So, story time: back in the aughts, I sat on a national poetry award jury and tried to champion Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip. I was dismissed out of hand. I mean, we barely discussed it. I came to the table with a list that comprised both traditional and experimental forms, and I honestly thought that if any of my “experimental” choices were going to make it on the shortlist, Zong! would be the one. It was a difficult read for people brought up more traditional work, no doubt, but once you got the music of it, it was utterly compelling. You just couldn’t expect to get that music first time, with an untrained ear unused to the cadences and language flexibility within. So, no dice. Don’t get me wrong, the list ended up with some great names on it, but the jury arguing seemed to be between an entrenched establishment deal of poetry and me (and the gods know I’m but an armchair champion for any school at the best of times.) So, I’m glad to read this Walrus piece that explains a bit of why, and then to find this CBC article on Philip cleaning up, internationally. Also a Puritan essay linked in the quote below. High time.
Philip describes herself as a “disappeared” writer who has paid the price for her activism with her erasure from Canadian literature. In a recent essay published in The Puritan, Kate Siklosi expertly demonstrates this disappearance and the “archive of silence around Philip and her work in Canada.” While many of her contemporaries have taken up comfortable positions as creative-writing instructors or editors in publishing houses, Philip has yet to find prominent footing in the larger CanLit scene. Outside the country, she has been given the Casas de las Américas prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship among other international honours, but she has never received any major national literary award at home. Her 2008 collection, Zong!—about the 1781 murder of Africans thrown overboard on the orders of a slave-ship captain—was mostly ignored by Canadian critics despite being praised around the world.
Given Philip’s polemicism and her poly-vocal experiments with form, it might not be surprising that she would be seen as an outsider to the tonier CanLit communities. What is surprising is the extent to which she is also missing from the contemporary debates that have transformed CanLit. Philip’s history of disruption is directly relevant to our current discussions over cultural appropriation, antiblack racism, and exploitation in Canadian literature and publishing. Yet it’s hard to find major essays on the current state of CanLit that make reference to her work, she has been notably absent from panels discussing the topic, and isn’t a contributor to Refuse: CanLit in Ruins, the new anthology of criticism on the “raging dumpster fire” that has consumed the Canadian writing scene.