Cocreation in an uncertain world

An interview with M. NourbeSe Philip

Phanuel Antwi, Veronica Austen, and M. NourbeSe Philip.

Editorial note: A live version of this interview took place at the 2012 Congress of the Canadian Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Waterloo, Ontario. At a Congress event cosponsored by the Canadian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (CACLALS) and the Association for Canadian and Quebec Literatures (ACQL), M. NourbeSe Philip read her poetry and was interviewed by Phanuel Antwi and Veronica Austen. The theme of Congress 2012 was Crossroads: Scholarship for an Uncertain World. In this interview, Philip historicizes uncertainty in the Americas and its relationship to her poetic practice. After the live event, Philip offered to continue her conversation with Antwi and Austen in writing. A transcript of that exchange appears here. — Janet Neigh

Phanuel Antwi and Veronica Austen: Could you speak to the theme of the 2012 conference Crossroads: Scholarship and Teaching for an Uncertain World? In particular, one of the statements from the CACLALS’s call for papers is a great starting point. The CFP stated: “[The conference theme] invites us to consider how our scholarship and teaching are connected to the uncertain world in which we live, but we might begin by asking if a ‘presentist’ bias shadows the theme; is our world any more uncertain now than it has ever been, and if so, for whom and why?”

M. NourbeSe Philip: I have, for quite some time, been thinking about this issue and as the new year began and there was increasing talk of 2012 and the Mayan calendar that seemed to suggest that the world was coming to an end, I recall thinking that for some people their 2012 has already happened. By that I mean that when we consider the First Nations of the Americas or African peoples who had their worlds turned upside down and inside out by first, the Arab slave trade, then the European, transatlantic slave trade, we surely must conclude that those events were cataclysmic and fatal in so many many ways. Consider, for example, that Africa could not support a slave trade today. What do I mean by that problematic statement? The transatlantic trade in humans continued for some five hundred years leading to the forcible removal of millions of healthy Africans from the continent. This means that there had to have been a healthy enough population in Africa to be able to support this shockingly brutal trade over such a long period of time. There are certain things that must be in place in order to nurture a healthy population: a good source of potable water; a steady supply of food that sustains populations; health practices that ensure the mortality rate of infants is low enough to guarantee at least a replacement of your populations and ensures that your adult population is healthy enough to provide sustenance for the weaker; a cultural and societal matrix that meets the universally human needs of reproduction, social interactions, spirituality, disposition of the deceased, and a societal understanding of one’s place in the world. Contrast that with the media images of Africa today — and I use the word Africa deliberately, rather than African nations, which is more accurate, because the media insistently present a monolithic image of the continent. These images are of profound deficit at best and of pathology at worst, which is not to say that there isn’t a need, but there is never any discussion of the process by which Africa and its populations have been impoverished or underdeveloped to quote Walter Rodney. This is important because if we don’t understand what has happened, then the language remains one of aid when it should be one of restitution and reparations. What I am also saying here is that the various populations of Africa, both within and without the continent, have had to live with and within the shadow of uncertainty, impoverishment and neglect for at least half a millennium. 

Antwi and Austen: Your body of work makes it abundantly clear to us that time does not pass; in fact, your work teaches us that the experience of relocation of people of African descent into the supposed New World is an event that haunts everything. A different way of phrasing this fact is to state that the events we call history are an accumulation of experiences and times we only think have passed. In your “Interview with an Empire,” you write that “there are certain experiences that defy the passage of time” (197), experiences so vexed they remain unresolved. In a historical moment where many of us are turning to the evidence of historical archives to animate other versions of given truths, your writing instructs that these historical archives have not passed, insists they remain of the now. How do we grapple with the archives of the past that defy the passage of time? (How do we grapple with it socially? How do you grapple with it as a writer? And how do we grapple it with institutionally in the academy?)

Philip: There is a powerful sense in which an event like the Zong incident — the deliberate drowning of African slaves by a ship’s captain in 1781 to collect insurance monies — becomes a repeating incident. The same impulse to greed and exploitation is at work today as we witness the meltdown of financial systems as was at work in the Arab and transatlantic trades in African bodies. The irony is that we live in more democratic times where at least lip service is paid to human rights, yet this was no protection against a plutocracy intent on looting their own populations in more recent times.

