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.]

References

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.

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.

What if?

A few weeks ago, I received Julie Dash’s book, Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film (1992) in the mail. Like copies of the film itself, this book can run up to $500 (at least according to the website I was browsing), so I was very happy when I finally got my hands on a copy for a reasonable price.

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Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film, by Julie Dash. New Press, 1992.

Now, I have written quite a bit already about the film, Daughters of the Dust (1991), but with this new (to me) text, I feel compelled to share some things that stood out to me so far.

Dash’s book is not only a reflection on the making of the film, but it also includes the full script, excerpts from the Gullah translation of the script, a dialogue between Julie Dash and bell hooks, as well as a selection of traditional Geechee recipes.

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Traditional Geechee recipes from Daughters of the Dust: The Making of African American Woman’s Film, by Julie Dash. New Press, 1992.

Hopefully, if my mediocre cooking skills are up to the task, I will try my hand with some of these Geechee recipes, but for now I will dive into the dialogue between Dash and hooks.

Their conversation took place on April 26, 1992, in Atlanta, Georgia, and focused on the making of, and reception to, Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust.

Considering my research thus far has focused on ideas of history, identity, and life writing, I was so excited to see Dash and hooks actually discuss these matters in a critical and reflective way.

 BELL: Part of the challenge of Daughters of the Dust is that it brings us what could be called ethnographic details, though in fact it’s set within a much more poetic, mythic universe. I would like you to talk some about your sense of myth and history (29).

Because Daughters‘ thrives on the portrayal of Gullah culture at the turn of the century – with particularl emphasis on dialect, dress, food, and more – it is easy to see the connection with certain ethnographic films.

However, while noting this connection, hooks’ describes this as a kind of “could-be” ethnography, or a subversive play on the ethnographic genre. Instead of committing to a more structured, prescriptive methodology to explore Gullah culture, Dash creates “a much more poetic, mythic universe” (29).

Commenting on this tension between history and myth, or what hooks calls a “mythobiography” and “mythopoetics,” Dash defines Daughters as speculative fiction (28-29). What she describes as a kind of “what if” approach to storytelling.

 DASH: It’s interesting that you say mythopoetic, because Daughters of the Dust is like speculative fiction, like a what if situation on so many different levels.

Like what if we could have an unborn child come and visit her family-to-be and help solve the family’s problems.

What if we had a great-grandmother who could not physically make the journey north but who could send her spirit with them.

What if we had a family that had such a fellowship with the ancestors that they helped guide them, and so on” (29).

In a way, this ‘what if’ approach to storytelling creates a kind of alternative history. Dash is not concerned with teaching history; rather she conveys it in a creative way. It is not necessarily what is historically true or untrue that is important for Dash, but instead how the story is told.

On this topic of truth in historical film, Dash has critiqued the tendency to approach films like Daughters from what she describes as a “teacher-learner” situation (28). She suggests that when audiences are presented with new information, especially when it is to do with minority groups, they treat these films as a documentary presentation – material on the screen is absorbed as fact, even if it is indeed dramatic fiction (28).

While Dash does present a lot of information on the Sea Islands and Gullah Culture, informed by extensive archival research, she does this by weaving history with myth; fact with fiction.

It is a ‘what if’ approach to how we remember, recall, and perhaps, rewrite history.

 BELL: It’s interesting that whenever an artist takes a kind of mythic universe and infuses it with aspects of everyday reality, like the images of women cooking, often the cinema audiences in this society just isn’t prepared. So few of the articles that I’ve read about Daughters of the Dust talk about the mythic element in the film, because, in fact, there is this desire to reduce the film to some sense of historical accuracy. It is relevant for moviegoers to realize that you did ten years of research for this film – but the point was not to create some kind of documentary of the Gullah, but to take that factual information and infuse it with an imaginative construction (30).

One example of this challenge to representing historical ‘truth’ is Dash’s creative use of indigo in the film.

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Screenshot of flashback scene to an indigo plantation on the Sea Islands. Daughters of the Dust, directed by Julie Dash. Kino International, 1991.

