Lawrence Hill has said that The Illegal, his fourth novel, has been on his mind since he first met Sudanese refugees in West Berlin in the 1980s. After that long gestation, the book now seems especially timely. This dystopian contribution to the genre of refugee lit (What Is the What by Dave Eggers, Ru by Kim Thuy) hit bookshelves this fall during the most acute refugee crisis since the end of World War Two.
Readers will recall Hill’s poignant third novel, The Book of Negroes, which won both the Commonwealth Writers and the Rogers Writers’ Trust prizes for its startlingly imagined and dignified protagonist, Aminata Diallo, a girl kidnapped from West Africa and enslaved in the American South. Like Aminata, the protagonist of his new book (male this time) embodies grace, courage and resourcefulness. Keita Ali is incorruptible, kind, but just flawed enough to be real as he struggles to survive as a refugee in the fictional country of Freedom State.
A marathon runner, the 24-year-old Keita has escaped from his homeland of Zantoroland, a fictional island in the middle of the Indian Ocean (red soiled like Madagascar) where the government has assassinated his father and is carrying out a program of genocide against his ethnic “Faloo” people. Keita travels due north to Freedom State, to run a marathon, but also to defect. Not a great choice of sanctuary. Freedom State is an affluent democracy run by a white “European stock” population and built on two centuries of Zantorolander slave labour. When Freedom State abolished slavery, it shipped the freed slaves home. And as the book opens in 2018, the “Family Party” government is still deporting non-citizens and turning back boatloads of refugees from Zantoroland. Some Freedom Staters blame the so-called illegals for filling up their prisons and for black marketeering in AfricTown, a slum of shipping container dwellings and open sewers. Having landed in this unwelcoming refuge, Keita learns that government operatives back in Zantoroland are demanding a ransom for the life of his sister. Soon he is running not just to survive in Freedom State, but to send his race winnings home to save her.
Surprisingly, The Illegal is neither earnest nor serious in its depiction of the plight of the stateless. It is a satirical read, with a blend of thriller and comic elements that borders on farce—a style that hearkens back to Hill’s humorous first novel, Some Great Thing. Just when the reader is expecting a thriller-like plot turn, Hill opts instead for an over-the-top coincidence that amuses, rather than heightens suspense. One character, for instance, decides to go for a run in “the safest place that he could imagine: the running path by the reservoir deep in the heart of Ruddings Park” just after a scene in which someone has assaulted Keita on that very path. Other coincidences occur thanks to the zany omnipresence of a 15-year-old student named John Falconer who materializes with his video camera (sometimes in a brothel bedroom closet) just in time to record instances of corruption by government officials. Most hilarious of all is Keita’s absurd cat-and-mouse game of winning high-profile races while hiding from the authorities. As in all good satire, the reader is initially disoriented, then figures it out. Indeed, the satire does not kick in until page 63, following a less compelling young-adult–toned opening section on Keita’s youth in Zantoroland.
If The Illegal departs in tone from the more serious The Book of Negroes, it shares a preoccupation with the author’s other fiction and non-fiction: race. Hill rarely introduces a character without situating him or her in the colour spectrum. The complexion of John, the young videographer, whose father was half-black, is described by one character as “faded right out” and “mixed awful thin” or by another as “coffee and cream.” Keita himself is only half Faloo, a fictional ethnicity possibly inspired by Barry Pain’s 1910 parody, The Exiles of Faloo. His other half is Bamileke, a real ethnic group from Cameroon. One of the villains in the story is revealed late in the novel to be a white man concealing his black heritage. Race is the key to unlocking each person’s identity; in most cases, the good characters are those who take pride in their heritage.
As in The Book of Negroes, Hill has populated the novel with vividly drawn female characters: Ivernia Beech, an 85-year-old library volunteer struggling to stay out of court-determined assisted living and trying to keep her greedy son from depriving her of her autonomy; Lula DiStefano, the philanthropic landlady of AfricTown and ruthless brothel owner, “an angel one moment, and a shark the next” who exuded “endless energy, but it was hard to tell how she channelled it: to love people, or to harm them”; Viola Hill, a disabled black lesbian reporter investigating Freedom State immigration policies. Each of these women makes a different moral choice in battling aspects of oppression in Freedom State and as readers we cheer for Ivernia because of her willingness to dispense library cards to illegals. Unlike The Book of Negroes’ virtuoso first-person narration by Aminata, we get to know these women through an omniscient point of view, a handy tool for satire.
Also figuring in the novel are two charismatic characters from previous Hill fiction: the reporters Mahatma Grafton and Yoyo. In The Illegal, Yoyo is Keita’s father. Their presence counterbalances the rogues in the ensemble, although newcomers to Hill’s fiction will not understand their significance.
In creating his protagonist, Hill has borrowed attributes from members of his own family (the diabetes that afflicted Hill’s father, his brother’s gift for singing), but it is when he allows his imagination free rein that Keita truly comes to life. In one delightful passage, Keita takes his first bus ride in Freedom State: “It was the strangest bus ride Keita had ever taken. There were no chickens or goats aboard. There was only one passenger per seat, and no one stood in the aisles or sat among luggage on top of the bus … Not a single person sang or laughed or danced during the twenty-six-hour trip.” How humanizing those lines are, allowing the reader to stand in the shoes of a young man observing a new country through the lens of his own starkly different past experience.
In interviews, Hill has said that he chose to set his tale in two fictional countries in order to avoid singling out any existing country’s refugee policy, although he mentions mixing “a little bit of” Canada, Texas, Arizona, France and South Africa. Certainly, AfricTown’s name evokes Africville, the black community in Halifax that was bulldozed in the 1960s. No matter. All countries’ policies are under scrutiny right now.
Satire frees the author to critique more pointedly without sounding pedantic. It also disarms the reader by provoking laughter and then guilt, thereby driving the point home. In The Illegal, Hill’s satire entertains while mocking nonsensical policies that leave undocumented stateless people stranded.