If the statistics are to be believed, we are facing a global refugee crisis. According to the United Nations, there were a staggering 59.5 million people forcibly displaced from their homes by the end of 2014; globally, one in every 122 people is now either a refugee, displaced, or seeking asylum. Unfortunately, facts and figures fade in people’s consciousness unless one is directly affected, or reads an indelible story. Lawrence Hill’s new novel – his first work of fiction in eight years – achieves an immediacy and power unequalled by an onslaught of news broadcasts.
Hill’s fast-paced political thriller is set in two fictional island countries: Zantoroland and Freedom State. The story begins in medias res. Keita Ali is running a marathon in Freedom State, where his presence is illegal, when a competitor on his left barks, “Go home. … Go. Fucking. Home.” Hill’s use of invented countries as settings underscores one of his key themes: our problems are global, not isolated to any single nation.
Zantoroland is “a speck” in the Indian Ocean, with Africa to the west and Australia to the east. The ironically named Freedom State, 1,500 kilometres north, enslaved Zantorolanders for two centuries. Ever since slavery was abolished and Zantorolanders outlawed, the latter have braved the open sea in fishing boats in attempts to re-enter Freedom State, now one of the richest nations in the world.
In Zantoroland, Keita’s family of four live in a “two-room matchbox.” Keita is a gifted runner; at age 10, his most precious possessions were his Meb Supreme training shoes, “light as slippers, as snug as socks.” Keita’s older sister, Charity, is a bookworm. Their father, a journalist, keeps the notes and drafts for his controversial writings hidden in a row of teapots on a kitchen shelf.
After a coup d’état, Keita’s family comes under threat. The government has been torturing and executing dissidents and members of the country’s Faloo ethnic minority; Keita’s father is a dissident, his mother, a Faloo. When an opportunity arises to enter a race in Freedom State, Keita seizes it. Though the novel’s early chapters falter under the weight of background information and jarring temporal leaps, the story takes off when Keita arrives in Freedom State, and literally begins running for his life.
Running is the perfect central image for Hill’s story, working on both a literal and a metaphorical level. In Freedom State, running can garner privilege, power, and, potentially, a ticket to citizenship as a member of the country’s Olympic team. Yet, as an illegal, Keita’s existence is subject to stark dualitites: freedom or imprisonment, glory or banishment. Being an illegal – a label Keita shares with millions – strips him of his identity. He becomes anonymous and interchangeable, a number rather than a human being. Hill’s message is clear: while a person can do something illegal, a human being’s very existence should not be illegal.
Though Keita’s presence in Freedom State is precarious, a return home to Zantoroland would likely amount to a death sentence. “Since the government got elected, they’ve been deporting people as fast as they can,” a man in a bar tells Keita. “I don’t know what you’re running from, brother, but be careful of what you are running to.” Hill deftly dramatizes Keita’s predicament: “Unless he was hit by a bus, struck by lightning, or caught and deported, he had a greater statistical likelihood of staying alive here than where he had come from.”
Hill’s greatest strength as a writer is character, and readers live inside the skins of some truly unforgettable ones in The Illegal. In Freedom State, Keita’s path intersects with Viola Hill and John Falconer, both of whom are keenly interested in his story. Viola, a sportswriter whose ambition is to cover hard news, injects vigour, edge, and a wry humour to any scene she is a part of. She dubs herself “blagaybulled” – black, gay, disabled – but she is also proud. Strong and fast in her wheelchair, with “abs of steel, biceps like guns,” she is an athlete and former runner.
John, “blacker than white but whiter than black,” is a whip-smart teen making a documentary about the fate of Zantorolanders in Freedom State. Dubbed “latté boy, cookies ’n’ cream,” John learns that he, too, must fight for his identity – even at home – in order to “out-black the blacks.”
Hill’s novel explores many charged issues and questions. Is there hope for reparations of gross violations of human rights? How can people survive – and thrive – when they fail to fit into crisp categories? What does home mean? This novel will, no doubt, remain in readers’ minds, and may help deepen our urgent dialogue about race and immigration.