On the Sea Islands, many slaves worked on indigo processing plantations. Indigo was toxic, and tended to stain the hands of those who worked with it. While Dash knew that this blue stain would not have remained on the elders hands all these years after enslavement, she chose to include this imagery as an atypical “symbol of slavery” (31).

DASH: I worked with Dr. Margaret Washington Creel, who is an expert on the Gullah. She was my historical advisor on the project, and she reminded me that, of course, indigo was very poisonous and all that, but that the indigo stain, the blue stain, would not have remained on the hands of the old folks who worked the indigo processing plant. And I explained to her, that yes, I did understand that fully but I was using this as a symbol of slavery, to create a new kind of icon around slavery rather than the traditional showing of the whip marks or the chains … I wanted to show it in a new way” (31).

When we see these elders with their hands stained blue, the question should not be “is this real?” But rather, “what if this was real.” What does this imagery represent, and how can it make us rethink or reimagine history and the legacy of slavery on contemporary bodies?

Dash offers viewers a “new way” of telling stories, of representing history, and of mythologizing memory. Daughters resists its classification and interpretation in terms of “reality” and “authenticity,” by shifting the discourse into the realm of the creative, the mythic, the imaginative … towards the what if.

With Dash’s creative approach to narrative, historical fiction, we see how “what if” can be a powerful, poetic proposition.

 

Sources:

Dash, Julie. Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film. The New Press, 1992.

Dash, Julie, director. Daughters of the Dust. Kino International, 1991.

 

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017

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.

Minding the Gaps: Reading for Refusal

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.

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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.

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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.

All this

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?

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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.

 

References

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)

a tale of two archives (and more)

I’ve been working in archives for almost twenty-five years, first as an early musician in search of flute treatises and long-lost masterpieces by long-forgotten composers, and more recently as someone who researches the life stories of those who have come before me.

Archives have fascinated me from the moment I first stepped foot into the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague (then the Dutch national home of all the materials relating to music – history, performance, instrument construction, etc; they’ve since been moved to the Royal Library).

As a group of new students, we crowded into the heart of the archives – the basement storage areas – our necks craning to see the treasures the archivists had unearthed for us. It was cool and shadowed, temperature and light controlled to ensure that these documents could live on.

The archivist showed us a medieval manuscript, pointing to the thickness of the paper, the richness of the colour. We passed it amongst ourselves, filled with wonder.

“Wait,” said one of my fellow students, “this is 800 years old?!”

She couldn’t even comprehend it. And to tell the truth, neither could the rest of us. 800 years. And it was in our hands. Right. There.

That day, I learned that medieval manuscripts, while fragile, are much less fragile than nineteenth-century ones. Pulp and paper mills may have revolutionized paper production, but they didn’t make for lasting products. As I myself have since experienced, nineteenth-century papers can crumble at the touch, the past turning to dust before your very eyes.

That day, I also learned how much I love to burrow into the past, how much I enjoy the process of following a story, finding pieces, and trying to figure out how they fit together. Archives are places I can call home. They are my childhood dreams of locked trunks and dusty attics realized. They are all the mysteries that filled the books I devoured, and more.

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The Hague, City Arms. October 2014. Photo: Sonja Boon

I’ve been thinking about archives again, now considering them as physical spaces, and considering what those physical spaces tell, who they invite in, who they exclude, and why that might matter. I guess, in a sense, I’m thinking about the autobiography of the archive, as told by the physical space it occupies.

These are not, of course, new questions. There’s been much work done on the politics of archives (see reference list below for a small sampling of literature on the topic). Scholars have considered the nature of the knowledge produced by the processes of archival collection, processes that take certain assumptions about race, class, gender, ability, and yes, history, for granted. They’ve also considered how it is that archives are formed, and why it is that some individuals and groups have actively chosen to donate their materials to national collections while others have fundamentally resisted this process, choosing instead to create alternative archival spaces. And they’ve looked at the politics of protecting and sustaining archival projects that could challenge and even threaten the powers that be.

But what of physical space, and what of how that space – and the processes that organize that space – operate?

