Stuart Hall and Cultural Identities

Stuart Hall’s 1989 essay, “Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation,” is a seminal piece on race and identity, situated on the crossroads between film studies and cultural theory. It has been particularly influential on my theoretical approach to Black independent cinema (specifically the L.A. Rebellion, as I wrote about last week), so I thought it only fitting to showcase some of the key points that have helped guide my thinking.

Connecting issues of representation alongside enunciation, or “the positions from which we speak or write,” he observes, “Though we speak, so to say, ‘in our own name,’ of ourselves and from our own experience, nevertheless who speaks, and the subject who is spoken of, are never exactly in the same place” (Hall 68). In other words, identity is much more complicated than we are often made to think.

Identity is not as transparent or unproblematic as we think. Perhaps, instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished historical fact, which the new cinematic discourses then represent, we should think, instead, of identity as a ‘production’, which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation (Hall 68).

Hall outlines two different approaches to ‘cultural identity’:

The first approach to ‘cultural identity’ views it as a kind of shared culture. Here, there is the expectation that behind individual ‘selves’, there is an underlying, collective, ‘one true self’, whereby people are united by “common historical experiences and shared cultural codes” (Hall 69).

The second approach is different, but not completely oppositional to the first. It acknowledges that while our conception of ‘cultural identity’ seems to thrive on notions of similarity, elements of difference are also crucial to our construction of identity.

 We cannot speak for very long, with any exactness, about ‘one experience, one identity’, without acknowledging its other side – the differences and discontinuities which constitutes, precisely, the Caribbean’s ‘uniqueness’ (Hall 70).

This second approach views identity as something not fixed, but always in flux. As Hall puts it, “Cultural identity … is matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being,'” adding, “it belongs to the future as much as to the past” (70).

I like this way of thinking not only of histories, but of futures, too. Cultural identities are not ahistorical. They are not resistant to the changes that come with time, place and history (Hall 70). Cultural identity, therefore, “is not a fixed origin to which we can make some final and absolute Return” (Hall 72).

If we think about this interplay of time, perhaps we can better understand this notion of ‘becoming,’ not as something linear, but rather as a kind of web, weaving across time, place, history, and culture. A web where lines can be added, broken, mended, forgotten, remembered. And because it is always in process, a web is never really ‘complete’; conversely, no matter how many lines we add or mend, we can never really return to that original form. The web is positioned within a particular time, place, history, and culture.

 Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant trans-formation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in a mere ‘recovery’ of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which, when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past (Hall 70).

Reflecting on his childhood in Kingston, Hall explores the influence of ‘Africa’ on Afro-Caribbean identity. While the ‘discovery’ of African connections in the Caribbean lead to a new construction of “Jamaican-ness,” or an “indiginous cultural revolution” in the 1970s, Hall is still wary of how Africa might be viewed as ahistorical. He argues, “The original ‘Africa’ is no longer there. It too has been transformed. History is, in that sense, irreversible” (75).

What perpetuates this notion of an ‘old’ or ‘original’ Africa? Well, like many issues of representation, it has its roots in the ‘European Presense’ (Hall 76). In colonial fashion, Europe has a tendency to speak for ‘others,’ situating Afro-Caribbean identity (in this case) within the “dominant regimes of representation” (Hall 76). Think of typical Hollywood portrayals of Africa, for example, where self-representations are silenced and exotic misrepresentations run rampant.

Hall thus calls upon Caribbean cinema to reclaim representations from the ‘European Presense’. To return to Africa, but ‘by another route,’ and to re-tell how Africa has actually become, and how it continues its becoming (Hall 76).

As Hall argues, cinema is not a “second-order mirror held up to reflect what already exists,” it is a “form of representation which is able to constitute us as new kinds of subjects, and thereby enable us to discover who we are” (Hall 80).

If identity is constructed within, not outside, representation, then we must reevaluate who is being represented, and who creating those representations (Hall 80).

Then, what kind of futures can our representations hold?



Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation.” Framework, vol. 0, no. 36, 1989,


© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @, 2017.


pondering photographs

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.

Four Women (Part 2)

In my last post, I explored the controversy of Nina Simone’s song ‘Four Women,’ which was the inspiration for Julie Dash’s film of the same name. In ‘Part 2,’ I look more closely at Dash’s visual adaptation of the song.

