saltwaterstories is on hiatus for a couple of months as we – Lesley, Daze, and I – work on a larger collaborative project. We’ll be back in September.
These days, it’s not particularly revolutionary to suggest that the body is an archive. The popularity of DNA mapping means that the whole idea of biological archives has become commonplace. Companies like Ancestry promise to reveal your family histories and to tell you “what makes you uniquely you.” They promise to reveal more than your family tree – they suggest that they can map your history through time.
As Carolyn Abraham writes in her 2013 book, The Juggler’s Children: A Journey into Family, Legend and the Genes that Bind Us,
The past is never lost not completely; we carry it with us, in us, and we look for it in our parents and in our children, to give us our bearings and ground us in the continuity of life. And the past accommodates. It shows off in dazzling, unpredictable ways – a familiar gait, a gesture, the timbre of a voice, a blot of colour along the tailbone. The body has a long memory indeed. Written in the quirky tongue of DNA and wound into the nucleus of nearly every human cell are biological mementos of the family who came before us. And science is finding ways to dig them out, rummaging through our DNA as if it were a trunk in the attic (4-5)
It’s a seductive science, this science of DNA-storytelling. It promises the world and more. It tells us it can end racism. It says we are all one family. It tells us that our origins are not murky; that they can be measured just through an analysis of our saliva. Carolyn Abraham describes her own heady encounters: “I suddenly imagined the human genome map as an actual map, capable of leading a person back through her foggy history, pointing the way to foreign lands and forgotten stories.” (16).
I dove into this murky pond on St. Patrick’s Day 2017. A company offered to tell me how much Irish I had in me. “None,” I thought to myself. “Absolutely none.” It’s an odd thing, living on this island that is so very tied to Ireland and knowing that there’s no hint of the Irish in you.
I manufactured all the spittle I could (I’d already read somewhere that it was actually quite a challenge to produce even the bare minimum required), and sent the kit off. Every few weeks, I’d get a computer-generated email telling me that they were working on things. And then, a few weeks ago, presto, there it was: an email that would tell me everything I ever wanted to know about myself.
The results were not particularly surprising: Northern European, South Asian, and African. I knew all of this already. And all within exactly the proportions I’d expect, knowing what I do about my family history. The only oddness was the 1% Pacific Islander, which I suspect, is just the result of however the company chose to determine the categories they’re working with.
Because here’s the thing. What is Europe? Who is Europe? What is Africa? Who is Africa? What is South Asia? Who is South Asia? Who is a Pacific Islander? Who determines any of this, and on what premises are these tests even based?
As the research of Kim TallBear and Alondra Nelson, among others, reveals, the science of DNA mapping is premised on problematic histories. In particular, even as companies promote a ‘we are all one’ narrative, their testing relies on notions of “purity” that perpetuate long histories of scientific racism.
The biological archive can offer some stories, but perhaps not the most important stories, about who we are and how we live together. And so these results, while promising the ‘truth’ of one’s history, must in the end be seen as not much more than a game.
As a result of fetomaternal microchimerism, women will carry their reproductive histories within their bodies. We also know that bodies are fundamentally affected by the social experience of poverty. So, too, have researchers begun to uncover the intergenerational health effects of trauma. Trauma lodges itself in the body and can be passed on to subsequent generations.
Our bodies are sensitive instruments, keenly attuned to the world in which we live. Our bodies respond to all the things that happen to us. In and through them, we can read the stories of our lives.
“Here I offer mine with a memoir of my body and my hunger,” writes Roxane Gay. What follows is a raw and deeply intimate examination of Gay’s body and her relationship with it. Gay’s body is her archive of her life: it carries not only her experiences, but also all of her emotions. It carries her longings and desires. It carries her family history. It carries her grief. It carries her rape. And most of all, it carries her hunger.
As I think through family histories, pasts and present, I wonder about the stories lodged in my veins, my skin, my psyche. Beyond DNA, what other stories might my own body reveal?
How do we access the archives of the body? How can we ever understand the stories it has to tell us? And what will we do with those stories once we’ve found them?
Abraham, Carolyn. The Juggler’s Children: A Journey into Family, Legend and the Genes that Bind Us. Random House Canada, 2013.
Gay, Roxane. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. HarperCollins, 2017
Nelson, Alondra. The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconcilation after the Genome. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016.
Reardon, Jenny and Kim TallBear. “’Your DNA Is Our History’: Genomics, Anthropology, and the Construction of Whiteness as Property.” Current Anthropology, 53.S5 (April2012): S233-S245.
TallBear, Kim. “Narratives of Race and Indigeneity in the Genographic Project.” Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics 35.3 (2007): 412‐24.