I think the challenge for those of us who are a part of the Afrospora is to find ways through the master narratives to truths that can serve us. The archive — the written archive, the historical archive has, more often than not, been scripted by those who were integrally connected to the European project of terror and dehumanization of the Other. We call it colonialism, the direct descendant of imperialism.

The archive that I confronted in Zong! was the master narrative of the legal report, Gregson v. Gilbert. Without going into too much detail, I had to devise ways of fracturing that text to allow what I knew was locked in there to emerge; it led me to another archive — the liquid archive of water. The scholar has a certain kind of work to do with the archive and there is value in bringing to light material that has remained hidden. But I believe there is room to do another kind of scholarship — a scholarship that embodies the knowledge that is being recovered. I am thinking of a work like Lose Your Mother by Saidiya Hartman that works that liminal space between history and historical research and an embodied search for the markings and tracings of a lost ancestor. I think that the African, or African descended, writer has many more tools in her arsenal, not being hamstrung by the academy, which was never intended for us in the first place. You will recall Audre Lorde’s statement that we couldn’t use the master’s tools to destroy the master’s house, and Ishmael Reed talks about the hoodoo tradition that was important in his writing. Kamau Brathwaite demonstrates what I’m talking about vividly in his incantatory poetry (perhaps poetry lends itself most naturally to this — I am not sure), but we need to become more like obeah men and women — conjure or spirit writers, so to speak, using the word in ways that we were once familiar with to “imagine the past,” as Octavio Paz says, the better to “remember the future.” It is he who also reminds us that we — the so-called new world, the Americas — began as a European idea, which in turn links with these master narratives that we need to transform.

Emancipation celebrations illustrate this issue: what do we actually celebrate when we celebrate emancipation? That the European granted us freedom? How could he grant us something that he had illegally and immorally removed in the first place? European law in all its manifestations established that the African was a thing. Africans knew this to be not the case and all the instances of resistance and refusal of this such as slave revolts, maronnage, suicide, murder expressed this fundamental truth — that you cannot make of a human a thing. So, surely, it can be argued that with the granting of freedom, it was the European that was catching up with a truth that Africans already understood. What we should be celebrating is not their decision to free us, but our astonishing survival in the face of an unrelieved push to extermination, that is still with us today. We were never intended to survive.

Antwi and Austen: What is the role of spirits/haunting in your work?

Philip: I believe, whether we acknowledge or not, that we are all haunted by the past. That haunting, if we become aware of it, can be channeled into more positive activities, but it is also susceptible to a lot of negativity, if it isn’t dealt with.

When I left law for poetry and writing, I felt very strongly that it was our griots — our poets, writers, musicians, dancers, and storytellers who would help us to heal. I still believe that, perhaps more strongly now. What I hope I have been able to do, especially in Zong! is to create or open a space for those spirits who died unmourned, bereft of name, and home and family to come forward. There is a sense in which you can say that I continue to be an advocate on behalf of — in this case, in the case of my writing, on behalf of the disappeared.

Antwi and Austen: There has been a recent focus in Canadian literature on representations of the Atlantic slave trade. We’re thinking of a number of books that have received a fair bit of public attention, like Clarke’s The Polished Hoe, Hill’s The Book of Negroes, Brand’s At the Full and Change of the Moon. What do you see as the relationship of your book Zong!, which also deals with the historical trauma of slavery, with this body of work coming out of Canada?

Philip: I think that the answer to that question will have to come from the critics, but I would say that my previous answer about all of us being haunted by the past applies to this question. It’s the griot who is able to tell the story for the People.

Antwi and Austen: Your work seems to be searching for new forms and structures, a new architecture to house words. Whether it be in your essays which have poetry in them, or, for example, in Genealogy of Resistance, where poetry plays with texts. What do you see as the relationship of form and content in your work? And maybe a trickier question: What is the relationship of form and the construction of community in and/or through your work?