Some of my initial questions when coming across this film were: Why, about a decade after it’s initial release, did Dash decide to resurrect Simone’s song? Why did she dedicate one of her first filmmaking projects to this re-presentation of ‘Four Women’?

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Screenshot of Julie Dash’s Four Women: Colourful cinematography and kinetic editing.

In “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” bell hooks (1992) explores the issues of race in cinematic representations and looking relations. hooks discusses the problematic depictions of Black individuals in American cinema, saying “When most black people in the United States first had the opportunity to look at film and television, they did so fully aware that mass media was a system of knowledge and power reproducing and maintaining white supremacy” (hooks 117).

Because Black communities were either underrepresented, or misrepresented, in the media, the “oppositional black gaze” responded by developing a black independent cinema that worked to redirect the images on screens (hooks 117). In the 1970s, Julie Dash emerged as one of these independent filmmakers.

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Screenshot of Julie Dash’s Four Women: Linda Martina Young dancing within the confines of a veil.

In Four Women, Dash uses Simone’s controversial song as the driving force behind her short film (it can be viewed here: As her own creative contribution to Simone’s musical narrative, Dash’s opens the film with a sequence in which dancer Linda Martina Young is wrapped in fabric, body nearly indiscernible as she twists and turns to the sounds of chanting, whips lashing, and waves crashing. The soundscape is subtle, but incredibly poignant, alluding to America’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, and ultimately situating the performance within that haunting historical context.

This filmic prologue to Simone’s searing ballad effectively prompts viewers to see how legacies of slavery are reflected in contemporary Black identities.

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Screenshot of Julie Dash’s Four Women: dancer Linda Martina Young evokes the constraints of, and resistance to, legacies of slavery.

This opening scene explicitly situates Simone’s song within the historical context of America’s racial past – it let’s the audience know that Simone’s music is not just about ‘Four Women’. It is actually for women. For the African American women, like Simone, and like Dash, who recognize the racism present in America’s past, and present. The women who persevere, and pave the way for a future that reflects their individual, and collective, wants and needs.

“Looking and looking back, black women involve ourselves in a process whereby we see our history as counter-memory, using it as a way to know the present and invent the future” (hooks 131).

In a way, Dash’s depiction of Simone’s four women through one body (the dancer, Linda Martina Young) may be interpreted as a reclamation of the stereotype that has overshadowed representations of Black female subjectivity throughout mass media.

Much like the effect of Simone singing all four verses, Dash’s film represents Black female subjectivity through the performance of the individual, allowing her to simultaneously critique the synecdochal operation of stereotypes. By re-presenting the images of Black femininity that have persisted over the years, Dash challenges the “burden of representation” by drawing attention to the political implications and the ontological limits of racial stereotyping.

In a similar sense, by pairing dance with Simone’s music, Dash’s experimental film also offers us new ways to think about black female subjectivity and black female spectatorship.

When thinking of films, it is all too easy to think of looking relations as one-directional: the subject is looked at by the spectator. However, when we speak of an oppositional gaze, hooks’ encourages us to explore the relationship between image and spectator even more closely (131). While the Black female spectator looks to the screen, how does the screen then look back upon the viewer? What kinds of representations exist for the Black female spectator?

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Julie Dash’s Four Women: offering new ways to approach critical ‘looking’.

In the case of Dash’s Four Women, we take these looking relations one step further. By having a dancer as the sole performer, Dash draws attention to the constructedness of the screen; in classic narrative film, it is all too easy to get swept away by the stories of other characters – for example, with Hollywood’s ‘seamless’ editing style – but through this experimental performance, we become more aware of the relationship between viewer and subject. The dancer performs on a stage, a place that exists for the purpose of performance. While there is no illusion of reality in Dash’s film, this, in a way, allows us to more effectively critique reality (in this case, the reality and politics of racial representation).

We as viewers are forced to recognize that we are watching a performance; we are forced to consider more closely our role as spectator and thus, interpreter of images of Black femininity.

As the four women ponder at the end of their respective verses, “What do they call me?” we, as spectators/listeners, are asked to consider our own relationship to Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches. Though each woman speaks for herself, we see how their perceptions of self are intertwined with how other people see them. In a way, the viewer/spectator becomes implicated in the process of stereotyping, and are called to question their own role in racial representation through critical looking relations.

