saltwaterstories is on hiatus for a couple of months as we – Lesley, Daze, and I – work on a larger collaborative project. We’ll be back in September.
In a dream, I ride out of a cove with my family in an aging, fiberglass speedboat. The sky is dark and cloudy, and there are cold, black lops on lops all around us. The boat and waves crash against each other, spraying me with salty ocean water. We hit a large wave that ruptures over our heads, leaving all of us drenched. The salty fluid stings my eyes and blurs my vision.
As I woke up, I remembered the first time I got saltwater in my eyes. I was around eight years old, and my friends and I were playing on a wharf in a part of my hometown called Deep Tickle. In Newfoundland, ‘tickle’ is a vernacular term for a short, narrow strait. That day was extremely hot, and my pals Jamie and Brandon decided to swim out in the water just off the wharf. I loved swimming, but had never been immersed in saltwater before. I was hesitant and decided I wasn’t going to join them, until an older kid picked me up and threw me over the wharf.
In my hometown, this is the way many children learn how to swim. In fact, when my sister was five, she was thrown over our family wharf by an older cousin. As I revisit both of our experiences being submerged in our familiar yet unknown salty, smelly and slimy oceanic other, I form a new illustration of the way we both expressed corporeal instincts and reflexes to ‘stay afloat’ in an unknown environment. Unbeknownst to me as a child, being tossed into saltwater for the first time would help me understand more clearly historical forms of struggle and stamina needed to survive in rural Newfoundland.
Using the embodied fluid knowledge I discovered in the water beyond the wharf, this post grapples with the tickling “wet ontologies” (Steinberg and Peters 2015) of saltwater swimming. Thinking of the ‘tickle’ as a significant spatio-temporal environment in my life and familial history on an island, as well as a sensuous stimulation of the body, I ask after modes of skin and saltwater encounters to form tingly and murky intimate notions of ‘staying afloat’ in rural Newfoundland.
As I was deciding whether I would join my friends in the water or stay on the wharf, I carefully examined the wet substance from which Jamie and Brandon were shouting at me to ‘stop being such a wimp’. The refracting sunlight made me see a bright green pool with seaweed, kelp and other forms of aquatic plantlife with strange textures and colours. We used to hang out on this wharf all the time, but had never thought of swimming in the water. All of us had seen minks crawling and swimming around the wharf. I was afraid one of them might attack or bite me if I were in the water. And before I knew it, I was touching the surface.
And then I was submerged and my fear become more fluid. I opened my eyes underwater: the environment below was a brighter green than the one I had observed from above. The water was thick and made my body tingle. When I lifted my head above the surface, my eyes were irritated and my vision blurry, as if I were peering through a viscous film back into the familiar world from which I was just dislodged. This fluid encounter, the saltwater on my skin and in my eyes, illustrated what Eva Hayward might call “a visual-hapticity that relies on proximity rather than distance” (2011: 265).
There was no denying that my body and the water had created a sensuous splash. My submersion was not graceful or playful, it was quite literally a slap in the face, with my head slipping under the waves and my vision becoming altered. This visual-haptic encounter was one of seeing and touching forces creating their own splash, drawing connections between the boy who had picked me up and thrown me into the water, the burning in my eyes, the salt in my mouth, the goosebumps on my skin from the cold water, and the rippling and distribution of waves I had influenced with my body. Hayward says that “sensations are produced through relationships…sensing is a distributed process” (274). Indeed, sensating the sea because of its closeness, its encircling of my body, can be read as an acknowledgement between bodies and rural environments.
The sea salt tickling my body in the Tickle might constitute both an irritating itch and a titillating and vibrant example of confronting and facing the abject – in this case the dirty, murky water of the cove that was no doubt filled with human disposals. The dream of traveling by boat triggered these reflections, once again allowing me to reconsider my own relations to water and the “churnings, driftings, and reborderings” (Steinberg and Peters 2015: 257) that living and existing in close proximity to the ocean can re/teach me about sensuous seas and rural subjectivities.
Remembering how rural Newfoundlanders have developed relationships with the sea over time – resettlement travels where houses were floated across the water to a new destination, or my grandfather walking across miles of thin ice in February 1962 to bring my grandmother and newborn mother home by sled, as well as sealing and fishing and exploring wet worlds – has taught me, above all, that when the life of a community revolves around water, there’s no point in being afraid of it. Looking back, there were no minks in the water that day, and there was no reason to be scared. I learned how to stay afloat, and how to be just a little more tough.
Hayward, Eva. 2011. “Ciliated Sense,” In Theorizing Animals: Re-thinking Humanimal Relations, eds. Nik Taylor and Tania Signal, 255-80. Netherlands: Brill.
