In January 2017, Nasrin Himada and I sat down to talk about the upcoming publication of Bla_K, the past publication of Frontiers and my thoughts on the intervening 25 years. What follows is an excerpted collage of our exchange, interspersed and elucidated by my commentary.This interview was initially conducted for the publication of Bla_K: Essays and Interviews by M. NourbeSe Philip, and a full version of it will appear in the book which is forthcoming from BookThug in October 2017.
M. NourbeSe Philip: When I first met you, you said “Interview with an Empire”Assembling Alternatives: Reading Postmodern Poetries Transnationally, ed. Romana Huk (Middletown: Weselyan University Press, 2003), 195–206.was very important to you, in terms of your own practice and thought and, indeed, it was your deep interest in the essay that catalyzed this publication of Bla_K (forthcoming 2017). I deeply appreciate that, particularly given that I have felt like a disappeared writer in Canada for the last twenty-five years. My work is much better known in the United States.
Nasrin Himada: And that’s how I even found out about your work in the first place, through the United States. I want to begin by discussing your concept of “be/longing.” Your putting the slash in be/longing opened it up for me.
MNP: The slash is important because it says so much. A lot of our struggle resides in the language I believe. Jewish people talk about the Shoah. There's a word in Swahili, Maafa, which means a great terrible tragic occurrence or event. Some people, myself included at times, use Maafa in referring to the transatlantic slave trade. I recently started talking about “The Great Scattering,” because for me it captures one aspect of what happened to us, the scattering of Africans, within Africa to the Maghreb as a consequence of the Arab slave trade, and across various lands and oceans, the Indian Ocean, the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. It has been a great and terrible scattering.
But when I think about us, the descendants of the Maafa, it's not just the loss of the homeland and family, it is also the loss of language and culture, and the way into the latter is through the former. What makes us human and sustains us is culture and we need language for that. The Scottish missionary David Livingstone understood this, arguing that the best way to introduce Christianity to Africans was first to destroy their culture, then introduce commerce and then religion. And one of the most effective ways of doing this is to start with destruction of the language. The Kenyan writer Ngũgĩwa Thiong’o, who wrote Decolonizing the Mind (1986), stopped writing in English and began to write in his native Gikuyu and has observed that Africa cannot have a renaissance until they begin to work in their Indigenous languages. How do we speak of what happened to us? In what language? Where can, or where do, we belong in any language?
I’ve found Simone Weil helpful in understanding how some of this scattering came about. In her book The Need for Roots (1949), she talks about how the European, after uprooting himself within Europe, spreads around the world uprooting all the other peoples of the world.
NH: I never thought about it that way, but that's what colonialism does, it uproots people from their land.
MNP: And their own cultures. The Europeans set out to uproot the rest of the world of their cultures. And so I see all of us caught in that net or trap. And so, for me, there's this issue of trying to find a language to rest in. And I think for me it's the fragment because there’s nowhere else to go. But then there's also this physical aspect of where do I call home? Is it possible to be/long anywhere?
NH: In a place that's a settler colonial place?
MNP: I don't want to use the word “settler.” Because they are not settlers, they are unsettlers. A mother settles her baby, and maybe it's coming from settle, as in to pacify, and that's what the Europeans did, they attempted to pacify people violently. I suppose you can pacify violently. Language affects us physically. They are unsettlers. Because they have unsettled everything around us.
In the Caribbean, where the Indigenous people were for the most part wiped out, I believe we still have this issue of "how do we belong?" Particularly as those societies remain colonial societies despite independence. So for me it has everything to do with how do we ever make ourselves a resting place, which in turn, begins with a process of undoing the process of colonialism. I turn to the Martiniquan writer and poet Édouard Glissant who talked about Relationship and how crucial that is to creating different spaces. I am reminded of Zong! (2008) and how that work is all about words being in relationship to each other. Words creating spaces to allow other words to breathe. Colonialism was not about this kind of Relationship. It was rather about power—power over.
One possibility of developing a culture of Relationship would be for us African-descended peoples and First Nations to recognize each other on both sides of that slash that stands in for the dark water, for us to see ourselves in the Other, and to see that we are really two sides of the same coin. And that maybe we have something to share with each other. I don’t know if you’re aware, but the first Africans were brought to the Americas on the advice of Bartolomé de las Casas, the sixteenth-century Dominican priest of Spanish origin, because he wanted relief against the decimation of the Indigenous people in Latin America. The rest, as they say, is history. This is what I mean about the importance of understanding the shared roots of our exploitation. Both peoples have a great deal to overcome.
NH: On their terms I think.
MNP: I’m not sure what you mean on their terms.
NH: I mean in the sense that you're saying it can't really happen until we’re able to have that discussion, where Indigenous knowledge, culture, and history are centred in how we can be together.