Philip: I return to Lorde’s aphorism — you cannot use the master’s tools to destroy the master’s house. I know that when I was working on the last section of Zong!, “Ferrum,” I felt I understood what she meant. In that section I saw english degrade and begin to reshape itself, through fragmentation, into another language. It was the language of stutter and stammer and grunt and at times searing lucidity. I felt for the first time that this was my language and I have said this many times, it felt as if I was having my revenge on the english that had been for so long a foreign anguish, but I had to drop below the english text to find that other language.

Regarding community — I find that difficult to answer. I wish there were more Caribbean people who read my work. The community of readers here in Canada seems to be that of people who understand the hegemonic influences of english and structure their work around challenging that. I welcome that and am grateful for whatever readership I have. I feel that in the Caribbean, the page-bound text is still viewed with some degree of latent suspicion, and for good reason. People only come upon writing in the imaginative, literary sense in school, and I fear with the advent of the new technologies, there is even less accessibility to work like my own. Music remains the vehicle for carrying what needs to be heard, but some of what is being carried I have concerns about. I think the performative is an aspect of the Caribbean aesthetic and I am finding that Zong! lends itself very much to performance, so that might be a way that I can meet another audience.

Antwi and Austen: In “‘Difficult Forms of Knowing’: Enquiry, Injury, and Translocated Relations of Postcolonial Responsibility,” Diana Brydon suggests that difficult subjects require difficult forms of knowing. As she acknowledges, this idea is built upon a statement from Gail Jones’s novel Sorry: “[t]here is a hush to difficult forms of knowing” (3). What role do you see “difficulty” playing in your writing?

Philip: I have never set out to be difficult in my work. I think that one of the pernicious aspects of Western culture is this tendency to condition people to predigested information, which is ably assisted by a television culture and even more recently by an Internet culture. I understand that when someone looks at a page of Zong!, they may wonder what to do with it. I recall that when She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks was first published, the signature poem, “Discourse on the Logic of Language,” was selected for an anthology. The section of the poem that ran down the side of the center discourse was tampered with and “turned” the right way around. I was told by the editor, who was male, that they couldn’t print it the way I had arranged it! I sensed there was a resistance to it, and oddly enough, I only had difficulty with male editors. I think the resistance had to do with a reluctance to move to a new way of thinking about what poetry could and couldn’t do. In that case I was trying to say that you have to make an effort — a physical effort to read the woman’s story, in other words, you have to physically turn the book. I received some thirty rejections for that work, one of which was a long letter lecturing me on what poetry was all about. The book has remained in print for more than two decades and has been seminal for a generation of younger poets.

We also can’t avoid the whole idea of difficulty as it applies to African people producing art. Difficulty is supposed to be the preserve of the white, European male. Not the Black female.

Perhaps, I should end by saying that difficulty, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder/reader.

Antwi and Austen: One of the joys of your work for many of your readers is your playful commitment to language, your refusal to take language for granted. Commenting on She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks, Brenda Carr notes “many of the sequence titles [in this work] signal linguistic intervention as the dominant gesture of her text” (“To ‘Heal the Word Wounded,’” 78). This intervention may very well describe all of your work. You yourself have written that “I begin from a position of extreme distrust of language and do not believe that english — or any European language for that matter — can truly speak our truths without the language in question being put through some sort of transformative processes” (“Interview with an Empire,” 196). How do you handle your distrust of language? What are the challenges of harnessing this relationship to language in productive ways? 

Philip: I think that these issues have been covered above, but I would like to add a couple of thoughts. It was She Tries … that taught me the value of play in working with language. I really came to understand the seriousness of play, which may sound quite contradictory. I believe play is integral to how we function as humans within a universe that is constantly in play and it was in the “experimentation” I was doing in language with She Tries … that I came to understand that.

