M. NourbeSe Philip: Interview With An Empire

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.”1 Do you care to comment on that?

A: No.

Q: Why?

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).2 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.

Q: How are you able to write, then, if you believe this to be the case?

A: With great difficulty. It is like having an abusive parent. You can’t pretend you don’t or didn’t have the parent or the experience. First you have to find a way of healing—if that is at all possible—then a way of managing the memory of that experience. For me there is always a shadow around english and my use of english because this so-called mother tongue of mine is rooted in a very particular, brutal and traumatic history—that of the 400-year slave trade in which European peoples and nations kidnapped and traded African peoples to provide the labour force needed for the sugar and cotton plantations of the New World.

Even as I use the words kidnap and trade, they in no way begin to convey the horror of it all. The murders, the rapes, the physical mutilation, the destruction of families, villages, cultures, languages are all neatly packaged and managed in the expression slave trade. The exquisite challenge every writer faces is that language always stands in for the experience, the thought or feeling. The struggle is to reduce the gap between the experience and the expression of that experience. In my case, there is a double burden, if you will, because of the history of the language in relation to me and my history. Essentially, language represents a wound for me.

Q: Hasn’t it healed by this time? After all, it has been over a century.

A: A mother never forgets the birth of her child. Ask any woman who has given birth, no matter what her age, and she’ll be able to tell you what the birth of each of her children was like.

Q: I’m not sure I get your point.

A: There are certain experiences that defy the passage of time, is what I’m saying. The fact that the loss of a language didn’t happen to me personally in no way means that I do not remember that loss. In fact, I remember it as if it happened yesterday.

Q: I’ll have to take your word for it.

A: Yes, you will—in the same way we take a mother’s word that she remembers the birth of her child. But to return to my earlier point: Because of this distrust that is lodged in the history of how I came to this part of the world, I handle language in a very self-conscious way—almost as a “foreign anguish” (She Tries). I hope in the way a painter approaches her paint, or a sculptor his marble. It is not me—it is outside of me—a foreign anguish. And yet it is me. As only language can be. The Heideggerian house of one’s being, if you will. The only way I can then work with it is to fracture it, fragment it, dislocate it, doing with it what it did to me and my kind, before I can put it back together, hopefully better able to express some of my own small truths. And for me this is where form becomes so very important, because part of the transformative and decontaminating process is also to find the appropriate form for what I’m saying.

Q: What would you say then about poets who do not do this with their work—whose work is more accessible?

A: As in not being “complex and abstract”?

Q: If you wish.

A: Well, my role here is not to comment on their work—I believe that is more your function as critic. However, I would say that when a poet like LKJ uses a dub beat over his lyrics, I believe he is trying to accomplish the same thing I am trying to do when I fracture, fragment, then put language back together again—trying to decontaminate it, perhaps. Refashioning it so that it can carry what you want it to say: managing the brutal history that casts a long and deep shadow around the language. The cultural practice which has survived most intact among Africans in the New World is music and I believe it offers another layer to the meaning and speaks of that shadowing—the wound, if you will. One result of using music with words in that way, however, is that the work becomes far more capable of crossing over into non-African audiences. I doubt whether these audiences understand the context of the words any more with the music, but they are entertained at least. The challenge for critics like yourself is to understand the cultural specificity of works like my own without the aid of music.

Q: Do you have any readership within Black communities— Let me rephrase that. Is it only white people—critics and students who can appreciate your work?

A: Poets and writers like myself who question and challenge the very ability of the language itself to speak the truth of their memories and engage in what I call practices of dislocation find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. Their poetry can be described as being language-based and appears to share a great deal with those poets working within the European aesthetic of language poetry. The language-based nature of poetry such as my own starts from a very different place. That of the wasteland between the terror of language and the horror of silence. White or European audiences who do not understand the matrix of this poetry miss what the poetry is all about. They see it as postmodern.

On the other hand, there is a sense in which we have delegitimized ourselves to some degree in the eyes of our communities—who after all constitute our potential audience and market. Traditionally the Black poet has played a significant role in declaiming against the scourges that have plagued, and continue to plague, African people in the New World ever since their forced relocation. While wordplay is integral to certain African-based musical forms like calypso, by and large language is taken as a given.3 A daffodil is a daffodil is a daffodil. Although for those of us studying english literature in the colonies it would have been far more accurate to say: “A daffodil is not a hibiscus, poinsettia, croton or flamboyant.”

