The Blue Clerk and A Map to the Door of No Return

February 2022

Indentured Returns from the Left Side

Stories that make it into the archive tell history from a position of power. But what of other histories? Perhaps a more interesting question might be, How does one enter an archive? That is to say, how does one register an alternative story, an underside that resonates with one’s own history, geography, and lived experiences? In the poetic vignettes between the figures of the author and the clerk in The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos, Dionne Brand invites her reader into an incomplete archive (“left-hand pages [that] have already written their own left-hand pages”), with multiple spaces open to ambivalences and questioning, where memory may not always match up to the way history has unfolded and been folded into the archive.1

Verso, the back page of a document or the left-hand page of a book, suggests a suppressed texture and textuality of experiences that remain uncatalogued and uncategorized, outside the records of the right-hand page or the recordkeeping logics of left-brain thinking. The clerk functions as the impulse to organize and analyze (“What part of this are you letting go, the clerk asks, because it seems to me none of this belongs on the dock with me”), whereas the author ponders feeling (“The clerk thinks it is mere self-indulgence. The author agrees. But what do you do with a feeling like that?”).2 In “The Site of Memory,” Toni Morrison notes that the beginnings of Black literature in the United States—the autobiographical slave narrative largely written for a white abolitionist audience—turned away from uncomfortable truths of an interior life of emotions and experiences. Thus for Morrison it is important in her writing to reach beyond the surface of analytical tools such as “discovery and selection and order and meaning,” to begin with what “floats around” the sites of memory, as a route to “a kind of truth.”3 Similarly, the versos in The Blue Clerk are not only poetic device but wayfinding toward how we might organize routes of knowledge both experientially and materially.

In A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging Brand offers personal fragments that map and unmap ports of arrival and departure and portals to consciousness and memory that live alongside and against history.4 Paying attention to what accumulates in the margins or on the edges of maps also offers another kind of imaginative left side of personal landscapes and histories that remain undetectable to most. To read A Map to the Door of No Return and The Blue Clerk together is to have a deeper appreciation of their differing yet entwined emphases on the spatialities and temporalities of memory that evade mapping and archiving.


Verso 1

The back of a leaf

What is withheld is on the back. A stack, a ream.

   There are bales of paper on a wharf somewhere; at a port, somewhere. . . .

   And some years the pages absorb all the water in the air, . . . and the clerk weeps and wonders why she is here and when will a ship ever arrive. (4–5)


In “A Circumstantial Account of a State of Things” that opens Map, Brand recounts a lingering door of no return (port of forced departure) through attempts to press her grandfather for a site of origins.5 Map foregrounds the port as a site of continuing—and absented—memory. The port also appears prominently in the very first verso of The Blue Clerk. As someone interested in historical geographies, the opening of The Blue Clerk reminded me of a series of archival arrivals and ports as points of departure. I read “Verso 1: The back of a leaf” with great interest, as the description of the port immediately transported me to the previous site of Guyana’s National Archives, on Main Street, just behind Water Street, which runs parallel to Georgetown’s docks. In the colonial past, the customs house, merchant houses, and Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society were located along Water Street, where shipments and papers were unloaded.6 Today, we see the contemporary contours of transatlantic commodity chains: shipping containers piled “deep and high” by the port (4).


The docks in Georgetown, Guyana, 2013. Photograph by the author; used by permission of the author.

My first visit to Guyana’s National Archives in 2005, before it moved to the air-conditioned facility at D’Urban Park, led to stacks of fragile papers that crumbled to the touch. The 2005 BBC documentary Coolies: How Britain Reinvented Slavery captures the frayed documents of Guyana’s indenture records and decaying scraps of paper lingering on the archive floor. In the film, academic David Dabydeen laments the scattered locations of archives that tell an incomplete history, despite meticulous ledger books kept by the colonial office. He describes occupational roles on the plantation such as driver or overseer, calling them terms “pregnant with terror” held over from the previous regime of slavery, and he speaks of the imperial “arrogance” of plantation administrators emboldened to shoot indentured laborers.7 I can’t say that on that visit I was conscious of the full range of emotions embedded in the log entries, but I do remember the humid air and the water just beyond.