Steinberg, Philip & Kimberley Peters. 2015. “Wet ontologies, fluid spaces: giving depth to volume through oceanic thinking,” In Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 33: 247-64. DOI: 10.1068/d14148p
Next weekend, I am presenting an experimental paper about mermaids and trans histories at the Small Island Cultures Conference in St. John’s, where island scholars from across the world will take part in a collaborative journey through island stories, ballads, narratives and histories.
My work with mermaids suddenly took off near the beginning of 2017 when I found an archival illustration of mermaids in St. John’s harbour. From the starting point of formlessness/otherness/wetness, I began to make interconnections between mermaids in NL history and my own subjectivity as a trans woman on a rural island. In the paper, I argue that the imagination, creation, and writing involved in theorizing relations between mermaids and trans women plays a key role in the durability to live my best life, on my own terms, as a young trans woman isolated from others like me by geography and history. Ultimately, I continue to wonder where trans (women’s) histories in Newfoundland begin. Similarly, in La (1976), as Hélène Cixous writes her way through the fog of ‘women’s history,’ she asks: “Où commence une femme?” (129).
There are no archived records of trans women’s lives in Newfoundland before 2015. This reality hits me over and over, so I imagine possible histories, making my own rips in time. I acknowledge that the word transgender is relatively new. As rhetorician K. J. Rawson notes (2015), psychiatrist John F. Olivia published the word ‘transgenderism’ in his book Sexual Hygiene and Pathology in 1965. Four years later in 1969, activist Virginia Prince first used the word “transgenderal,” her distinction from the category “transsexual,” to describe her authentic yet ambiguous form of womanhood in her own words. For Prince, the naming of herself as “transgenderal” constituted a form of agency and visibility in a world that made her identity and life invisible (Namaste 2000). I am not sure if Prince recognized this at the time, but scholars and trans individuals today know that gender identities are caught up in a complex web of experience, place and temporality (Aizura 2006; Hayward 2010).
In Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways out/Forays (1986), Cixous asks: “What is my place if I am a woman? I look for myself throughout the centuries and don’t see myself anywhere” (1986: 75). Until I stumbled upon the illustration of mermaids in St. John’s harbour, I grappled with a related question. Indeed, and thankfully, cisgender women’s histories in Newfoundland and Labrador have been recorded by scholars (Chaulk-Murray 1980; McGrath, Neis & Porter 1995). However, engaging with them while lacking a historical record of my own community has procured feelings of placelessness in me. And while some of these feelings still reside, recognizing trans-historical relations between a mermaid and myself – theorizing the mermaid as a maternal figure for trans women in Newfoundland – has encouraged me to find solace in she who has surrounded me for my entire life: the sea.
Much of Cixous’ writing interrogates the role of the mother, which is “figured in the slippage between mother (mère) and sea (mer)” (Sellers 1996: 42). In Sorties, she contends that “our seas are what we make them, fishy or not… and we ourselves are seas, sands, corals, seaweeds, beaches, tides, swimmers, children, waves… seas and mothers” (Cixous 1986: 88-9 [emphasis added]). As I see the maternal in the mermaid, holding on to her as a historical representation of my life and position within a specific geography, I perform within the intertextual nexus of Cixous’ mothers: If I am a subject and the mermaid an other, then I embody and act out “the subject’s going out into the other in order to come back to itself” (78 [italics original]).
At once, I am caught up in the “surreptitious slippage” (79) across histories and species, forming a bond through writing with an imagined (m)other. I find an interstitial place with her where we learn about each other’s bodies, where I touch the soft scales of her tail, developing a fishy subjectivity as I recognize our mutual hybridity. Writing our relationship through theory – exercising my imagination and yearning – illustrates a vernacular form of self-care. By inventing a history, I open up a hybrid future where the possibilities of trans womanhood are watery (Neimanis 2013) and written with ink that can be restored by the writer’s imagination. Cixous argues that “everyone knows that a place exists which is not economically or politically indebted to all the vileness and compromise. That is not obliged to reproduce the system. That is writing. If there is a somewhere else that can escape the infernal repetition, it lies in that direction, where it writes itself, where it dreams, where it invents new worlds” (1986: 72 [italics original, emphasis added]).
As I wrap up this paper over the next few days, I will continue to recognize the significance of undertaking the labour of historical imagination at this particular point in my life. As I co-construct a place of belonging with the mermaid, as I read history and write a fishy future into being, as I live materially within this gap between sexes and metaphorically across species, I peer back over time and place to envision how those women like me – queens, gurls, TGs, transgenderals, others – found ways to make sense of the space between trans and woman. I know that the more I write, the more I understand it, and the more I am changed. I read this in Cixous: “writing is the passageway, the entrance, the exit, the dwelling place of the other in me – the other that I am and am not, that I don’t know how to be, but that I feel passing, that makes me live – that tears me apart, disturbs me, changes me, who?” (85-6 [emphasis added]).
