Sycorax, spirit, and 'Zong!'

An interview with M. NourbeSe Philip

Editorial note: This exchange between Jordan Scott and NourbeSe Philip, undertaken in 2016 and just now published in Jacket2, centers on the role of spirituality in Philip’s book Zong!, which Evie Shockley has said “enacts a critique, but also effects a catharsis or, more accurately, works through a problem that lies at the intersection of the emotions, the psyche, and the soul, if such a thing can be spoken of in the twenty-first century’s secular spaces.” The book relies entirely on language from the 1783 legal decision Gregson v. Gilbert, a decision that followed two years after the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered that 150 African slaves be murdered so that shipowners could collect insurance payments for lost cargo, in this case human chattel. Here Philip goes into clarifying detail about the role of spirituality in her text, telling Scott, “I lean towards understanding Zong! as an attempt to re/present the ceremony of Souls in which we, the Living — the readers — meet the Dead. Because we are both interested in the future. Which has to be re/membered.” — Julia Bloch

Jordan Scott: It’s difficult to begin a discussion of “spirit” and “spirituality” without some kind of definition at the outset. At least, that’s what I feel — the impulse to ask how you define both of these terms, yet understanding that there’s an inevitable impossibility embedded within the query. To follow another axis, then, I would love to begin by suggesting a dysfluent interview, one that acknowledges the gap, absence, doubt, and imposed weight of expressivity that lurks, “hauntological,” in so much of your work. So I wonder, NourbeSe, if it’s possible (just as a beginning) to imagine “spirituality” in your poetics as these “half-tellings, “un-tellings,” to “not tell the story that must be told,” and yet, within these overwhelming absences and gaps, an obliged (perhaps involuntary/possession) thrust to witness an activity of further knowing — a process that allows for (in the case of Zong! and Looking for Livingstone, in particular[1]) a certain recovery or reordering of a frame of understanding (un-understanding). 

And yet, all of this (your poetics) takes place within a chorus of very specific cultural absences: middle passage, limbo, renaming, colonized language, and so on. In “Limbo, Dislocation, Phantom Limb: Wilson Harris and the Caribbean Occasion,” Nathaniel Mackey quotes Wilson Harris as saying that the “limbo dance therefore impels, I believe, a profound art of compensation … a curious psychic reassembly of the parts of dead god or gods. And that reassembly which issued from a state of cramp to articulate new growth.” A growth that Harris believes points to the necessity of a “new kind of drama, novel, and poem — is a creative phenomenon of the first importance in the imagination of a people violated by economic fates.” In another essay, “Sound, Sentiment and Symbol,” Mackey echoes Harris in describing the phantom limb as a “felt recovery … a feeling for what’s not there which reaches beyond and calls into question what is … the phantom limb reveals the illusory rule of the world in which it haunts.”

I wonder then, NourbeSe, how you engage with these absences and, more to the point, do you find your poetry functions as “regenerative” within these gaps and silences? In other words, what comes of the “Silence is. Always” in Livingstone or the “never ‘exhumed’ from water” in Zong!? I know that you have articulated much of this so eloquently in the “Notanda” to Zong!. But I still think (perhaps) that there’s room to talk about this concept of “regeneration” and your relationship to these ideas of recovery and/or revelation (recovery) as it seems to imply two functions of spirituality — one that constantly remains in the unknown as poetic function or one that attempts to inhabit these unknown (dysfluent) spaces as site of reclamation. Are these mutually exclusive? I’m not sure. 

M. NourbeSe Philip: I want to begin with a Shakespearean character who is simultaneously absent and present — Sycorax, mother of Caliban, the sole inhabitor of the island Prospero and his daughter, Miranda, find themselves washed up on. Prospero calls her out of her name — she’s the “blue ey’d hag,” “the damn’d witch” who lay with the “devil himself.” She is a cipher, named yet unseen; indeed by the time the play opens, she is dead, although her presence is palpable. Sycorax’s genealogy stretches backwards and forwards to include those like her who carry a certain kind of knowing, and within that genealogy I place Setaey Adamu Boateng, identified as the voice of the Ancestors on the cover of Zong!: she who recounts the story that can only be told by not being told; the story that can never, yet must, be told. Through being present and absent. What I’m saying, as a poet, is that Sycorax stands in for all that is subterranean and subaqueous in cultures which have been colonized.[2] Perhaps it is she who is the story that is always told yet never told.

