We Can Never Tell the Entire Story of Slavery: In Conversation with M. NourbeSe Philip

M. NourbeSe Philip is an Afrosporic Caribbean writer/poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist known for her dedication to social justice, as well as for her experiments with literary form, particularly her well known 1989 text, She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks. In all of her work she examines themes of gender, race, colonialism, and the effects of language, playing with words with the cadences and improvisations of jazz. Zong!, her most recent book of poetry, is her most challenging, daring, and experimental work to date.

As the story goes, the Zong, a merchant ship, sailed from the West Coast of Africa with 442 slaves, seventeen crewmembers, and captain Luke Collingwood. Due to poor navigation the six- to nine-week journey took some eighteen weeks. The navigational error led to a shortage of water and a sickness that ravaged crewmembers and Africans. Apparently, to conserve what water remained, and to preserve remaining African “cargo,” the crew threw slaves into the sea to drown, a tactic that allowed the owners of the Zong to make a legal claim to the insurers for the loss of goods. At the grotesque sight of the massacre, some other Africans threw themselves into the sea, with a total number of the drowned ranging from 130 to 150, who were either thrown in, jumped in, or were ordered to jump into the Atlantic against their will, with an additional thirty more dead upon arrival in Jamaica. Upon arrival the owners (Gregson) made a claim to their insurers (Gilbert) for the loss of “cargo,” citing a lack of water to sustain the slaves. When the insurers refused to pay, the ensuing trials maintained that in certain cases the deliberate killing of slaves was in fact legal, and that the insurers could be obliged to pay the insurance money.

M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! riffs on the legal document from the King’s Bench hearing. The legal account is one version of what happened, a happening couched in official language that Philip gradually dislodges through the poetic excavation and untelling of the legal text. Reworking the legal document (“Gregson v. Gilbert”) the story is untold through fugal and counterpointed repetition to create a complex weaving of memories, polyphonies, and cacophonies, which respond to and sound the Zong massacre. Zong! thus becomes a chant, an undulation, a shouting, a honking, a groan, and song. It is a song, as Philip attests in “Notanda”: “Song is what has kept the soul of the African intact when they ‘want(ed) water.” It is song that holds the Zong!’s narrative together, which can only be told in its untelling, for what is there but song when words risk enacting a second violence. The following is an interview, which took part over email, between NourbeSe Philip and myself. The interview concerns Philip’s powerful untelling of the Zong massacre.

PW: About a year ago in Toronto, I heard you read Zong! in non-linear fashion with over twenty readers improvising the poem’s multiple meanings in discordant unison. While I think you might be more inclined to see your long poem in the jazz aesthetic, the multiple echoes (the dubs/duppies of the drowned African voices) in Zong! allow it to fit within multiple contact zones of sonic, oral, textual, and multimodal traditions. What do you think of reading Zong! as an improvised dub chant?

MNP: Your question is an exciting one and very generative and addresses some of the questions I myself have—questions that come out of doing these “improvisatory” performances. I should explain that there are two kinds of performances I have been engaged in with Zong!. One is the type of collective reading you were a part of and which you mention in your question. In the other type of performance I work with musicians in an improvisatory context. We chose small sections of the text and improvise on those. The work lends itself beautifully to this process. However, while I don’t think that there is necessarily an opposition between the jazz improv process and the multiple echoes of a “duppy performance,” or that you’re suggesting it, the “multiple contact zones” approach you speak of is what interests and haunts me. For instance, I am very keen to introduce the sounds of techno, scratching and turntabling into the text. Yes, oh very, very yes, it is an improvised dub chant. As it must be, for improvisation is what you are left with once you enter the Zong.

Musicians improvising along with a reading of Zong! on November 29, 2013.
Musicians improvising along with a reading of Zong! on November 29, 2013.


PW: I’ve had the chance to take part in a full-book reading/performance/version of Zong! with live musicians. It was an incredibly profound experience, although I wish I lasted until the end. The event appropriately took place on November 29th, 2013, which is the anniversary date of the 1781 massacre that occurred somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean between the coast of West Africa and the island of Jamaica. What was this collective, and surely exhausting performance of Zong! like for you?