I remain open to the possibility of the mermaid from the illustration doing the same traveling between self and other. I cannot be certain that the image was imagined. I have to believe that she is out there, looking for someone similar through an opening in time. Cixous writes: “Through the same opening that is her danger, she comes out of herself to go to the other, a traveler in unexplored places; she does not refuse, she approaches, not to do away with the space between, but to see it, to experience what she is not, what she is, what she can be” (86 [emphasis added]). And yet, as much as writing makes me happy, I cannot forget that while the sea brings the mermaid to me, it also takes her away – forcing her to find me, and me to find her on my own, at times when I am a fish out of water.
Will this history repeat itself?
Will I dream of an/other?
Aizura, Aren. 2006. “Of Borders and Homes: The Imaginary Community of (trans)sexual Citizenship,” In Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 7 (2): 289-318.
Chaulk-Murray, Hilda. 1980. More Than 50%: A Woman’s Life in a Newfoundland Outport, 1900–1950. St. John’s, NL: Flanker Press.
Cixous, Hélène. 1976. La. Paris: Gillamard.
Cixous, Hélène & Catherine Clement. 1986. “Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways out/Forays,” In The Newly Born Woman trans. Betsy Wing, 63-132. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Hayward, Eva. 2010. “Spider city sex,” In Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, 20 (3): 225-51.
McGrath, Carmelita, Barbara Neis, & Marilyn Porter. 1995. Their Lives and Times: Women in Newfoundland and Labrador, A Collage. St. John’s, NL: Killick Press.
Namaste, Viviane. 2000. Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Neimanis, Astrida. 2013. “Feminist subjectivity, watered” In Feminist Review, 103: 23-31.
Rawson, K. J. “Debunking the origins behind the word ‘transgender”. The NEWS Minute. May 27, 2015 (accessed June 8, 2017). http://www.thenewsminute.com/article/debunking-origin-behind-word-transgender.
Sellers, Susan. 1996. “Creating a Feminine Subject,” In Hélène Cixous: Authorship, Autobiography and Love, 40-54. Cambridge: Polity Press.
© Daze Jefferies (dsj272 @ mun.ca), 2017
Victoria Day 2017 has been a research day spent in bed. I took two breaks to watch the new episodes of Twin Peaks and to do laundry. The latter is the inspiration for this blog post.
Studying folklore has taken me on all kinds of journeys. Somewhere along the way, I was introduced to http://www.folkstreams.net, an archive of documentary films exploring informal/expressive/material cultures as well as performance (and) traditions.
My favourite film from this archive is Clotheslines by Roberta Cantow (1981) which explores women’s relationships to laundry and ‘domestic’ labour, or body work at home. Among other things, the women in the film grapple with family dynamics, laundry and technological change, and the work of washing clothes by hand. Intimately, this documentary shows women reeling in a clothesline to collect and fold socks, shirts and dresses into a basket. Yet, I experience these women attach and reel emotions back out on that line, letting them get air for the first time. In doing so, they allow themselves to breathe, centered. Until this point, these women had never been asked to share their experiences and memories of doing body work at home. Like washing and drying, their emotions spin in patterns of two, frustration and pleasure.
I enjoy doing laundry, although I’ve never washed clothes by hand. At the same time, I have shared many intimate moments with clothing through touch.
My first experience with fieldwork took place in my second semester of my undergrad when I did a study of thrift store cultures. While a significant portion of my analysis focused on economic relationships to used clothing, what fascinated me most were the stories that clothing can tell. As an avid thrifter since I was 15, I had never considered clothes as objects of memory and history. I had overlooked their ability to narrate their wornness.
After I had collected and analyzed the data from that study, I started to wonder where and who my clothes came from: who had touched them, had worn them, had made memories in them, and had grown out of them enough to give them away.
Somewhere amidst bins and racks and piles of used clothes, I realized that the stories told by the objects we wear are touchable. Over time, and with a giant and always shifting (archive?) closet, I have learned to pay attention to all the things said by every hitch, snag, hole, stain, smell, repair, and customization.
Smell is particularly capable of evoking significant and imaginative meanings/memories. While some thrift stores in St. John’s hang their donated goods for sale just the way they were donated – smelling like perfume, or cigarettes, or a complex blend of scents that cannot be described using words – other stores give them a good wash, and by the time they are touched by someone combing through a bin or rack, they smell only of detergent.
It isn’t always a bad thing. Certain detergents remind me of my childhood home: laundry washed, dried and folded by my mom, the special step perched on the patio so that she could reach the clothesline hanging way above her, the bright orange laundry basket she has had since before I was born.
This evening I called home and asked her to share her own feelings about laundry. “It was a part of my daily routine,” she noted. “And it never bothered me because I just thought it was something I had to do as a mother.”
I asked if laundry ever frustrated her. She laughed and told me, “the only thing that frustrated me was when I folded it all up and put it on your bed, told you to pack it away, and you didn’t do it.”
