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The stuff of life

2013 CBC Massey Lectures “Blood – the stuff of life” by Lawrence Hill, October 23, 2013

The Vancouver Sun

by Tracy Sherlock

Canadian author Lawrence Hill, who wrote The Book of Negroes, knows a thing or two about blood. He’s diabetic, which means he has too much sugar in his blood and has to add insulin into the mix to correct the imbalance. His father is black, which gives him insider knowledge about the way blood plays into perceptions about race. And his life was saved by a blood transfusion when he was a young adult, so he knows the powerful, life-saving impact a litre of blood can have.

Hill had two injuries that involved a lot of spilled blood when he was a young child, so he’s familiar with how scary it is to bleed profusely. He has both children and step-children, so he has contemplated the difference blood makes to relationships.

Those themes and elements frame Hill’s latest book, written for the CBC Massey Lectures, and called Blood: The Stuff of Life. Hill said he wanted to write a social history of blood and the ways it brings people together and pulls them apart. He spent a year researching the timeless topic of blood and six months writing the five-part book.

“I have had a lifelong obsession with blood, and I’m not the only one,” Hill writes in his book. “As both substance and symbol, blood reveals us, divides us and unites us. We care about blood because it spills literally and figuratively into every significant corner of our lives.”

Further, “Blood speaks to our deepest notions of truth and sanctity. Blood can be used in a court of law to vindicate or convict us. It is one of the most sacred gifts a person can offer, but if it is not safe and pure, that same gift can kill, not just one person but many who receive the blood products it helped create.”

Hill came to Canada from the United States in 1953. The Hamilton, Ont. author has written nine books, both fiction and non-fiction. The Book of Negroes was his third novel, and a bestseller in Canada. It won several awards, including the Commonwealth Prize for Best Book, which included a private audience with Queen Elizabeth. The Book of Negroes is being made into a television miniseries.

The book was not without its controversies. In the U.S., the book was published as Someone Knows My Name because the word Negro in the title was deemed too controversial. Hill says he was angry at first, but came to realize that changing the title was probably a wise decision.

“I felt my title was hijacked. It was my title and it was named after a historical document and I wanted to celebrate that,” Hill said in an interview. “The word is explosive in American culture … It just doesn’t register on the psyche in the States the way it does in Canada, so you have to respect that; it is deeply offensive and troubling for people.”


After The Book of Negroes, Hill wrote the novel Any Known Blood, which resonates in his writing on racism in Blood. In the interview, he talked about how in the past the U.S. government tried to widen the definition of who was black so that more people would be considered slaves, while in Canada the government has tried to narrow the definition of who is First Nations to restrict certain rights.

Hill says it’s “scientifically absurd” and “offensive” to try to quantify a person’s race using arithmetic. In the book, he gives the illuminating example of U.S. President Barack Obama, who had a black father and a white mother.

” … (C)an you imagine the ridicule he would have endured, during any part of his upbringing in the United States, if he had told people he was white? It would have been a social impossibility,” Hill writes. “People would have laughed in his face. Black, however, was acceptable.”

Hill also includes many stories of people who do not know their race, or find out when they’re older that they are a different race than they thought.

Hill attended the University of British Columbia for two years from 1975, studying creative writing. He later switched to Laval University, where he studied economics. While at UBC, he was a member of the track team and as a boy he dreamed of winning an Olympic gold medal. He writes in the book about how he discovered that his blood was not efficient at transferring oxygen to his muscles, which meant he would never be a championship runner. He still loves running though, and is working on a new novel about a marathon runner.

He is an honorary patron of Crossroads International, for which he travelled as a volunteer to the West African countries of Niger, Cameroon and Mali, and to which he lends the name of his best-known character for the Aminata Fund, which supports programs for girls and women in Africa. When he was a young man, he travelled to Africa as a volunteer for Crossroads and became very ill, ultimately requiring a blood transfusion to recover. In the book, he writes about the rules during the Second World War which said that white soldiers could not be transfused with blood from a black.

“The blood exclusion decision had nothing to do with science, and everything to do with society and politics,” Hill writes in his book. He added in the interview that today, gay, sexually active men are excluded from giving blood, which he thinks is both “antiquated and prejudiced.” He said there was a very good reason to be cautious in the past, but that today, science has improved so that donated blood can be tested for AIDS and HIV.

The book is chock full of fascinating statistics, anecdotes and arguments about blood and ranges in topics from embryonic stem cell research and doping in sports, to the Holocaust and the search for ancestors. It’s entertaining, shocking and informative; the lectures should be both challenging and engaging.

Sat Sep 28, 2013