This year’s Massey Lecture text begins with passion and grandiose declarations.

“I have had a lifelong obsession with blood, and I’m not the only one. As both substance and symbol, blood reveals us, divides us, and unites us. We care about blood, because it spills literally and figuratively into every significant corner of our lives.”

Lawrence Hill’s personal anecdotes, which he shares next, explain the genesis of his obsession and draw readers closer to the subject.

Lawrence Hill Blood Stuff Life

House of Anansi, 2013

The first segment, “Go Careful with that Blood of Mine: Blood Counts”, considers how “notions of blood have evolved over thousands of years”. The chapter offers an overview of blood’s nature and functions, addresses some of the ways in which blood defines men and women, and the ways in which blood can betray.

Even the simplest of biological facts contains an element of wonder:

“Blood has some four thousand components. A drop of blood the size of a pinhead is teeming with quantities of cells that seem unfathomable: 250 million red blood cells, 16 million platelets, and 375,000 white blood cells.”

There is talk of bloodletting and menstruation and personal anecdotes nestle with material drawn from the headlines, as in the second segment, “We Want it Safe and We Want it Clean: Blood, Truth and Honour”.

Here, the topic is how we change the nature or composition of our blood, and how we respond to alterations of blood in medicine and sport.

From Olympic scandals to stem-cell research to different national policies regarding blood donation: blood is more interesting than many readers likely expected.

“The arbitrary, subjective nature of the rules barring or impeding blood donations from males who have had sex with males becomes very clear when one looks at the divergent policies from country to country. In Israel, France, Greece, and the United States, gay men are not allowed to donate blood. Canada recently eliminated its lifelong prohibition, and ruled that gay men who have been celibate for five years will be eligible to donate. In the U.K., Sweden, and Japan, gay men can donate blood if they have been celibate for one year.”

The third segment of the series is “Comes by it Honestly: Blood and Belonging”. Ideas about parental expectations and the complications that step-parenting and adoption pose to traditional ideas about families and blood relations, offer an interesting entry point to this aspect of the subject matter.

But moving from the realm of the personal to the political, the consideration of jus sanguinis, the concept of basing national citizenship on blood, is just as interesting and complex, as is the question of legal definitions of identity and membership and the socio-economic ramifications.

“It has been in the economic interests of government agencies to expand the definition of black identity in order to maximize the economic benefits associated with slave labour, but it was not considered such a valuable idea to define all people with Aboriginal identity as ‘Indians”, due to the costs associated with providing services to Aboriginal people or recognizing their land rights.”

In “From Humans to Cockroches: Blood in the Veins of Power and Spectacle” the exercise of power, control, and public spectacle is examined.

From the persecution of witches, to the accumulation of databases about blood collected and studied, to the guillotine, to the tremendous popularity of The Hunger Games: this chapter covers diverse and interconnected ideas.

One of most curious (and new to me, though apparently the subject of many books and a feature film) was the story of the Mexico-born Sor Juana in the mid-17th-Century, who became a nun and was celebrated throughout the Spanish empire for her intellect; she signed a letter in her own blood renouncing her intellectual life and devoting herself to the Church.

“In forcefully denying her own beauty (Octavio Paz describes her as having been beautiful), Sor Juana imagined her own destruction. She met her downfall, and paid for it with her own books – and blood – after infuriating the men who ruled her world of Catholicism.”

With the series’ final chapter, “Of Presidential Mistresses, Holocaust Survivors, and Long-lost Ancestors: Secrets in Our Blood”, the ways in which blood can offer up our deepest secrets and revelations is displayed.

From DNA testing, to talk of Lady Macbeth, to surgery to reconstruct a hymen for women whose worth in society is measure by their chastity alone: biology, literature and culture intersect in these musings.

“To recognize the fundamental equality of all human beings means that we cannot create hierarchies along liens of gender, race, religion, age, sexual orientation or ability. To recognize and shed subconscious beliefs that should be relegated to the Dark Ages, we must agree that blood is no determinant of human difference. In our bodies, and in the red stuff that courses through our veins and arteries, we are one and the same.”

In closing, Lawrence Hill asks readers to consider the connections and intersections and the implications of these complex ideas on readers’ worldviews.

“We are more connected than we think, and sometimes in dangerous ways. The more we learn about blood, the more we understand how all blood is hopelessly and forever intermingled, just like humanity itself, across culture, across gender, across age and race, and even across time.”

The scope of the work is almost overwhelming and, yet, there are many instances in which those interconnections seem to simplify just as they simultaneously seem to proliferate.

Doubleday Canada - Random House Canada 2013

Doubleday Canada – Random House Canada 2013

In Blood, Lawrence Hill refers to two other books I have read recently, Wayne Grady’s novel and Carolyn Abrahams memoir, which illustrate Hill’s thinking beautifully.

“We imagine science to be pure, inviolable, and absolutely true, but we have only to look at the evolving theories of human blood and human circulation, over the millennia, to realize that scientists – like everyone else – move at least partly in step with the social biases and subjective limitations of their time.”

He refers, too, to other sources, like Shirlee Taylor Haizlip’s The Sweeter the Juicefrom which the first epigraph is drawn.

“Sometimes I look at people and wonder if they are related to me. I do this in public places and private spaces…I have indulged in this curious pastime since I was eight years old, when I first understood that all but one of my mother’s family had become white.”

And I was surprised to find that other books I’ve read recently also explore this territory. Consider Indu Sundaresan’s The Mountain of Light, in which a character observes in 1854 that “Sophia knows that now it’s fashionable to make these distinctions – you’re black and Indian; I’m white. Or you’re not quite white, are you? Some Indian blood lurking around somewhere? A quarter of it? A sixteenth?” Or Emily Schultz’s The Blondes, which declares that the “thing about disease is that it’s based on connection”.

This passion truly is uniting. If you’re intrigued, the CBC Massey Lectures page has more to offer (with links to excerpts from each of the five lectures, a video of the final lecture, links to purchase the audio files, interviews and photographs).

Did you listen to (or read) this lecture? Are you still planning to do so?

Reading Companions:
Carolyn Abraham’s The Juggler’s Children (2013)
Wayne Grady’s Emancipation Day (2013)
Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird (2014)