Q: I’m not sure I quite understand what you mean.

A: If there is one central image that sums up english literature studies in the Caribbean for me, it would be the daffodil. Every schoolchild had to engage with Wordsworth’s daffodils at some time, although we had never seen them. And yet our very futures depended on being able to write about these bloody flowers.

Q: I see.

A: If I were to play around—riff on that image—I might turn out something like this:

      Is not a daffodil
      is
      and not
      is—

I’m far more interested in working with the structure of the language to destabilize the image of the daffodil.

It seems that the urgency of all the ills we have to rail against as New World Africans appears to militate against this sort of play. But given that the universe is always in play, what else is there to do but play? I suspect, however, that the memory of the horror and terror of loss of tongue lies so heavily on us that playing with language appears almost frivolous.

There is as yet no parallel between the way in which New World Africans have used their language of music in the New World to create complex new forms like jazz and our literary use of english. This may have all to do with the fact that because we need language for everyday communication, unlike music, there is a powerful urge to approximate the standard use of language. Playing music, and in particular African-based music, was never seen as a mark of being civilized. On the other hand, speaking and writing english, french or spanish, properly—in the manner that whites did—was, and continues to be, a marker of being civilized. It put some distance between you and your more downtrodden African brothers and sisters. The recent controversy over the use of ebonics proves that very little has changed around issues of language marking acceptability by the white society.

Far too many of us still take language for granted—assuming its transparency. It is too seldom treated as raw material, no different than stone—to be cut, shaped, moulded, twisted, broken and put back together again in a new way.

Q: Would you describe your work as postmodernist?

A: It is if you say it is.

Q: What do you mean by that?

A: Many years ago I had a constitutional law professor who taught

his classes according to the Socratic method. He never asked a question, but parried every query from us timid first-year law students with “It is if you say it is.” This phrase is the best response to those readers and critics who insist that She Tries Her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks is a postmodernist work. It is if you say it is. Postmodernist, that is. But to see She Tries as only or primarily a postmodernist work is to miss most of what the work is about. Unless, that is, one understands the Caribbean as a postmodernist space long before the term became current. Which is not that far-fetched.

Q: Code-switching, bricolage, sampling, inventions—these are all significant markers of postmodernist work—

A: And of the Caribbean—but within a very different context. A context that is simultaneously African, European, Asian, creole and hybrid. However, I do understand that since the author, like history, is dead—my intentions as the humble author are dismissable.

Q: Not entirely—

A: My point is simply that while the work may look like a duck, walk like a duck and even talk like a duck, it is not a duck The deep structure of the work is of and from the African Caribbean. I believe what happens is that the multi-coded, multi-faceted nature of the work which plays with quotations, engages with polyvocality and works almost as a sort of hypertext is what leads the reader to assume its postmodernity. I am saying that it both is and is not postmodern. Simultaneously and disjunctively.

Modernism is understood to be a primarily Western, European phenomenon. This, despite the fact that what we now call the Third World, or more euphemistically the developing world, was an integral aspect of it—if only in providing the savage Other against which the West could preen its civilized self. As you well know, many of the ideas that influenced modernists like Picasso, Brancusi and company came from Africa and Oceania. And jazz, the creation of New World Africans, altered that most basic aspect of life itself—rhythm and timing. Yet when we think of modernism and its sibling and legatee postmodernism, we think primarily of European movements. Within that context, work like my own is not postmodernist. However, if we understand modernism and postmodernism to embrace more than Europe, if we understand the postmodern reality of the African Caribbean, then and only then I think is anything gained by interpreting the work as postmodernist.

Q: How would you have me interpret the Caribbean then?

A: To understand the Caribbean one needs to understand it and the entire New World as a site of massive interruptions. Of Aboriginal life, for the most part fatally. In the traumatic and violent wrenching from Africa that slavery entailed, African life would also be ruptured, also often fatally. Indentureship of the Asian represented another interruption. And while the European tried to maintain continuity in the face of the Other, there would be an interruption of another sort in that instance. The Caribbean is synonymous with rupture and break and hiatus and held breath. And death. And rebirth.

What I want you to do is hold the image of the woman’s body—the Black woman’s body—as central to all that is happening in the Caribbean. Because when we think of the Caribbean we have to think of cut—as in wound—and cunt into which Columbus, emissary of the Old World, would penetrate on behalf of his master. You could call it a surrogate fuck, or a fuck by proxy, because the raping and pillaging would truly begin in the english-speaking world with the robber barons like Hawkins and Drake and others of their ilk wreaking havoc on the virginal space in rabid search of redemption, utopia and riches—whatever the anglo version of the fabled el dorado was—while bringing death, disease and pestilence.

