Book Review: Strange Essay

It says in black and white in the Constitution Act everyone has “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression” in this country. In fact, there is little case law on the issue.

In truth, most Canadians have no real investment in the right of expression and could not tell you what it means. The Charter of Rights is squeezed through a Canadian filter that emphasizes conformity and quiet manners.

So we come to Lawrence Hill’s odd essay, Dear Sir, I Intend To Burn Your Book. The title lures the reader in anticipation of a vigorous defence of the right to make trouble. It delivers instead an apologia for hurting someone’s feelings.

In 2007 Hill published a bestseller based on a 1783 British military ledger documenting the migration of American blacks to Nova Scotia. The Book of Negroes sold 500,000 copies in Canada. However, when the novel appeared in The Netherlands under the title Het Negerboek, Hill’s publisher received a death threat and a Black rights group burned copies in Amsterdam’s Oosterpark.

“It really shook me up,” writes Hill; “It was personally troubling to see a segment of the very community that I would hope to court and connect with – people of Surinamese descent in The Netherlands – rising up against my book.”

Hill is a son of the first family of civil rights in postwar Canada. His father Daniel was the first Afro-Canadian chair of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. His mother Donna was a Toronto labour activist who campaigned in the 1950s for repeal of race-based immigration quotas.

“The very purpose of literature is to enlighten, disturb, awaken and provoke,” Hill writes. “Literature should get us talking – even when we disagree.”

Free speech by definition is intended to protect everything offensive. Yet the Supreme Court routinely waives it in circumstances simply because it offends, and most media cannot be bothered. When the B-film Innocence of Muslims provoked Arab protest, two of three commercial TV networks refused to broadcast even an excerpt of the film in news coverage for fear of something or other.

Which brings us to the bonfire in Oosterpark. “There is something particularly odious about burning a book,” writes Hill; “Just imagine. If the left-wingers and the right-wingers formed a coalition, they could yank half the books out of the Canadian school curriculum.”

Yet in his essay on liberty, Hill makes a jarring admission. He rewrote the title of The Book of Negroes for publishers in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand where the novel appeared as the milquetoast Someone Knows My Name. “U.S. bookstores were refusing to place advance orders for my novel because the word ‘Negroes’ was in the title,” he explains.

And Hill would have happily changed the Dutch title, too, if only the book-burners had called first. “I might well have argued for the use of a different title,” he says. “At least we would have had a chance to discuss the matter.”

So we are left with another addition to the crushing discourse on free expression in Canada. We will fight for our rights – unless it gets complicated, in which case we won’t. PS: Hill sold five times more copies of The Book of Negroes than he did under the tepid title.

By Tom Korski

Dear Sir, I Intend To Burn Your Book: The Anatomy of a Book Burning by Lawrence Hill, University of Alberta Press; $10.95; ISBN 978-0-88864-679-8

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