Book Discussion: "The Illegal" by Lawrence Hill

Updated on June 5, 2018
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Nicholas is a student at Georgetown University. He is interested in international relations, global health, history, and literature.


The Art of Writing

How does Hill use history, language, themes, and other devices?

As historical fiction, the novel combines both past and contemporary political and societal issues such as tyrannical governments, genocide, racism, slavery, and illegal immigration. The targeting and murdering of the Faloo minority, formerly known for being a successful ethnicity in Zantoroland, harkens back to the Rwandan genocide. Then, the tension between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority was incited by European colonialism which can be compared to the influence Freedom State had in transporting freed slaves back to Zantoroland. Hill explores other themes such as biraciality, as John Falconer is seen as neither fitting in with the black community nor with his white peers. Hill’s use of language can be compared to George Orwell’s in the novel 1984 as he creates new words and phrases for the world of tomorrow. A settlement of black people in Freedom State is known as AfricTown, the “Pink Palace” is the street name for the Ministry of Citizenship in Yagwa, “The Tax” is ransom paid to the government when one of your family members is captured. Overall, The Illegal is a political allegory that Hill employs to comment on the current refugee crisis, contrasting the wealthy Freedom State with the disenfranchised of Zantoroland.


The Character

Who is Keita Ali? What is his main motivation? How does his character evolve throughout the novel?

Keita Ali grows up in a difficult position in Zantoroland as his mother is Faloo and while his father is Bamileke, he is a renowned journalist and political dissident. When the oppressive government discovers his father’s investigation into a deal between Zantoroland and Freedom State regarding refugees, he is captured and tortured until his death. Even as Charity escapes to Harvard in the United States and Keita is able to run away from Anton Hamm in Freedom State, they are still susceptible to the forces of the Zantoroland government. Keita’s main motivation is survival. He fits the “hero” archetype in his use of talent to better his world -- which includes his family. When Charity is held for ransom, he risks his life and freedom running for races in Freedom State to save her. As an “Illegal,” Keita’s entire worldview is turned upside down and he must learn to endure a life on the run. He evolves into a more selfless person when he is no longer running for his own glory, but the very survival of his only remaining family. He falls in love with Candace, makes friends with the old and saintly Mrs. Beech, and sees himself in the young John Falconer struggling to make it as a talented black child. Keita and those he met were instrumental in exposing the collusion between the Freedom State and Zantoroland governments and the world was left a better place after people sympathized with his plight.

The Author: Lawrence Hill
The Author: Lawrence Hill | Source

The Structure

How did Hill choose to structure the book? Why did he choose to do it this way and is it effective?

The novel begins with a flash-forward in the middle of a marathon, with Keita Ali as the target of racial epithets hurled by another runner. Starting the book in the midst of the action, especially introducing racial tensions, allows Hill to establish the main themes of the novel. The novel switches between characters and as each is introduced they seem like they live very different and separate lives, yet they all cross paths eventually. For example, the town meeting led by immigration minister Rocco Calder brought together Ivernia Beech, Officer Candace Freixa, documentarian John Falconer, and reporter Viola Hill. Switching points of view allows Hill to explore his themes from unique life experiences: sympathetic white people, the “blagaybulled” reporter, a black police officer, government employees, etc. We see how Freedom State’s history affects whites, blacks born in AfricTown who are stuck there, blacks who rise up in society, and those who are roped into the “Family Party” government. While switching between perspectives, the story is often not told in chronological order, which creates suspense and allows the plot to evolve until the characters cross paths once again.

Never have I met a person doing terrible things who would meet my own eyes peacefully. To gaze into another person's face is to do two things: to recognize their humanity, and to assert your own.

— Lawrence Hill ("Someone Knows My Name")

© 2018 Nicholas Weissman


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