A yummy day with a book delivery from Duke University Press. Seriously, by this point, I should have shares in the company; that’s how many books I buy from them. Today’s haul includes Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life, Elspeth Probyn’s Eating the Ocean, and Eli Clare’s Brilliant Imperfection, all of which are destined for this fall’s iteration of the graduate feminist theory seminar. But it also included Tina Campt’s Listening to Images, an extended meditation on the counterstories that images of black diasporic subjects, ostensibly meant for surveillance purposes – identification cards, passports, etc – might tell. As she observes in the introduction, “identification photos are not produced at the desire of their sitters. They are images required of or imposed upon them by empire, science, or the state” (5). And because of the rigid rules that have often governed their production, such photos have rarely been studied in great detail. But by listening closely to them, different stories might emerge, stories that challenge the logics by which they were originally created.
In her book, Campt gets at the heart of my own archival discomforts in this project: how do I work with material designed expressly to dehumanize? And how can I read that material differently? But it also gets at another element of this project: the visual archives that remain of colonial lives and experiences. The online archives in the Rijksmuseum’s Rijksstudio, for example, include many photos of the so-called Coolie Depot where all incoming indentured labourers were brought to be processed. The Flickr stream of the Surinaams Museum, meanwhile, offers photographs of plantation life. But most of these photos were taken not to support those who toiled on the plantations, or those who were brought – often under extreme duress – to Suriname, but rather, to document the activities of a colonial system. How, then, to read them differently?
I’ve written previously about ethnographic refusal, and Campt, too, draws on the notion of refusal. For Tuck and Wang, refusal is about an approach to research; it’s about methodology. For Campt, however, refusal lies in the photographed subjects themselves: what are they doing – in the way they sit for the camera, in the way they dress, in the very fact that they’ve had their photos taken – to resist the narratives that have been carved out for them.
It was just over ten years ago that I found a stack of old black and white photos in a used bookstore in London, Ontario. All neatly packaged in clear cellophane wrapping,, they were gathered together under a single heading: “Instant ancestors.” I was with my mom at the time. We poked through them, holding up particularly intriguing photos, and had a good laugh. But as I think back to this collection, it strikes me that the ‘family photo’ itself as a particular series of conventions attached to it, and it is these conventions that allow us to find the humour in the photos. These conventions made it possible for us to laugh.
But these photos were out of context. Completely divorced from their ‘real’ families, their stories are much more opaque. How can we read them? And what stories might they tell?
Photographs appear in the most random of places. As a first year university student in Victoria a few decades ago, I found a photograph of a toddler with round cheeks in the middle of a book that hadn’t been taken out in twenty years. More recently, I found another, in an interlibrary loan from the University of Toronto. They’d functioned as bookmarks, I imagine, and then the borrower had come up against a due date, stuffed the books into a bag, and completely forgotten about the photos.
Like the London photos and the discarded passport photos Campt analyzed, these photos were accidents, bits of stories that somehow got away, that ended up in completely different contexts.
Instant ancestors, indeed.
[and yes: p.s., I purposely chose not to include photos.]
Campt, Tina M. Listening to Images. Duke UP, 2017.
Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. “R-Words: Refusing Research,” in D. Paris and M. T. Winn, Eds. Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with youth and Communities. Thousand Oakes, CA: Sage Publications, 2014.
Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. “Unbecoming claims: Pedagogies of refusal in qualitative research.” Qualitative Inquiry 20.6 (2014): 811-818.
In a 2013 article, Astrida Neimanis proposes a “watered” form of feminist subjectivity, one that attends not only to human concerns, but also to ethical engagements with the nonhuman.
Extending feminist posthumanist conversations initiated by such thinkers as Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti, she observes that “In purely descriptive terms, we are bodies of water, but we also reside within and as part of a fragile global hydrocommons, where water – the lifeblood of humans and all other bodies on this planet – is increasingly contaminated, commodified and dangerously reorganized” (103).
What does it mean to imagine ourselves as water bodies? How might our approach to politics change if we think ourselves through our relationships with the nonhuman, rather than against them? What new possibilities might emerge?
“We are all bodies of water,” Neimanis writes (2012; 2013). Imagining ourselves as watery bodies forces us to locate ourselves within rather than against the nonhuman world, and simultaneously, to acknowledge all watery bodies – both “human waters and ecological ones” (Neimanis 2013, 27) as having agency. This encounter paves the way for thinking through hydrologics; that is, the ways in which water organizes itself. Water, Neimanis writes, can be simultaneously imagined as conduit, memory, archive, facilitator, and gestational milieu. It is past and present. It is intimate and planetary.
Water isn’t a new topic for this collaborative blog. I’ve written about it before, as have the graduate students – Lesley Butler and Daze Jefferies – associated with this project.
I’ve long been fascinated by the liquid, the fluid, the stuff that resists borders, flows beyond them, and renders them obsolete.
And so it’s perhaps not surprising that I’m drawn to theorizing that begins with water. Some of my favourite theorists – the “friends” I made during my doctorate – draw on the fluid or the liquid. Hélène Cixous, for example, starts with the “white ink” of the lactating maternal body as a source for a utopian feminist imaginary, ideas which have been taken up, extended, expanded and explored by numerous other thinkers, among them Alison Bartlett, Fiona Giles, Robyn Longhurst, Rhonda Shaw, Margrit Shildrick, Iris Marion Young, and Quinn Eades. Indeed, Elizabeth Grosz, in her foundational Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism, suggests that women’s embodiment has been constructed in a “mode of seepage.”