That work also showed me how deep the contamination by the father tongue goes. I became very aware during the time I spent developing the work of a sense of another language and the loss of it, although I grew up with english, or the Caribbean version of it, as a mother tongue. But I felt that it — english, that is — had sunk to the level of the cell but that within the cell there was a cellular memory of another tongue, so there is the poem “Universal Grammar” that questions whether we can ever forget when a single cell remembers — “Leg/ba, O/shun.” I also felt that english occupied, and still does, the conceptual part of my brain. I was, therefore, not at all surprised to read that, depending on what language you speak, a different part of the brain that governs language is developed. Of course, the study was done on European languages, but I would assume it applies to all languages. And then there is also the fact that the different parts of the brain that control speech are actually named after two men who were racist, classist, and sexist: the Drs. Wernicke and Broca. So, my relationship with language is a major challenge, because I don’t have another language I can retreat to, except perhaps the language of the soul.

Antwi and Austen: Given this ambivalent relationship with language: what are you envisioning your work as the writer to be? Are you in charge? Are you a guide? Or are you challenging the very idea of author having any control of text? Is there a balancing act that you’re performing between being in charge and surrendering?

We’re thinking, for instance, of your allowing for the difficulty of your poetic expression, but also tending to frame your poetry with essays. She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks includes “The Absence of Writing”; Zong! includes a “Notanda” section.

Philip: I began questioning the “authority” of the poet while writing She Tries …, wondering where I derived my authority from as a Black and female writer. It seemed to me that the way poetry and literature came to us in the Caribbean was as part of a package that established the poet and writer as the great man who carried the soul, or an aspect of the soul, of the nation. It was a revelation to me when I understood that these men — they were mostly men — came from a particular class and race, and we were supposed to emulate them. They had the authority of the state — indeed, the empire — behind them. Where would my authority come from? Where does my authority come from? Perhaps, it was not authority but community and polyvocality that were more relevant. I think that was what I learnt from She Tries …. Zong! brought me to another place where I felt that I had entirely absolved myself of authorial intent. I had to follow where the method I had chosen led me. So, the surfacing of a European character initially bothered me, but I had to allow that voice to be in the text, which turned out to be the right strategy.

I always work out my ideas in essays and journals as I engage on a project and the framing of She Tries … and Zong! with essays was not deliberate. “The Absence of Writing” that accompanies She Tries … was not written with that work in question. I was actually trying to work out how I positioned myself as a writer of Caribbean background working with a language — my mother tongue — that is laden with the historical baggage of empire. I thought that the essay elaborated some of the issues the poetry was dealing with. So, too, with Zong!: “Notanda” began as the essay that accompanied my submission to the publishers and, over time, I used the essay to work through my ideas.

I suppose I should think about the “difficulty” of the work — if I were thinking more about market rather than audience because the two aren’t necessarily the same — but, as mentioned above, I have allowed the work to determine what should be said. I have always felt that at any point in time during the process of creation, there are at least two poems — the one that you want to write and the one that has to write itself through you, and if there is a balancing act, it is the balancing between those two states, if you will.

Antwi and Austen: A related question would be, what do you envision the job of the reader/audience to be, given your oral and visual poetics? Do you have an “ideal reader”/audience in mind?

Philip: I don’t so much have an ideal reader or audience in mind, but I do feel, especially with respect to Zong!, that the poem works in such a way that the reader becomes a cocreator with me. The form accomplishes that by allowing the reader certain options on how to read, and it is in the process of making choices to read that the reader becomes a cocreator. Further, I have begun to structure collective readings of Zong!, and this process extends the idea of cocreation. As I and the audience read together out loud, the work becomes a collective, communal work created by all of us.

Antwi and Austen: In The Genealogy of Resistance, in the essay “Ignoring Poetry,” you ask the following: “How does one write poetry from the twin realities of being Black and female in the last quarter of the twentieth century? How does one write poetry from a place such as Canada whose reality for poets such as myself is, more often that not, structured by its absence?” (120) You asked these questions in 1987, almost a quarter of a century ago. What is the place of these questions today? How do you feel the spaces between “Dis place” of silence and absence have shifted?

