Meeting Nourbese

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) 

Tags: , , , , ,

I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Archives

Lesley Nneka Arimah Picked for the US National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” List

Lesley Nneka Arimah has been picked for the US National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” list of 2017, on the […]

The Photographer as an Osprey | John “Lighthouse” Oyewale | Essay

On 30 June, we published Work Naija: The Book of Vocations, an anthology of writing and visual art that explores the […]

Zukiswa Wanner Calls Out Misogyny in South Africa, Kenya and Zimbabwe, Takes on Politicians and the Media

Zukiswa Wanner has called out misogyny in South Africa, Kenya and Zimbabwe, taking on politicians and the media in the […]

Dinaw Mengestu and Nadifa Mohamed Have New Work in Freeman’s Magazine

Nadifa Mohamed

Dinaw Mengestu and Nadifa Mohammed both have new fiction forthcoming in the new fourth issue of Freeman’s magazine. Titled “The Future […]

The Brittle Paper Literary Awards: New Date for the Announcement of Winners

The announcement of the winners of the inaugural Brittle Paper Literary Awards was scheduled for 23 September 2017. However, a change […]

The Reviews Are In! | Namwali Serpell Has High Praise for Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu

Screen-Shot-2017-09-20-at-4.57.42-PM-e1505944728679 copy

Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu is one of the hit novels of 2017. A historical drama, it tells the story of an 18th […]