legibility and viability

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.

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I can say with full authority that there are no tulips in full bloom in St.John’s right now.

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.

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St. John’s has a cool and colourful downtown, but it doesn’t look at all like this one.

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.

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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.

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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?

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Chester Cathedral – only visible here because the leaves haven’t quite come out yet.

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?

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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?

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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.

I write.
I rewrite.

I think.
I rethink.

I story.
I re-story.

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.

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on the campus at University of Chester

Against KonMari: A Plea for Packrattery

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.

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No longer in grade 2. But still a nest on the coffee table.

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).

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Look! It’s genetic. I’ve passed it on to my kids, too.

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.

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The funniest thing about this picture? It was only after I took it that I discovered the screwdriver that we’d been looking for for months. Magpie kid had absconded with it…

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.

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the back side of my attempts at embroidery. pretty sure it’s not suppose to look like this…

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.

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organized boxes filled with treasures… Maritime History Archive, Memorial University

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Ship’s Logs, ca. 1870-1880. Maritime History Archive, Memorial University

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.

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food porn gone wrong. I think it was supposed to be tofu curry.

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recipes escaping their cookbook!

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A tangle of shovels, tossed willy nilly by the house.

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.

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somewhere near the PowerPlex in St. John’s, sometime in early spring.

It doesn’t matter how many filters we apply or how many hashtags we use.

Life is #messy.
It’s #chaotic.
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.

Doodle.

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.

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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.

poking the (academic) bear

As a research project, Saltwater Stories is about autoethnography; it is about interrogating the self in order to generate theories and insights about the social and the cultural more broadly speaking.

I’ve worked at least partially autoethnographically since about 2012, but this is the first time that I’ve used autoethnography to frame a large-scale research project. The process has been both liberating and intimidating. At some points I have torn my hair out. At others, I have felt intensely vulnerable and exposed. Sometimes I have wondered what on earth I was trying to accomplish and why I thought this was a good idea in the first place. But then at other points, this project has felt more ‘right’ than any other major project before it.

What’s helped, along the way, has been the establishment of the MUN Autoethnography Reading and Research Group. Last spring, the Department of Gender Studies invited performative autoethnographer Tami Spry to St. John’s and my colleague Natalie Beausoleil and I got to talking about approaches to research. Natalie, a sociologist of health, works with arts-based research methods. I’d been moving away from standard academic writing, feeling my critical and creative instincts stifled by traditional forms and approaches. And so we contacted others around the university and the MUN Autoethnography Reading and Research Group was born.

Our group has grown over the past year to include well over twenty students and faculty members from across the university: Community Health and Gender Studies, of course, but also Education, Nursing, Folklore, Sociology, Engineering, and Human Kinetics. We meet ever three to four weeks or so to discuss autoethnography readings on a range of topics. Some come to every session; others can barely find time to be there. But I think it’s safe to say that we’ve created a vital space for thinking about and working with autoethnography at Memorial University.

A couple of weeks ago, we held our first public event. “Poking the (Academic) Bear: Experiments with Autoethnography” was an opportunity to share our work in progress with each other, and with the public.

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The parameters were simple: any autoethnographic work in progress, in any form, in any style, with a time limit of seven minutes per presenter.

We booked the MMaP Gallery on MUN’s campus, and went for it.

And what a night it ended up being! We had 11 participants, a full house, and presentations that included essays, poetry, 1980s pop music, video, and more. There was – and still is – so much to chew on, so much to think through, so much to consider.

Below, thanks to photos taken by Lesley Butler and live tweets by both Lesley and Daze Jefferies, you can catch a glimpse of the event in action.

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Cecile Badenhorst from MUN’s Faculty of Education on words that keep escaping…

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Me – on protest weather on Good Friday. (photo by Lesley Butler)

Conclusion: will we do this again? Yes! Most definitely!

Thanks to all presenters for sharing bits of themselves and their research.

