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English Hosts M. NourbeSe Philip at the Northeast MLA

April 30, 2015

Ryerson’s Faculty of Arts was honored recently to host the Northeast Modern Language Association’s 47th Annual Convention. The international gathering of scholars, translators, and creative artists was held at the Fairmont Royal York in downtown Toronto. The English Department and MA Program in Literatures of Modernity were thrilled to have as their guest the renowned Canadian author M. NourbeSe Philip. She performed at the opening evening reception, along with Madeleine Stratford, guest of the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures.

Prof. Dale Smith welcomed the opening assembly and introduced Philip, who performed work from Zong! (2008). Her critically acclaimed book-length poem is based on an 18th-century court case, Gregson vs. Gilbert, the only public document related to the lives and deaths of 150 Africans murdered for insurance money aboard the slave ship Zong. “This work,” Smith said, “attempts to re-humanize dehumanized figures.”

Philip’s performance brought ritual awareness to what Smith called “the ongoing violence of modernity through the scale of human abduction,” an important theme at the conference in general. “Language and its orienting features give shape and consequence,” Smith explained, regarding Philip’s work, “to the brutal linearity of trade, law, and the subjective harrowings that underwrite a vicious global contest over natural resources and human labor.”

Philip’s work spans and interweaves contrasting genres. Her writing situates themes of colonialism, race, memory, identity, and place at the contrasting intersections of political and poetic innovation. Philip’s other major works include the novels Harriet’s Daughter (1988) and Looking for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence (1991), and the poetry collection She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks (1989), winner of the Casa de las Americas Prize in poetry.