Lawrence Hill and the concept of human identity

Speaking to an audience of about two hundred and fifty in Siegfried Hall, Lawrence Hill, award-winning Canadian author of ten books, shared his observations on the subject of human identity and belonging. Hill is most well-known for the internationally acclaimed novel, <em>The Book</em> <em>of Negroes.</em></p>

Introduced by Dr. Cristina Vanin, associate dean at St. Jerome’s University (SJU) and coordinator of the SJU Lectures in Catholic Experience, Hill was one of several special guest speakers at SJU for the 2015-2016 Anniversary Lecture series commemorating 150 years of Catholic higher education in Waterloo Region.  

Hill began his one-hour talk by reminiscing about his post-secondary experiences in Canada, first in Vancouver, B.C. and later, after switching programs, as a student in Quebec City. He considers this a time when his own identity began to change in an unexpected way.  

Hill humorously described his “changing identity,” recalling the unusual experience of initially having Vancouverites consider him as a person of “black-mixed race” origins but later having Quebecers refer to him as “the anglophone.”

The lecture included excerpts from three of his books: Any Known Blood, The Book of Negroes, and The Illegal to illustrate numerous examples of the fluidity and relativity of our human identity.  According to Hill, human identity is fluid and constantly evolving, often complex and sometimes impossible to define.     

Hill also reminisced about his first job at Ontario Welcome House in 1973 — the year when Canada welcomed thousands of refugees from Uganda. He described it as “a great introduction to geopolitics” and an experience that motivated him to become active in social justice issues.  Hill commented that those who migrate to a new country and those who welcome them are forced to change their identities, and reflected on the plight of refugees in general and the current world refugee crisis as a result of the Syrian civil war, in particular.

After his lecture, Hill answered questions from the audience, discussing in more detail a number of related topics. Such topics included Canada’s identity as a country, the “multi-racial” identity, identity as it relates to spirituality, the possibility and implications of a Trump presidency in the United States, as well as specific questions regarding the style and content of Hill’s writing. 

When asked about the key ingredients needed to become a successful writer, Hill replied that passion, imagination, courage, empathy, determination, and persistence are all important attributes, adding, “revision makes you a better writer.” Afterwards, Hill signed copies of his books – on display in the foyer – and chatted with members of the audience as they exited Siegfried Hall.

The SJU 150th Anniversary Lecture series, Illuminating Hearts and Minds, reflects a common theme of critical thinking, which, according to Vanin, is “what the post-secondary experience at SJU is all about.” 

The 150th Anniversary lectures are part of a year-long celebration at SJU, which featured a special dinner in September welcoming the incoming class of first-year students to the St. Jerome’s community, an dinner in October which was open to the general public and hosted at St. George Hall, and it concludes with a special graduation ceremony planned for June 2016.