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Meeting Nourbese

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Marlene Nourbese was already in the room when I arrived. To call the Gothic Room a room does it so much disservice. The interior of an Edwardian chapel maybe or something close to it but certainly not a room. Chairs were lined up semicircular in front of a podium. She sat to the left of the podium, engrossed in a chat with Fred. I strained to hear the sound of her voice, hoping it would help solidify some of the assumptions I had already made about her, but I got nothing. Bald head, white tunic, black tights–she stood before us when called upon to speak. After a brief intro, she began to read from Zong!

Surprising how she could imitate the sound of sea water with her mouth, even though she was not saying anything, just moving her mouth like she was drowning and gasping and shouting all at the same time. It was not a two-minute thing. It went on for an uncomfortable while. She just stood there and belted out these voiceless screams. The result was a strange silence, an impure silence commanding the space in such a way that any intruding sound–a shuffled feet, a cough, an aborted sneeze, humming light bulbs, murmuring fans–ended up participating in this silence they were too powerless to interrupt. Eerie is the only way I can describe the unease, boredom, and wonder that mingled within me and made me wish silently that she would speak.

And she did. But I could not follow the fragments of the words and phrases she was reeling out and her awful pronunciation of the West African names she kept calling out. Undocumented names of the Africans thrown overboard the ship called Zong in 1781. 133 of them. Her book of poem titled Zong!was an attempt “to not tell the tale that had to be told” about these dastardly murders. And her mispronunciation was, perhaps, an instance of not speaking the names of those that had to be named.

At some point she shared with us what it was like to finish writing Zong! and to realize how much working ruthlessly at it had grounded her. And so how life after the book brought about a “falling silent,” a kind of post-completion depression that seemed to be common among artists.

An evening of solemn awesomeness!

Yet when someone asked me what I thought of Nourbese’s reading from Zong!, all I could say was “the ridiculous phrase,” it’s different, or “some similarly feeble and useless cliche.”

Video of her in Toronto.

Photo Credits: The Princess Madia (State Library and Archive in Florida)

Feature Photo: Midnight Sun in Advent Bay (Library of Congress) 

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Ainehi Edoro is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches African literature. She received her doctorate at Duke University. She is the founder and editor of Brittle Paper and series editor of Ohio University Press’s Modern African Writer’s imprint.

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