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Skyscape, The Hague downtown. October 2014. Photo: Sonja Boon

This started out as a tale of two national archives – the Nationaal Archief in The Hague, The Netherlands, and the Nationaal Archief Suriname in Paramaribo, Suriname, two places I have come to know reasonably well over the past few years. But as I started thinking about the differences between them, the ghosts of other archives intruded, reminding me that the story was much bigger.

I needed to dig further into my own research stories….

October 2006. I’m in Paris for the first time in my life, in a tiny hotel just off the Rue St. Honoré, a location I chose because it was within easy walking distance to the Richelieu site of the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the Archives nationales de France. It was also, and perhaps more romantically, around the corner from the former home of Madame Geoffrin, one of the leading salon women in eighteenth-century Paris, and one of the subjects of my doctoral research.

My doctoral supervisor had warned me about the intricate processes involved with accessing materials at the Richelieu location. I’d need a letter from her explaining the reason I was there. I’d get a card. And then I’d need to arrive early to put my stuff in a locker. They’d give me a red card and a green card upon entry and I’d have to pass the green card to someone and the red card to someone else and then I’d get a seat and the materials would arrive and if I wanted to leave the room, I’d have to reverse the whole process. She also warned that I’d have to dress appropriately. No sandals. No casual. Professional. It was long and convoluted and I don’t even remember all the ins and outs any more. There was gatekeeping upon gatekeeping upon gatekeeping upon gatekeeping. These documents were meant to be protected, and only certain eyes could have access.

The working space is magnificent, a child’s dream of a magical castle library, complete with a high ceiling, a winding staircase in a corner and a few more floors of books. The documents themselves nestled on velvet cushions, with velvet beanbag snakes to hold the pages down without damage.

Who wouldn’t want to work there for a few weeks?

Madame Geoffrin’s story (or, more precisely, her daughter’s story) ended up getting jettisoned from my thesis (she reappeared later, in an article), but that visit taught me much about the relationships between archives and national identity. The Bibliothèque nationale de France is not just a repository for esoteric mouldering documents to be read by people like me; they are France’s patrimoine – its legacy, its heritage, its inheritance – and it is clear that the archivists take this responsibility seriously.

Fast forward a decade, and I’ve found myself in both formal and informal spaces. In Berlin, on the hunt for flute manuscripts from the court of Frederick the Great (an avid flute player), I had to surrender my passport and wait three hours for materials to appear. In Lausanne, chasing Samuel-Auguste Tissot’s patients’ myriad complaints about, I shared a much more casual work environment with flip-flop wearing university students working on class assignments (more on that research process, and the loveliness of la Suisse romande, here).

Over the years, I’ve grown accustomed to the different requirements of different archival spaces; I’ve moulded myself to what they expect and worked with it. And to a large extent, I’ve done so because I’ve been able to do so. I can be the professional. I can be the academic. I can look the part. I have the right credentials. And with my computer, pencils, loose papers, and magnifying glass – all in a clear plastic bag – it’s clear to all involved that I have the right tools.

But I’d never visited the National Archives in The Hague and Paramaribo.

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How many windmills do you need to change a lightbulb? Never mind. Not The Hague at all, but the Zaanse Schans, just after dawn. October 2014. Photo: Sonja Boon

The Hague’s National Archives is located right next to Central Station. The reading room is a bright, shiny, modern space. If I had to define it in one word, it would be: IKEA. There’s a Scandinavian aesthetic to this space, and, more to the point, it looks as if it’s been styled by someone who develops the annual IKEA catalogue. The work tables are all white, as are the lamps that hang over them. Colourfully-patterned oversize “book pillows” hang from hooks on the wall. The floors are also light and bright. Colourful accents in pink, red, and orange complement the white and add visual energy (I’m sounding like a home decorating blog! But seriously, it’s a gorgeous space, aesthetically speaking – look here). The space is generous and open. I ordered materials online and they were waiting for me, delivered with quiet efficiency. It’s a great place to work; even when it’s busy, there’s room to spread out.

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Newspaper story from the Volkskrant about a protest concert I was involved in in The Hague in June 1997 to protest what was proposed as a tripling of international student fees. Who knew early music could be radical?

