The Hill is a supernatural survival-thriller by award-winning author Karen Bass that draws inspiration from the true story of a remote plane crash and the Cree Wîhtiko legend. For the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, I sat down with Karen to discuss The Hill’s protagonists: Jared, an affluent white teen from Edmonton, and Kyle, the Cree teenager who rescues him, and how the relationship between the two boys reflects the racial and cultural tensions existing between these two groups in Canada today.
S. The Hill was the first of the Young Adult titles I read when I started my internship at Pajama Press, and I really enjoyed it. My favourite part was the banter between two boys. Was that fun to write or was that challenging in ways you didn’t expect?
K. It was mostly fun. I grew up in a family that used sarcasm an awful lot, and we were always poking at each other. So I was able to draw on that. And it was two teenagers so they do poke, poke, poke.
S. They do read like two teenagers.
K. Well that’s good.
S. What about the racial component to that dialogue? Where did that come from? Were you influenced by people you were speaking to at the time, because I know you did a lot of research for the book, or does it from your own lived experience?
K. I grew up in rural Alberta, so like a lot of rural Canada I think you see a lot of racism that maybe isn’t apparent in the cities, at least between First Nations and white communities. So I was certainly able to draw on what I’d seen myself, and the attitudes that I see in other people. In terms of Kyle and how he feels about it, that was partly talking to First Nations friends and partly whole empathy thing that writers have to draw on. Being able to put myself into his shoes and, you know, ask “how would I feel?”
S. I really enjoyed Kyle because he was the most “in tune” fifteen-year-old boy I’ve ever seen. He initiates a lot of the conversation between himself and Jared. Some of the ideas he brings to it are concepts that I first encountered in university. Why was it coming from him?
K. It was coming from him partly because Jared was oblivious. A lot of people do live their lives that way, where they don’t even look at how they’re affecting other people in their word choices or their actions. They don’t think about anybody that isn’t within their circle. It wouldn’t have sounded right coming from Jared. He was very…what did they call it? Affluenza? I hate that term, but that was his thing.
S. I actually have a note on how oblivious Jared is, but although he’s oblivious, he doesn’t seem to be malicious about. Was that an important part of how you chose to represent his ignorance?
K. I think if he had been malicious, he and Kyle would never have been able to connect and work together. Sometimes you have to look at where you need the characters to go and make sure their personalities are such that they can shift a little bit. Otherwise you would just have them sniping at each other. It is only four days in their time, so you’re not going to necessarily make huge leaps in that time, it’s more like small shifts. Someone who was just outright mean, it wouldn’t have worked.
S. I liked that there was room for Jared to become a bit more sensitive toward issues of race and class. Whereas someone who was more malicious might have dug their feet in and been more resistant.
K. Well, I think someone like that would have had much more of an “I don’t really care” attitude. Whereas Jared, maybe partly because his life is on the line, realizes that he’s at a point of disadvantage and that does make him more open to listen to what Kyle is saying. Once it finally sinks in that this isn’t his environment and he’s in a whole lot of trouble.
S. On that note, you’re from rural Alberta, so you’re very familiar with the landscape that appears in The Hill.
K. Oh, yes.
S. But you’re not a First Nations person or Cree yourself. Where do you think that situates you in regards to the larger discussion that was going on in the novel?
K. I guess I would be called an ally, if anything. I’m hopefully the person who is nudging other whites to reconsider their position. I do run across a lot of casual racism. It’s not necessarily malicious, but it is very much engrained. “This is what my parents and grandparents told me, so this is what I believe,” whether it’s about First Nations people being lazy, or whatever, which is just nonsense. Stereotypes are quite often nonsense, but the perpetuation is what causes the problem.
S. In terms of words and how we use them, Kyle frequently directs the Cree word “Moniyaw” (white man) at Jared. It’s also racial term, but somehow it seems less objectionable than it would if it came from the other direction. Does that speak to the power dynamics between two groups or how racism works in our culture?
K. I think I had him doing that as a way he could poke at Jared. For sure it was the idea that terms don’t always have to be loaded. To say ‘white man,’ it’s just a fact. It’s just who Jared is, as opposed to some of the other words we use for people of other groups or that we hear in society. Those are much more loaded. I don’t think it was ever malicious on Kyle’s part. Some of these things, it’s just your character when they come alive, they decide. I hope it’s not taken maliciously, although Jared doesn’t really appreciate it when he finds out what it means.
S. No, and I think I might have taken that cue from him.
K. I think what you’ve said about power issues is very valid. There is definitely a power imbalance and you need to be aware of that and be sensitive to it. Which teenagers are never going to be.
S. Would you ever revisit these characters at all, or do you think The Hill is their story and they’re done?
K. I don’t tend to revisit characters. There’s one or two books where I could maybe write a sequel, but I haven’t looked at it enough to actually do it. They’re probably done. Sometimes it’s fun to leave it in the readers’ hands and say, “what do you think happens with them?”
S. I think you wrapped it up well. I just really liked the boys and felt like I should ask. That’s all the questions I came up with. Is there anything else you’d like to say about the boys or diversity in YA fiction?
K. I think we’re seeing a lot more diversity in Young Adult fiction, which is awesome. In terms of First Nations you’re starting to see more First Nations writers who are really good writers, and I love that. People should have the wherewithal and the skills to tell their own stories.
S. So much storytelling is involved in First Nations cultures, and it’s so important.
K. A lot of it is really just learning to take that oral tradition and put it on paper. You’re seeing more film-making and stuff too, and I love it. I think it’ll only get better.
S. That’s great. Thanks for sitting down with me and answering my questions! I enjoyed it.
Click here to learn more about The Hill.
Learn more about World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development (Diversity Day).