Human life would not exist without blood. This is not only true in a literal sense – if your heart stopped beating you would die – but also figuratively, as blood plays an indispensable role in literature, politics, sports and culture, not to mention our understanding of who we are.
In his new book Blood: The Stuff of Life, Canadian best-selling author Lawrence Hill meditates on this almost magical substance that runs through our veins.
“Blood counts in virtually every aspect of our being that matters deeply,” he writes. “If you are fighting for your life, or caught in a downward slide and soon to be facing death, the things that you care about and the things that you hope for after you have departed this earth are likely to be related in some way to questions of blood.”
The son of U.S. immigrants to Canada – a black father and a white mother – Hill has thought deeply about identity and how it is related to blood. His well known books, including the novel The Book of Negroes, have tackled such themes as race relations, cultural belonging, and struggles with finding a personal identity.
Blood follows up on his impressive literary work by offering a series of essays on the subject of blood. As part of the CBC Massey Lectures, the book considers blood-related issues from numerous angles. For instance, the issue of doping in sports is discussed, including the unsettling reaction by many Canadians to disgraced former sprinter Ben Johnson. When Johnson was at the top of the track world he was hailed as a national hero. When he tested positive for steroids at the 1988 Olympics, however, many people focused on the fact that he was born in Jamaica.
Other essays discuss how blood can unite families and social groups, while also dividing humans through such racist policies as apartheid in South Africa. There also are discussions about blood transfusions, including the incredible story on how blood banks in North America separated blood from different racial groups, and how some doctors rebelled against this insane policy by surreptitiously giving white people blood from black donors and vice-versa.
Amidst these observations, there are references to blood in literature and painting, as well as some thoughts on why children are drawn to fist fights in school. Collectively, these essays are an interesting look at blood, a substance that not only keeps us alive, but which also plays a crucial role in the construction of our identity.