All of this thinking relies on boundary breaking, on reimagining social relations through a fundamentally different way of imagining bodies. No longer discrete entities, the bodies of feminist theorists are porous. They leak. They seep. They expel. This is theory founded on touch, on porosity, on connection.
But the more recent work of thinkers like Neimanis and Karin Amimoto Ingersoll moves beyond the fluxes and flows of the human body. The fluid is not just about the human, they argue. We need to situate ourselves – our bodies and our knowledges – within a larger, nonhuman world.
What, then, are the implications, really, of that seemingly simple – almost facile – statement, “We are all bodies of water,” that underpins Neimanis’ work?
My older son, who is linearity and logic embodied in human form, would contest the very premises of the statement. “No,” he would say, “we’re not. We’re only 60% water. That statement is inaccurate.” Older son is very literal. The body of the ocean and the body of the human are not the same body. The water is not the same. And as such, there’s no more conversation to be had.
My younger son, much more given to flights of imaginative and conceptual fantasy, would start with the 60%, but he’d be much more amenable to thinking through relationships between watery worlds – the world of the ocean and the world of the human body. He’d start thinking through various possibilities (which would likely include Captain Underpantsy thoughts in some form or another, but would also become more philosophical). He’d start thinking about how the ocean sounds and feels. He’d think about swimming.
And he’d turn, too, to a piece his youth choir commissioned and performed just last month.
They’d spent months rehearsing the program, and we’d hear updates after every session. “We’re singing this new piece about the ocean and it has 9 part harmony!” His face was luminous, his voice eager. He talked about the fun of learning it and about the colours and textures the music evoked. Every rehearsal was a new adventure, and for us, as parents, a thrill to experience vicariously.
The concert itself was breathtaking. Ocean was composed by Tim Baker. Now a member of one of Newfoundland’s best known musical exports, Hey Rosetta, he’s also former Shallaway chorister. Ocean, based on poetry by Sue Goyette, asks singers and audience to think with and through the sea. As Baker wrote in the program notes, “Not … the scientific sea, full of resources and ecosystems and carefully mapped tides and temperatures, but… the sea as it is when you sit with it.” As he read Goyette’s Ocean, he listened to the ocean, to its stories, to its histories, to its meanings, and he imagined himself and his forebears – all members of coastal communities – trying to understand it: “a mystery, sometimes dark and furious, sometimes gentle and glittering, and always shifting and always inscrutable.”
What emerged from these meditations is a hauntingly beautiful work that calls on us to think with and through the ocean: “How can we commune with the ocean to know it better? How can we tame it, so to be blessed with its bounty, and spared its fury? How do we ask it questions, and how do we listen when it responds?” he asks in the program notes.
Ocean, in the end, is a series of questions, a longing, a keening, a wondering. It’s a love song and a lament. With its repeated refrain, “are we listening?” it asks us to think again about our relationship with the sea, and about the stories it might be trying to tell us.
…have we forgot how to see in the dark?
…have we forgot how to hear your tongue?
…are you talking to us? are you crying out?
…are you calling to us? are you trying now?
Similar questions lie at the heart of Neimanis’ theorizing about watery bodies. Who are we, watered? And why might this matter?
“As watery, we experience ourselves less as isolated entities and more as oceanic eddies: I am a singular, dynamic whorl dissolving in a complex, fluid circulation. The space between ourselves and our others is at once as distant as the primeval sea, yet also closer than our own skin – the traces of those same oceanic beginnings still cycling through us, pausing as this bodily thing we call ‘mine.’ Water is between bodies, but of bodies, before us and beyond us, yet also very presently this body, too.” (Neimanis, “Hydrofeminism” 85)
In her recent book, Waves of Knowing: A Seascape Epistemology, Karin Amimoto Ingersoll draws on Indigenous Hawaiian ways of knowing that are premised on the ocean. This “seascape epistemology” is:
“an approach to knowing presumed on a knowledge of the sea, which tells one how to move through it, how to approach life and knowing through the movements of the world. It is an approach to knowing through a visual, spiritual, intellectual, and embodied literacy of the ‘aina (land) and kai (sea): birds, the colors of the clouds, the flows of the currents, fish and seaweed the timing of ocean swells, depths, tides, and celestial bodies all circulating and flowing with rhythms and pulsations….” (5-6; see also 16)
For Amimoto Ingersoll, a seascape epistemology is a deeply embodied and profoundly holistic way of knowing; a knowledge gained only through deep and close encounters with the nonhuman world and the stories it has to tell.