Verso 1.1.01

My grandfather with his logs and notebooks lived in a town by the sea. (9)


My grandfather too had lived by the sea(wall) and kept personal photos and letters from his role as interpreter on the last return ship that transported time-expired indentured laborers from Guyana to India in 1955. On my trip, in 2005, I was naïvely seeking some fact of truth in the colonial archive that matched his stories. “Stipule: A small leaf-like appendage to a leaf,” the first of three “stipules” in The Blue Clerk, introduces the concept of the left-hand page as that which is “withheld” (3). For typewritten documents typical of the kind you would find in late-colonial-era archives, the paper would need to be manually inserted into a typewriter, then removed and flipped to type on the other side. Although, depending on the thickness of the paper, typing on both sides would risk obscuring the text on the other side, so sometimes the papers gathered in blue folders and tied neatly with a ribbon would be typed only on one side, leaving the verso side blank. Occasionally files would be typed on carbon paper, to make a copy in that era before digitization or photocopiers. The transparency of carbon paper copies also rendered double-sided documents potentially illegible, with the sides blurring into each other.


Verso 16.7

If you say Foucault here, the clerk arrives brimming, you will be understood. By whom, says the author. (97)


Undeterred by blank left-hand spaces, I continued to pursue research on the return migration of indentured laborers from the Caribbean to India and to consider what this return ocean crossing might mean in terms of a politics and poetics of relation between Africa and India in the Caribbean. I was a graduate student in geography, but I felt in revolt of being pushed to articulate this journey through Euro-American philosophical traditions (the terms of engagement understood by the academy). As Gayatri Spivak reminds us in her critique of the “desire to conserve the subject of the West, or the West as Subject”: “Foucault is a brilliant thinker of power-in-spacing, but the awareness of the topographical reinscription of imperialism does not inform his presuppositions.”8 Ultimately, I could not bring myself to replicate an imperially sanctioned genealogy of knowing nor the accompanying global claims. Instead, I went in search of decolonial Caribbean geographers and focused on Dionne Brand, whose work helped me grapple with the historical, but also personal, questions of what comes after—after emancipation, after indentureship, after independence, after migration. Her poetry and prose texts offered notations for an afterward, toward which we are still striving to imagine.

Methodologically, Brand’s choice of personal narrative was also important to me. At the time, my understanding of indentureship was fractured. I posed urgent questions to my grandfather (his mother was an indentured laborer), and despite his ill health (he had been diagnosed with cancer), he produced for me a formal letter, written with the flourish of someone trained in the colonial service, to serve as an introduction to Guyana’s archives and the general register office. Later, I carried the same letter to India, to visit that country’s archives on indenture, which required such a letter. Authorized by this letter, I scanned catalogue cards and filled out request slips for commission of inquiry and surgeon-general reports held in blue folders, tied together with a string, waiting to be unraveled. But across multiple archives, with blue folders of colonial records, I could not find what I was looking for. I had come up against the limits of an empiricist approach to fully understanding experiences and emotions surrounding the idea of return. However, history is more than archives and greater than familial traces. Return journeys are not just physical ocean crossings but also a memory, however distant, of a port, a place, a point in time, at which you may never arrive.


Verso 5

In June, I realized I had already abandoned nation long before I knew myself, the author says. That attachment always seemed like a temporary hook in the shoulder blade. (37)


In “Verso 5.1” Brand returns, even if differently, to the door of no return (40). In Map, Brand describes the door of no return as the difference between documents of evidence and time, a rupture, a place emptied of originary points or claims to territory. Under the section-heading “Maps,” she discusses an essay V. S. Naipaul wrote during his first visit to India in 1962. Highlighting his description of India, in which he uses terms like “dread,” “frightening,” “sadden,” and “monotonous,” and speaks of its producing “an urge to escape,”9 Brand suggests Naipaul’s essay is less about India and more about an India that has fallen away from him:

[It is a] dread one suspects arrived with him. The stories he must have heard as a child of the Kala Pani [. . . .] When Naipaul travels to India to send this report he is making the return trip across the Kala Pani . . . the Sargasso . . . the middle passage . . . the door.10

The troubled presence of the sea shared across Caribbean peoples at different historical junctures, as Brand suggests, haunts Naipaul’s experience of land, as his psychological experience of “return” to nation was fractured at the outset. Brand attends to the histories of crossing, interruption, plantation dread, and psychological spaces reactivated across ethnoracial groups in the Caribbean. In “Verso 35” Brand offers another mapping of the sea, when the clerk interrupts the author and challenges the author’s writing of the sea in the past tense (180). Taken together, Brand suggests that while the tensions of return cannot be resolved, we can at least be attuned to its anxieties.


