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M. NourbeSe Philip

M. Nourbese Philip was born on the island of Tobago in the “huddled hunchbacked hills” of Woodlands, Moriah, where the blue of sky and ocean often appear as one. Shortly after her birth her paternal grandmother took her outdoors, held her up to the sky and offered prayers to the Ancestors. She studied at the University of the West Indies, Mona Jamaica and took graduate degrees in political science and law at the University of Western Ontario and for seven years practiced law in the space-time of Toronto, where she still lives. Her first collection of poetry, Thorns, was published in 1980. A further four books of poetry have followed including the seminal She Tries Her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks and Looking for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence, a quest narrative in prose and poetry in which a woman travelling through time, Africa and unnamed lands searches for Dr Livingstone as the text elegantly unravels Western assumptions about the “silence” of indigenous peoples. Philip’s young adult novel, Harriet's Daughter, about two friends, Margaret and Zulma, navigating their adolescence in Toronto and their different relationships to the West Indies continues her exploration of issues of exile and belonging in the wake of historical trauma. 

Philip’s dramatic work includes Coups and Calypsos, produced in both London and Toronto in 1996. The play explores the impact of the legacy of colonial racism on intimate relations as a separated, mixed-race couple of South Asian and African backgrounds from Trinidad are unexpectedly caught in the 1990 coup and are forced to face their mutual prejudices.
Philip’s many essay collections are in the time-honored tradition of engaged, scholar poets and artists of the Caribbean, and they articulate a powerful and decades-long engagement with issues related to the politics of language, race, colonialism, culture, politics, gender and social justice. They also display her lifelong concern with the possibilities afforded by language to interrogate and remake the histories we are given. Her most recent collection is BlanK. In her poetry, Philip turns language inside out. The tensions and opportunities she identifies between and within language are evident in the refrain at the heart of “Discourse on the Logic of Language”:

and English is
my mother tongue
my father tongue
is a foreign lan lan lang

Her book-length poem Zong! was first published in Canada and the US in 2008. It takes its title and subject from the Zong Massacre of 1781, when the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered that some 150 enslaved Africans be thrown overboard to their deaths so that the ship’s owners could claim insurance monies. Relying entirely on the words of the legal decision Gregson v. Gilbert – the only extant public document related to the massacre – Zong! excavates the legal text. Through the innovative use of fugal and counterpointed repetition, it forms an anti-narrative lament that stretches the boundaries of the poetic form. Fred Wah has described it as “legal poetry. That is, legally, poetry . . . The poetry displays the agonizing tension of an exploration through the minute particulars and silences locked within the legal text, the precise and cautious movement that tries to not tell the story that must be told.” As in all her work, Philip encourages readers of Zong! to be attentive to sound, space and silence. Readings can be found at the University of Pennsylvania’s PennSound website and at Philip’s work displays a profound commitment to the beauty, strength, resilience and innovative capacities of Black/African life wherever it exists.

Philip has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and MacDowell Colony. Her 1989 book of poetry, She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks, was awarded the Casa de las Américas Prize for Literature while still in manuscript form in 2001, she was recognized by the Elizabeth Fry Society with its Rebels for a Cause Award, and the YWCA awarded her its Women of Distinction in the Arts Award. In 2012, she received a NALIS Lifetime Literary Award and in 2020 she was awarded the PEN/Nabokov Award for International Literature and made an Honorary Fellow of the Modern Language Association, USA.