As she writes:
“Finding the words to express the seascape as it wets my skeleton and salts my veins is a thirst that drives me. Interacting with this swirling life form taps me into unseen possibilities. Attempting to articulate our relationships with nature, with the ocean, is to be human. That is why humanity is found in the sea. I am the moonlight hat shines from the black heaven, dispersed through the watery prism of swells into another realm. The unseen can be seen in my imagination as a being both integrated and free. I can become my own process of becoming within this universe unto itself, with life, rhythms, colors, and sounds unique to this watery sphere. Inward I go.” (184)
These ideas echo, in some ways, those put forward Neimanis and Rachel Loewen Walker in their 2014 article, “Weathering.” In thinking through the politics of climate change, Neimanis and Loewen Walker propose a rethinking of the concept of home.
“Like other climate change theorists and activists, we propose to bridge the distance of abstraction by bringing climate change home,” they write (559). But the home they propose is not the “Western, urban, and domesticated home that more often than not seeks to extract itself from the weather-world” (559). Rather, they suggest something much broader: “we … invite our readers to be interpellated into the ecological spacetime of a much more expansive home, at once as distant as that melting icecap, and as close as our own skin” (559).
Weathering, for Neimanis and Loewen Walker, is a way of moving beyond the traditional nature/culture divide to acknowledging the ways that human and nonhuman are entangled with one another.
Drawing on Stacy Alaimo’s understanding of transcorporeality, they propose a theory of “weather bodies” shaped by and through the natural world, even as they also shape that world: “The ebb and flow of meteorological life transits through us, just as the actions, matters, and meanings of our own bodies return to the climate in myriad ways” (560).
Weathering in a Newfoundland context brings to mind the peeling paint on outport clapboard houses, the leathery skin of those who have made their livings on the oceans. Weathering is a landscape shaped by glaciers, waves, winds, and storms. It is the hunched tuckamore growing sideways along the coastline, the clothing dancing on a line in the middle of winter. Weathering is a whole family lost at sea; it is a crying ocean no longer filled with cod.
Weathering is a “worlding with [the earth]” (567).
“are we listening?”
Amimoto Ingersoll, Karin. Waves of Knowing: A Seascape Epistemology. Duke UP, 2016.
Baker, Tim. “Program Notes” for Ocean, “Oh Canada: A Canadian Choral Celebration,” Shallaway Youth Choir, 8 April 2017.
Bartlett, A. Breastwork: Rethinking breastfeeding. University of New South Wales Press, 2005.
Bartlett, Alison. “Breastfeeding as headwork: Corporeal feminism and meanings for breastfeeding.” Women’s Studies International Forum, 25.3 (2002), pp. 373–382. doi:10.1016/S0277-5395(02)00260-1
Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” French feminism reader, edited by Kelly Oliver. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000, pp. 257-275.
Eades, Quinn. All the Beginnings: A Queer Autobiography of the Body. Tantanoola, 2015.
Giles, Fiona. “Fountains of love and loveliness: In praise of the dripping wet breast.” Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering, 4.1 (2002), pp. 7–17.
Giles, Fiona. Fresh milk: The secret life of breasts. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2003.
Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile bodies: Towards a corporeal feminism. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Longhurst, Robyn. Bodies: Exploring fluid boundaries. London, UK: Routledge, 2001.
Neimanis, Astrida and Rachel Loewen Walker, “Weathering: Climate Change and the ‘Thick Time’ of Transcorporeality.” Hypatia 29.3 (2014), pp. 558-575.
Neimanis, Astrida, “Feminist subjectivity, watered” Feminist Review 103 (2013), pp. 23-31.
Neimanis, Astrida. “Hydrofeminism: Or, On Becoming a Body of Water.” Undutiful Daughters: New Directions in Feminist Thought and Practice, edited by H. Gunkel, C. Nigianni & F. Soderback. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, pp. 85-100.
Shaw, R. “Theorizing breastfeeding: Body ethics, maternal generosity, and the gift relation.” Body and Society, 9.2 (2003), pp. 55–73. doi:10.1177/1357034X030092003
Shildrick, M. (1997). Leaky bodies and boundaries: Feminism, post-modernism, and (bio)ethics. London, UK: Routledge.
Young, Iris Marion. On female body experience: “Throwing like a girl” and other essays. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005.
(c) Sonja Boon (sboon @ mun.ca), 2017.
Reproduction, it is said, has always been a matter of politics.