Would the clothes on my bed have told me stories? Would I listen?
My own experience of laundry, or body work at home, is a pleasurable mix of touches, smells, and memories. With each encounter, I can never think about clothes the same. I am aware of their voices and histories.
Thank you, mom, for doing the critical work of cleaning.
Thank you for teaching me how to do that work myself.
Cantow, Roberta. Clotheslines. 16mm. Directed by Roberta Cantow. San Diego: Buffalo Rose Productions, 1981.
© Daze Jefferies (dsj272 @ mun.ca), 2017.
On May 12, the St. John’s premiere of Rozalind MacPhail’s latest audio-visual project From the River to the Ocean took place at Suncor Energy Hall, MUN School of Music.
When I arrive at the theatre I am prepared for an evening of savoury sights and sounds. Then I notice that on each chair lay a tiny surprise, a salt water taffy, courtesy of MacPhail’s husband, filmmaker Josh Caine, who flew to St. John’s from North Carolina for the premiere.
In From the River to the Ocean, Rozalind MacPhail takes the audience along with her on an “inspiring ride” through Wilmington, North Carolina while waves of sound and silent film wash against each other. At times, I can feel the waves brushing against my feet as percussion, guitar basslines, and flute trills boomerang around the theatre.
Like MacPhail’s previous audio-visual projects that are centered around particular places, From the River to the Ocean began as an effort to document, archive, and share her memories of traveling, living, and growing in Wilmington. MacPhail’s three-month-long artist residency at the Cucalorus Film Festival shaped the entire project, where she met the filmmakers whose works radiate beside her, including her husband.
Just before she begins to play her opening track ‘Overture for Pinkhouse’ she has one request of the audience: “Listen for the sounds of Wilmington.”
At just under three minutes long, Pinkhouse captivates me with its soundscape. Since it is the one song on From the River to the Ocean that isn’t complemented by visuals, I am free to imagine sights and sounds and colours as MacPhail’s flute melodies intermingle, rise and fall, twist and turn.
As her setlist progresses, this process of blending and weaving becomes more playful as MacPhail builds layers of sweet and flavourful “flute loops” that sing with each other and tell their own stories of Wilmington.
MacPhail’s work grapples with the stories that places tell us as well as the ones we tell about them as we move/shift/travel throughout the world. An undulating narrative, the notion of traveling is integral to the flow of messages told in From the River to the Ocean. In a way, MacPhail’s complex blend of visuals, vocals, electronics, and flute loops encourage the audience to travel (back) to Wilmington with her. ‘Greenfield’ in particular has the power to momentarily transport an audience from St. John’s, with its stories and footage of turtles, white cranes and alligators.
With each song and film, new ideas about Wilmington are formed, and meanings are made as experimental VHS footage, photography, and hand-processed Super 8 film dance betwixt the music.
When the performance is finished, MacPhail answers questions from the audience. Dr. Ellen Waterman, Professor of Music, asks about the significance of time in this project. MacPhail notes the significance of memory in all of her work, sharing that as she looks to the future and continues to age, From the River to the Ocean will allow her to revisit and remember. She captures this idea most exquisitely on ‘The Gaze’:
You’re looking back
at me from the screen
half a century
I gaze back…
From the River to the Ocean is a beautiful representation of documenting pleasures, pressing social issues, and personal experiences. It also represents the work we do for Saltwater Stories: weaving together creativity and critical interrogation.
Amidst the artisty of Rozalind MacPhail and filmmakers Josh Caine, Shona Thomson, Mariah Kramer, Mandi Edwards, Matt Molloy, and Matt Gossett, I am transported to a “time out of time” where the wondrous intermingling plays on between people and place, past and present, and the push and pull of memories.
Reproduction, it is said, has always been a matter of politics.
In England, Henry VIII divorced and then killed off his second wife, Anne Boleyn for her failure to beget a boy. A few hundred years later, a concerned mother wrote to a Swiss doctor, worried about her daughter’s forthcoming nuptials in the face of newly discovered knowledge about her soon to be son-in-law’s health and its possible implications for their reproductive lives. In Canada, many women have been forcibly sterilized, their reproductive autonomy erased because of their class, race, or presumed psychological fitness for reproduction. In India, a burgeoning international surrogacy industry contracts often impoverished women to rent out their uteri for wealthy North American or European couples. In Ireland, labouring women have been victim – with the blessing of the Catholic church – to the profoundly disabling and medically unnecessary practice of symphisiotomy. In the global South, women have been used as guinea pigs for contraceptive testing, often without their consent or even knowledge. American fetal personhood laws pit the rights of the fetus against those of the mother to be. It was only in April 2017 that the European Court of Human Rights ruled that “the sterilization requirement [for trans people] was a violation of Article Eight of the European Convention on Human Rights” ( see New York Times)
Perhaps nowhere were the politics of reproduction more overt than in the context of the dying days of plantation slavery in the Americas. Numerous historians have observed that slave owners’ perspectives on reproduction changed as the political mood shifted toward abolition (van Stipriaan, Turner, Paton). Before this, owners hadn’t paid much attention to reproduction; after all, a slave population could easily be renewed with the purchase of more slaves (see Newton 1788, for example). But abolitionist talk changed things. Perhaps plantation owners would not always be able to rely on new bodies to fulfil their needs. This became all the more acute after the British abolition of the slave trade. While illegal trading still continued after this point, most slave owners had to rely on their own enslaved women to renew their labour force. In this new political context, women’s uteri became hot commodities (Turner, Morgan, Paton).