The Tempest has lent itself to recurrent interpretations as a script of the colonial condition; within this context Prospero becomes the colonizer and Caliban the ultimate signifier of the colonized man, taught to read by Miranda, Prospero’s daughter. Caliban knows a larger truth, however, which he places before Prospero: “This island’s mine by Sycorax, my mother, which thou takst from me.” He understands that the genealogical line of ownership comes through the hag, his mother. It is Sycorax, the mad, bad, Black witch (she is, after all, from Algiers) and her descendants who tell that which can never be told and untell that which can only be told by not being told. In Specters of Marx Derrida writes: “If the readability of a legacy were given, natural, transparent, univocal, if it did not call for and at the same time defy interpretation, we would never have anything to inherit from it. We would be affected by it as by a cause — natural or genetic. One always inherits from a secret [my emphasis] — which says ‘read me, will you ever be able to do so?’”[3] It must be told, it can’t be told. This is the legacy of Sycorax. It is a demonic legacy and I am here drawing on the analysis of the renowned intellectual Sylvia Wynter, who argues that “‘demonic models’ posited by physicists … seek to conceive of a vantage point outside the space-time orientation of the humuncular observer.”[4] Several years ago in an essay that appears in A Genealogy of Resistance exploring the fate of the Caribbean islands where I was born and grew up, I wrote (in the Caribbean demotic): “The next five hundred years showing whether we equal to the challenge of calling Sycorax to living through the ceremony of Souls, or whether we continuing and letting Caliban perform his macabre dance in the shadow of Prospero.”[5]

I first came upon reference to the ceremony of Souls several years ago when I returned to Tobago for an extended period of time. Shortly after I got there I began reading The Pleasures of Exile, a seminal collection of essays by the Barbadian Caribbean novelist George Lamming. “In the republic of Haiti,” he writes, “one corner of the Caribbean cradle — a native religion sometimes forces the official Law to negotiate with peasants who have retained a racial, and historic, desire to worship their original gods.”[6] This is the ceremony of Souls (Lamming doesn’t provide the creole expression for it) which he describes as a “drama between religion and the Law.” The “ceremony of the Souls,” he continues, “is regarded by the Haitian peasant as a solemn communion; for he hears, at first hand, the secrets of the Dead. The celebrants are mainly relatives of the deceased who, ever since their death, have been locked in Water. It is the duty of the Dead to return and offer, on this momentous night, a full and honest report on their past relations with the Living. … It is the duty of the Dead to speak, since their release from that purgatory of Water cannot be realised until they have fulfilled the contract which this ceremony symbolises. The Dead need to speak if they are going to enter that eternity which will be their last and permanent Future. … Different as they may be in their present state of existence, those alive and those now Dead — their ambitions point to a similar end. They are interested in their Future.” 

Carlos Fuentes’s admonition that we need to “remember the future” comes to mind, and I am reminded of your question about Mackey’s reference to the phantom limb, because there is a sense in which we, the formerly colonized, have to re/member ourselves literally — phantom limb/s and all. And how do we become aware of the phantom limb/s or phantom tongue/s — does proprioception, that very necessary ability to know where our limbs are, work when the limb in question is phantom? Or are we challenged to devise new ways of re/membering? 

The “drama between religion and the Law” which Lamming mentions is useful in thinking about ideas of the avant-garde, Zong!, and spirituality, since I believe that that particular drama is one of the tensions present in Zong!. I take religion in the context of Lamming’s discussion to mean both the organized Catholic faith and the autochthonic spiritual practices of enslaved Africans. Law and religion both share a concern with the ever-shifting ground of morality; both prescribe and proscribe certain actions. More importantly, each shored up the other in relation to the enslavement of Africans. I don’t, at this time, wish to get too involved in discussions of customary laws and practices and how they differed from those of Europe: suffice it to say that we do know that the practice of slavery did exist in certain societies in Africa and Arabia, as it had in Europe in earlier times; we also know, however, that slavery in Africa was systemically different from the practice of slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean. I am, rather, interested in focusing on the tensions and conflicts and contradictions within these two institutions — law and religion — and between them as they play out within the world of Zong!. Within the text of Zong! that tension between the law, including the law of official religion, and another type of spirituality grows to a point where under the internal pressure, language becomes incapable of holding the tension, resulting in the explosion of language itself, as seen in “Ferrum.” Form — as in rules, laws, order, all integral to the law — becomes insufficient to contain the pressures: form has to trans/form to allow another language to come into being. Is that, perhaps, the secret that Derrida alludes to — the story that can’t be told yet must be told? 

