by Lawrence Hill

When Lawrence Hill claims in this eclectic, wide-ranging essay based on this year’s CBC Massey Lectures to have had “a lifelong obsession with blood,” my first reaction was dubiousness. But as quickly becomes apparent, Hill has had more reasons than most people to think about the life-giving liquid.

Hill grew up middle-class in Toronto’s suburbs as part of a mixed-race family. In 1979, as a 22-year-old inspired by Alex Haley’s book Roots, Hill travelled with an international development organization to Niger in the hopes of tapping into his African ancestry.

BLOOD_HILLInstead, he ended up in hospital with gastroenteritis so severe he needed blood transfusions. As he watched the bags empty slowly into his arm, Hill fretted not about AIDS or Hepatitis C—the tainted blood crisis was still years away—but about the substance’s provenance: whose blood was now coursing through his veins? As it slowly dawned on him that it was the donor’s blood type, not his or her race, that counted, the experience brought about in Hill both an epiphany and a resolution: “I would never worry again about how people imagined or interpreted the nature of my blood.”

In his nine books, including the novels The Book of Negroes and Any Known Blood, Hill has nevertheless spent a great deal of time thinking about issues related to race, a word historically used almost interchangeably with “blood.” In mid-life Hill was also to develop the diabetes that has afflicted most of the males in his family and that requires of sufferers constant vigilance about their blood sugar levels.

Remarrying and acquiring stepchildren forced Hill to think about the meaning of blood as it relates to family, as has his relationship to his famous brother, the singer Dan Hill, and his father, an activist and chronicler of black history. When he began writing, Hill recalls people saying it must be in his blood: “If writing is in my blood, my circulation is awfully slow,” Hill jokes before adding something many writers will relate to: “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 the hours I have yet to invest in the development of my craft”

It might be said that the gist of Blood is that blood matters hugely, but not always in the ways we have assumed. Aristotle cited women’s menstruation as proof of their inferiority, while major religions used it to put limits on their freedom. Ideas about blood purity have been used to justify monarchial rule or, in the case of Nazi Germany, Europe during the Spanish Inquisition and North America after Columbus, to argue for the superiority of one group over another.

Barack Obama is considered a “black” president because the so-called “one-drop” rule used by defenders of slavery to argue for the subjugation of those with even minimal African ancestry persists to this day. The rise of affordable DNA testing in recent years has shown that none of us is truly a “pureblood” which in Hill’s eyes is a very good thing indeed.

As substance and metaphor, the ways blood factors into our culture, science, literature, religions and language is practically endless. As such, Blood feels less vibrant when Hill goes into cataloguing mode. Blood doping scandals, fighting in hockey and the Twilight series certainly involve blood, but they also get enough media attention that recaps feel a bit unnecessary. Where Blood shines (glistens?) is in the many places where Hill exposes and explores the contradictions and liminal spaces of a topic that—whether we like it or not—unites us all.

—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor