What Runs in the Blood?

Lawrence Hill, author of the bestselling Book of Negroes and the memoir Black Berry, Sweet Juice, admits he's long been obsessed with blood, and the myriad questions and themes it gives rise to. With this year's Massey Lecture, Hill explores the subject that's shadowed so much of his life.

October 16, 2013

Donna Bailey Nurse is the editor of Revival: An Anthology of Black Canadian Writing and the author of What’s a Black Critic To Do?

Lawrence Hill did not grow up wanting to be a writer. Rather, he dreamed of a career as a champion long distance runner. “I was going to become a great athlete,” says Hill, “That was going to be my way of being honourable in the world and earning my father’s respect.”

At age 12 Hill joined the elite Victoria Park Track Club in his Toronto neighbourhood of Don Mills. In winter he trained at the Pigsty, an indoor track in a building on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition. In summer he practiced outdoors at Varsity Stadium. Neighbours who rose early grew accustomed to the sight of Hill running past their house at 5 a.m. He was at it again after school. Hill trained ceaselessly for three or four years but eventually realized his dream would never come to pass.

“Everybody else on the team was incredibly talented and then there was me always finishing dead last by far. I had to accept what was obvious to everyone else: I was never going to be an Olympic runner.”

The problem turned out to be in his blood: “A test determined that I couldn’t process the oxygen in my blood and deliver it to my muscles efficiently. I was running like a middle aged man,” says Hill, “and I was15 years old.” His blood had let him down.

Fortuitously for the young runner, Hill’s track coach was a journalist and he encouraged Hill to pursue writing stories instead. Still, all these years later, Hill admits that blood has become a kind of obsession with him, an obsession he now shares with the rest of us through his 2013 Massey Lecture, entitled Blood: The Stuff of Life. “I have all sorts of personal reasons to be obsessed with blood.”

Besides his blood’s limited ability to transfer oxygen, Hill, like his grandfather, father and brother, suffers from diabetes—the inability to regulate the amount of sugar in the blood. In Mali in 1989 he contracted malaria, a disease spread by mosquitoes from the blood of one person to another. In Niger in 1979 he required a blood transfusion during a case of gastroenteritis.

“Identity should not reside in the biology of the blood”

Being bi-racial also focused Hill’s interest in blood themes. In the hilarious Any Known Blood a bi-racial man struggles to affirm his black identity. Hill has been at the forefront of delineating a black Canadian literary aesthetic in which bi-racial anxiety operates as a metaphor for black Canadian experience.

“I’ve been interested in blood and identity forever and it does crop up in my books,” says Hill. “But I wanted to come at it in a richer and broader way for the lectures. Of course I’m going to write about blood and race and racial identity and segregation and passing. But I didn’t want to write just about those things. I wanted to expand my own understanding. I wanted to reach and stretch and surprise the reader a bit.”

Blood: The Stuff of Life does surprise the reader. For squeamish types and those with brains that veer to the right, Hill breaks blood down. He uses lively language and sharp images to describe its components, what it does and how it works. The book is a kind of biography of the human body: it is the story of everyone.

At the same time, it constitutes a trip through history, documenting the mindboggling evolution of medical practice from the ignorance of medieval times to the scientific advancements that greatly enhance life today. Hill examines our moral outrage at those who dare to tamper with the sacred substance. He studies cultural justifications for bloodshed. Hill describes blood as a symbol of religious sacrifice and racial purity and explains how it, ultimately, perhaps perversely, is the essence of who we think we are.

Hill lives in Hamilton with his wife, the writer Miranda Hill, with whom he shares a blended family of five children. When he is in Toronto he sometimes stays at Number 4 Devonshire Place on the campus of the University of Toronto, home of the venerable Massey College. Along with CBC and Anansi, the residence sponsors the annual lecture series. It is the perfect location for our discussion of Blood. I meet him at his lodgings in the north hall. He is wearing short pants, sandals, and a short-sleeved shirt. We make our way across the grassy square where on this hazy late summer day students sit cross-legged on benches or sprawled out reading on the grass.