Q: That is a very gendered reading of the Caribbean, isn’t it?

A: How else can it be read? Consider that Columbus sails under Spanish flags on behalf of a country led by a woman, Queen Isabella of Spain, and that Hawkins receives his first commission for the importing of slaves from Queen Elizabeth I.4 Were these women men in drag, or were they merely powerful white women (how can you be merely powerful) using men to do their dastardly acts? There’s a lot of work to be done looking at the role of these kinds of powerful women in the colonialist project.

Q: How do you represent this in your work? Or do you even try to represent it?

A: Given the fragmentation, the ruptures, the discontinuities, it seemed to me that to force a work like She Tries into a logical and linear way of reading—top to bottom, front to back—was to do the experience a second violence. The fragmented manner of representation was indeed a “truer” representation of the history. You can begin reading the work anywhere and within any poem—although certain poems, like “Discourse on the Logic of Language,” lend themselves more to this than others. Begin anywhere. Doesn’t this sum up the colonialist project in one respect?

Q: How so?

A: So many peoples—in my case African—were forced to begin anywhere—to pretend and behave as if there had been no before and would be no after. Begin anywhere—I began with wanting to subvert—to destroy the lyric voice. I felt it could not bear the weight of my history. All this was presumptuous perhaps, but that was how I felt. I also questioned the tradition of the solitary voice of the poet—often male, a white male, who embodied the wisdom of the society, and who spoke for, on behalf of and to his society or culture. In a voice of authority. Although he might be marginalized and he often was, his words were valued—he had a role to play even as outcast and had the authority to do so.

I would turn Eliot’s objective correlative on its head—fog was supposed to be fog even in the Caribbean. And a little Black girl in the Caribbean was supposed to feel the same emotion as Prufrock.

Q: Did you succeed—in destroying the lyric voice?

A: I don’t know. The certainties of youth appear to be just that now.

I do know that what happened is that the work became impossible to read in the traditional sense—there were so many events happening on the page—not to mention the silences. In “Discourse,” for instance—the poem that most typifies this challenge—there are four different voices clamouring to be heard on the combined facing pages. It seems to me that the work engages with one of the most significant African musical techniques—that of call and response. I also think that it encapsulates an African worldview in which the ancestors become the call and we the response. In turn we humans call the ancestors into response, to act within our lives. It’s like a snake doubling back on itself—eating its own tail. This call-and-response technique works both within poems and between poems. The contradiction in the centre refrain of “Discourse”—“English is my mother tongue / is my father tongue”—calls into response both the edicts against speaking in African tongues as well as the impulse to continuity of tongue, as in language, which the woman—in this case the Black woman—bears and expresses.

This does not—cannot—result in smoothly lyrical poetry. I saw the lyric voice as one of the tools used to further the ends of colonialism. And in upending the objective correlative, I would immerse the poem once again in the mess and morass of history—not remove it out of its context, as Eliot urged. History was not dead for me, as the postmodernists urge. I wanted a chance to rewrite it. According to my dictates—my memories. You may say this was presumptuous of me, but no more presumptuous than those who had written my history according to their dictates. And if the reader stumbled, stopped and started again, if s/he choked, and gagged on the words, then it was successful.

Q: I have some difficulty seeing how you equate success with—how do you put it?—the reader choking and gagging.

A: I once did a reading of “Discourse” with two other women. One was a Canadian of European background, the other was a First Nations woman. When we were done, the white woman said to me that she felt extremely uncomfortable reading the edicts forbidding Africans from speaking their languages. She understood, however, that the discomfort was an important lesson for her. The First Nations woman confessed to stumbling over the description of how the brain worked. This was also the section that spoke of the naming of certain parts of the brain after two nineteenth-century doctors who believed that Africans and other peoples of colour as well as women were inferior to white men. My answer to her was that as a First Nations woman, she was intended to stumble over those words. The parts of the brain that controlled speech—our speech—were not named with her in mind. We—as Black and First Nations women—were never intended to be in control of our own lives.

I want to take this metaphor about eating further. So much of the so-called developing world has been/is being consumed—literally—slipping into the great maw of the West and slipping down its throat to its stomach, there to be digested and transformed into some imitation of the original.5 And bearing names like “world music” that separate the product from its source. In such a world, to be indigestible—to have the ability to make consumption difficult—is a quality to be valued.