 

 

taste as archive

taste as archive

Lisa M. Heldke has argued that food making is a “‘theoretically practical’ activity — a thoughtful practice” (1992, 203). As Rosalyn Collings Eves observes, recipes might be understood as sites of embodied memory. What we ‘know’ about food is located not just in the ingredients, but in all of the body’s senses; in Heldke’s words, “[t]he knowing involved in making a cake is ‘contained’ not simply ‘in my head’ but in my hands, my wrists, my eyes and nose as well.” (1992, 219).

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Cooking up a batch of raspberry jam takes me back to the mosquito-infested patch of raspberry bushes we had in the back yard when I was growing up. Even in 30 degree heat, I’d cover up from top to bottom, sweltering in the heat as I picked, my ears filled with the sounds of mosquito wings….

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Taste, these writers suggest, is never just about flavour. It is about texture, look, feel, smell, touch, sound; it is about movement; about a kinaesthetic knowledge (Sutton) located within the very sinews, bones, muscles – the very stuff – of the body itself.

How do I know which pepper to buy? What constitutes a good bulb of garlic? Who can tell me if a watermelon is juicy and sweet?

What constitutes a pinch of salt? How do I know that I’ve put in enough cinnamon? What is the exact science of mingled spices – garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, turmeric – for my curry?

None of this can be found in a book. Well, it can. But the true understanding of food making exists in the body itself.

“Taste,” writes Barbara Kirsehnblatt-Gimblett, “is something we anticipate and infer from how things look, feel to the hand, smell (outside the mouth), and sound …. Our eyes let us ‘taste’ food at a distance by activating the sense memories of taste and smell” (qtd. in Sutton 2010, 218).

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Eating pom, one of two main Creole celebration dishes, with my aunt and uncle in Suriname. Made with a Surinamese taro root, chicken, a stock mixture and orange juice, this is comfort food par excellence. Creamy, rich, flavourful. Served here with cassava, plantain and sauteed Chinese long beans. What I wouldn’t give for some of this right now….

Taste is, in and of itself, an archive of senses, meanings, histories. Consider Julia Kristeva’s visceral accounting of abjection in the form of food loathing:

Food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection. When the eyes see or the lips touch that skin on the surface of milk – harmless, thin as a sheet of cigarette paper, pitiful as a nail paring – I experience a gagging sensation and, still farther down, spasms in the stomach, the belly; and all the organs shrivel up the body, provoke tears and bile, increase heartbeat, cause forehead and hands to perspire. Along with sight-clouding dizziness, nausea makes me balk at that milk cream, separates me from the mother and father who proffer it.” (2-3)

Taste, as Kristeva observes, is more than individual; it is about the self, certainly, but it is also about the social. For Kristeva, the skin floating on top of milk “separates [her] from the mother and father who proffer it” (3); taste here disrupts normative kinship; it also disrupts the intergenerational transmission of food and food memories.So, too, might we consider Fred Wah’s (1996) revulsion at the slivers of ginger floating in his dinner, even as he simultaneously acknowledges their role in his hybrid Chinese-Canadian identity.

None of this can be exactly measured. None of this can be accurately marked. These are knowledges located on our tongues, at our fingertips, in our muscles, between our teeth.

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I’m a sushi fan, but I can’t quite wrap my head around the Dutch penchant for raw herring topped with chopped onion. This is my moment of abjection. Doesn’t matter how far back I can trace my Dutch heritage (1750 last time I worked at it), I still won’t eat herring….

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Oliebollen, on the other hand…. pass ’em right over! In The Netherlands – and at our house – these donut like balls are New Year’s Eve fare. 

But these archives of taste are also political. Food is never just about the private, domestic sphere of home and family; food – and taste – cross borders, break boundaries, challenge private/public dichotomy (Sutton 2008, 160). David Sutton (2010) references the work of Sydney Mintz, for example, who links the taste of sugar to questions of political economy. Sugar, he argues, is never solely about sweetness; rather, it is intimately linked to questions of morality and politics. In Sutton’s words, “the addictive taste of sugar made it difficult to give up, and thus, a contentious item of anti-slavery boycott, whereas its taste once again led commentators to suggest it would lead the working classes into idleness and women into other desires and illicit pleasures” (2010, 212).

