Poet Marlene NourbeSe Philip softly breaks the silence

On Thursday, Dec. 2, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented poet Marlene NourbeSe Philip. Chris Cornish, a teaching assistant for the course sent the following report to YFile.

the me and mine of parents
the we and us of brother and sister
the tribe of belongings small and separate,
when gone…
on these exact places of exacted grief
i placed mint-fresh grief coins
sealed the eyes with certain and final…

She Tries Her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks
by M. NourbeSe Philip

On a chilly December evening, Marlene NourbeSe Philip gave voice to her thoughts on poetry and language to the delight of those who came to listen. In her distinctive voice, she enthralled students and guests with readings from her award-winning poetry collection She Tries Her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks, at times breaking into lecture, at other times, breaking into calypso.

Left: Poet Marlene NorbeSe Philip

Growing up in Tobago and Trinidad, Philip didn’t want to be a writer. She had dreams of being a spy, she chose to go to school for law because such an education was considered to be the “salvation of the black middle-class”.  After seven years of practicing law in Toronto, she came to writing grudgingly, saying: “Some people are born writing, some achieve writing and some have writing thrust upon them. My belonging is to the last group, coming slowly to accept the blessing and the yoke that is writing, and with so doing I have come upon an understanding of language….the anguish that is English in colonial societies.”

This anguish is the conflict between the poet’s lost African mother tongue and her imposed “father tongue”. English being her only language, she found that she had to work within that limitation to find her own voice. “How do you sing when your tongue is gone? How do you work with what you have?” she said.

The Caribbean patois is very vibrant yet for years was considered to be “bad English”. Philip sees this as more of an alchemical transformation, an attempt to reclaim some sense of African rhythm and heritage. Yet the trauma of colonialism is still in the language and there are huge gaps in expression of her people’s history. She remarked that we don’t have a word in English that adequately conveys the horror of 500 years of slavery (the word “Maafa”, Ki-Swahili for “great calamity” and “holocaust” comes closest).

Rather than reject English in her work, Philip engages it directly. She is particularly interested in the way language is constructed, its essential units. She uses Standard English against itself, subverting it to create her own word “i-mages”. She favors the “i” because it represents the ownership of creation, something she felt has been denied to Caribbean artists: “you plus I equals we / I and I and I equals I / minus you.” Only in restructuring and possibly destroying the language, is there hope of balancing the equation of image-making and create a language of their own.

One student asked Philip about her greatest concern for those of African heritage today. As she paused reflectively, the student joked, “Silence?” Philip smiled and said this was not too far off the mark. She is concerned about the concentrated effort to break the link between the Western African and Africa, to silence and erase their history. For her English is a tainted language, inextricably linked to its imperialist past, and can only be redeemed for Caribbean writers if that history is not lost.

“For many like me, black and female, it is imperative that our writing begin to recreate our histories and our myths, as well as integrate that most painful of experiences: loss of our history and our word. The reacquisition of power to create in one’s own i-mage and to create one’s own i-mage is vital to this process; it reaffirms for us that which we have always known, even in those most darkest of times which are still with us, when everything conspired to prove otherwise – that we belong most certainly to the race of humans.”

More about Marlene NourbeSe Philip

Marlene NourbeSe Philip is a Caribbean-born Toronto poet and writer who has published three collections of poetry, including Thorns (Williams Wallace, 1980) and Salmon Courage (Williams Wallace, 1983) as well as She Tries Her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks  (Ragweed Press,1988). NourbeSe Philip has also written fiction and non-fiction, essays and a book of children’s literature. Philip was made a Guggenheim Fellow in poetry in 1992. She Tries Her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks won the Casa de las Americas prize in 1988.

Her long narrative poem Looking For Livingstone: an odyssey of silence (1991) explores the complexities of identity construction from a postcolonial theoretical perspective. Philip, who also holds an MA in political science and a law degree from the University of Western Ontario, received the Elizabeth Fry Society of Toronto ‘Rebel for A Cause’ award in 2001 as a revolutionary poet, writer and thinker. She was the recipient of the 2001 YWCA Woman of Distinction Award for her works where “the experience of black women and girls are foremost as are issues of belonging, language, place and location.”

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. On Jan. 13, Toronto poet Karen Mac Cormack will read from her collection Implexures.