MNP: The performance lasted until 5:00 a.m. Most participants left at around 12:30 am. By the time we started the last section, “Ferrum,” there were five of us including the drummer, whose contribution was indispensable. When we fell asleep reading, and we did many times, her drumming would wake us up and we would continue. Since completing the performance, I have been thinking about the last two sections: “Ferrum” and “Ebora,” but particularly “Ferrum.” That section is the most challenging aspect of Zong!. That section reflects the degradation of language until at times we are only left with grunts and sounds. When reading—either out loud or to one’s self—the reader is constantly being challenged to negotiate various strategies on how to read the text. Do you read the fragments across the spaces for comprehension and meaning, or do you honour the spaces and read the fragments as they exist, which I have written elsewhere is a threat to cohesion. Combined with that is the fact that in the durational reading, at least, you begin that section when you’re exhausted: difficulty plus exhaustion. The difficulty of the text–“Ferrum”—is integral to its meaning, as was the exhaustion on November 29th, 2013. I am exploring this idea—for instance, what would happen if “Ferrum” were read when one wasn’t exhausted? The difficulty would still remain, but perhaps negotiating the strategies would become easier. There’s recent brain research about the effects of work that is difficult. Apparently you remember more efficiently and effectively if work is difficult. I’m not sure how this relates to Zong! and, more particularly, “Ferrum,” but that’s what I’m engaged on at present.

PW: I’d like to return a little to the concept of dub, which fits with the notion of echoing the past, like the ghosts (duppies) in Jamaica who haunt the living because their bodies were not properly disposed of. You describe Zong! as “hauntological”: “a work of haunting, a wake of sorts”—the text haunted by the spectres of the drowned Africans. I wonder if you could touch on your use of the neologism, “hauntological.” At times I felt horrified (haunted) reading/listening to the Zong massacre unfold in your untelling. Is there a “hauntological” pedagogy at work in your poïesis? Can the bones of the undead find a resting place?

MNP: I would say that modernity itself is haunted, isn’t it, by the ferocious history or histories of murder, genocide, war and death that brought it into being, no small part of which is the slave trade, and in particular the transatlantic trade. Take, for instance, the speculative financing we live with today, which brought the world financial system to the brink of collapse. The roots of that system lie in the financing practices developed as a part of the transatlantic slave trade. Once we know that then the untold suffering unleashed on the world as a result of those practices becomes not an aberration but entirely understandable, expected and predictable. Ian Baucom’s book, Specters of the Atlantic, explores this idea of the recurring moment that the Zong incident signified. I also think that modern society is steeped in amnesia, which is the flip side of the haunting mentioned above, and is, perhaps, one of its progenitors. This social amnesia is an integral part of the warp and woof of modern society, and I would suggest Russell Jacoby’s work by the same name for an exploration of this idea. I am talking here of a cultivated amnesia, carefully nurtured by the media and western capitalist governments, which makes it easy to disrupt bonds of connections and relationships, which, in turn, hurls us into spaces where consumerism trumps all, even as we move irrevocably ever closer towards the destruction of the world as we know it. It is the amnesia that, in part, generates the haunting.

There has to be a hauntological pedagogy, as you call it, to my work because of the erasures of the histories of Africans in the so-called New World. We have been severed from indigenous cultures, names lost, spiritual practices outlawed; there is a sense in which you could say that shorn of all those things that make humans human, we become ghosts of ourselves, haunted by all that we know we know but can’t remember, as well as by what we know we don’t know and, simultaneously, spectral beings—duppies, zombies, or jumbies, inhabiting a world that is not truly ours—aware that somewhere out there in a parallel universe there is another world where we could become truly embodied, with embodied addresses, so to speak. When I perform Zong! the distance between these two worlds becomes smaller.

The bones of the undead can find a resting place within us. Each time I perform Zong!, it manifests as Ceremony. Drawing on the brilliant essay by the Caribbean novelist, George Lamming, on the Ceremony of the Dead he witnessed in Haiti, I would agree with him that there is a sense in which the living and the dead share an interest in the future, albeit in different ways. Within African cosmologies this is not at all unusual, since the Ancestors, albeit no longer alive, are a living force. When we engage with them they repay us by releasing their grip on us. The grip, I maintain, is because of the haunting, and when released we can be in a more playful relationship with them. They find a resting place with us not necessarily within us, and it is in the remembering that we give them peace.

A word on “hauntological”—I don’t and can’t take credit for the word. I believe I first saw it in an online article and I believe I footnoted the origin in “Notanda,” the essay accompanying Zong!. It is such an appropriate word, isn’t it, for what Zong! is all about.

