Monday, 17 December 2007

A Rose by Any Other Name Department: Lawrence Hill's New Novel Gets a Name Change in the US

What’s in a Name?

Someone Knows My Name or The Book of Negroes: Lawrence Hill’s new novel has different titles in the US and Canada for reasons that say a lot about each country and its history.

The book is a first person narrative by Aminata Diallo (also called Meena Dee,) a woman who was captured by slavers in what is now Mali about 1745. Her story takes her across the Atlantic to the Carolinas, north to New York in the time of the American Revolution,, to Nova Scotia, across the Atlantic again to Sierra Leone and then to England in time for the outlawing of the slave trade in 1807. A person of great intelligence and resourcefulness, she is hired by the retiring British forces at the end of the Revolution to keep a register of the 3,000 slaves the British Loyalists owned, called the Book of Negroes.

Hill’s book was on the long list for Canada’s Giller Prize this fall, and was chosen as part of several “best of 2007” lists. But you won’t find it anywhere in the US as The Book of Negroes. His publishers there got much negative feedback on the title. Too academic, and also—worse—Negro is now considered a derogatory term there. (It isn’t the preferred term in Canada, but the negative connotations are not as strong.)

“Language evolves,” Hill says, adding that his own father—a “proud African-American” born in 1923—used “Negro” as his term of choice. The younger Hill came up with the new title which has several references in the book, as well as echoing James Baldwin’s novel from the 1950s, Nobody Knows My Name.

Whatever you call the book, though, Hill’s novel is a moving, fascinating read. Definitely recommended by the Atwater Library’s book discussion group which found much to say about it when its members met last week.

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