MNP: I understand what you’re saying and I don’t have a problem with that. What concerns me is that when African-descended peoples of the Maafa or Great Scattering are subsumed under the word “settler,” our particular and peculiar history is erased. I don’t think that white settler Canadians who now entertain liberal guilt about depredations of colonialism against First Nations people are either able or willing to entertain that. I also realize that First Nations people may not be particularly interested in making such a distinction, and I entirely understand that. It does not mean that what I know to be the truth is any less the truth—that we did not come to this part of the world as unsettlers. We came as property. In the holds of ships. I have to remember what forces brought me here. We lost everything except what we could remember. To be seen in the same way as the European settler is to do a second violence to us, the descendants of the Maafa.
This does not mean that we do not ally with First Nations people; indeed, it strengthens the reasons why we should support them in their struggles. And I believe that until they receive what is rightfully theirs, none of us is free and we are all participating in their oppression by virtue of living in the colonial state of Canada. We all have blood on our hands. But I will not take on the liberal guilt of the white European unsettler. It’s a complicated position but a truthful one for me. After all, Canada does have a history of recognizing or acknowledging the existence of different groups, such as the French, the Acadians, the Metis, and so on. I am not necessarily claiming official recognition—although why not?—but we are two years into the UN International Decade for People of African Descent. This is intended to be a period of time in which there should be greater recognition for African-descended peoples, greater social and economic development as well as more access to social justice. This UN-declared decade, however, has been recognized more in absentia than anything else. None of the three levels of government under Stephen Harper, Kathleen Wynne, and Rob Ford, during whose respective terms it was declared, acknowledged it. Which reveals a glaring issue in our communities in Canada—we have no central organization which can speak with one voice on issues such as this.
NH: When you speak that way I can’t help but think about my own positionality; my family didn't have a choice to come to Canada but they also did. They did have the privilege to apply for permanent residency, to land here, but if we go far back enough, in the sense of their uprootedness, then they really didn't.
MNP: And that uprootedness has a name and an address. There was a time when Britain had its finger in every country around the world. The sun never set on the British Empire was what they prided themselves on. And what is happening today is actually the blowback, the ripple effect. Same with the United States.
But to come back to the issue of African people here, I think that one of the things that concerns me greatly is anti-Black racism, which I think is universal and not only found among white people but among all non-Black people.
And my argument is not for special treatment, my argument is to be particular about my own memory. For me to be willing to lump myself in with the white settler is to erase my memory of how I came here.
I have heard relatively recent immigrants passing comments on First Nations people—that they don’t pay taxes and that they should get over what happened and so on. This is outrageous. First Nations people are right to have an attitude towards newcomers who come into this land and take a position on them and their memories. It cannot happen; it must not happen.
NH: And that makes total sense in exactly how you’ve described memory. It’s in how you activate a sense of self-determination in a collective way.
MNP: I have too much respect for Indigenous cultures to believe that they would be indifferent to the stranger like myself, who has washed up here somehow through the same set of events that has destabilized them and has moved us from our homeland. I am confident that there could be some sort of understanding and compassion for that kind of stranger and how that would look is up to both parties to work out.
NH: In "Interview with an Empire" you continue with this issue concerning memory but specifically in relation to language. You write, "The challenge for me is to write from that place of loss. Of nothing if you will, to make poetry out of silence." As a poet and writer, how would you describe your relationship to language? How do you see that emerge in a way by speaking to/back to Empire in the interview? In it you write, "To erase the body is to erase the memory, and while this particular Black body is here in this white space called Canada, there is memory." I am wondering if you can speak more about this relation between body memory and writing, particularly in how it shows up in your work, in your practice as a writer. I can't help but think of Zong! here as well.
MNP: The most important work that I’ve done over the last 25 years is Zong! It has been described as a conceptual work—in the same way that She Tries Her Tongue (1988) was described as a postmodern work—but it has roots deep in the ancient, oral art form oríkì, of the Yoruba of Nigeria. Again it was my engagement with language, which I talked about above, that helped me to understand how the fragment can resonate and have great power. For those of us who often have nothing but fragments of our original cultures, this was revelatory. And life-sustaining. All was not necessarily lost. The work has also moved and moved me to performance, bringing a dimension that is integral to the practice of African cultures.
Every year in November on the anniversary of the Zong massacre, we have a collective reading of the entire book. One of the remarkable observations is that although the content is tragic, at the end of the reading/performance there is a feeling of coming to rest, of peace, even. This confirms my belief in the capacity of art to heal. I also realize that I am not interested in speaking back to Empire in a work like Zong! or its performance. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t be critical about the depredations of Empire—god knows it has unleashed on us all a scorched earth policy. But Zong! is its own raison d’être—although it comes out of the European archive, it is not a reaction or response to Empire. It simply is. As lamentation, mourning song, extended wake. Indeed, the title for last year’s event was “Zong!: A/Wake 5 Years,” playing on the idea of the wake for the dead, but also being awake to all that has happened—as in remembering. Zong! reminds me that we can find our lost selves in the most unexpected of places.