Zong! The Transformation of Language into Sacred Space

February 2011

M. NourbeSe Philip, Zong! (Toronto: Mercury, 2008), 211 pages, ISBN 13-9781551281360 (paper).

Zong!, by poet M. NourbeSe Philip, invokes the memory of enslaved Africans on the Dutch ship Zong in 1781, of whom 150 were thrown overboard and drowned on the way to Jamaica so that the ship’s owners could collect on the insurance. The legal battle for compensation was, however, lost by the ship’s owners, not because the act was seen as murder (it was not) but because the throwing overboard of 150 Africans (read cargo) was seen as unnecessary and avoidable. Philip uses the only accounts available—legal documents that recorded the ship owners’ battle with the insurance underwriters in Liverpool—as the found text for the work of Zong!, and is guided by the ancestral voice of Setaey Adamu Boateng in the telling of a story that, according to Philip, “cannot be told” (189).


I begin reading Zong! out loud. “w  w  w         w        a  wa” (3). Very quickly, I am whispering, my voice and breath ragged. The letters far from each other sound like voices calling out from the water, like voices mourning. There is a sense in which words are not the thing here, that words must get out of the way for something else to come through. White space fills these pages, like water. I want to weep, or vomit. Something is pushing, rising up or out and I don’t know what it is. What I feel is an urgency in the coming apart of words to tell a story, or to let a story emerge, a story that is lost in the water, to borrow a phrase from Ian Strachan’s Diary of Souls. I must keep reading, even though I dread the reading, and pause, every page, every few pages, to re-compose.


Words moving away from words, leaving words, making space for what? Grief? The silent story? The loss of life? Of meaning? One aspect of meaning Philip questions is the concept of time, the idea that this story took place in a past that is over. She writes, “This is/not was/or/should be/this be” (7). If the past is with us still, and the water is vibrating with a story that cannot be told, how, Philip asks, to break into existing language and find what is true there? How to make meaning using the language of the people for whom Africans and “property” meant the same thing? Philip answers her questions by forcing language apart, an exercise in violence that, she tells us, mirrors the violence done to the Africans aboard the ship Zong. She wants to see what may exist beyond that language. In the so many gaps that have opened up.


As I go deeper into the text, I am thinking about how I have to loosen/lose what I know (how I read, how I understand) in order to experience it. The text becomes more and more dense; my search for meaning among words more and more at risk. The words keep coming apart, harder to read. How can there be meaning? I must stop reading. I can make no sense of the words, the pieces and bits of surviving fragments. My head spins with the un-meaning of them. I wade through them, like so much water, trying to get to something recognizable: an intact phrase, the agreement of a verb and its subject. But what if nothing is recognizable? I have to stop, catch my breath.


I think: it takes courage to keep reading; the courage to step overboard into meaninglessness. All that is familiar—a name, the wholeness of a sentence (of a body, a human being)—has been stripped away; terror is deep. Philip is asking us to step overboard (willingly, we can choose) and experience the loss of what contains us (language, its rules, its customs), the safety of structures we’ve inherited—no, not safety, how dangerous it is to imagine that language is safe. I think: how language is set up in my guts and bones, how I have been taught (since I learned to read on Dick-and-Jane primers) to trust it, and how it lives in my skin (which is olive, but white for all intents and purposes) in my cells and nervous system, invisible, framing my points of view. Philip’s own distrust of language forces her to pull it apart, to expose it, draw attention to its insides, to the stories/silences/murders/massacres that have been hidden there.


I stop trying to compose myself. (My composition is broken). I stop pretending I am not disturbed: I am disturbed, ill-at-ease, dis-configured. In order to continue I must allow a coming apart inside me. I have to allow a space (a period of time) of not knowing, of confusion, of disorientation, before I can be an acceptable witness to the lives and deaths of people whose stories are lost in the water.


Reading Zong! is its own journey. Again, I’ve stopped, marked the page, folded the book closed on my bed. But I can still see the water, the swell of it, the formidable depths, murky metallic blue; I can still taste salt air stuck at the back of my throat. This isn’t a story. Between these pages, it’s something else: a radical act, physical, embodied, because language is of the body; a mutilation of language, a holy vivisection to expose its parts, and a healing that is not easy or gentle—reading Zong! is dangerous. The journey is fraught. In part, because Philip is exposing the danger in ignoring the deliberate trickery of a language that is birthed by and gives birth to a system that “could enable, encourage even, a man to drown 150 people as a way to maximize profits” (195). And for those of us who have inherited this language, there is no safety.


Days have passed and I open Zong! once more. The pages that follow are waves and waves of broken words images sounds utterances that conjure in me a feverish and chaotic dream state, calling me to dreams in which partial and incongruent images and sounds jerk and pull and jar in and against familiar oceanic rhythms. English words and syllables are interrupted and joined by Fon and Shona and Yoruban words and I can only begin to imagine the disorientation of the African women and men and children, those on board the Zong and those who died in the water. I sense less and less Philip’s voice or sensibility and instead feel the voices of African women and men surfacing: urgent whispers, moans, cries, sometimes forming a chorus of sound, other times single voices calling and answering to each other.

And, because I do not expect it, what I do not immediately accept (of course, I do recognize it) is the voice of a particular European male whose words ebb and flow between those of Africans. It would be simpler to see these pages as the voices of Africans calling on us to witness to them, finally; but the European voices moving through these pages as well cause the text to become an even more complex calling: a cacophony of words voices meanings that forces us to push past any essentialist gropings for understanding and toward an opening, out of which, through which, we might allow new life language meaning to surface.


In the final pages of Zong! I am quiet. I find myself listening to words differently than when I began. I hear how they might be spoken by several voices at once, or in counterpoint to one another, so that there are multiple threads of meaning that exist alongside each other and in relation to one another, and all at once. In this moment Zong!s project comes together inside me.

Philip tells us she was attempting in Zong! to exhume, or “exaqua” the bodies, the bones, of the dead from their sea water grave (201–2). By taking language apart, word by word, letter by letter, Philip has created an altered space—a sacred space—in which the voices of the dead and the dead themselves come through to tell their own stories. In the pages of Zong! for a time I joined the dead in that altered space, and, leaving it now, my body remembers.


Helen Klonaris is a Greek Bahamian writer and teacher living and working between Oakland, California, and Nassau, Bahamas. A longtime activist and culture worker, Klonaris co-founded WomanSpeak, the first and only Bahamian journal for women’s literary expression; the Rainbow Alliance of the Bahamas, a Bahamian GLBT advocacy organization; and, most recently, the Bahamas Writers Summer Institute, now in its third year.