Thanks in large part to the formidable case presented by Hill’s literary-champion and six time Olympic medal-winner Clara Hughes, best-selling author Lawrence Hill took the home final prize at CBC’ annual “Canada Reads” literary competition for the second time today, following four heated days of debate.
The theme of this year’s competition was “Starting Over”, which seems appropriate considering The Illegal‘s plot line illuminates the plight of the migrant experience in Hill’s imagined world of Freedomland. According to Ms. Hughes, the book demystifies the process of migration and unravels the hardships faced by many migrants, including the thousands of the Syrian refugees currently struggling to make sense of their new homes. By “giving a voice to the voiceless, and face to the faceless … [the book] brings us to a state of empathy that is important right now.”
Personally, I am thrilled at Mr. Hill’s win. As you may know from one of my past posts, I’m very interested in the ways in which literature can help to build empathy among readers. That being said, Mr. Hill doesn’t exactly need the acclaim. His 2011 novel The Book of Negroes was a huge success and won many awards including the 2009 CBC “Canada Reads” competition. As a lover of the underdog, a part of me was hoping that one of the other books, Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter, Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz or Birdie by Tracey Lindberg could have won a larger share of the spotlight.
Between Hughes and Hill, I couldn’t help but sigh and think “what a bunch of over-achievers.”
Ah well, check out the other competitors from the library today!
Birdie by Tracey Lindberg (nvcl catalogue)
Monkey Beach meets Green Grass, Running Water meets The Beachcombers in this wise and funny novel by a debut Cree author
Birdie is a darkly comic and moving first novel about the universal experience of recovering from wounds of the past, informed by the lore and knowledge of Cree traditions. Bernice Meetoos, a Cree woman, leaves her home in Northern Alberta following tragedy and travels to Gibsons, BC. She is on something of a vision quest, seeking to understand the messages from The Frugal Gourmet (one of the only television shows available on CBC North) that come to her in her dreams. She is also driven by the leftover teenaged desire to meet Pat Johns, who played Jesse on The Beachcombers, because he is, as she says, a working, healthy Indian man. Bernice heads for Molly’s Reach to find answers but they are not the ones she expected.
With the arrival in Gibsons of her Auntie Val and her cousin Skinny Freda, Bernice finds the strength to face the past and draw the lessons from her dreams that she was never fully taught in life. Part road trip, dream quest and travelogue, the novel touches on the universality of women’s experience, regardless of culture or race.
Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter (nvcl catalogue)
Henry Hayward has been living life the way he’s wanted–working hard, playing hard–but when his girlfriend tells him she’s leaving, it destroys him. In a quest to recover, he joins an army-affiliated contracting crew that takes him overseas to a Canadian base in Afghanistan. In the company of friends, he begins to mend: having laughs and being rebellious, blithely unaware of all he’s left behind. But everything changes during a roadside incursion when a routine patrol turns fatal. And Henry, who survives, knows in his heart that he is responsible.
Upon returning home, tormented by guilt, he resolves to take care of the people and places around him: Martha Groves, whose boyfriend was killed in Afghanistan; his friends and neighbours; and a summer home that needs revitalizing. Henry tries his best to seek roots after a rootless life, collecting around himself a “community of a hundred people” for whom he cares deeply and is responsible. But he hasn’t factored in family history and social infidelity–and Martha has a revelation of her own that may change everything.
Minister Without Portfolio illuminates the power and violence of self-creation. It asks: To whom are we beholden? Who do we adopt–and who couldn’t we live without? It is an emotionally affecting work, filled with truths about the frailties and miracles of human nature, by a writer of exceptional talent.
The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami (nvcl catalogue)
After the release of Anita Rau Badami’s critically acclaimed first novel, Tamarind Mem , it was evident a promising new talent had joined the Canadian literary community. Her dazzling literary follow-up is The Hero’s Walk , a novel teeming with the author’s trademark tumble of the haphazard beauty, wreckage and folly of ordinary lives. Set in the dusty seaside town of Toturpuram on the Bay of Bengal, The Hero’s Walk traces the terrain of family and forgiveness through the lives of an exuberant cast of characters bewildered by the rapid pace of change in today’s India. Each member of the Rao family pits his or her chance at personal fulfillment against the conventions of a crumbling caste and class system.
Anita Rau Badami explains that ” The Hero’s Walk is a novel about so many things: loss, disappointment, choices and the importance of coming to terms with yourself and the circumstances of your life without losing the dignity embedded in all of us. At one level it is about heroism – not the hero of the classic epic, those enormous god-sized heroes – but my fascination with the day-to-day heroes and the heroism that’s needed to survive all the unexpected disasters and pitfalls of life.”
Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz (nvcl catalogue)
Beena and Sadhana are sisters who share a bond that could only have been shaped by the most unusual of childhoods — and by shared tragedy. Orphaned as teenagers, they have grown up under the exasperated watch of their Sikh uncle, who runs a bagel shop in Montreal’s Hasidic community of Mile End. Together, they try to make sense of the rich, confusing brew of values, rituals, and beliefs that form their inheritance. Yet as they grow towards adulthood, their paths begin to diverge. Beena catches the attention of one of the “bagel boys” and finds herself pregnant at sixteen, while Sadhana drives herself to perfectionism and anorexia.
When we first meet the adult Beena, she is grappling with a fresh grief: Sadhana has died suddenly and strangely, her body lying undiscovered for a week before anyone realizes what has happened. Beena is left with a burden of guilt and an unsettled feeling about the circumstances of her sister’s death, which she sets about to uncover. Her search stirs memories and opens wounds, threatening to undo the safe, orderly existence she has painstakingly created for herself and her son.
Heralded across Canada for the power and promise of her debut collection, Mother Superior, Nawaz proves with Bone and Bread that she is one of our most talented and unique storytellers.
The Illegal by Lawrence Hill (nvcl catalogue)
Keita Ali is on the run.
Like every boy on the mountainous island of Zantoroland, running is all Keita’s ever wanted to do. In one of the poorest nations in the world, running means respect. Running means riches—until Keita is targeted for his father’s outspoken political views and discovers he must run for his family’s survival.
He signs on with notorious marathon agent Anton Hamm, but when Keita fails to place among the top finishers in his first race, he escapes into Freedom State—a wealthy island nation that has elected a government bent on deporting the refugees living within its borders in the community of AfricTown. Keita can stay safe only if he keeps moving and eludes Hamm and the officials who would deport him to his own country, where he would face almost certain death.
This is the new underground: a place where tens of thousands of people deemed to be “illegal” live below the radar of the police and government officials. As Keita surfaces from time to time to earn cash prizes by running local road races, he has to assess whether the people he meets are friends or enemies: John Falconer, a gifted student struggling to escape the limits of his AfricTown upbringing; Ivernia Beech, a spirited old woman at risk of being forced into an assisted living facility; Rocco Calder, a recreational marathoner and the immigration minister; Lula DiStefano, self-declared queen of AfricTown and madam of the community’s infamous brothel; and Viola Hill, a reporter who is investigating the lengths to which her government will go to stop illegal immigration.
Keita’s very existence in Freedom State is illegal. As he trains in secret, eluding capture, the stakes keep getting higher. Soon, he is running not only for his life, but for his sister’s life, too.
Fast moving and compelling, The Illegal casts a satirical eye on people who have turned their backs on undocumented refugees struggling to survive in a nation that does not want them. Hill’s depiction of life on the borderlands of society urges us to consider the plight of the unseen and the forgotten who live among us.