I’m going to let everyone in on a little secret: Oprah didn’t actually pick her Summer Reading List. Her books editor, Sara Nelson, did, probably with the help of the minions who wrote the pithy pitches accompanying every selection. The horror!
Do you feel betrayed? Ashamed? Are you throwing your printed checklist away? Contemplating writing me (or Oprah) a strongly worded email calling out such lies and demanding retribution.
Don’t bother. It doesn’t matter. Because the Oprah we know isn’t Oprah Winfrey, the real person. The Oprah we know is Oprah Winfrey, global brand. And every book selection Sara makes, every article she writes, everything that has ever had Oprah’s name or face on it, must reflect Oprah in some way. Even if she didn’t read the book, approve the book, or have any idea what the book is about, the choice needs to represent, in some way, the Oprah everyone knows and loves or loves to hate. The Oprah brand is an extension of the Oprah person, but where one ends and the other begins is difficult is assess. Which is why, in part, the Oprah person is so popular and the Oprah brand so successful.
We need to believe Oprah would really pick this book, and would really want us to read this book in order for us to pick up this book and read this book. (I’m not 100% on how the selection process worked, but I believe Oprah does in fact sign off on the final list. I will spend the summer conducting an investigation into this and will report back.)
Which is why today’s book is such a perfect Oprah selection.
Oprah loves misery. Many (many, many, many) of her book club picks (especially her earlier ones) explore the theme of overcoming hardships and celebrate humanity in the face of adversity. This is exactly what Lawrence Hill’s Someone Knows My Name is about. It’s so easy to imagine Oprah getting worked up about the book, shedding tears in her book club meeting, then offering to pay for a memorial to put on Sullivan’s Island.
Seriously, nearly half the African American population has ancestors that came to the slave trade through that island and the only memorial there is a bench paid for by the Toni Morrison Society. How is this even possible? America is a country that loves their memorials! I’ve been to DC! I’ve seen them!
Someone Knows My Name was published as The Book of Negroes in Canada. In the book, Lawrence Hill traces the fictional life of Aminata Diallo through the cycle of the North American slave trade, from Africa, to South Carolina, to New York, to Nova Scotia, to Freetown, and then to London. Along the way Hill exposes the horrors of our collective history. Everyone should read this book. And here in Canada, many have, and many more pretend they have.
Someone Knows My Name originated in Canada, but its story spans oceans it’s Canadian-ness isn’t obvious. There are no northern lights, fishing villages, or prairie fields to be found. About a third of the book does take place in Nova Scotia, and the depiction doesn’t make the province of my childhood look good (and it shouldn’t). Lies were made and good land, food, jobs, and resources were withheld. Racism and rioting (North America’s first ever race riot, in fact) infected the province that promised freedom to freed slaves.
Unlike in the book’s story, boats didn’t sink and people didn’t die (I’d be sorrier about the spoiler if you hadn’t read it already), but Hill fluidly blends fact with fiction to create a compelling narrative whose shock value and historical important trumps any problems that arise with his prose or protagonist. Aminata is annoying, but she’s easy to forgive because her life is harder than mine will ever be. Ever. It’s also easier to forgive her in this heat wave, because I can barely sleep when its 32 degrees outside, let alone dig holes in the ground to make indigo for an asshole.
Growing up and going to school in Nova Scotia, we (briefly) learned about the race riots and Black Loyalists. We went to the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia. We heard stories from slaves’ descendants, telling us the same stories their grandparents told them. These stories were embedded in our regional history, forming (an under-represented) part of our narrative. Joseph Howe’s speech and the Acadian expulsion always trumped this history, but it was still there, a painful footnote in our proud province’s past.
Reading this book made me think about the discussions we have in our high school history classes and how evident it is that we lack a single Canadian historical narrative. Ask 13 kids from our 13 provinces and territories to tell us the story of our nation’s history and you’ll get 13 different versions. Our history is very regionalized. While I was learning about Joseph Howe in Nova Scotia, kids in Ontario were learning about Louis Riel. This regionalization diversifies our identity, but it also fragments it. When you look south to the States, you find a definitive “American History,” so definitive that even we Canadians know the story. High taxes. Tea. Paul Revere. Some important presidents. Civil war. More important presidents. Canadian history, on the other hand, can’t be summed up in a 30-second sound-bite that would resonate coast to coast.
This is neither a good nor bad thing—it’s simply a reflection of the differences between the two countries. Americans fought for their freedom, we were granted ours. Their electoral college system makes less sense than our constitutional monarchy. They don’t have free health care and we do. There, the book is called Someone Knows My Name and here it’s The Book of Negroes.
And they have Oprah. And we don’t.
Illustration by Brian McLachlan/Torontoist