Verso 3.8

There are five ways of saying let us go home, the clerk tells the author. . . .

You understand, says the clerk, which will you use? You keep them, says the author. The clerk climbs into the packet boat. (33)


Like most people interested in indentureship, I first turned to the emigration pass, which provides a remarkable level of detail not available in the ledgers of the slave ship. The emigration pass records the village of origin, father’s name, caste, height, even bodily scars of the indentured. Yet the specificity of detail did not help me to situate myself in India, where according to the emigration pass, my ancestral village was, on one side, a large city, and, on the other side, a village where potential relatives eyed me suspiciously as an outsider trying to steal property. But they need not have worried. I had no claim to the land. I had no claim to territory. Despite the fictitious legitimacy of colonial history embedded in the emigration pass, I had lost a map of return. Almost everywhere I went in India, I was asked where I was from—meaning, which village in India was my family from, where did I originate; that is, what memory do I have of this land? Despite an origin inscribed in the emigration pass, I had no claim to “home.”


Verso 19

Poema, poein, related to, the Sanskrit, cinoti, cayati, to assemble to heap up, to construct

“You can’t be responsible for remembering everything.” (110)


This destabilization of geography also worked the other way around too. As Grierson, a civil servant of British India, recorded in 1883, the word tapu (island) was used by Indians to describe banishment through indenture: “It is at once concluded that he has gone to the Ta´pu´. . . . In this way the colonies (very often entirely without reason) get the credit of being a kind of Limbo where everyone goes who is lost sight of, . . . and ten chances to once he is never heard of again.”11 Not only did sugar colonies lack geographic bearings for Indians but the process of passage suggested a place of disappearance.

With the assistance of sociologist Shafique Ahmad, I traveled to the village of Khajwa to seek anyone who may have recalled an indentured laborer who had returned in 1955. There we met Mr. Persaud, who told us his great-uncle was from “Damra tapu”—that is, the “island” of Demerara. “Tapu” mapped Guyana to an inland village in Uttar Pradesh across dark waters, if not by geography then by an imagined archipelago of cane fields. How would I have recognized this if Map did not teach me that geography is elusive?



What the author has. A condition and a state. Situations. The word way, with a number of meanings. A route, or a course. Distance. An aspect. One point in time and a procedure. (172)


Julie-Anne Lee, an archival researcher, shared with me articles from the Kingston Gleaner on ships carrying indentured laborers. “The Coolie Ship Howrah” from 1883 describes the moment when the voyage was about to end: “When on Sunday, it became known to the poor people that their long voyages had approached . . . termination and they would soon be sent ashore to their several points of destination, a howl of genuine anguish went up at the prospect of their having to leave what had become to them a sort of second-home.” An 1899 article about a “picturesque throng of six hundred coolies” in Kingston states, “When they realized that their four months[’] association with the ship was near its end, the coolies became most disconsolate.”12 What, then, is the psychic relationship to the sea, to the ship, to the space in between? Had the ship become like floating inside a deep time and space, before allocation to the plantation?


Verso 25

In the mornings the clerk reads the obituaries. All these bales may be considered obituaries of a sort but we are talking about the regular obituaries where people actually die. (144)


For some, the indenture ship remained “a chapter of horrors,” as an 1866 headline read; the article describes the Eagle Speed, a ship abandoned by its European crew, “who left the coolies on board to perish” despite the availability of rafts on a nearby tugboat. The rationale? “The unhappy creatures thus abandoned were only coolies; the cheap humanity which is used up in the Mauritius, at the Cape, and in the West Indies.”13 In this case, does the ship and crossing become a nightmare of waters flooding in?