I lean towards understanding Zong! as an attempt to re/present the ceremony of Souls in which we, the Living — the readers — meet the Dead. Because we are both interested in the future. Which has to be re/membered. The tool through which this happens is the named but unseen character Sycorax, aka Setaey Adamu Boateng. It is interesting to note here that Kamau Brathwaite, the noted Caribbean poet and intellectual, developed a computer typeface called Sycorax or, as it’s sometimes referred to, Sycorax video style. His intention was to use the computer as a part of the process of talking back to and challenging Prospero.

One of the ideas I worked with in Zong! was contamination — I wanted to create potentially contaminating spaces so that the reader would become implicated, if not contaminated, in constructing meaning within the text. The idea that none of us is innocent offers a challenge since the victim does, indeed, exist. On the most obvious level, we in the West, simply by virtue of where we live, are deeply implicated, willingly or not, in systems that exploit, oppress, and even murder. “Involvement in crime,” Lamming writes, “whether as witness, or an accomplice, makes innocence impossible. To be innocent is to be eternally dead [my emphasis]. … The confession of unawareness is a confession of guilt. This corpse, dead as he may be, cannot be allowed to go free; for unawareness is the basic characteristic of the slave. Awareness is a minimum condition for attaining freedom.” The last statement raises profound issues regarding the actors on board the Zong. Is it not an outrage to suggest that the victim, too, is involved in the crime, if only as witness? Can the perpetrator plead unawareness? Certainly the white, male European on board the Zong who presented me such a challenge slowly becomes increasingly aware of his role as he descends into madness. Does this relieve him of guilt? Might he achieve freedom in another time-space? I don’t need to answer those questions at this point or ever at all, but suffice it to say that what I have learnt from the process of “reading” and listening to Zong!, particularly as I have moved it into a more collective type of performance, is that it begins to approximate a type of ceremony of Souls that Lamming describes and in so doing it offers us — the Living and the Dead an opportunity to re/member the future. This ceremony, like those who practice it, remains outside of the law, as does Zong!, which exists in 

— the gap
— the hiatus
— the hyphen
— the crossing
— the space
— the hiccup
— the erasure 

none of which can be unmade.

For all that the ceremony exists outside of the law, as with all ceremony there appears to be a certain curtailment of freedom, an establishing of protocols in the ceremony of Souls, which returns me to my own practice with respect to the refloating of the Zong and the “ex-aquaing” of the sound of memory: establishing rules the better to be free. Can we, perhaps, say that the awareness of the rules, especially the hidden ones, is what ensures freedom, and that loss of freedom — a type of death — encroaches when one loses awareness of those rules?

You raise the idea of my poetry functioning as “regenerative” in the “gaps and silences,” and you make reference to Livingstone. This is as good a time as any to contextualize the work the better to engage with the issues you raise.

Many years ago when I approached the decision to leave the practice of law to devote more time to poetry, I recall thinking that while it was important for members of what I call the Afrospora (African diaspora) to enter the professions, it would be our griots — the dancers, writers, poets, artists — who would be the ones to “ heal” us in the aftermath of the catastrophe that has been our history in the so-called New World. So, the idea of healing was very much a part of my early thinking when considering my life as a poet. I also, at that time, still understood myself as a Caribbean writer/intellectual who had a role to play in the development of the postcolonial state. But this was Canada, complete with CanLit and a savagely polite racism — a kind of un-state in limbo between its erstwhile master, the United Kingdom, and the capitalist behemoth, the United States.

