On Fracturing and Healing the Conventions of Language

A Conversation with M. NourbeSe Philip

• October 2016

M. NourbeSe Philip was born in Tobago but has lived most of her life in Canada. Her path toward writing has taken her through academic degrees in politics and law, followed by several years as a practicing attorney. Perhaps it is the easiness of her rhetoric, facilitated by this first career, that has led Philip to focus, in her writing, on the oral roots and reverberations of the written word. This is evident in her poetry, fiction, and plays, in which we encounter the writer’s constant experiment with both the sound and rhythm, as well as with the overall workings of language—a real alchemy of the word that she carefully conceives and painstakingly executes. The result of such alchemy is multifaceted and explores all the possible meanings that language conveys and the power of poetry as well. The performative aspect of Philip’s work, with its drama and its humanity (voice, intonation, movement, the possibility of mistake and misunderstanding), is in line with the long-lasting presence of orality in the forging of Caribbean history, identity, and the arts. Storytelling, songs, the coexistence of creole traditions with the official metropolitan languages of colonial import, and the calling for community participation in the act of “creating the word” have always had a special place in all cultural productions in and from the Caribbean region.

My conversation with M. NourbeSe Philip took place in Bridgetown, Barbados, during the 2010 conference of the Caribbean Studies Association. It followed the author’s inspiring reading of excerpts from her 2008 book of poetry, Zong!, and her sharing of reflections on the writing of history and “truth” within the Caribbean context. An earlier version of this conversation was previously published on Latineos.com in 2010.

In Zong! Philip goes to the root of the peculiar relation that Caribbean people have with orality. The extended poetry cycle is based on a legal decision, at the end of the eighteenth century, related to the murders of Africans on board a slave ship after which the book is named. Described on the author’s website as “a haunting lifeline between archive and memory, law and poetry,” Zong! was published by Wesleyan University Press in the united States and by the Mercury Press in Canada (see www.nourbese.com/poetry/zong-3/). The following conversation revolves around the genesis of Zong! and its relevance and place within the continuum of the author’s prolific productions.

Marika Preziuso: You exude an extraordinary confidence in your work by almost creating a new hybrid, unique language. This feature of your work makes me wonder how much power you wish your readers to exercise onto the text in order to “fill in the gaps” and overcome what might be perceived as a limited intelligibility of Zong! Do you also think that such perceived limitations may involve some reading pleasure, albeit of different kinds?

M. NourbeSe Philip: The question of the lack of intelligibility is extremely relevant in the case of Zong!

The structure of Zong! allows readers a certain freedom about how they are going to read it. One of the ideas I was working with was that of completion by the reader. The reader is asked to make certain choices, so that in the end she or he is contaminated by the text and becomes the co-creator and participant in this event.

I use the word contaminated very carefully here. Zong! not only deals with an historical event—the massacre of enslaved Africans on board the Zong in 1784—but also speaks to contemporary times, in the sense that we are all contaminated by that event. What I mean by that is that we live in the West, and for as much as you may not want to be a part of this consumerist, capitalistic culture, we have very little control over the processes that bring this coffee, for instance, to us. Indeed, we are often, willingly or not, complicit in exploitative systems that have been set in place by the West, for the West.

I was and am very interested in the fact that all of us, even though born a couple of centuries after the end of the slave trade, are still contaminated by it because it continues to cast a long shadow. Today’s speculative financing, for instance, has its roots in the trade in Africans, which allowed someone, while still resident in Edinburgh or London, through a complex system of promissory notes, to buy a slave in Africa, transport him or her to the Caribbean, sell him or her to a plantation owner there, and collect payment in England, or anywhere else in Europe, for that matter.

Going back to your question about the loss of enjoyment in the reading, I am not sure I can answer this question with reference to my own work. A few people have told me that when they get the idea that the text of Zong! is “open” and that they can read it in any way, this generates a kind of excitement for them—a sense of breaking the rules and conventions of literature in a way. In this way, I don’t think that the enjoyment of reading is necessarily lost with respect to a text like Zong!

As for the issue of the “hierarchy of readers” that you raise, there is a sense in which Zong! is performed on the page, which I think does create a sense of “Oh my god, what am I supposed to do with this?” Mainly, of course, because we have been schooled and taught to “read” in a certain way. Top down, left to right—the conventions of reading are so hard that people believe that they have to start at the beginning and work their way through the text, but as in She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks [Philip’s 1988 collection of poems] my idea was that you can begin to read from anywhere—in fact, there may be no beginning. More to the point, the text began before you began reading. If someone is willing to get past those conventions—and believe me, many of the people who can’t do that are at the top of the hierarchy of readers that you mention: university professors for instance—they will understand what is happening. In fact, I have found the nonacademic reader or listener very adept at this. Zong! was not written for the learned or schooled reader.

Wherever you enter Zong! you will get a story, or at least a fragment of a story. It suggests a polyvocality that is at times cacophonous in the extreme. It is a text of silence (that of the ocean and the Middle Passage) and silencing (as in the historical silencing of this and similar stories) that is interrupted, fractured, and fragmented by the human voice.

MP: So, moving from what you have called the “conventions of reading,” I would like to shift now to the conventions of writing. There is, I think, an aspect of both premeditation and unconsciousness in the way you write a text. I wonder if you could expand a bit on this.

MNP: Every writer, and every creative person, for that matter, works between and with these two extremes. There are the choices that you make based on your skill, and there are also those hunches that you follow. Or don’t, as the case may be. For me, “play” is really important—I keep asking myself, “What happens if I put this here?” Or, “How do I respond if I do this?”