Verso 21.2

The clerk understands that this wooden dock is attached to nothing; no land, no town, no city. (126)


In “Verso 18.2” the author lists a network of cities in Asia they have visited, including Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, and Kochi, but the author has only recorded the right-hand page (104). Returning to Map, we might have a sense of why the author never saw the left side of these cities. Under “Maps,” Brand observes the wound of forgetting (in both an Indian Caribbean and an African Caribbean context):

The possibility [exists] that in fact one is unwanted back home, perhaps hated, perhaps even forgotten. . . . To the descendants of the nineteenth century Indian and African Diaspora, a nervous temporariness is our existential dilemma . . . . We have no ancestry except the black water and the door of no return. They signify space and not land.14

Brand is asking us, I think, to contemplate what it means to hold space that is relational, given the complexities of the withheld or unsaid (see “Stipule,” above).

I encounter Brand’s poetry and prose as an extended history to the future, to consider what it means to live with the displacements of Caribbeanness as a web of associative connections and partial access to histories and geographies. This has also meant a pondering of what relational intimacies of African and Indian in the Caribbean and its diaspora might mean as a praxis. For example, I think of work with my friend and collaborator Ronald Cummings on the Sir George Williams occupation15—How do we discuss the touchstones of history not easily understood through siloed categorizations of identity in North American space? How do we assert that “diaspora” is a different kind of embrace than “immigrant”? How do we find a way to hold space for the complicated relationships to location, to identity? Not an unbroken identity but an antiessentialist one?


Verso 21


I mean, I think that space is . . . I am going to follow Wilson Harris on that . . . (124; ellipses in original)


The door, the kala pani, the Sargasso Sea are each a portal for connections, for a different kind of map or archival document: an atlas for that time when the world may look flat, not in that way that suggests it is waiting to be discovered but rather opened flat so that its margins are visible and its connections may offer “the miracle of a dialogue with eclipsed selves.”16


Nalini Mohabir is an assistant professor of geography at Concordia University, Montreal. Her research focuses on postcolonial geographies and Caribbean studies.


[1] Dionne Brand, “Stipule: A small leaf-like appendage to a leaf,” in The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2018), 3. On registering the underside of an archive, see “Verso 32.2,” which begins, “My ancestral line to John Locke. When he wrote ‘An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,’ in 1689 he had already been the Secretary of the Board of Trade and Plantations” (168).

[2] Brand, “Verso 33.2,” in ibid., 175; hereafter cited in the text.

[3] Toni Morrison, “The Site of Memory,” in William Zinnser, ed. Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995), 92, 95, 95.

[4] Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2001).

[5] See ibid., 3–6.

[6] See Juanita De Barros, Order and Place in a Colonial City: Patterns of Struggle and Resistance in Georgetown, British Guiana, 1889–1924 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003).

[7] Coolies: How Britain Reinvented Slavery, dir. Deep Sehgal, narr. Sanjeev Bhaskar, 58:30, BBC, 2005.

[8] Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman, eds., Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 66, 85.

[9] Brand, Map, 59.

[10] Ibid., 60 (unbracketed ellipses in the original).

[11] George Grierson, quoted in Clare Anderson, “Convicts and Coolies: Rethinking Indentured Labour in the Nineteenth Century,” Slavery and Abolition 30, no. 1 (2009): 103.

[12] “The Coolie Ship Howrah,” Kingston Gleaner, 29 May 1883, 2; “A Picturesque Throng of Six Hundred Coolies,” Kingston Gleaner, 3 July 1899, 7.

[13] “A Chapter of Horrors,” Daily Telegraph, 24 October 1866, 3.

[14] Brand, Map, 61.

[15] See, for example, Ronald Cummings and Nalini Mohabir, eds., The Fire That Time: Transnational Black Radicalism and the Sir George Williams Occupation (Montreal: Black Rose, 2021).

[16] Wilson Harris, quoted in Brand, Map, 219; see Harris, “A Talk on the Subjective Imagination” (1973), in Explorations: A Selection of Talks and Articles, 1966–1981, ed. Hena Maes-Jelinek (Mundelstrup, Denmark: Dangaroo, 1981), 65–66.       


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