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Reflections on an Evening with Lawrence Hill

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Hi all!

I hope you’re having a splendid time at this year’s festival – we’re right in the thick of things and there is a ton to see and do. We had an awesome opening weekend and are having an amazing week.

This past Saturday, Lawrence Hill read from his new book The Illegal at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights – read Rachel Carlson’s and Jason Cheung’s reflections here!

An Evening with Lawrence Hill 
Reflection by Rachel Carlson

Dystopian stories tell us the abhorrent truth of our world, but all the best authors in this genre leave us with hope. Margaret Atwood’s Handmaids Tale, Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring, or Lois Lowry’s The Giver reimagine all the hope and horror of human experience through dystopia. They capture the press of power against our hearts, bodies, and minds—the machinations of individuals and governments and corporations—with emotional depth and contradiction. They are at once an escape from the scrolling screen glow of the twenty-four hour news cycle and a deepening of the humanity slipping by with the flick of a finger.

“Dystopias are awful,” said Lawrence Hill in conversation with Thin Air Director, Charlene Diehl. “But they’re believable because they’re not too far from where we are.”

Hill was at Thin Air to discuss his dystopian tale The Illegal—a timely and timeless narrative pulled from the headlines and transformed into a work of truth telling fiction. In the made-up country of Zantoroland in the not so distant future, a young man named Keita runs for his life. He escapes genocide as an elite marathoner only to become an undocumented person fleeing to a country that doesn’t want him. Like all good dystopian fiction set in a imaginary future, The Illegal probes an uncomfortable and contradictory present: the ethical and humanitarian crisis of Syrian refugees and the plight of undocumented people everywhere.

We sat comfortably in a semi-circle at the edge of the Canadian Journeys gallery at the Museum for Human Rights, where Hill took the podium. It’s a complex confluence much like the site of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights (CMHR), where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet. We gathered to hear a story about the intersections of violence, compassion, power and exploitation in the midst of a humanitarian crisis the world hasn’t found the courage or the will to respond to. We gathered within a museum dedicated to telling these very stories, but not everyone’s story can, or will, be told.

“It comes down to the very same things that were expressed in the 1980s when I first came to Manitoba,” said Hill. “The issue of who ranks where and whose story is going to be told. Of course, narrative and story is central to how we see ourselves individually, in our families, on our streets, and in our nation.”

It seems that Hill was born to tell stories of exclusion and belonging—of human rights abuses and acts of courage. His mother was a “kick-ass civil and human rights activist,” working with the Toronto Labour Committee for Human Rights and his father became chairperson of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Human rights issues were dinner table talk, he said.

“My hope is that we all move forward as Canadians, and in your case, as Manitobans and as people from Winnipeg—that we and you will have the vision to refine what stories need to be told.”

Like the CMHR, Hill aims to tell a narrative of atrocity that is seeded with hope and lightness. By creating a fictional setting, Hill gave himself the freedom to play with the story unencumbered by the obligation to authentically represent national or ethnic identity.

“I want to authentically represent my heart,” he said.

An Enchanting Evening with Lawrence Hill
by Jason Cheung

Against the backdrop of the Canadian Journeys Gallery at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), people gathered to hear Lawrence Hill speak about his new novel, The Illegal, this past Saturday. Hill’s reading was the first joint event between the CMHR and the Winnipeg International Writer’s Festival (with hopefully many more to come in the future). It was poetically held on the first anniversary of the museum’s opening.

The plight of refugees is on many of our minds these days. Hill read two wonderful excerpts from The Illegal, which enlightened and encapsulated the essence and resilience of the human spirit through a compelling narrative about elite marathoner Keita Ali, set against a backdrop of oppression and colonialism in a dystopic and not-too-distant future.

Charlene Diehl, Director of Thin Air, engaged Hill in a witty and candid dialogue that examined and reflected upon The Illegal and its inspiration. Hill revealed that we should all instill in ourselves hope despite dire circumstances and hardships.

The aspect that struck me most is that Hill can bring such disturbing and terrible events together by weaving them into a perfect narrative and telling the truth with such compassion and intricacy. The singing during running was the most intriguing part of his presentation.

As many of you who attended this event can attest, it was a gift to share such an enchanting evening with Lawrence Hill.


The Evening with Lawrence Hill truly was a fantastic event – I loved every moment of it. And the fun’s not over yet! There’s plenty more coming your way this week. Check out the Thin Air 2015 festival schedule or your program guide to see what’s up over the next few days. We’ll see you there!

Enjoy the festival,