Metro Morning guest host Nil Köksal spoke with Hill Thursday morning. Here's what he had to say.
Q: You've known about this honour for a month. How did you keep it a secret?
They're pretty serious about asking you to respect the secrecy until it's time to announce it, so I just had to sit on it for a month.
Q: Did you tell anyone?
Well, I told my wife – but swore her to secrecy. Really, I couldn't tell people. And that's OK. People know now, and it's a real great honour.
Q: I just want to read the citation – it says, 'For your contributions as an author and activist who tells the stories of Canada's black community and of women and girls in Canada.' What does it mean to be recognized like this?
It's fabulous. Everyone likes to be recognized and it feels great to be recognized by my own country. It's a great country but it also has its warts, historically, in contemporary times – and so I guess I've tried to do my best to address those as a novelist and as a citizen.
Q: Was it ever something you thought about? People knowing you and recognizing you before you wrote your books?
Well, no – I was writing and being involved with my country from the get go. These things began as child, as a teenager. I wasn't thinking about the recognition, I was thinking about how good it felt to write and how good it felt to travel and how good it felt to get to know people in other parts of the world.
I've been involved now for about 35 years with a group called Crossroads International which works to help the lives of girls and women in sub-Saharan Africa and in Bolivia, so that's been one of my primary volunteer focuses for the last several decades.
Q: For a lot of people your novel The Book of Negroes was a beloved book, and they saw our CBC mini series based on it – that's where they find out about parts of history. How do you feel about playing that role for people – for teaching them about those parts of history?
I think Canadians are perfectly ready and curious and hungry to find out more about Canadian history – especially the parts of it they weren't exposed to growing up.
Sadly, even today, if you travel from Dawson City to St. John's, you'll find lots of Canadians who know more about American slavery and segregation and racial injustice than they do about what's happened in Canada.
It's a story we tend to know less – the story of our own country. And it felt great to kind of dramatize these things. I'm always excited to get at parts of Canadian history that we don't know that well.
Q: You mentioned Crossroads International – people might not know a lot about that part of your work. What was the point that you decided that you needed to do that as well?
Generally, life doesn't unfold in discreet packages – it all just sort of comes together. I was a university student at Laval University in Quebec City and I was writing fiction on the side and I decided I wanted to connect more with people in Africa.
I grew up with a family that was black and white and I didn't get much access to the black side growing up in Don Mills Ontario in the 1960s. So I wanted to bust out and connect and move with Africans.
So I went to work as a volunteer with Crossroads International in Niger and then later again in Mali and then again in Cameroon and more recently in Swaziland – so I've been now four times as a volunteer with crossroads.
Mostly, I've helped them here in Canada by helping Canadians become aware of what they're doing to help girls and women in these countries. So this felt great and it's part of my life. It has opened me up – I don't think I ever would have written Book of Negroes or other novels of mine partially set in Africa had I not worked as a volunteer several times over.
I often tell young people if you really want to make your life exciting and rich and interesting, don't just think about the job or the dollar sign or the PhD or the MA or whatever you're going to study after high school. Think about volunteer work overseas and you'll never regret having done it.
Q: That experience also helped you come up with a name that anybody who has read your book or has seen the series knows very well: Aminata. It was while you were volunteering that you met a woman with that name – what was it about her that you found so inspiring?
It was incredible. I was in a village in rural Mali, which is a landlocked and very poor country in West Africa. There were no roads, or electricity or running water or schools or doctors – there were no western comforts that you or I might take for granted on a daily basis in Canada.
And yet this woman, Aminata, was catching babies – she was a midwife. She just had a brick hut that she worked in and she worked alone.
She had no backup, no support – nothing but a bucket and soap and her own hands. She worked with such dignity and skill and joy and efficiency that I was just so struck by what she did. I decided with my wife at the time to name our eldest daughter after her … and then finally I named the protagonist from The Book of Negroes after my eldest daughter.
So that's where Aminata comes from. It's actually a very common Muslim name in West Africa. It's as common as Joanne or Mary in Canada.
Q: What does it mean?
It means "The peaceful one."
Q: That's a beautiful legacy for your book and for your family. Do you have any trips planned to go back to Africa?
I don't have another trip planned – I've been to South Africa more recently for the filming of The Book of Negroes and now that there's another book optioned and I'm writing the screenplay for that – maybe we'll film in South Africa again.
And if I get to do that, then I'll be sure to take some time aside for going back to Swaziland to do some work for Crossroads there.
Q: Does being made a member of the Order of Canada change anything for you?
It doesn't change anything – it's just a lovely recognition. It's a way of the country telling me, "We love you and thanks for a good job." It just makes me more grounded and determined and to keep on going.