While the funding for this project officially began in 2015, the thinking and preliminary groundwork began much earlier, with seeds being sown in Fall 2013. It was just a glimmer, then. A hint of a possibility.
But here we are. I spent Friday organizing all my computer files, Saturday making notes, and Sunday labeling and organizing 35 moleskine notebooks.
It all looks neat and tidy. This matters because I am, at heart, a spreader. Tidy is not usually a word in my vocabulary, as you might gather from the photo below, a real live picture of my desk taken a couple of years ago.
Right now, everything feels fresh and new.
But part of me wonders if what I actually engaged in was a form of procrastination, if this was nothing more than busy work distracting me from the bigger picture. I had a friend who used to wash her shower curtain and alphabetize her canned goods when she needed to procrastinate. Another is really good at baking (I’ve used this approach to good effect as well).
So was it just busy work to make it seem as if I’m progressing, when I’m actually not getting very far at all? It’s a fair question. And perhaps, there’s something to it.
But I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking.
… stuff …
All of my reading, my writing, my analyzing, my walking, my travelling. What am I going to do with it now? How do I best represent the journey that is this research? What responsibilities do I hold in relation to those whose stories are only available in the crumbling pages of colonial records? How will I tell the stories of shadows, of hauntings …. How will I tell the stories, yes, of glimmers that have never fully flared into light?
I’ve been reading Jennifer Sinor’s The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing: Annie Ray’s Diary in preparation for next month’s #storypast Twitter discussion. As with other #storypast books, it’s arrived at just the right time, and it’s given me much to think about. Sinor’s book is about the diary kept by her great-great-great aunt, Annie Ray, a diary that she struggled to work with, struggled to make sense of, struggled, as she put it, to story. The problem, she found, is that the diary is not extraordinary writing, it is ordinary writing, and, as she puts it:
I want to suggest that what separates ordinary writing from the other (more valued) writing is largely the fact that it does not story, meaning it does not tell a story. Because it is unremarkable – does not mark an event or narrate an idea – it also remains unmarked, unnoticed. (6)
For Sinor, the value of Annie Ray’s diary comes from its “dailiness” – from “the act of writing in the days rather than of the days” (17). Indeed, diaries, she observes, are fundamentally open-ended. They don’t – they can’t – have a narrative arc because they have no beginning and the author doesn’t know if they’ll have an end.
Sinor’s book (and I’ll admit I haven’t yet finished reading it) has made me think a lot about the kinds of stories we leave behind, and how those that come after us will interpret them. But it’s also made me think a lot about the stories we don’t leave behind. The stories we choose not to leave traces of. The stories we choose to destroy. The stories we aren’t allowed to tell. The stories we are forced to tell. The stories that nobody wants to listen to at all. The ones that people throw away, burn, and otherwise destroy. The silences. The absences.
And it’s made me think about how I, as a contemporary teller of stories, might approach the complexities of the past, and not just of ‘The Past’ generally speaking, but my pasts. Because this current research project is not only about mouldering archives of random individuals who lived one, two, three centuries ago, it is about my past. And because of this, it’s also about my present. And my future.
I don’t have ordinary writing to work with. If my ancestors left any writing of their own, it’s long gone. And so I am left only with the colonial archive, and the violence that it enacts. And there’s the rub: how can I research in and write about colonial archives – whose contents include the stories of my own ancestors – without contributing to and/or perpetuating the violence that they enact?
Dutch colonial archives relating to the Indian indenture period in Suriname (ca. 1873-ca.1916) include details about indentured labourers’ bodies, enumerating not only the expected – although contested – categories of age, sex, and place of birth, but also such categories as skin colour, bodily markings, and scars. These are often the only records that remain of those who travelled more than halfway around the world to work on contract in colonial sugar, cotton, and coffee plantations; they are the only stories on which families and researchers might draw in order to recover their histories. And yet, read as a unit, these records can contribute to a dismembering – and, indeed, dehumanizing – of colonized bodies. Is it possible to re-member the past differently? More provocative still: although some of these records concern my own family histories, what right do I have to tell these stories, even if they are the “very [me] of [me]” (Tuck & Yang, 234)?
Not all stories, Tuck & Yang argue, should be told. Not all stories have a right to be told.
“Tissue samples, blood draws, and cheek swabs are not only our own; the DNA contained in them is share by our relatives, our ancestors, our future generations ….This is equally true of stories” (Tuck & Yang, “R-Words: Refusing Research,” 233-4)
And they are right. Just because someone tells you something doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s yours to share. Just because you’ve lived something doesn’t mean that the story is your own. Stories are webs. And jiggling one side of the web can – and will – affect all other parts of the web. As my father used to say, you can’t just pee in one side of the pool. Sooner or later, the whole pool will be affected.
But if, as Saidiya Hartman has argued, stories might be understood as “a form of compensation or even as reparation” (4), then how do we tell such stories? How do we approach the archive differently, when archival fragments are the only bits that remain? What other stories can these materials tell, and how might we equip ourselves to listen for them?
