“…[an] eloquent and inviting account of the unexpected infamy and controversy [Hill] courted with his most acclaimed novel…”
— The National Post
In 2011, Canadian writer Lawrence Hill received an email from a man in the Netherlands stating that he intended to burn The Book of Negroes, Hill’s acclaimed novel. Soon, the threat was international news, affecting Hill’s publishers and readers. In this provocative essay, originally given as the annual Kreisel Lecture at the University of Alberta, Hill shares his private response to that moment and the controversy that followed, examining his reaction to the threat, while attempting to come to terms with the book burner’s motives and complaints.
"The irony of the book burning is not lost on Hill who considers The Netherlands a second home. It was the first place he journeyed outside North America — the summer he was 17. He has since returned several times and is profoundly sensitive to the nation’s slave history. In Dear Sir he writes movingly of visiting the Middelburg Archives where for the first time he held the original records of a company that shipped slaves."
I suppose that a few writers whose books are banned, censored or burned end up gaining a few extra sales, but many of them face the more likely possibility of seeing publishers, bookstores and others back away. Who wants to be associated with a writer who will cause trouble, or stir controversy, or attract vigorous public criticism?
I have a troubled relationship with my book burners in Amsterdam.
One emotional challenge for me, in dealing with the issues, was that the Dutch book burners, albeit small in number, were people of Surinamese descent. Suriname, in South America, was one of the most important slaves colonies of the Dutch. In the broader Diaspora of African peoples, these are my own people. And it hurts, frankly, when your own people reject you, or tell you that you don’t belong, or challenge the very identity that you have shaped for yourself. I don’t agree with those who burned my book. But I empathasize with them. And that, and the troubling relationship we have with books that offend us deeply, is what I want to talk about.