But while the space is visually appealing and welcoming, the usual checks and balances still operate: I still needed to get a membership card, and guards carefully police anything that goes in an out of the space. I couldn’t even bring my glasses case in – they provided me with a clear plastic one instead. This wasn’t a place you could just walk into, from the street. There were formal hoops to jump through, and there were also informal etiquette rules to learn.

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The Hague, view of the Binnenhof from the Hofvijver. October 2014. photo: Sonja Boon

This gatekeeping was reflected in the archives’ patrons: all of us were professional researchers, actively engaged in research projects of various sorts. Almost all of us were in business/professional casual – dresses, dress pants, jackets, some ties. Almost all of us had computers. Almost all of us were silent. And almost all of us were white. We may all have come in off the street, but before that we’d been in university or formal institutional offices, and it was to those offices that we would return. The stories here, if read through the space and its organization, were stories for professionals first. Once translated and interpreted, they could be shared with others.

The National Archives of Suriname are very different. The Paramaribo space is small and contained, the tables close together. There is little room to spread out here, especially when there are more than a few people working at the same time (and when one person is looking at oversize newspapers or ship’s logs, watch out!). And perhaps all of this is fine; by population, this is a tiny country. There is no apparent reason that it would need to have such a big space.

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Century-old house in the Rainville area of Paramaribo. July 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon

And yet, it’s an active and busy space, with people regularly coming and going. In The Hague, researchers tend to settle in for the long haul, spending hours at a time in pursuit of their stories. They stretch legs and bodies every hour or so. Sometimes they head out for a smoke or some fresh air, but they almost always return. In Paramaribo, however, patrons come and go throughout the day.

A large part of this, I suspect, is because the gatekeeping is much less pronounced. You don’t need to register to use the archives here. You don’t even need formal identification. Everyone has access to this national heritage. You just sign in: your name, address, phone number, and research interest. And that’s it.

During my time there, I saw the usual students and professional researchers; dogs of a similar breed, we learned to recognize one another, nodding in acknowledgement as we arrived in the morning. But I also saw others – an elderly woman with her daughter both working together to solve a family history mystery, a frustrated man who desperately wanted to find out his heritage but who had just too little information to begin a search, a couple with heads bent close to a screen, a woman with a notebook reading carefully through slave registers on microfiche, jotting down notes as she went, a mother with a baby in her lap looking at plantation stories, and a wide-eyed toddler wandering the room, a bottle dangling from her mouth.

What journeys brought them to the archives? What stories did they hope to find? What mysteries did they want to solve? These were not career researchers; these were people looking into their own pasts, seeking evidence to support stories they’d been told, or documents that could fill in blanks and silences.

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One of the many small Moravian churches in Paramaribo. July 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon

If the stories in The Hague are stories for professional researchers, then the stories in Paramaribo are stories for average, everyday people, and, more significantly, for people who would likely be formally turned away from almost every single archive I’ve ever worked at, or who would find themselves so uncomfortable that they would leave.

The Hague and Paramaribo: two national archives, two different narratives.

What kind of welcome do they extend?
Who might they exclude?

To whom do the archives belong?

 

References

Buss, Helen M., and Marlene Kadar, eds. Working in Women’s Archives: Researching Women’s Private Literature and Archival Documents. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2001. Print.

Eichhorn, Kate. The Archival Turn in Feminism: Outrage in Order. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2013. Print.

Morra, Linda M. and Jessica Schlagerl, eds. Basements and Attics, Closets and Cyperspace: Explorations in Canadian Women’s Archives. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2012. Print.

Morra, Linda M. Unarrested Archives: Case Studies in  Twentieth-Century Canadian Women’s Authorship. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2014. Print.

Vernon, Karina, “Invisibility Exhibit: The Limits of Library and Archives Canada’s ‘Multicultural Mandate’.” Basements and Attics, Closets and Cyberspace: Explorations in Canadian Women’s Archives. Ed. Linda M. Morra and Jessica Schlagerl. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2012. 193-204. Print.

Weld, Kristen. Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014. Web.

(c) Sonja Boon, 2016 (sboon @ mun.ca)