Illegal Immigration Novelist at the IOP

“I didn’t want to feel that I had to reflect the geopolitical reality… I wanted to create a world that seemed right from me as a dystopia.”

By Gabe Bennett-Brandt

Conveying a deeply political message, bestselling author Lawrence Hill’s most recent novel, The Illegal, speaks to the plight of refugees and oppressed peoples around the world. The Illegal recounts the fictional story of Keita, a marathon runner forced to flee his native country and go into hiding as an undocumented refugee. On Wednesday afternoon, the Institute of Politics (IOP) hosted Hill in collaboration with the Center for Identity and Inclusion.

Sitting across from fellow author and creative writing department member Rachel DeWoskin, Hill discussed his writing process and why fiction is his preferred genre. “I feel that by inventing things, by twisting the truth, you can get closer to the heart and the soul of a good story,” he said.

Known for his attention to depth and detail, Hill commented on the importance of writing fictional but believable characters. “I couldn’t possibly get into the level of micro-detail that elevates a character and hopefully makes him or her pop off the page because I have to be faithful to what really happens,” Hill told DeWoskin on the limitations of nonfiction. DeWoskin noted Hill’s devotion to his characters, especially to what she called “the most profound part of reading [and] the most profound part of writing: getting to inhabit fully and privately the life of another human being.”

Hill went on to describe his background and how it played into his work as an author. Hill’s mother, a white civil rights activist, was a particular source of inspiration. “She came from a very Republican, extremely conservative, religious family which was scandalized when she married an African American,” Hill said, emphasizing the unconventionality of his upbringing.

Race played a major role in Hill’s self-image and writing. “I wasn’t finding a black community, so I just had to kind of reach out for it and grab it. I just devoured hundreds of books in my later teenage years and that became a way of finding myself,” Hill said. 

As the conversation came to a close, DeWoskin opened the floor for questions from the audience. In the question-and-answer session, Hill broached the global refugee crisis, which he previously named “the world’s greatest humanitarian catastrophe since the Holocaust.” He described his devotion to research and specificity when approaching the experience of displaced peoples and also explained his decision to set The Illegal in imaginary countries. “I didn’t want to feel that I had to reflect the geopolitical reality…. I wanted to create a world that seemed right for me as a dystopia.” Citing Harry Potter and The Little Prince among other works, Hill argued, “some of our most powerful fiction is fiction that’s in places that are made up.”