Zong! was very much a result of a process in which the poem began to surface out of the mother document, which was a report of a legal case—Gregson v. Gilbert. So much so that there was a feeling at the end that I had not authored the text myself but that it had been given to me. I use the expression “authorial absolving,” which I first saw used in reference to an installation by the well-known Vancouver artist Stan Douglas, to describe this feeling.

MP: I was intrigued by what you said earlier during the public reading, that your latest book is your “revenge on the English language.” I wonder if the fragmentation that seems such a relevant aspect of your writing is indeed the means by which you take this revenge.

MNP: No, Zong! was not my “revenge on the English language.” The work is much bigger than that. What I meant was that as I worked on the last section of the book, “Ferrum,” I was aware that I was experiencing a deep sense of pleasure at fracturing and fragmenting this father/mother tongue of mine—English. Indeed, the anguish that is English lifted. For the first time. I began to be aware that as I fractured and broke the conventions of language, it seemed to release a code that was entirely another language that floated below the surface of English.

When I read the text, then, I—as does the reader—have the choice: Do I read it in such a way that I restore the English word across the space of time and history that has fragmented it, or do I read the new word—the code—that my fracturing (which is in some way nothing but a reflection of certain historical realities) has created? It is of course not an exact reflection, since it is English that is being fractured and not, as happened, those original African tongues. The result of that choice is profound: in remaining faithful to the split, the fracture in the word, in accepting the fragment I realized I had both created and found my own language.

MP: And so the “fragment” to you does not suggest a negative image but a useful tool. This brings me to ask you, how would you relate to the narratives of dislocation and indeed fragmentation that appear as common features in much contemporary literature from the Caribbean and the diaspora?

MNP: I am not surprised at that for a number of obvious reasons, among which are the historical events that dislocated so many peoples—First Nations, African, and Asian—that resulted in the Caribbean that we know today.

When I walk on the beach I am often intrigued by how very often the shell fragment is as beautiful as, if not more so than, the whole, due to the way it would have been shaped by the sea, the foam, the wind, etc. My question, then, is, at what point does the fragment stop being a piece of the whole and assume its own authenticity? These are some of the ways I think about the fragment within the context of the Caribbean and its peoples.

MP: The Caribbean is indeed a region characterized by disconnections—political, linguistic, and so on. Do you think that your writing in a way bridges or at least addresses the “gaps” that are implicit in the experience of fragmented identities?

MNP: The “balkanization” of the Caribbean . . .

MP: Yes, although I refer to it less as the geographical and political event and more as an epistemology—the ways this event has affected how people in and from the Caribbean know their worldview.

MNP: I have always said that in the Caribbean we should be at least trilingual. Why are we so shut out from each other’s realities by virtue of the linguistic heritage of the colonial powers in the region? It intrigued me that when Zong! exploded, the text seemed to become a multilingual universe. There is English, of course, but there are also African languages—Yoruba, Ewe, and Shona. There is Latin, Spanish, German, Dutch, and French—I used all the major colonial languages. There is a sense in which the slave ship was indeed a multicultural, multilingual universe marooned in time on the sea. And there would have been a linguistic balkanization on board as well, or perhaps Babel is a more apt metaphor. The remarkable thing with Zong! was that one word, meaning something in English, could mean something completely different in another language; or a word, once you rearranged the first three letters, could mean something different in another two or three languages. So to return to your question, it feels as if Zong! is attempting to speak to this epistemological fragmented universe.

MP: Do you know how Zong! is being taught in university courses?

MNP: My understanding from those professors who have shared their strategies with me is that they usually have students read it out loud. I think that is important because there is a very strong performative aspect to the text, as I mentioned. The text might look complex, and indeed it is complex in many ways, but it is also very simple. In the way a storm or hurricane is complex yet very simple.

MP: How comfortable are you with the critics defining your work as “postmodern,” avant-garde, and so on?

MNP: Someone a long time ago said that “She Tries Her Tongue” was “postmodern.” I said to her, “Fine, if this is how you want to see it, but you will lose a lot if you don’t also see the text within the context of the Caribbean.”

I would also add that you need to understand the Caribbean as a postmodern space long before postmodernism was named by European critics.

MP: On a different but related topic, what do you make of contemporary Christianity across the Caribbean region?

MNP: It’s part of the worldwide phenomenon, isn’t it? Evangelical Christianity is huge in Africa and Latin America. It troubles me because it goes hand in hand, particularly in Africa and the Caribbean, with a demonization of indigenous African religions and spiritual practices. I was recently in Trinidad and Tobago and was very surprised at how much more overt Christianity is now—as well as Islam and Hinduism, I might add—compared to when I grew up. There are huge full-page advertisements on all the various religious holidays, for instance. I myself have a complex relationship with Christianity, and I think that much of my work includes strategies to defuse its power and challenge it. At the same time, I have no doubt that one of the sources of my love of language came from the Book of Common Prayer—the Cranmer version, I believe. But Christianity has a lot to answer for.

One of the issues in Zong! is, can Christianity ever be redeemed? I don’t think it can be. At the end of the poem, the European, whose voice weaves—I am tempted to say “insinuates”—its way throughout the text, jumps overboard. That act is indeed his redemption because he realizes how contaminated Christianity is by the trade in Africans and by extension how he himself has sinned by being involved in it. The only way for him to redeem himself is to join the victims. In the ocean. What this says, I believe, is that “something”—this whole Judaeo-Christian-European-colonial superstructure—has to die in order to allow us to live.


Marika Preziuso is an assistant professor in world literature in the Liberal Arts Department of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Boston. She teaches and researches on contemporary writers and artists of the Caribbean and its diaspora.


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