Silence as an experimental act in Marlene NourbeSe Philip’s experimental long poem Zong!


10 novembre 2021



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Marlene NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008) is at once a conceptual and a ritual poem. As an experimental work of letters, it encircles the genocide aboard the slave ship the Zong in November 1781, when 142 African bodies—handcuffed women and children first—were pushed into the Atlantic Ocean because they were seen as cargo to be disposed of for the safety of the ship. No trace of their lives remains, except for their bones in the sea. Zong! intimates these lives at the moment of their murder by appropriating the words of the perpetrators: it uses and abuses the text of the legal decision Gregson vs Gilbert (1783)—on the question of the insurance of the ship and its “cargo” (the enslaved)—to sculpt a contemporary poem. Zong! can thus be seen as a text possessed; it tries to speak from the dead, where the dead cannot speak.

As I show, Zong! compels me to question the hermeneutic traditions I have been socialized into. It challenges me to scrutinize my received ideas on race, creativity, and innovative writing—and my frames to approach such writing as a white female critic. Fundamentally, it challenges my position as an academic who “has a say.” Do I have a voice here, in relation to this poem and its singular mode of experimentation? Philips struggled for years with the making of it; I struggled for months with my approach to it. In the end, I decided to sit with my struggle and turn it into my research question: Can I own my inherent racism? Can I approach the silence of the enslaved in Zong! without stepping on it? My response to this question is organized as a dance choreographed by black spiritual, cultural, and poetic activists on race, aesthetic form, and the transformative power of such form. Key to this response is the term care, with its complex, Germanic and Old English etymology of grief, lament, sorrow, and anxiety. Care—Zorg—is also the original name of the Zong built as a slave ship in Middelburg, the Netherlands, in 1777, before it was taken by the British. I hijack this name to explore a radical hermeneutics: an affective engagement with literary texts that requires presence, awareness, and openness through radical self-questioning.


Lectures recommandées (mais non obligatoires pour participer à l’évènement):

  • Philip, M. NourbeSe and Setaey Adamu Boatang, Zong! , Wesleyan University Press, 2008 (accessible depuis le catalogue des bibliothèques universitaires UCLouvain, en version digitale, et également via MUSE)
  • Kiene Brillenburg Wurth, “The Material Turn in Comparative Literature: An Introduction”. Comparative Literature, 70(3), 2018, 247-263.
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