Dash, like Simone, does not wish to ignore stereotypes, nor does she expect to easily eliminate them. Rather, she directly approaches them, interrogates them and re-presents them in a way that can help us to further understand the historical roots of these persistent, and indeed problematic, racial stereotypes.

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Julie Dash’s Four Women: challenging the cinematic gaze.

I think it only fitting to leave this post with Thulani Davis’s (2003) beautiful reflection on Nina Simone’s music:

“But it was “Four Women,” an instantly accessible analysis of the damning legacy of slavery, that made iconographic the real women we knew and would become. For African American women it became an anthem affirming our existence, our sanity, and our struggle to survive a culture which regards us as anti-feminine. It acknowledged the loss of childhoods among African American women, our invisibility, exploitation, defiance, and even subtly reminded that in slavery and patriarchy, your name is what they call you. Simone’s final defiant scream of the name Peaches was our invitation to get over color and class difference and step with the sister who said:

My skin is brown/My manner is tough/I’ll kill the first mother I see/ My life has been rough/I’m awfully bitter these days/Because my parents were slaves (‘Four Women’)” (Davis n.p.).



Dash, Julie, director. Four Women. Choreography and performance by Linda Martina       Young, produced by Winfred Tennison, 1975, Vimeo,

Davis, Thulani. “Nina Simone, 1933-2003.” The Village Voice, 2003,  Accessed 6 March 2017.

hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Between the Lines, 1992.

Simone, Nina. “Four Women.” Wild is the Wind, The Verve Music Group, 1966, Spotify,


© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @, 2017.

Four Women (Part 1)

Over the course of Hollywood’s relatively short history, representations of minority groups have all too often been reduced to stereotypes. Black men and women in particular have had to watch Hollywood represent their own communities through such stereotypes as: the “Tom;” the “Coon;” the “Tragic Mulatto;” the “Mammy;” and the “Buck” (Shohat 195).

These stereotypical roles not only draw attention to the skewed, one-dimensional view of race in Hollywood (and perhaps the United States more broadly), but they also draw attention to the complex relationships between representation, performance, and stereotypes (Shohat 195).

Filmmaker Julie Dash explored these issues in one of her earlier short films, Four Women, which sets dance to Nina Simone’s ballad of the same name.

four women2

The four women described in Simone’s song represent four common stereotypes of Black women in America: the strong “Aunt Sarah;” the ‘tragic mulatto,’ “Saffronia;” the sex worker, “Sweet Thing;” and the militant “Peaches” (UCLA Film and Television Archive). Through her performance, Nina Simone brings the voices of these four characters to life in a way that links both their similarities and differences as Black women in America.

My skin is black/My arms are long/My hair is wooly/My back is strong/Strong enough to take the pain/Inflicted again and again/What do they call me?/My name is Aunt Sara (“Four Women”).

According to Mirielle Rosello, “the problem in thinking about stereotypes … is our stereotypes about them” (in Williams 82). Linda Williams explores this idea further:

“Rosello argues that stereotypes are important objects of study not because we can better learn eliminate them from our thinking, but rather because they cannot be eliminated. Stereotypes persist, and perhaps thrive upon, the protestations against them … ” (Williams 82).

What is required then, are analyses that shine a light on the changing historical contexts of stereotypes (William 82). In other words, we need to change how we approach the study of stereotypes if we wish to effectively understand how they exist and thrive over time.

For example, Richard Dyer (1984) critiques the stereotypical representations of homosexuality in films, but does so by looking at the roots of the representation, rather than attacking the stereotype itself. As he points out, “Righteous dismissal does not make stereotypes go away, and tends to prevent us from understanding just what stereotypes are, how they function, ideologically and aesthetically, and why they are so resilient in the face of our rejection of them” (Dyer 353).

Similarly, Ella Shohat argues that while “stereotypes and distortions” analyses do highlight the issues surrounding “social plausibility and mimetic accuracy” in media, their “obsession with ‘realism'” tends to paint the world in black and white – as “errors” and “distortions,” between “truths” and “lies” (178).

In other words, preoccupation with the accuracy and realism of stereotyping can be harmful because it ignores the ways in which the politics of representation actually operate within stereotypes. Shohat suggests that this is problematic because it assumes that the reality of a community is somehow “transparent” and “unproblematic,” while inaccurate representations are “easily unmasked” (178). Instead of focusing on the specific realism of certain stereotypes, it is more effective to problematize the social and historical context in which stereotypes are produced.