As Hartman asks, “…how does one recuperate lives entangled with and impossible to differentiate from the terrible utterances that condemned them to death, the account books that identified them as units of value, the invoices that claimed them as property, and the banal chronicles that stripped them of human features?” (Hartman, 3)
Tuck & Yang offer a model of ethnographic refusal, an approach to writing and researching that, in their words, “shifts the gaze from the violated body to the violating instruments …. Thus, refusal helps move us away from thinking of violence as an event and toward and analysis of it as structure” (Tuck & Yang, “R-Words: Refusing Research” 241). They offer Ken Gonzales-Day’s “Erased Lynchings” series as a model for how such an approach might work. In this collection of historical photos of lynchings, Gonzales-Day writes that he has:
“removed the lynching victim and the rope from each image … [in order to] redirect the viewers attention away from the lifeless body of lynch victim and towards the mechanisms of lynching and lynching photography, to allow viewers to see the crowd, the mechanisms of the spectacle, the role of the photographer, and even the impact of flash photography, and their various influences on our understanding of this dismal past.” (http://kengonzalesday.com/erased-lynchings/)
Canadian writer and actor, Lorena Gale, performed a similar act in her acclaimed autobiographical dramatic monologue, Je me souviens. Confronted by the spectacle of lynching while browsing in a Montreal bookstore, she focuses first not on the lynching victim, but rather on the celebratory atmosphere and all the people who came to watch:
“It’s not the smouldering remains of what had been a man that shocks me. His once-Black features charred beyond recognition. It is the twenty or thirty White men that stand behind their pyre, proudly arranged like graduates for a class picture …. Their triumphant smiles Their self-satisfied demeanour. Their total unconcern for the life they took, for that life was of no value to them except in macabre sport. Their shameless hatred. They didn’t even bother to wear their hoods or robes.” (43-4)
The Caribbean poet, writer, and essayist, M. NourbeSe Philip, undoes the logic of colonial language in all of her writing. In her poem, “Discourse on the Logic of Language” (1993), she tangles her tongue in the words, moving from language to anguish. In its structure, too, the poem resists logic. There is no narrative, no clear move from A to B, beginning to end. There are only fragments across four pages of text. The poem has no clear beginning and no clear end. Any fragment can follow any other fragment. And in each reading, each telling, the tongue tangles and struggles.
She takes these ideas even further in her work, Zong!, her re-writing of the Gregson v. Gilbert court case, the only written document pertaining to the killing of around 150 enslaved Africans, who were ordered to be thrown overboard from the Zong for insurance monies.
“There is,” NourbeSe Philip writes, “no telling this story” (196).
And so instead, she undoes the story, reducing the violence of the colonial text to sounds, rhythms, spaces. Staging the fragments across the page, she’s imagined waves and oceans, the individual bits and pieces floating against, beyond, and through one another in the carnage of transatlantic slavery.
“I deeply distrust this tool I work with – language. It is a distrust rooted in certain historical events that are all of a piece with the events that took place on the Zong. The language in which those events took place promulgated the non-being of African peoples, and I distrust its order, which hides disorder; its logic hiding the illogic and its rationality, which is simultaneously irrational.” (197)
Like Tuck and Yang, NourbeSe Philip performs refusal. She will not tell the story that the court case determined for her; rather, she will engage in a much more subversive project, a ‘not-telling’ that, in its telling, challenges the very nature of logic itself:
“The not-telling of this particular story is in the fragmentation and mutilation of the text, forcing the eye to track across the page in an attempt to wrest meaning from words gone astray….the resulting abbreviated, disjunctive, almost non-sensical style of the poems demands a corresponding effort on the part of the reader to ‘make sense’ of an event that eludes understanding, perhaps permanently …. In the discomfort and disturbance created by the poetic text, I am forced to make meaning from apparently disparate elements – in so doing I implicate myself. The risk – of contamination – lies in piecing together the story that cannot be told. And since we have to work to complete the events, we all become implicated in, if not contaminated by, this activity.” (198)
NourbeSe Philip suggests that none of us is innocent, that we are all implicated in the violence that begot the massacre on the Zong. As soon as we engage with the text, as soon as we struggle with it, we become part of it. There is no escape.
And so, as I muddle my way through my notebooks, my photographs, and my random jottings, I think of the stories that need telling. I think of the silences that need preserving. I think of the stories that are my past, my present, my future, and of the way such stories link me, inevitably, to others. And then I think of the archives and how I might read them differently.
Gale, Lorena. Je me souviens. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2001.
Hartman, Saidiya, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12.2 (2008): 1-14.
NourbeSe Philip, M. Zong! Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008.
NourbeSe Philip, M. She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks. Charlottetown: Ragweed Press, 1993.
Sinor, Jennifer. The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing: Annie Ray’s Diary. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002.
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.
With thanks to my colleague, Max Liboiron, who, during a talk entitled “How to Titrate Like a Feminist,” introduced me to the work of ethnographic refusal.
Photographs and text © Sonja Boon, 2017. (sboon @ mun.ca)