“Keita wondered whether a person could be punished for having thoughts, or only for committing those thoughts to paper.”
Note: I originally reviewed this title on December 8, 2015. Some parts of that review have been reproduced here. However, I have largely focused on The Illegal in the context of the Canada Reads debates.
Keita Ali is a runner from the tiny island nation of Zantoroland, located in the Indian Ocean. To the north of Zantoroland is Freedom State, one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Many of the residents of Zantoroland are the descendants of slaves who were expelled from Freedom State when slavery was abolished in 1834. Every year, thousands of Zantorolanders try to escape to Freedom State, fleeing poverty, ethnic violence, and anti-LGBT sentiment. When the regime murders Keita’s father for reporting on events in Zantoroland for international newspapers, Keita knows it is only a matter of time before they come for him as well, so he signs a contract with Anton Hamm, a marathon agent and former Olympian with a reputation for violence. After running a race in Freedom State, Keita disappears into the underground world of “Illegals,” undocumented immigrants living below the radar in Freedom State. Facing blackmail and medical expenses, Keita continues to surface from time to time to run races with significant cash prizes, but his alias—Roger Bannister—begins to attract unwanted attention. Everyone from Immigration Minister and fellow marathoner Rocco Calder, to Lula DiStefano, Queen of the AfricTown slum, to Viola Hill, gay, black, disabled reporter for the Clarkson Evening Telegram, wants to know who Roger Bannister is, and where he came from. Keita must run to win, but winning may garner unwanted attention from the authorities he so desperately needs to avoid.
This week on Canada Reads 2016, The Illegal was defended by Olympian Clara Hughes, who is also a noted mental health advocate. She opened the week by highlighting why it is hurtful to refer to a person (rather than their actions) as illegal, and spoke out against such divisive rhetoric. Her defense also put a spotlight on the global refugee crisis, and the fact that Canada has recently welcomed 25 000 Syrian refugees. Questions for the panel on day one focused on which book least embodied the theme of “starting over,” as well as which book is most relevant to Canada today. All of the other contending titles came in for criticism from at least one of the panelists, but The Illegal passed through the first day of debates largely unscathed, while Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter was eliminated.
On day two, Hughes opened by highlighting Lawrence Hill’s clean, clear, concise writing. For me this brought to mind the saying “easy reading is damn hard writing,” which is variously attributed to different authors. Day two was largely about discussing potential weaknesses of the various books, and host Gill Deacon asked the panel to address the fact that The Illegal takes place in two fictional countries. In setting his story on the fictional island nations of Zantoroland and Freedom State, Lawrence Hill is free to borrow elements of immigration stories and policies from countries around the world, exploring the problems that refugees flee, and the tensions within the countries where they seek refuge. The Illegal explores timely issues in a fictional context, and cannot be dismissed as being about one country’s particular problems with immigration, or the fall-out of slavery. However, several of the panelists found the invented setting jarring. Bruce Poon Tip described it as distracting, and Vinay Virmani agreed, adding that he thought Zantoroland and Freedom State were oversimplified. For me, the fictional setting universalized the plight of refugees, but Virmani did make an excellent point that the characters in Freedom State do not really show us what people are afraid of when they try to keep refugees out of their country.
Clara Hughes mounted a solid defense of genre fiction in her rebuttal, arguing that a fictional setting allows readers to let go of what they think they know about any particular country or refugee crisis; the story can embody many struggles. She also felt that setting the book in the near future was effective because it served as a reminder of where we might be headed. Bruce Poon Tip had made what sounded like a somewhat derogatory comparison to Harry Potter while making his point, but Hughes parlayed that over to other significant works of dystopian fiction, including 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale. For me, The Illegal was much like The Handmaid’s Tale in that while it is fictional, it is made up from events and details that have really happened in various places.
Day two was a trying point for The Illegal. Before the panel went on to discussing another novel, Bruce Poon Tip, who was defending Birdie, tried to throw on the table the idea that Hill had already won Canada Reads in 2009. However, this argument didn’t seem to find much traction with the other panelists, who were prepared to treat The Illegal on its own merits. At the beginning of the week I had thought that The Illegal was a potential front runner, but Adam Copeland, who had been defending Minister Without Portfolio, threw out a line that made me think the book might be doomed, comparing The Illegal to a 1990s Will Smith action flick. However, with the exception of defender Farah Mohamed, the panelists surprised me by unanimously voting off Bone and Bread on day two.
Day three focused on craft, with questions about beautiful writing and strong storylines. The Hero’s Walk was the clear favourite for beautiful writing, but Hughes highlighted the way that The Illegal was able to make her feel what it would be like to be an elite runner. Bruce Poon Tip described it as efficient and readable. If The Hero’s Walk got all the love for beautiful writing, The Illegal dominated the conversation about storyline. The energy and pacing were unanimously praised, and Farah Mohamed described it as gripping. Ever one for colourful metaphors, Adam Copeland called The Illegal a rollercoaster for pure story, and said that it punches you in the face from page one. Although Birdie was looking strong in the first half of the week, it did not fare well in this part of the discussion and was voted off on day three.
On the final day of debates, The Illegal faced off against The Hero’s Walk, which was being defended by Vinay Virmani. The panelists were asked to address theme, courage, powerful moments, and what they liked about each of the remaining books. Panelists found a lot of courage in both books, but the death of Keita’s father in The Illegal rose to the top as a powerful moment for several of them. It was evident from day three that Farah Mohamed was leaning towards The Hero’s Walk, just as it was clear that Bruce Poon Tip hadn’t liked that book much, though he said Virmani’s defense had helped him appreciate it more. Adam Copeland was harder to read, and he clarified that he had not meant the comment he made on day two comparing The Illegal to an action movie to be derogatory. With only thirty seconds to make a closing statement, Hughes argued that The Illegal was both a great read and a timely issue, and that it would help create the country we want to forge for tomorrow. Copeland did indeed cast the deciding vote, making The Illegal the winner of Canada Reads 2016.
As has been noted, The Illegal is a significant win for several reasons. Author Lawrence Hill is the first author to win Canada Reads twice. Additionally, after the final debate, Hughes tweeted that she had just learned she was the first female defender to win Canada Reads since 2005. Though books by women have won five times since the show’s inception in 2002, men have largely fared better as panelists. While it was hard going for The Illegal mid-week, strong pacing and a timely issue helped it triumph, as well as Clara Hughes’ eloquent and gracious defense.
It’s not too late to catch up on the Canada Reads debates on CBC!