In England, Henry VIII divorced and then killed off his second wife, Anne Boleyn for her failure to beget a boy. A few hundred years later, a concerned mother wrote to a Swiss doctor, worried about her daughter’s forthcoming nuptials in the face of newly discovered knowledge about her soon to be son-in-law’s health and its possible implications for their reproductive lives. In Canada, many women have been forcibly sterilized, their reproductive autonomy erased because of their class, race, or presumed psychological fitness for reproduction. In India, a burgeoning international surrogacy industry contracts often impoverished women to rent out their uteri for wealthy North American or European couples. In Ireland, labouring women have been victim – with the blessing of the Catholic church – to the profoundly disabling and medically unnecessary practice of symphisiotomy. In the global South, women have been used as guinea pigs for contraceptive testing, often without their consent or even knowledge. American fetal personhood laws pit the rights of the fetus against those of the mother to be. It was only in April 2017 that the European Court of Human Rights ruled that “the sterilization requirement [for trans people] was a violation of Article Eight of the European Convention on Human Rights” ( see New York Times)
Perhaps nowhere were the politics of reproduction more overt than in the context of the dying days of plantation slavery in the Americas. Numerous historians have observed that slave owners’ perspectives on reproduction changed as the political mood shifted toward abolition (van Stipriaan, Turner, Paton). Before this, owners hadn’t paid much attention to reproduction; after all, a slave population could easily be renewed with the purchase of more slaves (see Newton 1788, for example). But abolitionist talk changed things. Perhaps plantation owners would not always be able to rely on new bodies to fulfil their needs. This became all the more acute after the British abolition of the slave trade. While illegal trading still continued after this point, most slave owners had to rely on their own enslaved women to renew their labour force. In this new political context, women’s uteri became hot commodities (Turner, Morgan, Paton).
As I look back at my family tree, I wonder how these shifting political landscapes shaped the reproductive experiences of my enslaved ancestors. How did they navigate all of this in their daily lives? What might reproduction have meant for them?
The Dutch historian Alex van Stipriaan observes that there were more children at cotton plantations than at coffee or sugar plantations (54). This could be because the work was much heavier at sugar plantations (Beeldsnijder 1997). It could also be that the cotton plantations, which emerged in Suriname only in the early nineteenth century and were located along what was known as the “Zeekust” along the western coastline of Suriname, were in a healthier region of the colony.
In a 2009 demographic study, van Stipriaan followed 204 enslaved women through the slave registers in the period between 1820 and 1863, the last forty years of slavery in Suriname, with the goal of tracing reproductive patterns. He focused on 6 sugar plantations, 6 coffee plantations, and 6 cotton plantations. He discovered that fully one quarter of the women (24%) did not have children at all (55). Those who did had an average of 4 children each. On average first time mothers were just over 20 years old and there were usually just over 3.5 years between births. He argues that this data suggests that enslaved women exercised a certain amount of authority over their reproduction; for example, it seemed that many women stopped having children once 2-4 reached the age of five. It’s also possible that non-reproductive enslaved women – that 24% who did not have children – were not necessarily unable to bear children, but actively choosing not to by either avoiding sexual relations, or more likely, by using commonly known abortifacients such as the peacock flower (which, according to one of our graduate students, is still used as an abortifacient today among some Indigenous communities in South America) (Schiebinger; for more of Merian’s drawings, see Heard).
All of this data is interesting, and it does indeed shed a light on plantation societies more broadly speaking, but it doesn’t help me to understand my own family histories.
The problem is that my family histories don’t fit these averages at all. Let’s look at my own demographic data.
I have a tiny sample of two, but both fit perfectly into van Stipriaan’s historical parameters. Eva Albertina and Frederica were both born in 1827 on Sarah plantation, one of the cotton plantations along Suriname’s west coast.
So far, so good.
But then, things diverge from van Stipriaan’s model.
Eva Albertina and Frederica had twelve children between them; Eva had five and Frederica had seven. But they lived remarkably parallel reproductive lives. Both had children well before they were twenty (the average age determined by van Stipriaan). Eva was seventeen when her first child was born; Frederica was eighteen. They both had their second children in 1847, their third in 1849 and their fourth in 1851, and their fifth in 1855. At this point, at the age of 28, Eva stopped having children, thus approximately following Stipriaan’s model. But Frederica had two more, in 1857 and finally, at the age of 35 (what we would, today, term a geriatric pregnancy), gave birth to her last child, Leander, in 1862, on the eve of emancipation.
My (albeit tiny) sample suggests that we need to move beyond the broad sweep of van Stipriaan’s model. Frederica and Eva Albertina were younger than the average, had more children than the average, and had them more frequently. Perhaps this is due to the fact that they were enslaved on a cotton plantation where working conditions were better. Perhaps the various owners and overseers of Sarah plantation, conscious of the need to ensure demographic growth, heeded calls to improve maternity care, hygiene, and working conditions for enslaved mothers.
It’s also possible that one or more of these children were the result of coerced alliances with white or mixed overseers. Such alliances were undoubtedly accompanied by sexual and reproductive obligations on the part of the enslaved women. But they may also have bought Eva and Frederica better living conditions, and with this, better reproductive conditions. In addition to this, they may have offered the possibility of manumission, or freedom, for enslaved children.
Frederica’s first child, a daughter named Annette, was manumitted in the fall of 1862. Eva’s fourth child, a son named Marlon 2, was manumitted under the name Jacob Schove in 1851.
There weren’t a huge number of manumissions at Sarah plantation; thus, two manumissions in the same family stand out.
Women and children were much more likely to be manumitted than men; van Stipriaan observes that men constituted only 21% of the free black population (61). So, too, were children of mixed race much more likely to be manumitted – fully 85% of free black children were listed in the censuses as ‘kleurling,’ of mixed race.