The epistemological break comes with She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks …, my third book of poetry.[7] I have left the practice of law — for good, as they say. The journey “back” has begun; it is a journey that will take me through the morass of language, European language, that is, and what its imposition has meant for us, the flotsam and jetsam of the transatlantic trade in Black bodies. Imposition because that is what it was, and simultaneous with that awareness on my part is the profoundly disorienting consciousness of that phantom linguistic limb, so to speak — there is no other language I can hide in, but it’s there — on my phantom tongue, in my phantom brain where Wernicke and Broca have taken up residence. 

She Tries Her Tongue came out of an understanding of the Caribbean and the Americas as being sites of massive interruptions and collisions — like tectonic plates, Indigenous, European, African, and Asian cultures would collide, often fatally, and grind up against each other, their discourses abruptly interrupted and abbreviated. She Tries … could only be postmodern, as it was often described when it was first published, if we understood the Caribbean to have been postmodern long before postmodernity was elaborated as a theory. The work begins the deep enquiry into language as a project and embarks on a contestation with Christianity which I believe has continued on through Looking for Livingstone and culminates, perhaps temporarily, in Zong!. One of the cornerstones of the Judeo-Christian ethos in whose shadow I was raised is the belief that in the beginning was the word. In the word, the Nigerian poet Niyi Osundare counters, was the beginning voicing the pan-African belief in the primacy of the word. Ismael Reed, for instance, writes: “I consider myself a fetish maker. I see my books as amulets, and in ancient African cultures words were considered this way. Words were considered to have magical meanings and were considered to be charms.” None of this is any comfort to the “monstrosity / obscenity / tongueless wonder / blackened stump of a tongue / torn / out / withered / putrified / burnt / on the pyres of silence / a mother’s child foreign / made / by a tongue that cursed / the absence / in loss / tears laughtergrief / in the word.” The only recourse: to use the phantom tongue to work within and without meaning; to flee from certain imposed meanings. In the title poem of She Tries Her Tongue, the poet-supplicant goes up against religion and God, the Christian God, twisting and braiding the prayer that is intoned before the central rite of the liturgy, the Communion — eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ — with an aching plea asking forgiveness for her inherent unholiness, her contamination, if you will, for being without tongue. The irony being that God’s sin becomes her tragedy, her trauma, for which she asks, indeed is condemned to ask, forgiveness. Eternally. Supplicant she may be, she also demands that she be seen in the fullness of her disfigurement, her dismemberment; her verbal crippling, interspersing her words seeking forgiveness: “I do not presume to come to this they table / father forgive / most merciful father, trusting in my own righteousness / foreign father forgive / but in thy manifold and great mercies / … forgive me this dumbness / but thou art the same Lord, whose property / this lack of tongue forgive / is always to have mercy …” Later, in the same poem, the question is raised whether it is in the nature of God to forgive himself for his sins — this from the Book of (un)Common Prayer. “Cyclamen Girl,” from the same collection, juxtaposes the rituals of Christianity such as Confirmation and First Communion that initiate the young girl into the religion against the startling bodily changes such as the menarche, which in traditional cultures would have been ritualized and celebrated. In a colonized Christian culture such as the Caribbean, these liminal, initiatory states are held in parentheses between silence and shame. 

You raise the question of a possible recovery or reordering of a frame of understanding. I don’t believe there can ever be a recovery — perhaps I am being overly bleak — not because there is nothing to be recovered as our erstwhile masters would have us believe, but because something different, something new, as Harris suggests, needs to be created. In my own case there was the struggle between the wonderfully hefted, lyric lines of Cranmer’s Book of (un)Common Prayer, as I call it, not to mention the carefully crafted beauty of that in-the-beginning Word as told by the King James Bible and the picaresque, snappy, sassy, in-your-face vernacular — what I describe as “this strange wonderful you tink it easy jive ass kick ass massa day done … pretty mass pansweet language.” There was also the brute instinct to create something new. Not in the sense of Pound’s exhortation to make it new. It was/is more fundamental than that — it was to make it — make something — make anything, but make it — wrap your phantom tongue around this anguished language and make it carry — carry what? Thoughts? Ideas? Feelings? When you’re stripped of everything, and nothing says that you are everything or even anything beyond a collectivity of limbs to be amortized over X number of years, how do you make meaning? What do you make of meaning? Just make it, it will carry you — reminding me of that primal instinct to make visual record or image, so visible in the early cave drawings and paintings found around the world. Perhaps that was the impulse — a stone in my hand, my phantom hand — some red ochre or animal blood with which to make a mark against the blank slate of history.