As I look back at my family tree, I wonder how these shifting political landscapes shaped the reproductive experiences of my enslaved ancestors. How did they navigate all of this in their daily lives? What might reproduction have meant for them?
The Dutch historian Alex van Stipriaan observes that there were more children at cotton plantations than at coffee or sugar plantations (54). This could be because the work was much heavier at sugar plantations (Beeldsnijder 1997). It could also be that the cotton plantations, which emerged in Suriname only in the early nineteenth century and were located along what was known as the “Zeekust” along the western coastline of Suriname, were in a healthier region of the colony.
In a 2009 demographic study, van Stipriaan followed 204 enslaved women through the slave registers in the period between 1820 and 1863, the last forty years of slavery in Suriname, with the goal of tracing reproductive patterns. He focused on 6 sugar plantations, 6 coffee plantations, and 6 cotton plantations. He discovered that fully one quarter of the women (24%) did not have children at all (55). Those who did had an average of 4 children each. On average first time mothers were just over 20 years old and there were usually just over 3.5 years between births. He argues that this data suggests that enslaved women exercised a certain amount of authority over their reproduction; for example, it seemed that many women stopped having children once 2-4 reached the age of five. It’s also possible that non-reproductive enslaved women – that 24% who did not have children – were not necessarily unable to bear children, but actively choosing not to by either avoiding sexual relations, or more likely, by using commonly known abortifacients such as the peacock flower (which, according to one of our graduate students, is still used as an abortifacient today among some Indigenous communities in South America) (Schiebinger; for more of Merian’s drawings, see Heard).
All of this data is interesting, and it does indeed shed a light on plantation societies more broadly speaking, but it doesn’t help me to understand my own family histories.
The problem is that my family histories don’t fit these averages at all. Let’s look at my own demographic data.
I have a tiny sample of two, but both fit perfectly into van Stipriaan’s historical parameters. Eva Albertina and Frederica were both born in 1827 on Sarah plantation, one of the cotton plantations along Suriname’s west coast.
So far, so good.
But then, things diverge from van Stipriaan’s model.
Eva Albertina and Frederica had twelve children between them; Eva had five and Frederica had seven. But they lived remarkably parallel reproductive lives. Both had children well before they were twenty (the average age determined by van Stipriaan). Eva was seventeen when her first child was born; Frederica was eighteen. They both had their second children in 1847, their third in 1849 and their fourth in 1851, and their fifth in 1855. At this point, at the age of 28, Eva stopped having children, thus approximately following Stipriaan’s model. But Frederica had two more, in 1857 and finally, at the age of 35 (what we would, today, term a geriatric pregnancy), gave birth to her last child, Leander, in 1862, on the eve of emancipation.
My (albeit tiny) sample suggests that we need to move beyond the broad sweep of van Stipriaan’s model. Frederica and Eva Albertina were younger than the average, had more children than the average, and had them more frequently. Perhaps this is due to the fact that they were enslaved on a cotton plantation where working conditions were better. Perhaps the various owners and overseers of Sarah plantation, conscious of the need to ensure demographic growth, heeded calls to improve maternity care, hygiene, and working conditions for enslaved mothers.
It’s also possible that one or more of these children were the result of coerced alliances with white or mixed overseers. Such alliances were undoubtedly accompanied by sexual and reproductive obligations on the part of the enslaved women. But they may also have bought Eva and Frederica better living conditions, and with this, better reproductive conditions. In addition to this, they may have offered the possibility of manumission, or freedom, for enslaved children.
Frederica’s first child, a daughter named Annette, was manumitted in the fall of 1862. Eva’s fourth child, a son named Marlon 2, was manumitted under the name Jacob Schove in 1851.
There weren’t a huge number of manumissions at Sarah plantation; thus, two manumissions in the same family stand out.
Women and children were much more likely to be manumitted than men; van Stipriaan observes that men constituted only 21% of the free black population (61). So, too, were children of mixed race much more likely to be manumitted – fully 85% of free black children were listed in the censuses as ‘kleurling,’ of mixed race.
Did Frederica and Eva bargain with the only thing they had available to them: their wombs? Were they able to use their reproductive capacities to try to shape some sort of positive life for themselves and their offspring? What did reproduction mean for enslaved women on Surinamese plantations?