Q: You’ve made reference on more than one occasion to history and memory. Would you care to talk about your history?

A: It’s not only my history. It’s also your history. Ours, if you will.

Q: Talk to me of our history then. And how it influences your writing.

A: How does one write about the rupture that is Africa and the Caribbean? One doesn’t. First one has to acknowledge the silence, because what happens demands silence. As a form of respect. But as a writer and poet the impulse is always to words. The question is, do you—should you—turn the horror of a particular history into something beautiful, because of course it is that beauty which will make the work ultimately digestible. I confess to being disturbed by texts which attempt to deal in this way with aspects of slavery—fictional works, poetry, which are so “beautifully” written that the horror is also beautifully managed. For me the more seductive the language, the more I distrust it—with a centuries-old distrust. Of course this leads to issues of marketability and audience. Most people appear to want anodynes.

Q: Aren’t you shooting yourself in the foot—you did say you wanted a wide readership for your work.

A: Every writer wants that. The question is, I suppose, how much you are willing to give up for such an audience and market. The challenge for me is to mark within the structure of the language itself that which I am speaking about, but which I can’t really speak about.

Q: Why do you say you can’t speak about it? I assume that it is your—what you say is our history here in the New World. You have been speaking about it in works like “Discourse.”

A: Because “it” didn’t happen in english. Or french or spanish. It happened in another language—that I am a stranger to. So how do I (w)rite/right that? What happened—indeed, is happening—happened within the spaces between words, between clotted clumps of words, between letters even.

Q: Are you saying that you find it difficult to write your history?

A: Yes, in the traditional sense of history. What helps is memory.

Q: You see them as being in contradiction.

A: Don’t you? There are many, many memories, some complete, some not so complete. But there is also only one memory. A single memory. Of loss. Loss, loss, and more loss. The challenge for me is to write from that place of loss. Of nothing, if you will. To make poetry out of silence.

Q: I’m interested in how you read those poems that are speaking with more than one voice.

A: Over the years I had fallen into the habit of only reading certain poems—those that lent themselves most easily to the single voice. On one occasion a student asked me to read “Universal Grammar” (She Tries) for her. Without thinking about it I replied: “I will, if you read it with me.” It was then that I came to the realization that I had, indeed, succeeded in what I had set out to do, although not in quite the way I had anticipated. I should confess at this point that most of the insights about She Tries have come to me after completion of the work—in this instance substantially after completion. As I have said before, I wanted to destroy the lyric voice. As a Black, female, colonized subject, what was the source of my authority, and was such authority necessary—indispensable perhaps?—to speech, public speech? To poetry? Being neither male nor white and without an observable or tangible source of authority, could I even speak? Or would I only speak a silence?

What I hadn’t realized until “I will, if you read it with me” was that in shifting the lyric voice, in at least forcing it to share the page with other voices, with other histories—moving it from centre stage and page; in clearing a space—I had allowed for other voices to be heard. A multivocal, polyvocal discourse could now be heard. It was the chorus of the unheard, the not-heard, the barely whispered. This to me was closer to the discourse of women. To the call and response of African speech. I saw the text now as a jazz text. If you look at “Discourse,” for instance, the centre refrain can be seen as the main musical theme and the linguistic events that are happening in english around this centre theme can be seen as riffs speaking into the silence around the “anguish that is English.” Indeed, the entire work can also be seen to be working around the central theme that “Discourse” represents—the loss of language.

Q: I return to an earlier question—I assume you are writing about these issues—

A: I try not to write about issues when I write poetry.

Q: What are you trying to do then?

A: To get to the truth of certain experiences.

Q: The question remains—I assume that the audience you have in mind when you write is one which shares your context, but the issues—or rather your approach to them—appears—

A: You are back to the issue of “complex and abstract” aren’t you? How do I bridge that gap? I confess that on completion of She Tries I became very aware that while the work was complete on the page, there was another completion that was needed—the completion of performance. I believe that one very crucial aspect of the Caribbean aesthetic is performance, so it is interesting that the work contains within its structure that potential. When the poems are performed, even within the classroom, each “reading” yields different information and new truths, as occurred in the reading with the First Nations woman and the European woman.

Q: The body appears to have played a large part in this work.