There is a sense in which the works are in some sort of dialogue among themselves. Looking for Livingstone began as the last poem in She Tries Her Tongue and answers or perhaps is a response to the supplication in the title poem mentioned above. The supplicant poet begins with: “I do not presume to come to this thy table.” In Livingstone that supplication is answered by the women shouting in the opening pages: “We presume, we presume, oh, how we presume!” When the Traveller confronts Livingstone finally and asks him what it was he embraced before he died: “what was it, David, Word or Silence?” the latter replies: “God! … yes, now I see … that is what it was … God!” I intended the sentence to be ambivalent. Is he saying he saw God, or was “God” an exclamation? Coming from a “man of God” one would conclude, as the Traveller does, that he was saying he embraced God. She is understandably annoyed that he “would have to go and complicate matters further with God.” The silencing of She Tries transforms into the “SILENCE within” in Livingstone, within which we are able to hear the many, many voices of Zong!. 

Before returning to Zong!, however, I should mention, if only briefly, three thinkers who have influenced my thinking on the spiritual and the political: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, and Thomas Merton. What do they have in common? They’re all Christian, although Weil was born to a Parisian Jewish family; they’re all Catholic, and they’re all white. I was twenty-one and recently in Canada as a master’s student in political science when I began reading Bonhoeffer’s writings. A fierce opponent of his countrymen’s virulent anti-Semitism and Nazism, he was eventually imprisoned and eventually killed. Weil died in England, where she had gone to work as part of the Free French movement under de Gaulle. Some say she starved herself to death. Merton was a Trappist monk who, on more than one occasion, was forbidden by his superiors to write on subjects such as the Vietnam war. They were all, however, deeply engaged politically, and I think this is what drew me to them. I have lost contact with Bonhoeffer’s thoughts over the years, and I think I’ve replaced Merton with Ivan Illich, a former Catholic priest with a sharp and trenchant critique of Western culture, but Weil continues to fascinate me as someone who balanced herself on knife-edge contradictions — a Jew who adopted Catholicism but refused to be baptized because she felt the church omitted too many of the world’s wisdoms. Her analysis of the destructive nature of labor, especially mechanized labor; her ideas about the need for roots and the fatal upheavals that have ensued as a consequence of the uprooting of the world by the European; all of these continue to speak to me. Thomas Merton’s writings displayed some of the most insightful thoughts, critiques, and analyses on racism in the United States that I, a young Caribbean woman recently immigrated to Canada, had ever read during the time of the struggle for civil rights in the United States. He was a friend of Martin Luther King and, indeed, King was supposed to have been on retreat at his monastery, Gethsemane, when he was killed in Memphis. Alongside these I was reading the more overtly dedicated political thinkers such as Malcolm X, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, C. L. R. James, and so on, but what fascinated me about Bonhoeffer, Weil, and Merton was the wedding of sharply honed political analysis to a larger and more explicit spiritual understanding of the world. There is a poetics to justice beyond poetic justice. To paraphrase Weil, perhaps somewhat clumsily: she suggests that the existence of hunger presupposed the existence of bread, as does the existence of injustice presuppose a larger truth or idea of justice. This idea is seen most clearly in Martin Luther King’s lectures and sermons. Religion and politics are, more times than not, a toxic and explosive mix as information from places like the United States and the Middle East suggest. These writers, however, offered me an insight into another politic that allowed for an embrace of a grace of some sort. 