I only wish I could ask them.
Beeldsnijder, Ruud. “Om werk van jullie te hebben”: Plantageslaven in Suriname, 1730-1750, 1997.
Heard, Kate, Maria Merian’s Butterflies. Royal Collection Trust, 2016.
Morgan, Jennifer L. Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery. UPenn Press,2004
Newton, John. Thoughts upon the Slave Trade. 1788.
Paton, Diana. “Maternal struggles and the politics of childlessness under pronatalist Caribbean slaver.” Slavery & Abolition 2017, online in advance of print.
Schiebinger, Londa. Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. Harvard UP, 2004.
Stipriaan, Alex van. “Welke de ware redden zijn, dat Plantaadje negers zoo weinig voortelen’: Demografische ontwikkelingen op Surinaams plantages gedurend de laatse eeuw van slaverij.” Kind aan de ketting: Opgroeien in slavernij toen en nu, edited by Aspha Bijnaar. KIT Publishers, 2009. 50-64.
Turner, Sasha. “Home-grown Slaves: Women, Reproduction, and the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Jamaica 1788-1807” Journal of Women’s History vol. 23, no. 2, 2011, pp. 39-62.
Near the beginning of April, I had the chance to interview singer-songwriter Rozalind MacPhail about her most recent audio-visual project, From the River to the Ocean, which has its St. John’s premiere on May 12 at Suncor Hall, MUN School of Music.
When I arrive at her studio in downtown St. John’s, I am immediately taken aback by the breathtaking view of the harbour through her giant living room window. We share personal details, have some good laughs and drink chamomile tea. Over the course of our hour-long conversation, Rozalind brings me through her musical past and into her present. In this post, I would like to share with you three important themes that emerge from her narration: autobiography, memory, and place.
It is 3:30 PM. Her living room is filled with plants, art, instruments, and lovely furniture. It is the perfect environment for talking about a musical life history.
I’m from Toronto Island which is a small island nestled in the harbour of Toronto, and it’s 7 km long, there’s about 900 people that live there, and the only way you can get there is by ferry, or if you’re lucky enough, plane. It’s a really neat place to grow up because there’s no stores, no cars. A very small community of people, and when I was growing up there a very artistic community. My parents were both hippies and I was definitely a wild flower child, and would basically stand on the table and would perform for anybody who would listen to me sing. That’s where I grew up, and I lived there right up until my first year of university. I went to U of T for classical flute, and I also went to the Etobicoke School of the Arts for high school, and that was a really great place to develop into finding my own voice.
At 13, she had developed very bad asthma. She started playing the flute after her grandmother had read an article about how wind instruments help asthmatics control their breathing. At first, she was grossed out by the instrument, turned off by the thought of moisture and spit inside. But as soon as she started playing, she fell in love with it. Now in her 40s, Rozalind’s musical journey has been one of constant evolution and change, from musical theatre, classical flute, and choir, to studying flute at the graduate level.
I was in a Master’s program for classical flute, and I was having these experiences of playing in the orchestra and feeling closed off, and feeling like my own voice wasn’t being heard, and I just didn’t feel right about that. Circumstance had it that I just decided to leave that program, and I never finished my Master’s degree. Someday maybe I will, but I felt like that time was just not the right time. I needed to get on the stage, tap into my voice, and feel good about who I was. So what I did is I left that program, and the whole time I had gone through those transitions in my life, I always taught. I love teaching, it’s been one of my major passions in life. I taught privately after I left the music program, and at the same time would go and improvise on flute with different singer-songwriters around town at the open mic nights, and discovered that I had a real passion for improvisation and a real passion for taking the written page away from the equation and just using my own voice, my own sensibilities to express whatever was inspiring me in that present moment.
Like Peter Knight, Rozalind’s musical history reveals “a narrative about spontaneity and freespiritedness and improvisation” (2009: 78). As a method, improvisation is the thinking-out-loud of the self who speaks through sound. Improvising is a building of layers. For a few years, Rozalind had been doing improv work with various musicians and bands like Yo La Tengo, Lou Barlow and the Great Lake Swimmers, but she didn’t feel fulfilled, she knew that her music practice was lacking something important.