Philip: It seems to me that spoken word has become the poetry of choice for young poets. I am happy about this, but I am concerned, and I may be quite mistaken about this, that there don’t appear to be many young, Black, female writers, including poets. I would have hoped that writers like myself, Claire Harris, and Dionne Brand were the beginning of a wave of younger Black Canadian writers. I do hope I am mistaken, because more than ever we need the tradition that we were seminal in developing to be continued. All the writers I have mentioned, including those who articulated a more oral tradition like Lillian Allen, were immigrants to Canada and began writing here in Canada, as opposed to writers like Olive Senior, Pam Mordecai, and Lorna Goodison who came here after they had begun writing and had established careers elsewhere. Perhaps, it was that we — Claire, Dionne, and myself — needed to work out our relationship to this land that appeared so bleak and bereft of a consciously articulated tradition of writing by African Canadians. Austin Clarke and Sonny Ladoo were the only two writers from the Caribbean who were working in Canada when we began writing. Ladoo died shortly after his brilliant work, No Pain Like This Body. Perhaps the younger generation, being born here, have fewer questions of this “multicultural paradise,” but I think not. Perhaps, coming as we all did from a country barely out of colonialism, and immigrating to another that also had colonial ties, there was a pressing need to work out our relationship to these shifting realities. Whatever the reason, it is clear that there has been a shift and one that I am not quite sure of. There also appears to be an absence of continuity, but I hope I am mistaken about that.

Antwi and Austen: In Frontiers, you’ve written that “[m]any of us [in Canada], no matter how old our citizenship, remain immigrants in a profoundly psychic sense. Some of us, recognizing this, choose to emphasize that alienation — it appearing a more positive position” (“Who’s Listening?,” 29). We quote this passage as a way to mark your multiple locations as a writer in the Americas. So, if you had to classify yourself by nationality how would you situate yourself? How, if at all, does the local influence of Tobago carry on your work? And what about the “multicultural” relations of Trinidad?

Philip: I begin — it all begins — in Moriah, Tobago, where I was born. That’s how I locate myself — as Tobagonian. I feel a very strong attachment to that island vis-à-vis Trinidad. Regarding Canada — there are many aspects of the country that I love — the landscape, the winter, and a socially responsible, universal health care program that is always under attack. This becomes even more relevant as I grow older. But I am very concerned about the position of Africans in this country — for instance, we no longer have any national organizations that address or speak to issues relevant to African Canadians. There aren’t any provincial ones either and maybe a couple at the municipal level. Our young people are not doing as well as they should — far too many of them are engaged in delinquent activities — but I don’t need to go on.

I would like to consider myself as coming first from the Caribbean — from an island nation, and then from the Americas. I think that our education system in the Caribbean failed us in not educating us in the three primary European languages — English, French, and Spanish, as well as at least one African and one Asian language. It is crucial that we speak to our brothers and sisters in former Spanish and French and Dutch colonies. There are many issues that cross linguistic boundaries but we are balkanized by language in the Caribbean with attenuated attachments to Africa. I claim the heritage of the Haitian revolution, as well as the Cuban revolution. Both those revolutions resonate throughout the Caribbean — whatever the language — and have impacted my life and thinking as a Caribbean person. I claim Fanon and Césaire as fellow Caribbean intellectuals.

Trinidad’s multicultural relations are fascinating. It is something to be proud of that the inherent racial tensions between African and Asian populations haven’t degenerated into violence. There is a sense in which the country gets on with it without a lot of talk about multiculturalism, albeit sometimes with some politically incorrect comments. But they do get on with it. I went to school, for instance, with Chinese, Indian (Muslim and Hindu), African, Jewish, and European students. I always felt that it gave me a certain comfort in interacting with others. I don’t mean to suggest that it was or is a racial paradise — quite the contrary — but given the apparently inherent abilities of humans to make each other’s lives miserable, particularly over an issue such as race, Trinidad has managed the issue fairly well to date.

Antwi and Austen: Thank you to CACLALS and ACQL (and Special Events funding from Congress’s 2012 hosts Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo) and to M. NourbeSe Philip for giving us the opportunity to conduct this interview.