There are a few more ideas related to the idea of spirituality which you touch on in your beautifully worded questions about “recovery and/or revelation” that I wish to address. I am not sure about the idea of reclamation, since it connotes too much of the idea of deliberation and purpose which is very alien to the space I inhabit when I think of Zong! in this context. I am much more comfortable with the idea of an aspect of the work “remaining in the unknown as poetic function.” Having said that, however, there is a sense in which I understand the work to be arising out of a profound and extended trauma — the transatlantic slave trade and slavery — while simultaneously offering a form of restorative justice, a type of spiritual reparations, if you will, which is not — cannot be — offered by the perpetrator or its systems, but by ourselves to ourselves. It seems somewhat counterintuitive, but the alternative is to remain in thrall to the perpetrator. None of this should be interpreted to mean that there should not be reparative measures or restorative justice. Trauma — unhealed trauma, that is — always results in fracturing and fragmentation, whether it be of the individual psyche, the group, the culture, even the state. The Zong! text mirrors not only that fracturing but the progression of the fracturing. Accompanying that process is the repetition of the trauma through memory and recall. But herein lies the potential for a trans/formation — the fracturing and fragmentation creates spaces of potentiality and possibility that in turn can be used for healing of the spirit; perhaps this is what you mean by the “unknown (dysfluent) spaces as sites of reclamation.” The constant reiteration of traumatic memory can be transformed into ritual, which is always about doing the same thing, albeit sometimes in new ways, making the same gestures in certain prescribed ways — there are those rules, again. Trauma first mauls, then steals time, resulting in a present that is colonized by the past and so leaves little or no room to re/member the future. There is no “imagining of the past” (Fuentes, again) beyond the trauma, and we cannot see the present. And so, in performing Zong!, a more contemporary and even secularized representation of the ceremony of Souls — in becoming aware of the ritual nature of it, in choreographing the meeting of the Living and the Dead who are interested in re/membering the future, in re/membering the phantom tongues — we approach a time-space, a demonic ground, that allows for new meaning and meanings. Indeed, that was the one question I took into the crafting of the work: the question of meaning. How could this atrocity, this outrage, mean anything? What did it mean? Did it have to mean anything? All mainstream religions and spiritual practices tend to offer predigested meanings for our lives. I’m not interested in formulating one constant meaning around the Zong massacre or even the transatlantic trade in Africans. Nor do I believe that even finding a meaning will necessarily explain or explain away the horror that was and continues to be for far too many people and, in particular, African peoples on this earth today. I do think, however, that Zong! offers a process for one approach to exploring meaning and unmeaning, which is what is important. The hunt not so much for meaning as for how to make meaning and unmeaning. The awareness that relieves the burden of history, even if temporarily, and opens breathing spaces (akin to the spaces within the text of Zong!) that perhaps lead to greater freedom. The willingness to accept that complete meaning will, in all likelihood, escape us and that the untelling and the half-telling — the silences — are to be embraced. In so doing we approach a poetics of the spiritual within the work. 

The contestation with the ordering of Christianity mentioned above reveals itself on board the Zong: I became very aware at some point in the making of the book that there was a profound contestation aboard the ship, which makes its way into the text, between the dominant, preestablished religion of Christianity (and Islam, for that matter) that sanctioned the enslavement of Africans and another expression of spirituality that I myself didn’t know. This is why it becomes very difficult to talk of this, because as soon as I move away from the secular, intellectual way of discussing it, it feels as if I am swimming in the dark. For instance, Zong! is often described as a conceptual work (like She Tries Her Tongue was described as a postmodern work), and there are several areas of congruence between Zong! and contemporary conceptual poetry. However, when I read a description of Ifa divination plates used by the Yoruba people of Nigeria, I am startled by the realization that it is as apt a description of the work as I have read:

[A] design may be segmented or seriate — a discontinuous aggregate in which the units of the whole are discrete and share equal value with other units. The units often have no prescribed order and are interchangeable. Attention to the discrete units of the whole lead to a form which is multifocal with shifts in perspective and proportion. You see this on Ifa divination trays and bowls, verandah posts and carved doors and ancestral maskers. … The significance of segmented composition in Yoruba art can be appreciated if one understands that art and ritual are integral to each other. … 

There is no unifying narrative, instead these diverse depictions convey autonomous forces in the Yoruba cosmos that affect and concern the diviner and his clients. … Each is given approximately equal visual importance leading to a dynamic and fluid cosmos of the same forces that “speak” through verses recited by the diviner. The composition is segmented and egalitarian and marked by shifts in perspective and proportion throughout the figurated border.[8]