Did Frederica and Eva bargain with the only thing they had available to them: their wombs? Were they able to use their reproductive capacities to try to shape some sort of positive life for themselves and their offspring? What did reproduction mean for enslaved women on Surinamese plantations?
I only wish I could ask them.
Beeldsnijder, Ruud. “Om werk van jullie te hebben”: Plantageslaven in Suriname, 1730-1750, 1997.
Heard, Kate, Maria Merian’s Butterflies. Royal Collection Trust, 2016.
Morgan, Jennifer L. Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery. UPenn Press,2004
Newton, John. Thoughts upon the Slave Trade. 1788.
Paton, Diana. “Maternal struggles and the politics of childlessness under pronatalist Caribbean slaver.” Slavery & Abolition 2017, online in advance of print.
Schiebinger, Londa. Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. Harvard UP, 2004.
Stipriaan, Alex van. “Welke de ware redden zijn, dat Plantaadje negers zoo weinig voortelen’: Demografische ontwikkelingen op Surinaams plantages gedurend de laatse eeuw van slaverij.” Kind aan de ketting: Opgroeien in slavernij toen en nu, edited by Aspha Bijnaar. KIT Publishers, 2009. 50-64.
Turner, Sasha. “Home-grown Slaves: Women, Reproduction, and the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Jamaica 1788-1807” Journal of Women’s History vol. 23, no. 2, 2011, pp. 39-62.
We have a blogging schedule here on saltwaterstories, but I’m afraid that in the busy-ness of administration and end of term, I’ve dropped my part of the ball (can you drop part of a ball?) And so, the timing is all off.
But here I am, in Chester, UK, where the tulips and cherry trees are in full bloom, at the biennial international Talking Bodies conference.
I’ve come to this conference three times – every time, in fact, since its inception in 2013. It’s a highlight on my conference schedule and I’m so very happy that the fantastic creator and organizer of the conference, the incredible and seemingly indefatigable Emma Rees, has seen fit to accept my proposals each time.
There is nothing I like more than thinking and talking about bodies (yes, you can quote me on this). Especially when such conversations happen in a beautiful place like Chester, accompanied by great vegetarian food, and in the company of students, activists, independent researchers, and faculty members from 25 countries.
Sounds like bliss, doesn’t it? I can assure you, it is.
It’s also, as a colleague put it, an endurance test. Emma has us all on a tight and very full schedule! Days begin early and end late. Yesterday was a 12-hour day, with a plenary at 9 pm. The day before was even longer, with a feminist pub quiz to round things out. Tonight we ended just after 9. But earlier today, I played hooky for a couple of sessions to a) pick up a birthday present for my soon-to-be-12-year-old-who-thinks-he’s-a-teenager-already, b) respond to work emails (the curse of being department head), and c) catch up with long-lost blogging.
One of the things my find-a-birthday-present walk allowed me to do was to really figure out how it was that the different papers I’ve heard fit together. And I think that the comments of one delegate, Emma Hutson, who presented a paper on essentialism and anti-essentialism in cis and trans contexts this morning, summed it up. In response to someone’s commentary about Judith Butler, Hutson replied that it was important to think about the possible tensions between legibility, on the one hand, and viability, on the other. In other words, it is one thing to talk about how one might be properly read and understood in the world – how one is legible enough to be, in Butler’s understandings, grievable) – but the viability of such legibility is something else altogether. That is, sometimes the work of making oneself legible within and against dominant paradigms is just too much.
And here I think that Emma Hutson landed on exactly what I see emerging as a larger theme in the conference (at least in the context of the 24 papers I’ve listened to thus far): the limitations of dominant language and thought systems to articulate the diversity of human experience.
Hutson’s paper brought me to Delia Steverson’s work on the intersection of disability studies and Black literary studies. In her paper, she examined slave narratives by Moses Roper and William Grimes and observed, during the Q&A, that such slave narratives are always heavily mediated texts, constructed and created with the express purpose of supporting abolitionist causes. To what extent, then, were these texts about making the enslaved legible – as subjects – to a white audience, and what role did the articulation of pain and impairment serve in supporting that move towards legibility? There is, indeed, very little room to manoeuvre in slave narratives; there are accepted stories that can be told, and silences that must be maintained. But what did this mean for those who were not able to work within those parameters?
So, too, was the limitation of language a key element in a trio of papers by Jonathan Hay, Krystina Osborne, and Hanna Etholén that focused on autofiction, a genre that necessarily blurs the lines between autobiography and fiction. Even the term itself is contested. One could argue about the need for a term at all – why not just write and then publish the damn thing, after all? But if there’s anything that’s become clear in this conference (if it wasn’t clear before), it’s that we’ve been organized into needing categories in order to understand our world. There’s a fiction section. There’s an autobiography section. And things get messy in the spaces between. As readers, we tend to fret when we don’t know if something is true of false. We start to fuss about questions of authenticity. What’s real, and what’s not. And here again, the spectre of legibility rears its head: what we think and feel about authenticity lies at the heart of questions of legibility.
