Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill – Canada

390221fc51742c0e56ef01a2fa45da3b Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill

W.W. Norton and Company, New York,  2007

Published as The Book of Negros in Canada Someone Knows My Name is a beautifully written, fictional slave narrative. The story of Aminata Diallo, an eleven year old girl stolen from a county in west Africa,  is a work of the imagination but it could have been told by any one of the millions of people torn from Africa over the centuries.

Years before he began writing this novel Lawrence Hill came across some fascinating historical information.

At the time of the Revolutionary War thousands of African Americans fled from their owners to give support to the British.  The British, in turn,  promised them their freedom.  At the end of the war, with the British defeat, any African American who could show proof of supporting and serving them was sent to Canada.  Three thousand names where entered into a  ledger known as The Book of Negros.  In 1783 these loyalists where sent to Nova Scotia.

After waiting for years for promised acreage  and suffering slavery, indentured servitude, segregation and race riots, many people chose to accept an offer from the British to return to Africa.  They sat sail for Sierra Leone and started the colony of Freetown.  Some of these people had been born in Africa and stolen away into slavery.  Hill provides a wonderful list of resources at the end of the novel including the Canadian Digital Collections Black Loyalist Archive

This history is the basis for Aminata’s story.  It is a story of the power of language and the ability of language to carry people’s lives.  A slave owner may mark the bodies of the stolen, may burn brands  into flesh, but if people maintain their language, can talk to each other and tell stories about where they come from and who they know they remain, in some sense, free.

At the end of her long journey Aminata  finds herself in London, at the request of several abolitionists, testifying before Parliament.  This is where her story begins and this is where it ends.  In between there is the tale of her parents and the village where she grew up, her capture and the horrific journey across the ocean, her life on an indigo plantation in South Carolina, her husband, her children and much, much more.  There are threads of other stories interwoven with hers.  Here are some hints as to what you will find in this wonderful novel:

The ship was an animal in the water.  It rocked from side to side like a donkey trying to shake off a bundle,  climbing on the waves like a monkey gone mad.  The animal had an endless appetite and consumed us all: men, women and babies.  And along with us came elephant teeth, sacks of yams and all manner of goods that working homelanders hauled up in nets.  Page 57

It seemed to me that we had traveled to the other side of the sun.  On this side of the world the sun was worn out and not to be trusted.  My fingers grew thick and numb every night and throbbed every day as the sun climbed the sky.  My ears were cold.  My nose was cold. Like the others, I had been given a rough cloth barely long enough to wrap around my backside..  I shivered at night on the sandy earth, and one morning I awoke to find smoke trickling from my mouth.  I thought my face had caught fire.  I thought someone had bedevilled me during the night, or branded my tongue.  I waited for the burning.  I prepared to scream.  Page 104

I had imagined, somehow, that my life was unique in its unexpected migrations.  I wasn’t different at all, I learned.  Each person who stood before me had a story every bit as unbelievable as mine.  Page 291

Other reviews:



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And an interesting observation:

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Filed under Orbis Terrarum 2009, Review

17 responses to “Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill – Canada

  1. Gavin, this sounds like a fascinating read–thanks for the review. I imagine it was a marketing thing, but do you have any info on why the title was changed for the US release and how the author felt about that?

    • I read a comment by Hill about the title change. If I remember correctly the publisher felt the word Negro in the original title would be offensive to some people in the US. Hill went along with the change because he wanted the book available in this country. It was published as “The Book Of Negros” in Australian.

      • Gavin, thanks for your follow-up to this–pretty much what I’d suspected although I think that the original title might have been more powerful based on what I’ve read about Hill and the real-life “book of” from back in slave days. It remains a very intriguing work, though!

      • Richard – I agree, which is why I went looking for an explanation of the title change. I also think we need to start having discussions about language and words and race, even thought they might get “messy”.

      • Hill provided The Guardian with an explanation of the change in title:

        Interesting reading… and points to the cultural differences between Canada and the United States. Also worthy of note: the difference in the Canadian and American covers (I touched upon this in my own blog).

        Wonderful to see this book receiving the attention it so clearly deserves.

      • Brian – Thanks for your comments and the link to the Guardian. May I link your post on The Book Of Negros to my review?

  2. What a great review! It sounds like something that would wring you out emotionally, and was probably seemed difficult to summarize in a review.

  3. Thanks for a terrific review! This one is on my toppling TBR pile!

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  5. I’ve heard nothing but great things about this. It sounds like such a powerful book.

  6. What an intriguing review. I was just reading about the Native American tribes who were persuaded to fight with the British during the Revolutionary War, and the dire consequences for them after colonial/American victory. It’s interesting that this offer of asylum in Canada (even if it was largely illusory) wasn’t extended to them. A subject for more research, perhaps…

    In any case, thanks for your thoughts! The prose fragments are tantalizing.

  7. Pingback: Saturday Review of Books: May 2, 2009 at Semicolon

  8. Gavin, I’d be honoured. Cheers.

  9. This sounds like a fascinating read. I’m going to look for it – thanks.

  10. Pingback: Black North American Authors « Diversify Your Reading

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