A: Yes, the body erupted into the text of She Tries in unexpected ways. There is a certain rightness to this, given how the African body was inserted into the New World. Given that the African body—“black ivory,” “pieces of the Indies,” as they were euphemistically called—was the sine qua non of the development of the New World. Those early Africans came with nothing but the body which would become the repository of everything they would need to survive. The Body Memory, if you will. For four hundred years those Black bodies would withstand the onslaught of empire. Those Black bodies are, in fact, the only thing standing between empire and a state of total annihilation. The erasure of memory in the face of history. Because to erase the body is to erase the memory.

Q: How is this work received in Canada?

A: I like to think of Canada as a space—the space that is Canada. What I should say right off the top is that works like She Tries and Looking for Livingstone6 could only have been written in Canada.

Q: Why is that?

A: Had I lived in the U.S.A. the hegemonic weight of African American culture would have been so great that I would have had a great deal of difficulty—I doubt whether I would have been able to do it—speaking about the Caribbean—the wound that is the Caribbean. And had I lived in England, there would have been similar constraints of empire and its legacy—the Commonwealth. Only the space that is Canada allowed me the room I needed to work these ideas through. That space at times felt like a black hole in which everything was in danger of collapsing in and on itself. Both the U.S. and England have a long history of engaging with African culture in some way. Canada didn’t, despite settlements in southern Ontario and the Maritimes that date back to the War of Independence. The deep cultural insecurity of Canada militates against the inclusion of African cultural practices except as they may fit under the rubric of multiculturalism. And the mantra of multiculturalism is repeated so often as to convince you of its talismanic properties. It is but a thin veneer which barely conceals a society as steeped in white supremacy as it is in hypocritical protestations to the contrary.

Having said that, however, the work is taught in some institutions and for that I am happy. As I said before, 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 a memory.

CODA : The Potentiality of Space

I am particularly interested in my closing comments in the interview that explore the intersection of geography, race, memory, history and literature. The idea that what I call “the space that is Canada,” albeit existing within a colonial paradigm, offered the potential for a certain kind of creativity and innovation that would have been more difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in other colonial or imperial spaces such as the U.S. or the U.K. I had earlier said in the interview—“what happened…is happening, happened within the spaces between words, between clotted clumps of words…” Is there perhaps a parallel between what is happening in a work like Zong! that works with breath and space, and about which I have said that the most important things happening in that poem are happening in the spaces between the words and word clusters. The space that is Canada is framed by a history of colonialism and racism against the First Nations, African-descended people, the Japanese, the Chinese and South Asians, to name some of the more egregious examples. It is provocative that such a framed space has allowed for works like She Tries, Looking for Livingstone and Zong! to be produced. This is less about the nature of the work or about Canada being a wonderful multicultural haven that we have been “lucky” enough to be let into. That so-called luck has been very expensive for Indigenous people; rather it is about the fact that the space that is Canada is the sine qua non of the work being produced, although it is not about Canada but rather about a larger history. Empire, colonialism, and racism work like the words on the page framing, or parenthesizing a space within which something life-fulfilling can take place. Like the mother in She Tries, blowing words—words of love, loss, history, and be/longing—into the space of her daughter’s mouth.

NOTES

1. Rhonda Cobham, “Women of the Islands,” The Women’s Review of Books, Vol. VII, Nos. 10–11 (July 1990), 29.

2. M. NourbeSe Philip, She Tries Her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks (Charlottetown, PEI: Ragweed Press, 1998 and The Women’s Press, 1993, and currently reprinted by Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2015).

3. Rastafarian language and speech contain many examples of unusual orthography and refashion words to reflect a certain worldview. For instance, instead of oppressed, they used downpressed and instead of system, they use shitstem. For work in this area, please see the work of Velma Pollard.

4. At the end of the sixteenth century Queen Elizabeth I and Ahmad al-Mansur, Sultan of Morocco, formed an alliance against King Philip II of Spain. The Sultan offered to assist the English in the Caribbean against the Spanish by sending troops to the area. Before plans for this expedition could be executed, Queen Elizabeth died in 1603. History might have been very different if Morocco had become one of the imperial powers of the Caribbean.

5. This idea of indigestibility is similar to Glissant’s idea in Poetics of Relation in which he argues for a right to opacity.

6. M. NourbeSe Philip, Looking for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence (Stratford,ON: Mercury Press, 1991).

 

Excerpted with permission from Blank: Essays and Interviews by M. NourbeSe Philip. BookThug, 2017.

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 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.

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