Certainly, foods have long played a role in questions of politics. In a letter to Samuel-Auguste Tissot, one of the most celebrated physicians of eighteenth-century Europe, a correspondent named Lavergne detailed with precision the recipe for his healthy drinking chocolate:

My drinking chocolate is made with 56 ounces of cocoa, 28 ounces of sugar, never vanilla. I distinguish between three different types of drinking chocolate: the first with half an ounce of cinnamon (instead of the full ounce I used in the past), the second with a quarter ounce; the third with no cinnamon at all … if I am missing something in order to consider this a true health drink [chocolat de santé], please let me know.”

(Lavergne l’aîné, October 1772, Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire de Lausanne, Fonds Tissot, IS784/II/144.01.07.24)

For this correspondent, food and diet were linked directly with questions of health.

As I observe in my 2015 book, Telling the Flesh: Life Writing, Citizenship, and the Body in the Letters to Samuel Auguste Tissot, this framing was integral to Tissot’s own approach to questions of public health. In his Essay on the Disorders of People of Fashion, for example, he contrasts the healthy body and mind of the rural peasant with the disordered body and psyche of the “man of fashion” in the city:

The man of fashion, disturbed by business, projects, pleasures, disappointments, and the regrets of the day, heated by food and drinks, goes to bed with trembled nerves, agitated pulse, a stomach labouring with the load and acrimony of his food, the vessels full, or juices which inflame them, indisposition, anxiety, the fever accompanies him to bed, and for a long time keeps him waking; if he closes his eyes, his slumbers are short, uneasy, agitating, troubled with frightful dreams, and sudden startings; instead of the labourer’s morning briskness, he wakes with palpitations, feverish, languid, dry, his mouth out of order, his urine hot, low spirited, heavy, ill tempered, his strength impaired, his nerves irritated and lax, his blood thick and inflamed; every night reduces his health and fortifies the seed of some disease. (38)

The seductive qualities of rich flavours – cream, meats, wines, sweets – would lead inevitably to a life of excess. Unhealthy eating habits damaged not only the body of the individual, Tissot argued, but also the body of the citizen, and in so doing, undermined the health of the state as a whole.

Taste, then, is never just a matter of intimate relations; it is also a matter of politics writ large.

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Speaking of too much…. why have one pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving when you can have two? Last year we had four. With lot of whipped cream, of course. 

My students and I experienced this first hand when we considered the politics of presidential cookie baking. In those halcyon days of yore, when Hillary Clinton was but a First Lady in waiting, the Democratic Party thought up a plan to make their candidate’s wife more palatable to the American electorate.

I’m not sure how “We’ll have her bake cookies!” won the day, but the cookie bake off between First Lady wannabe’s has been a tradition ever since (worth noting that I don’t recall Bill Clinton and Melania Trump facing off over the kitchen table during the last election cycle). Taste, in these contests, is not just about flavour, but about home, family, generations, domesticity, class politics, race, religious belief, and more (I wrote about the cookie bakeoff in a post called “Arugula and Chocolate Chips”)

“Cooking,” David Sutton (2001) argues, “is not simply an everyday practice, but an attempt to reconstruct and remember synaesthetically, to return to that whole world of home, which is subjectivity experienced both locally and nationally, if not at other levels as well” (86). Taste, here, operates in multiple registers; while intimately located within the body, it cannot be understood without the larger context in which foods and memories circulate.

Taste is about gender, race, class, ethnicity.
It is about how we locate ourselves within our webs of belonging.
It is about how we remember.

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A spectacular dessert concoction dreamed up by a good friend and my younger son, while we were staying with these friends in London. This dessert brings me to conversations we’ve had over the 20+ years we’ve been friends, to the music we’ve made together (both serious and silly), and to evenings of laughter in the back garden in North London.

