Another fall, another predictable set of shortlisters for the country's major literary prizes.
Wait, I do have to give credit to the Governor General Awards jury for noticing Heather O'Neill's Lullabies For Little criminals (the other shortlisters are David Chariandy, Barbara Gowdy, Michael Ondaatje and M.G. Vassanji ), an edgy first book from the excellent Montreal poet about a problem child trying to get noticed. But I actually don't expect our nation's major lit juries to acknowledge gritty first novels.
I do fantasize that the juries will notice a terrific book from a writer of colour that is original and important. I got my hopes up when Lawrence Hill's The Book Of Negroes made the Giller long list. Finally, I thought, the jury's considering all the factors that should go into a decision to honour a literary work. But he didn't make the cut, eclipsed by shortlisters Elizabeth Hay, Michael Ondaatje, Daniel Poliquin, M.G. Vassanji and Alissa York.
Hill's book traces the odyssey of Aminata, a young African girl plucked out of her village at the age of 11 and shipped to America to become a slave, then to Nova Scotia, then back to Africa via Sierra Leone. (See my review here. It is a powerful story, written superbly, that - and here's the thing - messes with our assumptions of our moral superiority with regard to the slavery issue.
We think of Canada as a haven for slaves who escaped here via the Underground Railroad. The truth is, slaves were lured to Nova Scotia by promises of freedom and betrayed there, sparking the first race riot in North America. Did you know that? Bet you didn't.
Hill did some dauntingly deep research to get this story and dug into previously buried tales of the slavery experience. His account of life in the bowels of the slave ships is devastatingly detailed and Aminata's work on an indigo farm is laced with specifics of how the plants were processed and prepared, thanks to the painstaking work of indentured slaves.
The Book Of Negroes has a powerful narrative arc and a terrific heroine - her midwife and reading skills save her neck a number of times - but what makes the book worthy is the way it makes all Canadians look back at our history with a different set of eyes. It's a book that changes you, a clear case of consciousness raising in all the best senses.
OK, so his last name isn't Ondaatje, who's Divisadero isn't even one of his best releases.
Bit it should be on one of these lists.