Author, Lawrence Hill, is sitting in a comfy red chair at the cushy office space of Pier 21 and is thankful he decided to put down his running shoes and write about a runner instead in his latest novel, The Illegal.
“There aren’t too many parallels because Keita is an elite marathoner and I was a lousy runner,” says Hill laughingly.
On Thursday night, Hill was in Halifax to discuss and read passages from his new book which was released on Tuesday. Hosted by Pier 21 as part of its Pier 21 Reads series, the event was a suitable setting for a story related to immigration.
The novel tells the story of Keita Ali, a young African marathon runner who is literally running for his life in the hopes of avoiding deportation from a well-off nation called Freedom State. His talents as a runner help him to earn cash prizes needed to survive, but he remains an illegal citizen in the country.
The story explores a plethora of issues related to identity, but is mostly focused on the hardships faced by illegal immigrants seeking refuge — an issue that has dominated headlines in recent months.
“Right now I’m not feeling very hopeful about our current government’s response… expressing empathy in a moment of tragedy, but not really doing anything,” said Hill, referencing the crisis in Syria.
Global refugee crises have inspired Hill to write The Illegal, but also stories that are closer to his heart. Hill revealed that his own sister fell in love with a Sudanese refugee who lived undocumented in Berlin in the 1980s. He explained that this man was a political cartoonist before fleeing his country, but resorted to drawing caricatures in the streets of Europe to make a living.
“Watching that kind of hustle started making me think about statelessness and how people survive when they have no legal basis to live in a country,” Hill said during a pre-reading interview with Vice Chair, Troy Myers of Pier 21’s Board of Trustees.
Attending the reading was an eclectic, multi-racial crowd of young and old. According to Pier 21’s communications coordinator, Stéphanie Comeau, the filled-to-capacity event seated around 450 people.
Pier 21 CEO, Marie Chapman was also present at the event — and instead of asking attendees to donate money to the museum, encouraged the audience to make a donation to the Halifax Refugee Clinic in honor of Hill, and all of the refugees who live in the community.
With acquisition rights for a feature-film adaptation of The Illegal finalized Hill plans to keep the conversation of refugees going. In the meantime, he hopes readers take away a new appreciation for stateless individuals.
“I think it’s a common mistake to assume that an immigrant or a refugee is a ‘load’ on the country,” said Hill. “Canada was built by immigrants and refugees … it’s very short sighted, myopic, and wrong even economically to assume that immigrants and refugees of this country are going to be a tax on this country.”