In a recent article, Lisa Heldke (2016) reflects on the memory itself as a sense, considering the intensely embodied food memories that shape her relationships to her pasts and, inevitably, her futures. She recalls her response to seeing her deceased mother’s handwriting on a recipe card, writing:

It’s not the recipe itself – the list of ingredients, the set of steps – that carries this stunning visceral power….It’s the handwriting that does it, seeing it brings the past – brings her into the present moment with me …. Of course it’s not not the recipe. Indeed, whenever I make a favorite family dish, I purposely ‘go there’; I retell myself a story about this food and its place in our family lore. I invite myself to marinate in memories of when and where and how we might have eaten this food. (90)

What memories do you marinate in?
What tastes do you hold close?

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Fresh garlic. Where would we be without it?

Food historian Ian Mosby observes that “studying the taste of history is more than just a novel way of engaging with students. In fact, it is a key tool available to teachers for opening students’ eyes to the profoundly important role that the sense have historically played in determining important changes to societies, empires, economies and environments” (170).

What might this sensual archive tell you, if you listen to what it has to say?

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Mangoes. My all time ultimate favourite fruit flavour sensation. Look at them all, just hanging there. It’s almost impossible to get a good mango in St. John’s…. 

Works Cited

Boon, Sonja. Telling the Flesh: Life Writing, Citizenship, and the Body in the Letters to Samuel Auguste Tissot. McGill-Queen’s UP, 2015.

Eves, Rosalyn Collings. “A Recipe for Remembrance: Memory and Identity in African-American Women’s Cookbooks.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 24, no. 3, 2005, 280-97.

Heldke, Lisa M. “Foodmaking as a Thoughtful Practice.” Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food, edited by Deane W. Curtin and Lisa M. Heldke, Indiana UP, 1992, pp. 203-229.

Heldke, Lisa M. “My Dead Father’s Raspberry Patch, My Dead Mother’s Piecrust: Understanding Memory as Sense,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies vol. 18, no. 2, 2016, pp. 87-91.

Heldke, Lisa M. “Recipes for Theory Making.” Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food, edited by Deane W. Curtin and Lisa M. Heldke, Indiana UP, 1992, pp. 251-265.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. Columbia UP, 1982.

Mosby, Ian. “Eat Your Primary Sources! Researching and Teaching the Taste of History.” Methodological Challenges in Nature-Culture and Environmental History Resaerch, edited by Jocelyn Thorpe, Stephanie Rutherford, and L. Anders Sandberg. Routledge, 2016, pp. 166-72.

Sutton, David E. “A Tale of Easter Ovens: Food and Collective Memory,” Social Research vol. 75, no. 1, 2008, pp. 157-180.

Sutton, David E. “Food and the Senses,” Annual Review of Anthropology vol. 39, 2010, pp. 209-223.

Sutton, David E. Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory. Berg, 2001.

Tissot, Samuel Auguste, An Essay on the Disorders of People of Fashion. London: Richardson and Urquhart, 1771.

Wah, Fred. Diamond Grill. NeWest Press, 1996.

(c) Sonja Boon, 2017 (sboon @ mun.ca)

home in a mode of migration

In 2013, I participated in visual artist Pam Hall’s collaborative “Building a Village” project. The premise of the project was simple: Pam would send a house model – photocopied onto white cardstock – to any interested party and we would decorate it as we saw fit. Pam requested $1 to cover the cost of postage but other than that, we were on our own.

My house model arrived early on in the process. But then it languished on my desk as I pondered how best to approach it. Like a true academic, I overthought every step of the process. There were variables to consider. I had to think through authenticity, truth, representation, equity, justice, honesty. I had to ponder my pasts, my futures. I needed an argument, a thesis, a theory. And I had to consider my artistic desires (and also, my inevitable artistic limitations).

“What does home mean to you?”
This quickly became an angst-ridden existential question.

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Lovely Greenspond, NL. There was a house for sale, right by the ocean, when we were there… and we did, for a few foolish moments, contemplate the possibility of buying it…

Because here’s the thing. I’ve lived in 5 countries on 3 continents and my histories span 2 more. I have 2 mother tongues. I learned a third language that I’ve lost completely, and then a fourth that jostles with the first two. I was born in a country that has absolutely no links to my heritage. At our Canadian Citizenship Ceremony, ours was the only family where every single member was born in a different country.

So what does home mean in this context?