I see many parallels between this description and the formal aspects of Zong!. The multifocal aspect of the text with “shifts in perspective and proportion” — the shifts from the intimate letters written by the sometimes narrator to his fiancée to brutal violence on board to the references to empire, and so on. Although there appears to be a progression in the text — seen or perhaps witnessed through the degradation of language, Zong! can be read in any order — you can read the individual pages backwards or even aslant. This excites me as does my exploration of an ancient form of oral poetry, practiced by the Yoruba, called oriki. Oriki, understood as a form of praise poem that incorporates history, is sung or recited at community events such as marriage or death. It is social, political, and spiritual. Karen Barber, who has researched oriki extensively, uses the following expressions to describe the art form: “the disjunctiveness and lability of oriki”; “porous and disjunctive”; “the text can be highly unstable”; “an intensity of disjunctiveness”; “disjunction and continuity”; and finally: “in oriki … we have a text that seems to be made of gaps: a dazzling juxtaposition of fragments. There is no presumption of wholeness in the mainstream critical sense, no formal means of imposing such wholeness. … [T]he text is already so thoroughly, so fundamentally split in all directions.”[9] You can see the parallels and resonances with the formal properties of Zong! and why this would interest me keenly. None of this means that Zong! doesn’t fulfill the criteria of a conceptual work. Nor does it mean that Zong! is a form of oriki. What it does mean is that I have an opportunity to explore what the text is doing more fully and I’m not solely limited to ideas about Western forms. And what particularly excites me is that we can see how ideas such as fragmentation, disjuncture, and interruptions of the text, all ideas which we have come to associate with modernity, are not unique to the West and Western literary theories but can be found in older, more traditional cultures and working in as complex a way as they do in Western texts.

Is there a sense, then, I ask myself, in which Zong! functions as a divination plate, where, to go back to idea of the ceremony of Souls, the Living and Dead meet to divine, to work out their future — together? Even as the text refracts and re-represents the always-and-already brokenness of the human condition and not necessarily only the modern condition, which brings me to the idea of relationship, which is an integral aspect to the work. For all that the text is fragmented and fractured, there is a deep structure of relationship in the construction of the work. Each word or word cluster in the sections subsequent to “Os” is placed precisely so that they never come directly below another word or word cluster. Each word or word cluster is seeking the space above within which to locate itself, and to breathe, no doubt, and in doing so, enters into relationship those other words and the space or spaces between those words, so that networks are established around the spaces and silences within the text. In contrast and tension with this idea of relationship is the idea of what is called the deadweight tonnage of the ship. This deadweight tonnage is the collapsing of the entire weight of the ship: crew, enslaved Africans, water, provisions, and equipment are all condensed and collapsed in, as in a floating black hole. The deadweight tonnage must be such that the hull of the ship should not sink below its Plimsoll line. I am suggesting that the counterweight to the deadweight tonnage of the Zong is this network of relations and relationships around the spaces and silences which help to keep the ship afloat — in history, in the demonic ground of the space-time of Zong!, which is simultaneously the past, present, and future.

Finally, there is a sense in which Zong! performs a form of masking, similar to the way in which Catholic saints and practices were used to “front” the continuing practice of African forms of worship and spirituality. The mask suggests many ideas — the idea of secrecy as it simultaneously hides and reveals: “read me, will you ever be able to do so?” The story that must, yet never can be told.

There is a sense in which all writing, perhaps all art, has a revelatory quality to it — for the artist and the audience. I certainly find that quality when I write, thinking I know exactly what I want to say only to confront something other, or different. I knew what I wished to do in Zong! — there were certain rules I set myself, which I followed obsessively, but within that apparently rigid world there appeared a cascade of insights and revelations.

