M. NourbeSe Philip never wanted to be a poet. She didn’t really want to be a lawyer, either. She wanted to be a spy.
“I never considered writing as a career and I think that had to do a lot with the system I had been born into. Trinidad and Tobago was a colony. I wanted to be a spy, and that made a lot more sense. You could work for the government and spy on behalf of the imperial majesty, so to speak,” said Philip, Western’s newest writer-in-residence.
“It’s interesting, because I think writing involves a fair degree of secret activity, spying on other people, listening, carefully observing, thinking, ‘That’s a great story; I want to use that somehow,’” she continued.
In some roundabout sense, Philip would come to realize this aspiration.
Having completed a B.Sc. (Econ.) degree at the University of the West Indies, she came to Western in 1970 for an MA in Political Science, following it with a law degree in 1973. Though never a spy, she moved to Toronto to practice law, becoming a witness to others’ stories.
“I believed then that lawyers could change society. Very quickly, I began to realize no, we weren’t going to,” Philip said.
Disheartened by family law – the bulk of her private practice – somewhere along the way, she found her calling as a poet and storyteller, one uncannily tasked with bearing witness for the self and others.
“For me, writing began as a therapeutic function, here in London, actually, when my first marriage was breaking up. It saved my life. I just kept journals – I just wrote. It just poured out and I know it saved my life – my emotional life. I never contemplated that it would become anything else,” Philip said, noting by then, she had a child to support and writing just wasn’t a viable career option.
She nevertheless published two books of poetry while practicing law. She eventually gave up the practice entirely to pursue writing. She maintains an interest in international law, seeing it as important for communities that have suffered wrongs in the past. Out of this interest, she found a voice.
“For African people in the ‘New World,’ to be able to heal from historical trauma, it wouldn’t be the lawyers, doctors or engineers who would heal us. I really believed, and I still believe, that it’s our poets – they’re the ones who I think are tasked with this job of brining us to a place of healing, whatever that may be,” Philip said.
And like that, she took up the role of the poet, of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislator of the world.”
Over the years, Philip has written poetry, short stories, novels, essays, plays, reviews and articles, covering subjects such as language, belonging, being black in Canada, equity and social justice. She has received Canada Council awards, numerous Ontario Arts Council grants and was the recipient of a Toronto Arts Council award in l989.
In l988, she won the prestigious Casa de las Americas prize for the manuscript version of her book, She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks, and she is the first prizewinner of the Tradewinds Collective Prize (Trinidad & Tobago) in both the poetry and short story categories. Her first novel, Harriet’s Daughter, was published in l988 and was one of two runners-up in the l989 Canadian Library Association Prize for children’s literature. It was also first runner up in the Max and Greta Abel Award for Multicultural Literature.
She has taught writing at York University, the University of Toronto, OCAD University and has held several writer-in-residence posts.
Throughout her career, Philip has continually searched for her own language, looking to master it and serve it up to the reader in a new way. She continues to search for a language lost, one that she feels is a palimpsest underneath her written word.
“The whole idea of language for us, coming from the Caribbean, is so fraught with history and trauma. We don’t have a mother tongue, but we have English, French and Spanish. When I go to Africa, and I hear them speaking different languages, that’s when I realize what the loss is,” she said.
“That is the trauma I work with – expressing the inexpressible – finding that phantom language I know is there, floating somewhere. So, I am forced to find other ways of expressing myself.”
It’s in her last published work, Zong!, Philip found relief. The extended poetry cycle is based on a legal decision, at the end of the 18th century, related to the murder of Africans on board a slave ship.
“It took it out of me, those seven-eight years, and I think it’s the work. I think … along with my children, there’s Zong!. One day, I (could) say, ‘I’ve done something.’ Not that I’ve done something good; I have done something. I have created three children, and I have created Zong!. Or, I allowed myself, I surrendered to the processes of being a part of (its) creation,” Philip explained.
“I think it’s the work that probably comes closest to the task of creating potential for healing. I think it’s the work that comes closest to creating an opportunity, a pool of silence, where those who are willing, can engage with both the trauma and the potential for healing.”