Here I have all of this classical training, I’ve practiced for years and years and years. And funny enough, one of my friends from Toronto in one of my favourite bands just gave me his classical guitar and sent me home to Ottawa with it. I just started practicing in the middle of the night, and tried to see what it was like to write my own songs, because as a flutist who had always played the melodic line or playing in the upper range and all of these tendencies of the classical flute world, I had never really thought in a harmonic way. I had never thought about how to write a song. Like, what does that mean? How do I write lyrics? And so many friends in bands over the years said to me, ‘Rozalind, you’ve gotta start your own band, you’ve gotta start doing your own stuff.’ And I was always very resistant to that. And it’s funny, I’m turning 43 this year and I’m amazed at how there are times in our lives where we’re just so resistant to things. I’m learning as I get older that the more resistant we are, we tend to attract more of that into our lives. But not only that, they’re usually the moments that can teach us the most. And that’s one of those moments – I was so resistant to writing my own songs, I had convinced myself over the years that as a flutist I wasn’t capable of doing that. Meanwhile, I had all the foundation I needed. I had done musical theatre, I had done vocal training. But in my own heart, I didn’t feel capable of doing it. But here I was with an instrument, the guitar, where I was determined not to take lessons for it. To completely teach myself the instrument, and to start with a complete beginner’s mind. And that’s what I did, I taught myself, I wrote my lyrics on my own and I just did a completely different approach.
As David Carless and Kitrina Douglas suggest, “the songwriting process entails some kind of movement away from conscious, controlled thought processes towards a more open sense of discovering alternative stories” (2009: 31). For Rozalind, starting with a beginner’s mind was an attempt at moving toward a music practice that is aleatory and without restraint. One that is about change, one that comes through bursts in time, one that warbles from the heart, from memories, from experiences.
I’ve documented every aspect of my journey, and it’s unbelievable how much it has changed over the years, and it’s all through where I’ve been, because I’ve moved a lot and I’ve been inspired by different people and different places. I’ve changed mediums, so that’s the other thing, going from classical flute to guitar and to a simple looping pedal and developing my voice, and then changing software from a PC to an Apple computer, and the transition about learning MIDI, and then learning Ableton Live, and then recording, and producing, and film-making, and it just keeps going! When we’re artists, that’s the thing, our life will just constantly change over the years. It’s never going to be the same. And people always ask me, ‘why do you think you look so young?’ When I compare myself to all my friends who are the same age, especially the ones who are in full-time families, we just don’t look the same age. People ask me that all time, ‘how do you look so young?’ And I think it’s through being an artist, being able to mold into whatever we need to, or adapt, we’re really amazing adapters. I think that keeps us young, at heart, and it keeps our bodies young. And traveling keeps us young, keeps us fresh. I love it, I’m excited to see what’s gonna happen 20 years from now because I really have no idea how it’s gonna look like as an artist and what type of music I’ll be creating, or if I will be creating music. Maybe I won’t even be playing the flute anymore!
All these thoughts about dynamic change in music made me want to learn more about her process of working through this project, From the River to the Ocean. Rozalind told me that all of her audio-visual projects are very place-based and rooted in a desire to capture her memories. For her, audio-visual projects give life to memories of people, places, and periods of time. Sara Cohen writes, “music also creates its own time, space, and motion, taking people out of ‘ordinary time” (1995: 444). By performing her memories on stage, Rozalind also takes anyone listening out of ordinary time and into her past.
This is my third audio-visual project that I’ve worked on. And my thing for the past two projects before that was to focus on the places I was inspired by, and to work with the musicians I’ve connected with along the way. My first project was ‘Painted Houses’ which was a silent film project with live music that I did in St. John’s, and it was inspired by the winter. And then I took it further, I decided to do a DVD project where I focused on the films being all inspired by different parts of Canada, and invited a wider range of musicians to contribute, so it was filmmakers and musicians from all across Canada, and some outside of Canada as well. That one was really just my love song for Canada. There’s so many beautiful places that I’ve toured through, that I’ve fallen in love with and I wanted to have a personal keepsake of those memories in my life. That project took me about seven years to create. That one really burnt me out and it cost a huge fortune to finish, so I decided if I was gonna do another audio-visual project, it would have to be a very different approach.
Funny enough, this resistance to change sometimes, I kept getting this message in different areas of my life about this wonderful artistic residency through the Cucalorus Film Festival. And it just kept coming to me, in different circles I’d be hearing about this artist residency, and the Cucalorus Film Festival is in Wilmington, North Carolina, so it’s kind of bizarre to be hearing about this festival that I had never been to. One of my biggest mentors in the film world, Ingrid Veninger, had posted about it a few times on Facebook, and I had even written to the director of the festival to ask him about the residency, and everyone just kept saying ‘apply, apply, apply!’ For some reason, I just kept procrastinating or not getting it together to apply. I was at the Banff Centre and while I was there I wrote again, and I said ‘I know I’m passed the deadline, would you still consider me for an application?’ They wrote back and said yes. It just seemed like the stars were aligned to go and travel to North Carolina. And I had some really good memories from my childhood there because my grandparents used to take me there every couple years for a couple of weeks and stay on the beach, and it was just such a neat experience. So I had fond memories of North Carolina and I was ready for a change. And I got in! All of a sudden I had to pack up all my stuff and sublet my apartment and just take a great risk, jump off the bridge and see where it took me. And I went to North Carolina for three months, and I think I started writing the first song in this project the first day I got there. I just was immediately inspired by that town and by the festival experience. It’s a really special place. It reminds me a lot of St. John’s in the sense that it has a lot of history and you can feel ghosts everywhere. It’s almost like they’re wanting visitors to tell their stories.
