By Nicole Ring //
The Illegal takes place in the fictional lands of Freedom State and Zantoroland, and in the midst of strained political realities, these places exist as an allegory for the refugee experience. Hill masterfully examines a multitude of human rights crises that have taken place throughout history within his fictional work, from ethnic cleansing to strict immigration restrictions and populists leaders. The story involves characters from all sides of the experience, from Keita, the Zantoroland refugee who illegally emigrates to Freedom State to start a new life, to Ivernia Beech, the eldery white woman who takes in Keita and in turn finds freedom of her own. The plot begins with Keita’s life in Zantoroland, the son of a journalist, where the changing political landscape of his home is background noise to his own pursuit of Olympic gold. Running is Keita’s passion and his escape, and when the situation in Zantoroland becomes more dire and his sister’s life is held for ransom he is forced to flee to Freedom State in hopes of running for cash prizes to fund his sister’s freedom. It’s in Freedom Land that he realizes the land of opportunity has more obstacles than expected.
Introductions to new characters like Viola Hill, John Falconer, Lula DiStefano, and Rocco Calder bring a mix of narratives and experiences that make up the diverse experiences of race, ability, gender, and age while living in a society that persecutes the ‘others’. The themes of Hill’s novel center around resilience and the dynamics of power in a state focused on oppression of some in exchange for the freedom of others. Outside of Keita’s struggles to race for his sister’s freedom the main conflicts in the novel occur around the ghetto within Freedom State, known as Africtown. A shanty village rife with crime and lacking clean water, the marginalized people of Freedom State were forced into this life by government policies and yet are repeatedly punished for living in these conditions. The precariousness of the citizenship of Africtown’s residents mirrors many human rights crises that have led to massive migrations of refugees. A place that was once home for them is now pushing them out on the basis of their ethnic ties to Zantoroland. Lawrence Hill’s novel is an interesting, page turning fictional adaptation of the struggles going on globally. Full of heart and great storytelling, The Illegal is a must-read.