As the month of February draws to a close, so, too, does Black History Month. But the conversation doesn’t have to stop, nor should it if the goal is revolution. If it is to make real the new ways of thinking, seeing, and relating that we so frequently imagine.
We close with Bla_K: Essays and Interviews, by M. NourbeSe Philip, a collection of previously out-of-print essays and new works by one of Canada’s most important contemporary writers and thinkers. Through an engagement with her earlier work, Philip comes to realize the existence of a repetition in the world: the return of something that, while still present, has become unembedded, disappeared. Her imperative becomes to make us see what has gone unseen, by writing memory upon the margin of history, in the shadow of empire and at the frontier of silence. Bla_K explores questions of race, the body politic, timeliness, recurrence, ongoingness, art, and the so-called multicultural nation. Now and indefinitely, it is essential.
“Philip’s insights on how race and racism emerge in and beyond Canada, in the form of staged and unstaged misrepresentation, are enmeshed with a politics of (longstanding) refusal that animates the black diaspora,” writes Associate Professor Katherine McKittrick. Associate Professor Dr. Richard Douglas-Chin writes that “[w]e need(ed) this book. We need(ed) to listen. Philip, in Bla_K, has given us the gift of another opportunity. We need(ed) to take it. If not now, when?”
As part of our series, we’re honoured to share a brief excerpt from Bla_K, which you can read and enjoy below.
Interview with an Empire
Q: Why does a Black woman like yourself write the kind of poetry you do?
A: I’m not sure what you mean by “the kind of poetry you do.”
Q: Your poetry has been described as “complex and abstract.” Do you care to comment on that?
A: Because the work is “complex and abstract.” But so is jazz and that doesn’t prevent anyone from listening to it, does it? A comment like that says more about the commentator than about the work.
Q: But doesn’t being “complex and abstract” restrict your audience, and doesn’t that bother you?
A: Your question reminds me of one of the most difficult readings I have ever done, which was to read after the Black British dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, whose work I greatly admire. I had been asked as a last-minute replacement to fill in for a Cuban poet who had not been able to obtain a visa to enter the United States. I arrived at the venue with very few minutes to spare and somewhat out of breath. LKJ, who was supposed to read second, offered to go first to allow me to catch my breath and collect myself. The audience loved him. His work is intended to be performed—he often works with a band; it is rhythmic, imbued with rhyme and carries an in-your-face political message.
My work, on the other hand, is page-bound and far more in the modernist tradition which abandoned rhyme and rhythm, if not metre, a long time ago. Furthermore the audience had really come to hear LKJ and his was going to be the quintessentially hard act to follow. I found myself reading my more politically obvious poems—earlier works, by and large—and avoiding those poems that challenged me as reader and them as audience.
Q: Were you envious of the audience response he got?
A: No. But I think it typifies one of the fundamental issues facing poets of African heritage who do not necessarily work within the context of performance.
Q: How so?
A: I believe some poets begin from a position where they take language as a given. Others, like myself, have a profound distrust of language. This may seem like an extremely odd position—it’s like an artist distrusting colour, a sculptor distrusting stone, or a musician distrusting sound. With one difference. Neither the painter nor the sculptor nor the musician needs his medium to function on a daily basis. We all need words and language to function. We are told it is what makes us human. But in its day-to-day use this very language is very much devalued coinage. This is the same medium that is used to sell us goods we don’t want and, through political half-truths and lies, to convince us that what we know to be the truth is not really the truth. In general one of the most insidious uses of language is to separate us from a sense of integrity and wholeness. Essentially what I’m saying is that the potential seductiveness of language is dangerous. I believe many of those poets who are described as language poets begin from this premise. But for me there is another layer of distrust—historical distrust, if you will. After all, this was a language that the European forced upon the African in the New World. So that the exploitative plantation machine could be more efficiently run. It was a language of commands, orders, punishments. This language—english in my case, but it applies to all the languages of those European countries involved in the colonialist project—was never intended or developed with me or my kind in mind. It spoke of my non-being. It encapsulated my chattel status. And irony of all ironies, it is the only language in which I can now function. And therein lies the conundrum—“english is my mother tongue,” but it is also “my father tongue” (She Tries her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks). 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 process. A decontaminating process is probably more accurate, since a language as deeply implicated in imperialism as english has been cannot but be contaminated by such a history and experience.
M. NourbeSe Philip is a poet, essayist, novelist, playwright, and former lawyer who lives in Toronto. She is a Fellow of the Guggenheim and Rockefeller (Bellagio) Foundations, and the MacDowell Colony. She is the recipient of many awards, including the PEN/Nabokov Award for International Literature and the Casa de las Americas Prize (Cuba). Among her best-known works are: She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks, Looking for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence, and Zong!, a genre-breaking poem that engages with ideas of the law, history, and memory as they relate to the transatlantic slave trade.