This project offers visual and sonic glimpses into a collection of stories from Wilmington, stories that Rozalind came face to face with, feeling the desire to write them using sound. Carless and Douglas question: “How might the process of writing a song provide access to the kinds of understanding or knowledge that can act as a template for a ‘new’ story that better fits personal experience” (2009: 31)? Further, how does telling a story about Wilmington through song or video also tell an autobiographical story about her life there?
At the time that I was there, I had a super 8 camera, and I decided that I was going to try dabbling in filmmaking. And the director happened to have three rolls of film that I could use, and the university in town happened to have a professor that knew how to do hand-processing so he taught me how to process my film. So there was just this constant creative collaboration that was going on. It took a long time though, it’s like the seeds were planted during my residency, and some of the songs had started to take shape. But the real magic happened after I had finished my first two films in the project and had experienced the festival for the first time, which was at the end of my residency. Then I went home to St. John’s with all of this wealth of experience and knowledge and inspiration and I did what I do best, I brought people together to create a project. All of the footage that’s part of this project is created by different people who either live in Wilmington, were visiting Wilmington, and were inspired by Wilmington. So the projects have a lot of autobiographical content, but they also have a lot of other things.
At the time, the tax incentives for the film community were cut, and it was devastating for the film industry in Wilmington. And everywhere I was walking throughout the town I would see these stickers that would say ‘film = jobs’ and I wondered about what these stickers were for, and the more I heard about what was going on, I was like, ‘ wow, we really need to do a short film about this horrible situation that’s going on.’ Then there was a park that I absolutely loved, Greenfield Park, that I spent a lot of time in with gorgeous white cranes and Spanish moss everywhere. Just such a neat spot that had to be in one of the films. There was also a beach I went to all the time called Wrightsville Beach, and there happened to be this neat mailbox that sat on the beach and I loved it because people would leave little notes and journals and write messages to each other. One of the films that I created is called ‘Leave a Note’ and it’s a little story about my last day in Wilmington before I had to fly back to St. John’s, and trying to make a decision between two very heart-wrenching things.
As Cohen suggests, “music is not only bound up with the production of place through collective interpretation, it is also interpreted in idiosyncratic ways by individual listeners, with songs, sounds and musical phrases evoking personal memories and feelings associated with particular places” (1995: 445). Rozalind’s words illustrate how the Wilmington that is visible and audible in this project is one created by the experiences and memories of many individuals at the Cucalorus Film Festival, each affected by their time spent living, producing, and becoming in place.
It really is a magical spot, and the river and the ocean around Wilmington connect the whole thing. I think we can all relate to that, wherever we live. ‘From the River to the Ocean’ just seemed like the perfect name for this project because it’s what brought us all together. There’s a real sense of nostalgia in the project too because it was a special time and place for all of us in our lives and Wilmington brought us all together, so it’s interesting because I wondered how this project would fit together because all the films are so unique, but there’s a connection of a special place and special time in all our lives where we can’t repeat that. Already, looking at some of the films, times have changed.
Above all, Rozalind’s music practice helps elucidate the notion of “music and place not as fixed and bounded texts or entities but as social practice involving relations between people, sounds, images, artifacts and the material environment” (Cohen 1995: 438). Certainly, as time and change are pertinent components of her music practice, I wanted to know how her everyday life is affected by her experiences and memories, and if performing the songs from this project produces affects in her.
It definitely brings me right back there. Especially certain pieces, some more than others. ‘Wilmington Tide’ really gets me every time I play it because it brings me back to those hot summer nights. Funny enough, I wrote it because I was homesick for Newfoundland. Now when I play it I’m homesick for North Carolina. It has a double meaning for me. All of the songs in the project typically bring me right back to that moment in time, and that’s part of the reason why I love performing them.
You can read more about Rozalind and this project, and listen to her work, by visiting these links:
Carless, David., and Kitrina Douglas. 2009. “Songwriting and the Creation of Knowledge,” In Music Autoethnographies: Making Autoethnography Sing/ Making Music Personal, eds. Brydie-Leigh Bartleet and Carolyn Ellis, 23-38. Bowen Hills, Queensland: Australian Academic Press.
Cohen, Sara. 1995. “Sounding out the City: Music and the Sensuous Production of Place,” In Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 20 (4): 434-446. DOI: 10.2307/622974.
Knight, Peter. 2009. “Creativty and Improvisation: A Journey into Music,” In Music Autoethnographies: Making Autoethnography Sing/ Making Music Personal, eds. Brydie-Leigh Bartleet and Carolyn Ellis, 73-84. Bowen Hills, Queensland: Australian Academic Press.