PW: “Hauntological” (which I now realize originated with Jacques Derrida’s 1993 Spectres of Marx) really is the appropriate word to frame Zong! within the context of the various spectres of modernity that silence indigenous and marginalized voices. In another long poem, Looking For Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence, you challenge Western assumptions about the silence of indigenous populations, and postulate on the empowerment and story of silence. As you write in A Genealogy of Resistance, “When the missing text is silence, what is the language with which you read the silence? […] To deal in silence one must learn a new language.” Thus, Zong!, like Looking For Livingstone, seems to be about finding new language and sound, even in silence, for “Everything has its own sound, speech, or language, even if it is only the language of silence.” You describe Zong! as a story that can only be told by not telling. What do you mean by this? Zong! defies simple interpretation or narrative authority, and yet I assume there are parts in the text where you want to have your own voice heard within the cacophony of your un-telling of the Zong massacre. Are there sections in the text where we are supposed to be silenced as readers? While the final section, “Ebora,” was full of polyphonous polyphonies, it certainly felt like it defied narrative interpretation.

MNP: I think the first thing about this is that it challenges a Western norm that establishes that it is possible to talk about anything and everything. And, of course, it is on one level but we only need think about contemporary state security matters and the many prohibitions that surround speech related to those issues to understand that that ideal is very seldom met. There is the practice, however, solidified by the practices of empire and colonialism that everything can and should be made subject to the Western gaze, and that once you go through the necessary steps you will be able to tell the story, make the analysis or whatever is needed.

With Zong! I start from the position that we can never tell the entire story of slavery, although this doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t try to reconstruct the better to understand what, indeed, did happen. And the various disciplines make every attempt to tell that story. When I say it can only be told by not telling, this signals immediately that we have moved outside of those disciplines and as a poet I approach the event differently. As well, I place myself, as writer or author, in a situation in which I’m saying, “I am not the authority;” “don’t expect to be told something or anything;” “don’t expect answers.” This becomes a threat to the cohesion that we, as readers, have come to expect. It relates to the quotes you selected above about the need to learn a new language and that even silence has its own language, or rather I should say languages. What do I mean by that in relation to Zong!? That we have always told a particular story about slavery and have had a particular story told to us, and that story is, indeed, factually accurate. But, as mentioned above, you can’t ever tell the entire story, and in the case of the Zong, the log book was lost, so from the beginning there were lacunae in the story, in the text, which becomes a metaphor for what I am talking about the impossibility of telling the entire story, and the problematic about the desire to do so. But I do think that as artists, poets, shamans and awos—keepers of secrets—we cannot reside, indeed we cannot afford to reside in the gospel according to whatever the governing fact situation is—regarding these monumental events that have shape shifted our lives, our cultures, our ways of thinking not to mention the world. How then do we begin to read the silences around slavery, and an event like the Zong? The first imperative is to become aware that we require a new language and following hard on that, the learning of that new language. Even if it’s the language of silence. For instance, in the case of Zong!, what is the sound and speech of the silence surrounding this event? It is in the unravelling and un-telling (which is different from not telling) of the silence that we can begin to approach a new awareness, while continuing to honour that larger Silence, that the noise of knowledge attempts to drown out.

It is, for instance, one of the reasons I find 12 Years a Slave a profoundly problematic film. A throw back and I was amused to read in a Guardian interview with the filmmaker that he didn’t look at any pre-existing films on slavery. I am surprised that he wouldn’t have seen a film such a Sankofa, for instance. A film which flew under the radar. I understand this urge and even the need to “tell the story”—as if in telling the story as realistically as possible will accomplish something—make it more real, perhaps? 12 Years a Slave remains trapped in that belief, locked in the hold of a sort of historical verite approach—a belief that you can tell the story. This is what gives it the Slavery 101 feel—every trope of slavery must be hit, and then we all go off believing that all is well with the world. We understand how horrible slavery was and, therefore, are all the better for it. I say there must be more and less to the process than that. The less is the willingness to understand that you don’t know, will never know, can’t ever know and through that unknowing and untelling—Keats’ negative capability, perhaps—you move into the more of a larger space, a greater possibility of finding the language the silence generates around the story that must be told.

It will, indeed, must always be incomplete and imperfect in its attempt to simultaneously tell and un-tell.


Photos by Paul Watkins. In the top image, M. NourbeSe Philip leads a book-length reading of Zong! on November 29th, 2013.


About the author

Paul Watkins

Paul Watkins is a doctoral candidate in the University of Guelph’s School of English and Theatre Studies, as well as a doctoral fellow with the Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice (ICASP) project. Currently living in Toronto, Paul is working on a collection of poetry entitled Listenings.

By Paul Watkins