TORONTO - Heartwrenching stories about the struggles of migrants and Syrian refugees are dominating daily headlines, but the plight of displaced people has concerned Lawrence Hill for decades.
Hill's late sister, Karen, lived in West Berlin in the 1980s, where Sudanese refugees languished in legal limbo.
"The Book of Negroes" author recalled a former political cartoonist who was selling caricatures for a few dollars just to get by.
"(They) would survive by hook or by crook because they couldn't get their lives going," recalled Hill, winner of this year's Governor General's History Award for Popular Media, also known as the Pierre Berton Award.
"I became fascinated with how much people had to hustle and use whatever skills they had to get by."
The real-life stories of refugees and Hill's longtime love of running both inspired the survival tale at the centre of his new novel, "The Illegal" (HarperCollins).
The story centres on Keita Ali, a youngster living on the mountainous island nation of Zantoroland. Keita's life is thrown into a tailspin when his journalist father, Yoyo, lands in hot water with the ruling party for his candid political views — and Keita, too, becomes a target.
The young man is forced to flee to the affluent Freedom State. Keita taps into his talent for running as a means of survival, seeking to make money in races while also constantly on the move to evade capture.
"The Illegal" is told from multiple points of view. Each character appears to have a vested interest in Keita's success or failure, including his agent Anton Hamm, immigration minister Rocco Calder and crusading journalist Viola Hill.
Another central figure is brothel madam Lula DiStefano, the self-declared queen of AfricTown. It's an impoverished community that is home to refugees that the government is determined to deport.
Hill said he modelled AfricTown after townships he had visited in South Africa.
"This idea of a huge township on the edges of a really rich city is a very powerful and kind of disturbing notion," said Hill, 58.
"If you travel from the Cape Town airport into Cape Town, you drive along the highway, and for kilometres and kilometres.... you see basically a shantytown that might stretch as many as 10 (kilometres).
"(It's) housing tens of thousands of people living under tin corrugated roofs, and often no plumbing or electricity, living in conditions you just couldn't imagine in Canada unless you're on some isolated First Nations reserve. That's the only part of Canada that would begin to compare in terms of the poverty."
Hill said he sees parallels in "The Illegal" with struggles faced by newcomers to Canada as they integrate into a new country.
"Refugees and immigrants often have a very lonely road," said Hill.
"Thankfully, many of them are so industrious they overcome that loneliness and isolation and get themselves going, but it's really tough.... It wasn't just tough 100 years ago or 50 years ago — it's tough today."
Even with greater access to stories and images about displaced people, Hill said North American society often doesn't see or care about the challenges faced by refugees living among them.
"I feel that if an artist can do anything it's to try to evoke a greater sense of imagination and empathy and understanding," said Hill, who is teaming up again with filmmaker Clement Virgo — who adapted "The Book of Negroes" into a CBC/BET TV production — to make "The Illegal" into a feature film.
"We have access to facts, but we don't necessarily translate that into action."
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