I hesitate — stumble even — when called upon to write or talk[10] about spirit and spirituality as it applies to Zong!. For many reasons, not least of which is a deep-seated and, I think, healthy skepticism of the religious, including New Age spirituality — the kind made so popular by Oprah. It has led to what I call the Oprahfication of society, where the individual is now seen as entirely responsible for all that happens to her as governments narrow their sphere of activities and increasingly withdraw from providing, or fail to provide, adequate housing, education, and health care. So, if you live in substandard housing, and are unemployed, it’s because your thoughts are not positive enough and you haven’t worked on yourself sufficiently. Having said this, I recognize within myself a deep regard for what we call spirit and the spiritual, for lack of other words. Both contradictory tendencies exist within me and I think I’m able to balance them because I was weaned on a type of religious contradiction. My parents never attended church, yet we children were sent, punningly and punishingly, religiously every Sunday. My mother saw to it that we did all that was necessary — Baptism, Confirmation, and Communion — but she herself was having none of it. This was odd, particularly in a Black family, but I accepted it and it developed in me an ability to balance contradictions somewhat more easily. There is another reason for the hesitation in discussing the spiritual in regard to Zong!: African spiritual practices have been demonized ever since ever-since, and there is a reluctance to talk about them outside of anthropological and academic contexts. More Africans than not in the Afrospora are alienated from these practices, and the language does not exist to talk about them in a context such as this. On the continent, Christianity and Islam have also made deep inroads into traditional African spiritual practices. There is also the powerful idea of secrecy, which is widespread in African communities — not necessarily what is being kept secret, but the idea that knowledge and knowing follows a readiness on the part of the initiate. In other words, not everyone should know everything, which runs counter to the apparent transparency of the Western cultures where the idea of secrecy is equally important. One only has to think of the Wikileaks furor and the plight of Chelsea Manning. Further, the only spirituality that appears to have any legitimacy in the world of contemporary poetics is Buddhism and, perhaps, First Nations spirituality. For all these reasons, this discussion has been a challenge, but in conclusion I would say that Zong! is both a departure and a return, a culmination of sorts of an engagement and contestation with the Christian God of my childhood who was an integral part of our plight as New World Africans. There has, however, always been a subterranean energy, which I have always been aware of — that phantom limb, again. Like rivers that have been buried (I myself live very close, if not over, a buried river, Garrison Creek, its only marker brass letters in the ground outside of an LCBO outlet on St. Clair Avenue, Toronto) but which continue to flow underneath the concrete and asphalt: so much of Victorian engineering genius devoted to erasing and hiding rivers. Like the traditions of Sycorax, which have been hidden — phantom limbs, phantom rivers, phantom memories — hidden riverine genealogies which curve and bend and which have been archived in an epistemological type of brick and concrete awaiting a ceremony of Souls. One way of considering what happens when I perform Zong! is that, perhaps, the performance of the text enacts a ceremony of Souls that enables us to see that which has been hidden, and that as I and we (when that happens) read the text, the text simultaneously invites us to enter that space where the living and the dead share their concerns about the past, the present, and the future. What this has done for me personally is make me braver, more willing to take risks. As a poet, as a writer, and as a person. At its simplest, that uncovering — the revealing of those energies — is integrally linked to a desire to be a part of the healing of African-descended peoples, the necessity of which struck me when I decided to abandon the Law — that which says “it must be told” — for the possibility and privilege of re/membering my phantom tongue, which in turn allows me — to “sing / continue / over / into / … pure utterance” of that which can’t be told yet must be told through its own untelling. 



1. M. NourbeSe Philip, Zong! (Middeltown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008) and Looking for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence (Toronto: Mercury Press, 2012).

2. In The Tempest Sycorax has been portrayed as someone whose magic powers were used negatively, especially when compared to Prospero’s. Postcolonial scholars and writers have, however, interpreted her and the text as speaking to the experience of colonialism and its effects. The poet Kamau Brathwaite understood Sycorax as representative of those whose cultures had been silenced. He developed a typeface called Sycorax, employing a variety of styles and fonts, including the dot matrix style. His Giller-awarded work, Born to Slow Horses, was written in this style. 

3. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, translated by Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994).

4. Sylvia Wynter, “Beyond Miranda’s Meanings: Un/Silencing the ‘Demonic Ground’ of Caliban’s ‘Woman,’ ” in Out of Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature, edited by Carole Boyce Davies (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1990).

5. M. NourbeSe Philip, A Genealogy of Resistance (Toronto: Mercury Press, 1991).

6. George Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991).

7. M. NourbeSe Philip, She Tries Her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks … (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2015).

8. Henry John Drewal and John Pemberton, Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought (New York: Center for African Art, 1989).

9. Karin Barber, I Could Speak Until Tomorrow: Oriki, Women, and the Past in a Yoruba Town (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993).

10. Katherine McKittrick’s mention of deadweight tonnage at a public lecture at OISE was the catalyst for my thoughts on this engineering measurement.