All around me, Pam’s project was growing. She kept us all up-to-date with a Facebook page, sharing the new houses as they arrived in her mailbox. Some were intricate; some were colourful. Some were the work of professional artists; others the submissions of interested and keen crafters. Some, like me, just wanted to explore stories. Each one was unique. No two were even remotely similar.

The more I thought, the further my webs unspooled themselves. The more I thought, the more tangled they became.

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Newtown, NL

And then, suddenly, a moment of clarity.

Home, I realized, was not something fixed.

Movement has marked my pasts; it’s also marked my presents. And so, certain of something at last, even if that something was unmoored, I photocopied some historical maps, cut them into tiny pieces, and collaged them to the outside of my house, foregrounding the cities and regions that mattered in relation to my family history, while also leaving room for some sea serpents and other creatures of the wild ocean.

On the inside, I attached my statement: “home,” I wrote, “in a mode of migration.”

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public transport, river crossing, Paramaribo

And that, I thought, was that. I felt pretty proud of myself. I’d solved the puzzle. I felt creative. I felt … certain, comfortable, right.

My little house joined hundreds of others and later became part of Pam’s Houseworks show at The Rooms. [for more views of the “Building a Village” project, click here, here, here, and here)

Imagine my surprise, then, when it dawned on me earlier this year that my enslaved ancestors lived not only in the same country, but on the very same plantation for three generations. And that most of their descendants lived in the same country for the next century.

So much for my theory.
And here I thought that creating a cardboard house caused an existential crisis.

The facts, such as are, make for slim pickings. I knew them, but I hadn’t quite put them together.

So here they are:

Sarah plantation was on the Western side of Suriname. Located along the coast, rather than along the rivers like most of the other plantations in Suriname, it was offered up for development sometime around the turn of the nineteenth century. By 1820 or so, the parcel of land originally granted to a man named Dietzel had been sold to John Bent, who appears to have been the first to manage it as a cotton plantation, and thus it was that Sarah plantation was born.

I don’t know when my ancestors arrived at Sarah plantation. The Slave Registers indicate that Frederick Noa, the patriarch, was born in 1798; his mother is listed as “unknown.” To me, this suggests that he arrived at Sarah plantation as an adult, perhaps just as it was being developed. He would have had two young children in tow at the time, and a partner, a woman who is listed as “deceased” in the Register.

And from that point on, he likely stayed at Sarah plantation. His children, including a set of twin daughters – Eva Albertina and Frederica – were born there. And later, his grandchildren, too.

It’s entirely possible that Frederick Noa didn’t leave Sarah plantation between his arrival, likely sometime around 1820 and the abolition of slavery in 1863. Even then, it’s possible that he stayed on until the end of the transition period, in 1873.

So, let’s do the math: assuming an arrival date of 1820, Frederick Noa was enslaved at Sarah plantation for 43 years. His two sons, Edward, Philip Elias were also at Sarah for 43 years, while his daughters, Eva Albertina and Frederica, were there for 36. Add 10 years if they stayed on through the whole transition period.

And now let’s compare this with my own experiences. We’re now closing on 9 years in the same house in St. John’s, which is the longest I’ve ever lived at a single address. I’ve never lived in any community longer than 11 years.

This year – 2017 – will mark 42 years since my parents and I arrived in Canada, 33 since I became a Canadian citizen. It’s one country and it’s a long time. But Canada, with its 5 time zones, is immense and I’ve lived in several provinces.

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Sunrise in St. John’s, almost the eastest of east.

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Tsawassen to Swartz Bay ferry – heading towards the westest of west.

I can’t even begin to imagine 40 years in one location.

How does place – and permanence – affect one’s view of the world, I wonder. How does it affect our understanding of home? If I extended them the invitation, how might my ancestors have imagined home? And can I ever hope to recover any of their imaginings?

What does home mean to you?

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A row of temporary homes along Lumsden North Beach, NL… 

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Fortunately, Lumsden North Beach is huge! 

