‘Someone Knows My Name’ by Lawrence Hill


2007,  486 p.

After too many times being blindsided by spoilers, I have made it one of my little rules to never read the Introduction to a fiction book until I’ve finished it. Maybe I should also make it a rule to read the Acknowledgments and ‘About’ section that comes at the end of a book before I read it. Perhaps it’s the historian in me craving footnotes and references, but I think that it’s more that I like to know whether the author is dancing exuberantly on a wide stage, or whether instead I’m reading a closely-embroidered canvas with careful attention to each stitch.

Someone Knows My Name falls into the first category, where the author has taken an artefact and a situation and woven a story around it.  In this case, the artefact is the “Book of Negroes” compiled as a list of 3000 former slaves who had fought with the British during the American War of Independence and who thus qualified for removal to Nova Scotia Canada after the war.   In reality, although it is known that the 150 page book was compiled by a British officer under the orders of the Governor-General of British North America, no-one is sure about how or by whom it was written.  As was common practice for colonial documents at the time, there are two versions: one now in England, the other in America.

Lawrence Hill, however, has created a female protagonist to be the author of the Book of Negroes. Aminata Diallo, the daughter of a Muslim jeweller father and midwife mother, was kidnapped at the age of 11 from her village in West Africa and forced to walk to the coast. After the horrific middle passage voyage, she was sold in poor condition to an  indigo plantation in South Carolina from which she escapes when her master takes her to New York.  She is illegally taught to read and write, a skill which the British put to use in recording the names and details of Black Loyalists in preparation for the evacuation to Nova Scotia after the war.  Aminata travels to Nova Scotia, hoping that her husband, with whom she had conceived two children- both taken under varying circumstances- will be there as well. She follows John Clarkson, a young humanitarian  British officer charged with encouraging a further shift to Sierra Leone where, in theory, the Black Loyalists could create their own community.  The final phase of her journey finds her in England, agitating for her people.

I hadn’t encountered the story of the Black Loyalists and the settlement of Sierra Leone until I read Simon Schama’s book Rough Crossings Hill’s book traverses the same territory in a fictional vein, with a nod to 21st century sensibilities through his literate, Muslim, female protagonist.  There are some anachronisms- I’m sure that no-one ever thought of a church as a ‘community centre’, for instance- but the book is well-researched and has garnered much praise, including the Commonwealth Writers Prize om 2008.  If at times the story seems too incredible, there are the nuggets of similarly extraordinary fact that tether it in the historical realm: the slave narrative of, for example,  Olaudah Equiano   published in England in 1789, the blighted betrayal of the promise of Sierra Leone (‘Liberia’), and the very existence of the Book of Negroes itself. Hill does not resile from the psychic trauma of slavery, but nor does he indulge in gratuitous violence either.  Has he been too squeamish in avoiding rape and punishment,  I wonder? Or, like the convict trope in Australian history, is there a more banal experience of slavery, less about blood, but more about deprivation, exhaustion and indignity?

It’s interesting that the book was published under the title ‘Someone Knows My Name’ in America because of sensitivity over the word ‘Negro’ and yet the television series which screened in both Canada and the United States went under the name ‘Book of Negroes’.  This rather self-reflexive detail in itself reminds us that this is a book that is written from a twenty-first political consciousness, with both the insights and infelicities that such a perspective carries.

My rating: 8.5/10

Read because: I read a review of it somewhere (who knows where….)

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

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