New Canadian Media

Refugees – Buzzword of the Year and Deservedly So

Written by  New Canadian Media Wednesday, 09 December 2015 13:21
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Lawrence Hill’s latest book is about a refugee marathoner running for his life (literally) and trying to survive in a wealthy island nation.
Lawrence Hill’s latest book is about a refugee marathoner running for his life (literally) and trying to survive in a wealthy island nation. Photo Credit: HarperCollins Canada

by Shenaz Kermalli in Toronto

Every day, we see pictures and videos of families desperately crossing the sea to escape war and poverty back home. Hundreds of refugees are interviewed and photographed arriving on Western soil with nothing except what they can carry. 

Sometimes, they are greeted with open arms. Often, with animosity. 

The literary fiction world has jumped on board with what the United Nations calls “the worst humanitarian disaster since the Cold War.” 

That’s not to say that fiction writers are sensationalizing or capitalizing on human suffering. It's quite the opposite – they are sharing these stories in a way that helps us make sense of the world. 

Good fiction, after all, invites us to discover what it is like to be someone else entirely. 

Canadian author Lawrence Hill’s latest book about a refugee marathoner running for his life (literally) and trying to survive in a wealthy island nation falls beautifully into this category. 

Hill’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect. 

The Illegal was released in Canada on Sept. 1 of this year, the same day Germany revealed it had registered more than 3,500 refugees from Syria in one day alone. The next day, the British far-right populist leader, Nigel Farage, warned that the European Union had opened the door to an “exodus of biblical proportions.” 

Hill draws upon themes of racism and political oppression to capture the plight of undocumented migrants today.

Enter the fictional world of Zantoroland

Like his earlier work, the award-winning international bestseller The Book of Negroes, Hill draws upon themes of racism and political oppression to capture the plight of undocumented migrants today. But that’s really where the similarities end. 

Set in 2018, The Illegal depicts two fictitious island countries situated in the Indian Ocean between Africa and Australia. 

Zantoroland is tiny, poor and black, with corrupt leaders that regularly sanction torture and killings of dissidents. Just 15,000 km north of Zantoroland is its polar adversary – or so it seems. Freedom State is rich and white, and led by a government as ruthless, as it is impressive. 

The lead character, and hero, of this story is Keita Ali, a quietly determined professional runner from Zantoroland. 

After Keita’s journalist father is publicly executed in the country’s infamous town square for probing too deeply into the government’s alleged dealings with Freedom State, Keita signs on with the notorious marathon agent Anton Hamm and escapes into neighbouring Freedom State. 

Zantoroland represents the impoverished failed states that so many refugees today flee from.

But the wealthy island nation, for all its economic prosperity and democratic, independently-run institutions, is just as determined to rid the country of potential threats: Freedom State is in the midst of an intense campaign to deport all undocumented ‘illegals’ like Keita back home to Zantoroland, where they would face certain death. 

In his bid to survive, Keita comes across a host of eccentric characters – from Ivernia Beech, a spirited old woman who breaks library policy to issue new cards to undocumented refugees and Lula DiStefano, the fiery madam of the community’s infamous brothel and caretaker of Freedom State’s teeming refugee population, to Rocco Calder, the blue-eyed recreational marathoner and Freedom State’s dispassionate immigration minister. 

Zantoroland not unlike real world

What makes The Illegal fascinating is, of course, that the fictitious world Hill creates isn’t really fictitious at all. The plot is peppered with cultural references to today’s modern institutions. 

Amnesty International is called to save Viola, a reporter from Freedom State who gets imprisoned in Zantoroland during an assignment, Keita’s father collaborates with a journalist from The New York Times before his murder, and Tim Hortons is referenced as “the cheapest coffee chain in the world … popularized a continent away.” 

Any work of fiction that adopts Tim’s coffee into its setting can never make a Canadian reader feel too disconnected. 

With swift grace and provocative moral questions, The Illegal does well in making us remember the forgotten that live among us.

On a deeper level, the world Hill creates reflects strong parallels with today’s universe. 

Zantoroland represents the impoverished failed states that so many refugees today flee from: Syria, Libya and Somalia, among others. Freedom State, of course, represents us – the democratic countries of the West that at times appear sympathetic to the plight of refugees, while simultaneously using underhanded (or blatant) means and rhetoric to keep them as far away from us as possible. 

U.S. Republican candidate Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims from the U.S. is perhaps the most recent example of this, but leaders across Europe and North America have generally expressed fear and reluctance to open their doors – Germany being the exception. 

With swift grace and provocative moral questions, The Illegal does well in making us remember the forgotten that live among us. 

One example of this, in Hill's narration, is when Keita arrives at a bank in Freedom State and is refused permission to open an account: “[The banker] extended a thick hand. It was a hand that had been strengthened by a gym membership and fed by hot cereal in the morning, lunch at midday and meat every night. 

“Keita reached for the obligatory shake, but to him, the banker’s cold palm felt like a wall. The wall had a door, and the door had a lock, and the lock needed a key. Some people had keys to this world, but Keita was not one of them.”


Shenaz Kermalli is a freelance journalist specializing in geopolitics and an instructor at the Humber College School of Journalism. 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

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