But as the author Chris Kraus, referenced by one panelist, indicated:
“It’s all fiction. As soon as you write something down, it’s fiction. I don’t think fiction is necessarily about inventing fake stories. The process of fictionalization is selection – why this and not that? If we look at any moment, what’s in it is practically infinite. Why do I pick up on your eyes and how they set on your face instead of what’s outside of the window? And what do I think when I look at your eyes, what does this moment make me remember? What we select from all this – all these digressions – that’s the process of fictionalization, that’s what we create. As soon as something gets written down, it’s no longer ‘true,’ because there are always 100 other things that are equally ‘true.’ And then everything changes as soon as something gets written down.”
And while one could argue that this relationship between fact and fiction doesn’t matter so much because it’s fiction, or rather, autofiction, the tensions inherent in this terminology are actually symptomatic of much larger issues. What happens if the categories that exist aren’t enough? And what happens to those who do not fit into the categories? Or those who want to escape those categories? What do we do with their stories? What does it mean to be legible? And what kind of work is involved in that process?
Garjan Sterk discussed the current status of race and racism in The Netherlands. A people that prides itself on being tolerant and open, the Dutch do not have a real word for ‘race.’ The closest approximation – ras – is thought to be too closely aligned with Nazi discourses. But the end result of not having a word is that the Dutch can very easily – and do very easily – argue that ‘We do not have any racism,’ which is patently untrue. Sterk took us through the various twists and turns of ever-shifting government policies and practices around the naming of various groups of ‘others’ through the also shifting parameters of the ‘allochtoon’ and how this shifting language has also affected political organizing among various social justice groups in The Netherlands. And it’s affected Sterk’s own work: as she has personally navigated the muddy waters of race and politics, she’s also started to discover that the traditional model for thesis writing, as she’s been taught it, may not be suitable for the work she’s trying to do, for the story she’s trying to tell. But are there alternatives available for her? How will she navigate that relationship between legibility – within the mainstream academic context – and viability?
The limitations of current knowledge systems was also front and centre in Katie Myerscough’s paper on the (now infamous) case of Rachel Dolezal, the white American woman who created a Black identity for herself. This is a tough topic to take on at a conference about talking bodies (actually, at any conference) but Katie’s approach, which located Dolezal and the furor surrounding the case within a much longer historical context, was probably one of the more nuanced reading of the situation that I’ve heard or read to date. What was abundantly clear in Myerscough’s argument was that the whole situation (for lack of better way of putting it) – Dolezal’s actions and the responses to it – are the result of centuries of racist policies.
If Rachel Dolezal’s actions have been productive at all, it is because they have shone a blinding light on the messy political, structural, and activist histories around the politics of naming. I don’t think she necessarily intended to do this; her most recent interview, in The Stranger, shows a remarkable level of narcissism and corresponding lack of awareness of the larger context in which her story plays itself out But here we are. As Myercough pointed out, “How we see race might be something we want to think about.” But do we actually have the language to have this conversation?
And all of this also takes me to my own paper (an expansion and reworking of ideas I explored here). I, too, have hit walls along the way. Walls that point to the failure of the colonial imagination to articulate the humanity of the indentured and the enslaved. Methodological walls that make it challenging to read between, through, behind, and around the archival material that remains. And walls that limit the possible ways for me to tell these stories within the context of academic audiences.
I am increasingly convinced, as my paper for July’s Creative Histories conference (yaye! Another trip across the pond!) will argue, that the work I have done in this particular research project cannot be adequately captured in a conventional academic format. To make these stories legible in this context, requires some contortions that I am not certain I am fully prepared to make.
I’ll produce some academic articles as a result of this project (I already have), but really, these stories should emerge in another venue. But academia, as it is currently constructed, doesn’t have the language necessary to tell these stories. And as someone trained in this space, I’m not entirely sure I fully have the language yet, either. And so, I muddle along, working it out as I go.
And in the end, I hope I will find the language to allow the story to tell itself, to emerge the way it wants – and needs – to emerge.
Ok. I’ll start by saying that this is not about Marie Kondo, the famed Japanese organizing guru, as a person. Rather, it’s about the contemporary North American fad for “curating” lives, homes, families, selves, etc. It’s a response to a larger movement that seeks ostensibly to get away from a consumption model of living and to move towards an approach that is simple, streamlined, and elegant.
But what, you might think, is wrong with this? Surely, we want to acknowledge the errors of our capitalist consumption-oriented ways. Absolutely. I’m in total agreement. What do we need more stuff for, anyway?
And hey, I’ve been fed the mantra, too. In grade 2, our guidance counsellor told us that if we wanted to get good marks, we should emulate those who had good marks. And those with good marks generally had neat desks and working environments.
Uncluttered. Organized. Structured. Tidy = Joy. Inspiration. Fulfillment. Intelligence. Success.
That day back in Grade 2, I peered into the nest that was my desk and shrugged. That shit just wasn’t going to happen.
