Skip to main content

#CanadaReads Finalist: The Illegal by Lawrence Hill

Lawrence Hill is no stranger to the CanLit stage. His best-seller The Book Of Negroes not only won CBC's Canada Reads title in 2009, but it also went on to become a CBC mini series. Eight years after The Book Of Negroes stole our hearts and opened minds, Lawrence Hill's new book, The Illegal, once again dominates the Canadian landscape and makes its way as a finalist in the 2016 #CanadaReads. 

The Illegal is also being defended by a Canadian heavyweight, Clara Hughes (six-time Olympic medalist in cycling and speed skating, and the only Olympian to win medals in both the Winter and Summer Olympics). 

Set in two fictional lands -- Zantoroland and Freedom State -- the novel is slightly futuristic as it starts off in 2018, with Keita Ali the runner running in the Freedom State who is instructed to "Go Home" by a fellow runner -- a citizen of Freedom State -- in the Buttersby Marathon.

"Home" for Keita Ali was Zantoroland, a place he had to run from, to secure a better future for himself. But when Keita arrives in the Freedom State through the help of his notorious agent, he finds he has to go under the radar because he is an illegal there. Furthermore, his past catches up to him and he is now not only running for himself, but also his family. 

Keita's father, nicknamed Yoyo, is is a political writer, who always seemed to be under the government's watchful eye. Work often took Yoyo away from his family, and Keita hated it when that was the case.

His older sister, Charity is a bookworm and an A-student. She's also a bit of an elitist. 

"Stop being such a snob." Keita said, "you're not French. The French only ran this country for thirty years, and that was ages ago." 
Charity countered, "If you want to be a famous journalist, you have to know how to be at least a wee bit sophistiqué and how you order your madeleine au citron.

Yoyo kept confidential notes hidden in teapots on the kitchen shelf. In the green, stories for The Guardian were hidden. Drafts for the New York Times were stored in the red teapot. And, potentially incendiary stories found their way into the yellow teapot. 

"As he returned to imagining what his father was writing, Keita wondered whether a person could be punished for having thoughts, or only for committing those thoughts to paper."

When the coup é'tat happens in Zantoroland, Keita realizes his only way out is running in the Freedom State. But as he runs for his life, he also realizes that he must run for his family and eventually extend that cause to other immigrants, who have no voice. Lawrence Hill uses running as a metaphorical as well as a literal theme in The Illegal

As Keita navigates his way through the Freedom State, he must decide if the people he meets are friend or foe. Central characters in his journey include: Viola Hill (a feisty journalist and ex-athlete, who is investigating the lengths to which her government will go to oust immigrants), John Falconer  (a teenager making a movie about the fate of Zantorolanders in the Freedom State), Lula DiStephano (madam of the community's infamous brothel), Rocco Calder (immigration minister and recreational marathoner), and Anton Hamm (his marathon agent who gets him to the Freedom State). 

The Illegal is timely for the plight of Syrian refugees has been on the front pages of our newspapers and at the forefront of our media outlets the past year, but it is also steeped in Hill's personal experiences. The nascent flicker of what is now The Illegal was shaped in 1973 when Lawrence Hill first was sixteen years old. He had a summer job working at the Toronto airport helping refugees find their luggage, a place to stay, and looking for work.  He observed a mass of Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin arriving at Toronto -- looking to start their lives anew, much like the Syrian refugees of today. 

While history didn't repeat itself -- because the circumstances of the reasons for displacement are unique in each case -- it certainly did rhyme and Hill steadfastly defended his own work and perspective at a recent CBC Books #CanadaReads event at Toronto Public Library (attended by yours truly in defines of Bone and Bread). One is left pondering the thought -- should anyone be considered "illegal"? 

Hill's past has shaped his novel of today where geopolitics plays an integral role in the outcome of our protagonist and is all the more timely given the incendiary rhetoric against migrants crossing borders illegally (in the eyes of a nation states' law) both in Europe and in the United States.

You can read more about Lawrence Hill's story on  

Watch the #CanadaReads Debates at from March 21-24th to find out which book will win.

The other five finalists are: Bone & BreadThe Hero's Walk BirdieMinister Without Portfolio

Click Here To Sign Up

The Illegal is published by Harper Collins Canada. 

The Illegal -

Interested in Larry's Ginger Kick? 
Recipe on SukasaStyle

For advertising opportunities on SukasaStyle and SukasaReads, contact