 

 

stitching theory

stitching theory

A considerable body of research has considered the role of handcrafts – sewing, knitting, crocheting, and the like – in the service of activism. We might consider here Rozsika Parker’s influential The Subversive Stitch (1984/2011) and more recently, Betsy Greer’s publications, Craftivism: The Art of Craft and Activism (2014), and Knitting for Good: A Guide to Creating Personal, Social, and Political Change, Stitch by Stitch (2008) but also the ever-growing body of scholarly literature on contemporary craftivism and DIY culture (see, for example: Bratich & Brush 2011; Groeneveld 2010; Kelly 2014; Luckman 2013; Pentneny 2008; Solomon 2013; Springgay, Hatza, & O’Donald 2011; Springgay 2010; Williams 2011).

Embroidery, knitting, crocheting – all have experienced a resurgence in recent years. But what does all of this mean? What purposes might handcraft, traditionally aligned with the domestic and the feminine, serve? “The needle is an appropriate material representation of women who are balancing both their anger over oppression and pride in their gender,” Ricia A Chansky writes. “The needle stabs as it creates, forcing thread or yarn into the act of creation. From a violent action comes the birth of a new whole. Women are channeling their rage, frustrating, gilt, and other difficult emotions into a powerfully productive activity” (682).

20-epic-womens-march-signs-from-all-over-world-12Winter had its way with Newfoundland over the past few days. Two days of blizzard conditions have brought us 66 cm of snow, aching shoveling muscles, but also more relaxed brains and bodies, the result of forced closures. The whole city shut down: schools, government offices, the university, banks, public transit. Even the shopping mall and the liquor store were closed. And in that space of winter wind and blowing snow, we cocooned ourselves inside with hot chocolate and scones between bouts of shoveling. I should have spent the entire time writing, catching up with a number of projects. Instead, I spent it in front of the sewing machine, stitching a quilt together.

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shovelling, day 2

I’m not an expert quilter. My current project is only my second. I’m awkward around the machine. I can’t always sew in a straight line. The material bunches in funny places. Sometimes the machine won’t go at all and then I curse it and all things fabric.

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fabrics gathered from family, pillowcases, Ikea, and at thrift shops and….

But the rhythm of the machine also gave me room to think. And what I discovered, after two days of stitching and thinking, is that quilting time is ideal thinking time. Rhythm. Touch. Feel. Sound. Colour. Texture. Routine. All of these worked together. My quilting time wasn’t just about the quilt; it was about all the stuff that’s rattling around in my brain. After several hours together, my fabrics, my thread, and I had worked through not only a quilt, but also the larger ideas that underpinned my research. Together, we told stories. Together, we massaged ideas. Together, we made theory.

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squares. and more squares.

In her essay, “Foodmaking as a Thoughtful Practice,” Lisa M. Heldke argues that “[t]he knowing involved in making a cake is ‘contained’ not simply “in my head” but in my hands, my wrists, my eyes and nose as well.” (219). Theory, here, is profoundly embodied, located in touch, smell, taste, and the body’s memories. Foodmaking, she says, is “theoretically practical” (203; see also Heldke 1988).

As I worked my quilt through the machine, I considered the potential of quilt making, too as a space for embodied thinking, processing, knowing. Of making theory in a material sense. What stories can 400 squares tell? And what new stories emerge when I join them together into a whole?

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the only spot big enough to layer the quilt…

While, as Parker observes, “embroidery and a stereotype of femininity have become collapsed into one another, characterised as mindless, decorative, and delicate; like the icing on the cake, good to look at, adding taste and status, but devoid of significant content” (6), it doesn’t have to be this way. Leanne Prain reminds me that “unexpected” embroidery causes us to pause and think anew. After all, “embroidery is a means of communication, the stitches, like handwriting or drawing, make marks. A stitch,” she writes, “can form a mark of love, a mark of hate, or simply indicate, ‘I was here.’” (18).

This ethos is the whimsy that accompanies yarn-bombing, for example, or guerrilla cross-stitch. It’s also the impetus that underpins the Pussy Hat project. A colleague on Facebook admitted to not quite understanding that project until she saw photos of the Women’s March; the sea of pink hats made a bolder statement than she ever could have imagined. But I wonder if the power of the Pussy Hat project lies not only in the final performance, but in the process itself. What spaces for thinking did the process of making the hat enable? How did knitting make theory possible? What theory emerged in the stitches themselves?

