train at such an elite level, especially those who come from the poorest nations of the continent?
In telling their story, Hill anticipates the current rise of populist backlash against refugees and undocumented migrants. Syria, Libya, and Mexico have become flashpoints, indeed are used like blunt instruments in a new incalcitrant politics of race-baiting, fear-mongering, and naked profiteering. These are the exact themes of Hill’s novel (and, for that matter, every North American newspaper since last November).
Hill’s Keita Ali is an elite marathoner from the failed island nation of Zantoroland. He has a world-class talent, but faces significant obstacles to his Olympic dreams. His father is a journalist bent on exposing the corruption of Zantoroland’s dictator. Keita has medical conditions he cannot afford to treat. Running means not working, which increases his financial burden on the family.
When it becomes necessary for him to flee, Keita makes it to Freedom State but slips into the murky, disrupting world of illegal or undocumented migration, and the cycle of poverty begins to swirl around him. It is only running that gives him focus, that pulls him out of the poverty and the entrenched racism he encounters. He runs, a beautiful body moving conspicuously through a white dominated world. Like sand, he is an irritant that can only be made a jewel by the thing trying to purge him.
Hill’s book is obviously timely and deeply relevant to the warped discourse on transnational movement of people that shapes so many contemporary issues. His tales of broken spaces are elegantly rendered and widely pressing. His details of marathon running are sharp and evocative. He is at his best when he writes of the struggle of an almost broken people and of the communities that form in the face of hardship and systemic oppression.
As happened in his first novel, historical fiction inevitably encounters the ambivalence of facts. The world is never so tidy as a yarn. Lives continue after the wedding, or the disaster, and “happily ever after” is an ellipsis that papers over the long slog of daily life. Hill avoids the messiness of the real world by inventing his own fictional world. The problem, however, is that the strength of the book stems from its relevance to the real world. His pat closure at the end feels like a Hollywood compromise rather than a genuine insight into the challenges of our moment.
There are significant attempts by leftists and the far right to delegitimize the multicultural, pluralist, and settler (if you will) societies that emerged over the past two centuries. The experiment is being challenged by intense and sophisticated forces, including by many legitimate criticisms of ongoing inequality, systemic racism and sexism, and more. Hill puts his face right into that mess, and pulls his readers into the muck with him, but turns away at the exact moment when that shitpile might become something fertilizing. It is a book of now, then, without a north star beckoning.