He leads me to a quiet corner of an elegant lounge overlooking the square. Hill has travelled quite a distance from his struggling athletic days. Still, sports are never far from his mind. In Blood he provides insight into the doping scandals plaguing the athletic world. Hill wants us to remember the many ways and reasons people alter their blood’s composition: What makes it wrong, Hill asks? What makes it right?

Women are a significant focus: “How can you write a book about blood and not write a lot about women?” Hill says. “Blood for men is associated with war or athletics or catastrophic injury. But for women it is a sign of health and vigour. We take it up in such different ways. The number of times I’ve heard women complain about of how wimpy men are about blood!” he laughs, shaking his head.

“Just think of the crazy ways men have attempted to understand female blood over the millennia,” he adds. “Aristotle actually claimed the women’s blood was not as hot as men’s blood and therefore could not convert to semen. He actually described women as “impotent” males!”

The book also incorporates a thoughtful discussion about honour killings that Hill boldly equates with domestic abuse.

“Obviously any kind of murder is despicable and any kind of honour killing is despicable. Who thinks they have the right to go killing women and wives? But I find it a little much that we Canadians get all up in arms about honour killings as if this is some problem with Muslim people. Domestic violence is rampant in Canada. Many Canadian women are being controlled by men in exactly the same ways.”

Blood is bursting with biographies of fascinating figures like the 17th century nun Sor Juana. She was Mexico’s founding poet, but she renounced her literary career by signing a vow in her own blood. There is also the 17th century British anatomist William Harvey, who dissected a living dog in order to better understand the circulatory system. An endless string of bloody truths shock and titillate the reader, but it’s Hill’s captivating gift for story that brings this book to life.

Just don’t tell him that talent runs in his blood. The son of civil rights activist Daniel Hill, Sr., and the brother of singer-songwriter Dan Hill, people often comment that he comes by his gifts honestly.

“If writing is in my blood,’ writes Hill, “then my circulation is awfully slow. I have been writing since my childhood, but had no impression that a knack for writing flowed in my veins. To me it felt like 20 years of effort finally paid off when Some Great Thing, my first novel, was published in 1992. Eight books later I still don’t feel that writing is in my blood. It is in my brain and in my work and in the hours I have invested and have yet to invest in the development of my craft.”

All of that is true. And yet, I’ve met Hill’s larger-than-life father and his wise, hazel-eyed mother many times. I see the features of his parents floating across his face. He looks just like both of them. He acts like both of them as well—especially his father. He speaks like his father, has a hint of his father’s impatience, and like his father can weave a rollicking tale out of a wisp of an idea.

Nevertheless, Hill is loath to place too great a significance on blood ties: partly because of the close bond he shares with his stepdaughters, Eve and Beatrice Freedman, children of his wife Miranda Hill.

Writes Hill, “Over time… I have resorted less and less to calling them my stepdaughters, and more and more to just introducing or describing them as my daughters. The precise nature of our relationship, and whether we are ‘blood relatives,’ is nobody’s business. All people need to know is that we are family.”

Or as he puts it succinctly a little later: “Love will trump blood, every time.”

Hill is wary of privileging blood ties for another reason as well: the practice has brought out the very worst in human nature. It has led—leads still—to the demonization and decimation of entire peoples, to oppression, enslavement, and genocide.

He is made crazy by theories of blood quantum (“the quantity of so called Indian blood in a Native person’s veins”) and hypodescent (the American concept that one drop of African blood makes you black). What he does believe about race is a little difficult to pin down.

“Of course, you know and I know that I have made my life writing about black communities and how they intersect with other communities,” says Hill, with a touch of Hill impatience. “And of course race matters socially and sociologically every day in 10 million ways. But I am saying when identity is a forced issue whether in some Aryan state in the 30s or the province of Nova Scotia in the 60s, it is a frightening thing, because it is not based on anything other than some absurd mathematics of blood.”

“Identity should not reside in the biology of the blood”, says Hill, “but in the groups you choose to associate with and the groups who agree to associate with you.”

In other words, Love trumps blood.

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Donna Bailey Nurse is the editor of Revival: An Anthology of Black Canadian Writing and the author of What’s a Black Critic To Do?