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done!

Three years ago, my fourth year students, my colleague Beth Pentney, and I – together with a crew of other volunteers – created a giant bikini bottom as a knitivist commentary on the politics of women’s bodies and the politics of art in Newfoundland and Labrador .

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Knitting accompanied our weekly readings and our seminars. It accompanied all of our thinking and all of our discussions. As one of the seminar students, Mary Germaine, said:

When you knit and you’re with other people, there’s nothing else to do but talk – nobody’s checking their phone when they are knitting . . . in class we are looking at things that are hard to talk about, like what happens to women in Sierra Leone. We’re not socialized to deal with that sort of information. Having our hands busy helped to play out the discussion in a physical way.

 

Knitting made a space for thinking and for working through challenging ideas. Knitting made room for theory. And because it was part of every class, knitting became part of our theory making process: together, we knitted our theory into being. In the words of Betsy Greer (2008):

By allowing our minds to work through what we’re feeling while our hands follow a familiar and comforting rhythm, we allow our emotions to sink in and work their way throughout bodies – from the reluctance of letting our negative feelings settle and root to acceptance of the outcome and the discovery of new paths we can take to make things better …. Knitting creates a safe space in which to sit comfortably, whether with our uncomfortable thoughts … our anxieties … or … our joy. (p. 42)

 

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Handcrafts are ideal vehicles for storytelling and storymaking. As Leanne Prain observes, “textiles can help us learn about ourselves and those around us” (2014, 11). From button blankets to story quilts to embroidered maps and more, the artists and craftspeople profiled in Prain’s Strange Material: Storytelling Through Textiles demonstrate the myriad ways that textiles can tell stories, often without words.

Textile work makes meaning through touch. The material is the story, is theory.

“Artists may have many reasons to work with textiles,” Prain writes,

but often, their love for the medium of fabric has to do with the sense of touch. Through the nap of velvet, the slight roughness of linen, or the silkiness of angora, fabric can evoke memories. Our childhood memories are filled with fabric, from the blankets we were wrapped in to the scratchy sweaters we were forced to wear to school. Quilts, embroideries, and weavings can hold remembrances both personal and collective, and artists can use them to create biographies, autobiographies, genealogies, and memorials. (2014, 103).

My first quilt, created out of a range of fabrics I bought during the course of two research trips to Suriname, is rich with stories. Stories of my family’s histories, stories of a nation’s histories, stories that haven’t yet been told.

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As I stitched this second quilt, I recalled a Maroon sewing machine displayed in the Surinaams Museum in Paramaribo. Carved out of wood, with intricate detailing, the machine was purely ornamental, but its very presence suggested the relevance of sewing to Maroon cultures.

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The anthropologist Sally Price, who has lived and worked with Maroon communities in Suriname for many years, points to the importance of strip quilts as part of Maroon culture. In a more recent online piece, she links this piece work to larger histories of women’s art, considering in particular a politics of collage – termed femmage – that could “[turn] the detritus of earlier…projects” into new “aesthetic wholes.”

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Today, such work might fall into the realm of assemblage theory, or, perhaps, into actor network theory, both of which consider how it is that individual elements gain meaning through their ever-shifting encounters with one another. But I wonder about the lowly patchwork quilt and the work that it has done – and continues to do – to make meaning.

Needles and thread, my two snow days tell me, are not only good to stitch with; they are also good to think with.

 

References

Bratich, J.Z. & Brush, H.M. “Fabricating Activism: Craft-Work, Popular Culture, Gender.” Utopian Studies, vol. 22, no. 2, 2011, pp. 233-60.

Chansky, Ricia A. “A Stitch in Time: Third-Wave Feminist Reclamation of Needled Imagery.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 43, no. 4, 2010, pp. 681-700.

Fields, C.D. “Not Your Grandma’s Knitting: The Role of Identity Processes in the Transformation of Cultural Practices.” Social Psychology Quarterly, vol. 77, no. 2, 2014, pp. 150-165.