In the case of Nina Simone, “Four Women” faced ‘righteous dismissal’ upon its release in 1966. It was accused of being insulting to Black women by perpetuating stereotypes, and was subsequently banned by several radio stations.

Perhaps what these critics heard in Simone’s song were the ‘typical’ markers of Black femininity – skin colour, hair texture, social roles, names – the kinds of markers that have been at the root of problematic representations of Black women in the media. While these radio stations may have heard stereotypical representations of women, they did not look beyond the surface to really understand Simone’s message.

In Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and Media (1994), Ella Shohat describes “the burden of representation,” which refers to the synechdochal tendency of ethnic and racial representations (182). For example, colonized peoples tend to be perceived as “all the same,” meaning that any kind of negative behaviour by one member can come to represent the group as a whole, ultimately creating a stereotype (Shohat 183). As Shohat states, “representations become allegorical,” whereby “every subaltern performer/role is seen as synecdochically summing up a vast but putatively homogenous community” (183).

With this persistence of stereotypes, certain communities, such as Black Americans, come to face the “burden of representation” (182-3). Because these stereotypes are produced and projected from outside these communities, sensitivity arises “from the powerlessness of historically marginalized groups to control their own representation” (Shohat 184).

We see this sensitivity exhibited through the critique and censorship of Simone’s “Four Women.” After years of seeing Black American’s being represented in stereotypical roles, it is understandable that some people might not have wanted to hear those distorted utterances on the radio (considering that many of the radio stations that banned Simone’s song were primarily Black) (Virgin Island Daily News n.p.). But as Dyer and Williams warn, stereotypes cannot be eliminated that easily (Dyer 353; Williams 82).

Censorship only prevents us from “exposing the reactionary political force” of stereotyping (Dyer 364).

If we look closer, we might see how Simone’s use of stereotypical depictions of Black femininity operates simultaneously as a critique of stereotyping. Instead of placing a cloak on the stereotypical roles for Black women, Nina Simone sings about them, projecting her voice in a way that works to reinscribe Black female subjectivity into the roles promoted by a white, patriarchal Hollywood (and America more broadly). Through the four women, Simone uses four common stereotypes to challenge the social and historical circumstances through which such stereotypes exist and thrive.

My skin is brown / my manner is tough / I’ll kill the first mother I see / my life has been too rough / I’m awfully bitter these days / because my parents were slaves / What do they call me / My name is PEACHES (“Four Women” ).

Through one voice, Nina Simone relays the many (and different) stories and struggles of Black, American women.

“If Simone’s song suggests a history of black women in America, it is also a history of long-suppressed and finally uncontainable anger” (Pierpont n.p.).

Later, in ‘Part 2’ of this post, I will explore Julie Dash’s filmic interpretation and re-presentation of Nina Simone’s controversial “Four Women.”


Dash, Julie, director. Four Women. Choreography and performance by Linda Martina   Young, produced by Winfred Tennison, 1975, Vimeo,

Davis, Thulani. “Nina Simone, 1933-2003.” The Village Voice, 2003, 

Dyer, Richard. “Stereotyping.” Gays and Film, edited by Richard Dyer. New York         Zoetrope, 1984.

“Four Women.” UCLA Film and Television Archive, 2014,

Pierpont, Claudia Roth. “A Raised Voice: How Nina Simone turned music into a movement.” The New Yorker, 2014,

Shohat, Ella. “Stereotype, Realism, and the Struggle over Representation.” Unthinking       Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam.     Routledge, 1994.

Simone, Nina. “Four Women.” Wild is the Wind, The Verve Music Group, 1966, Spotify,

The Virgin Islands Daily News. “Protests continue to mount against the banning of a         recording by Nina Simone,” 1966, Google News,,2693076 &dq=four-women+nina-simone+ban+radio&hl=en. Accessed 24 February 2017.

Williams, Linda. “Skin Flicks on the Racial Border: Pornography, Exploitation and             Interracial Lust.” Freiburger FrauenStudien, vol. 15, 2004.


© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @, 2017

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.


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.


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.


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?


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?


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.

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.


on the campus at University of Chester

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).


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….


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).


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.


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….


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/

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.


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.


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?


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?


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 @

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.


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.


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.”

Photo 2015-02-11, 3 25 32 PM

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.


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


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?


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


Fortunately, Lumsden North Beach is huge!