So maybe I’m just projecting my own self-righteous spreadery.
Maybe I’m trying to find a way to rationalize the mess that is our house at the very end of term (who am I kidding? this is the mess that is all the time).
Maybe I’m passive aggressively responding to our department administrator’s increasingly pointed hints that it’s time to tidy my office and that she’s going to get in there with dusting supplies. Maybe I’ve amassed too many post it notes in too many places. Maybe my pile of books is too high, my clutter of discarded mugs and plates too large. Maybe I don’t want to look to see if there’s an errant tea bag still floating around in a mug that’s been around so long that it’s become part of the display…
For those of us who work with the past, this messiness, this stuff, is what allows us to understand how societies, cultures, families, worlds… life…. operated.
The discarded selfie.
The notes scribbled onto the back of a receipt.
The doodles drawn during a particularly trying meeting (I’m particularly good at those…).
The school photo that went completely awry?
The kid that weeps all the way to camp (or all the way back to the hotel from Legoland Windsor, as the case may be)?
The frozen Cheemo perogies that you forgot in the car for two weeks when the temperature hovered around zero and tried to revive anyway (oops).
The pile of wrappers, pens, lego, notes, silly glasses, and empty juice boxes under your son’s bed, on his desk, scattered across his floor.
The beginnings of cranky emails that fill your drafts folder.
The mush of dirty socks that never make it into the laundry basket even tough you step over them every day.
This shouldn’t be the stuff we discard. This shouldn’t be the stuff that we clean up, beautify, hide.
This is life.
These are the stories that matter most.
One of the things that has frustrated me most in the course of this current research project has been the absence of materials created by those most affected by colonial policies and practices. The colonial infrastructure was enormous, and colonial officials were organized. They’ve left researchers like me endless documents – ledgers, logs, letters, tables, lists – you name it, and it’s there. All of this can tell me an enormous amount about colonial logics.
But there’s precious little to learn about the lives of those whose names officials listed in their ledgers and logs.
How can we understand histories of migration if we can’t find the voices of those who experienced it, or if we find them only sideways, through hints in formal colonial archives?
This isn’t a problem unique to my project. But it’s a big one.
It matters that we can often only “find” the voices of the enslaved through their resistance.
It matters that the remains of indentured lives exist almost solely in their complaints to ship captains, in their refusal to work on the plantation, in the violence that they enacted towards each other or those in power.
It matters that trial transcripts are some of the only places where we can read the voices of marginalized women.
It matters because while all of this stuff is important, none of it gets us to the everyday. Yes, it matters that the enslaved resisted, that the indentured turned to violence, that those on trial told their stories in those spaces.
But what about their daily lives? What were those like?
What did they eat?
Who did they eat with?
What were they thinking aboard the ships that took them so far from everything they’d known? What were they feeling?
What about the anger, joy, love, despair, longing, frustration, agony?
When I researched the life of Suzanne Necker and later, the stories of those who consulted with Samuel Auguste Tissot, I had all of this. After all, these were privileged folks who wrote letters and confided in friends and colleagues. These were folks whose letters were kept for them, and as a result, folks whose stories are still available to us today. In a world that values the evidence of the written word, these folks had it good. And as a consequence, I had it good, too.
But it shouldn’t be only the privileged whose stories remain.
A few days ago, medieval book historian Bex Lyons posted a short thread on Twitter asking women to write in the margins of their books.
The problem, as she sees it, is that a) we know a lot about men of the period because they wrote in their books, and b) our knowledge systems celebrate the written word over all other. As she points out, there are many reasons why women didn’t – or couldn’t – scribble all over their books. And we do need to find ways of working differently with the material that exists.
But here’s the thing – first we need to have stuff to work with. Not just the curated, tidy stuff. Not just the bookshelves organized by colour (who invented that trend, anyway?). Not just the carefully coordinated paint colours. And not just the stuff that others have organized on our behalf, either.
No, we need the stuff of daily life itself. We need the messes. We need the chaos. We need the false starts, the bad hair days, the unfortunate accidents.
This is the stuff that matters. This is where we tell our stories. And this is where those who come after us will find them.
It doesn’t matter how many filters we apply or how many hashtags we use.
Life is #messy.
It’s #neverneatandtidy, no matter how much we might will it to be.
And so here’s my plea – my #manifesto – for packrattery.
Embrace the chaos.
Revel in the mess.
Write in the margins.
Argue with your authors.
Keep every scrap of paper.
Embrace your failures.
Share your grief.
Take pictures of garbage.
Refuse to clean your room.
Accept the assemblage of random trinkets under your bed.
Laugh so loudly that you make others uncomfortable and then record your joyful noise.
Keep the saggy Ron Weasley sweater that your favourite aunt knitted for you.
This mess is the archive of your life, and I promise that historians of the future will love you all the more for it.
With thanks to Bex Lyons (@MedievalBex) and Will Pooley (@willpooley) whose recent tweets and blog post got me thinking about inspiration, joy, archives, tidying up, and packrattery.