Greer, Betsy, ed. Craftivism: The Art of Craft and Activism. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2014.

Greer, Betsy. Knitting for Good! A Guide to Creating Personal, Social, and Political Change, Stitch by Stitch. Trumpeter, 2008.

Groeneveld, E. (2010). “‘Join the Knitting Revolution’: Third-Wave Feminist Magazine and the Politics of Domesticity.” Canadian Review of American Studies, vol. 40, no. 2, 2010, pp. 259-77.

Heldke, Lisa M. “Foodmaking as a Thoughtful Practice.” Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food, edited by Deane W. Curtin and Lisa M. Heldke, Indiana UP, 1992, pp. 203-229.

Heldke, Lisa M. “Recipes for Theory Making.” Hypatia, vol. 3, no. 2, 1988, pp. 15-30.

Kelly, M. “Knitting as a feminist project?” Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 44, 2014, pp. 133-44.

Luckman, S. “The Aura of Analogue in a Digital Age: Women’s Crafts, Creative Markets and Home-Based Labour After Etsy.” Cultural Studies Review, vol. 19, no. 1, 2013, pp. 249-70.

Moore, Mandy and Leanne Prain. Yarn Bombing: The Art of Crochet and Knit Grafitti. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2009.

Parker, Roszika. The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. I.B.Tauris, 2011.

Pentney, Beth Ann. “Feminism, Activism, and Knitting: Are the Fibre Arts a Viable Mode for Feminist Political Action?” thirdspace: a journal of feminist theory and culture, vol. 8, no. 1, 2008. Retrieved from http://journals.sfu.ca/thirdspace/index.php/journal/article/viewArticle/pentney/210

Prain, Leanne, ed. hoopla: the art of unexpected embroidery. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011.

Prain, Leanne. Strange Material: Storytelling through Textiles. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2014.

Price, Sally, “On Femmage,” E-misférica, vol. 12, no. 1, 2015. Retrieved from: http://hemisphericinstitute.org/hemi/en/emisferica-121-caribbean-rasanblaj/price

Solomon, E. “Homemade and Hell Raising Through Craft, Activism, and Do- It-Yourself Culture.” PsychNology Journal, vol. 11, no. 1, 2013, 11-20.

Springgay, S. “Knitting as an Aesthetic of Civic Engagement: Reconceptualizing Feminist Pedagogy Through Touch.” Feminist Teacher, vol. 20, no. 2, 2010, pp. 111-123.

Springgay, S., Hatza, N. & O’Donald, S. “‘Crafting is a luxury that many women cannot afford’: campus knitivism and an aesthetic of civic engagement.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 24, no. 5, 2011, 607-13.

Williams, K.A. “‘Old Time Mem’ry’: Contemporary Urban Craftivism and the Politics of Doing-It-Yourself in Postindustrial America.” Utopian Studies, vol. 22, no. 2, 2011, pp. 303-320.

 

(c) Sonja Boon (sboon @ mun.ca), 2017.

going home

Between 1916 and 1975, all the colonial archives in Suriname were brought to The Netherlands. This material included materials  from 1667, when the Dutch and the English signed the Treaty of Breda, granting the Dutch Suriname and the British New York, right through to 1975, when Suriname became an independent country. This week, on 19 January 2017, the final boxes will be returned to Suriname.

As part of the project, the Dutch National Archives scanned and digitalized some 5.5 million pages, all of which can be accessed via the archives website: gahetnal.nl.

I’ve worked in both Dutch and Surinamese archives. Each has its own personality; each has its own processes, its own rhythms (which I wrote about here). The cities, too, have their own personalities. The Hague feels like a seat of government; it is a bureaucratic city organized by its political function. Paramaribo moves to a different rhythm. Still a national capital, it’s nonetheless shaped by South American heat and humidity and a Caribbean sensibility. Time is more fluid.

While the documents themselves haven’t changed as a result of their oceanic crossings, the way we read them just might.

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Slavenregistern Inv. nr. 33, Plantage Sarah. Nationaal Archief Suriname. Photo: Sonja Boon