Marlene NourbeSe Philip: “Paradise comes with a price”

Tobago-born Marlene NourbeSe Philip is an award-winning writer...

Marlene NourbeSe Philip. Photograph courtesy M NourbeSe Philip/Hardie Philip-Chamberlain

I was born (in 1947) in Tobago, in Woodlands, Moriah, and went to school there until I was eight. Then my dad moved us to Trinidad. He was a primary school principal. (At) UWI, Mona, I did a bachelor’s in economics with a specialisation in political science. I went to Canada, did a master’s and did law there and practised law in Canada for seven years. I think I did law because my father wanted to do law and never did do it. I had been married and separated and had a son. I thought, “I need a profession for myself as a single woman.” But I think I was finishing family business.

When my first marriage was breaking up I began keeping a journal, and it was what saved my life emotionally. It was just a place to put everything that was upsetting me. I was 21.
When I practised law I began writing poetry. It was very tentative. Being a writer was not something that parents wanted for their children. It was very foreign. I never thought that I would become a writer. It was actually as much a surprise to me that I found myself wanting to write, enjoying it and thinking, “Oh, maybe somebody might want to hear what I have to say.”

I practised law for seven years and in those seven years I published two books, Thorns and Salmon Courage. I always knew I was going to do something else. I think when I realised I was going to leave it was when I came back to Tobago for the first time since I was eight. I went back when I was 35 to where I was born, Moriah, and I wrote a poem called “Salmon Courage”. The poem is about the salmon needing to go back to the spawning ground, swimming upstream against all odds. Something about the experience, this image, the hardship, wanting to become something larger, was what shifted (my career).

Unlike the States, where you have a long tradition going back to Phillis Wheatley, who was a slave poet, in Canada you were actually creating your own audience while you were writing the work. When I finished Harriet’s Daughter, for instance, and sent it out, I was told by one of the most prestigious publishing houses there that they liked the writing but they had a problem with the characters being black – which sent me into a tailspin for about a year and a half. If they tell me the writing is bad, I can fix that, but if they tell me they have a problem with the race of the characters it’s like telling me they have a problem with my self.
What got me into writing fiction is that I realised very quickly you can’t earn a living writing poetry. I think I come to poetry instinctively, that is my first calling. I thought maybe if I could write fiction, it’s more saleable. The average print run of a poetry book is 500 copies. Harriet’s Daughter was on the CXC list for several years.

I would say that the issue that has chosen me – because that’s how I put it, something kind of claims you – is language, in all its manifestations. Starting with the original womb for us in the “Afrospora”, who lost their languages, had languages taken away from them. How do you reconcile losing a mother tongue, particularly when you have a language imposed on you that doesn’t mean you any good in terms of how it’s structured? To me, the English language has been profoundly contaminated by its experience as a colonising language – English, French, Spanish, all those colonising languages. And then the debate that was raging for a while, what language do you write in? The demotic? Standard English? Do you write in nation language? And then that branches out to issues like memory, exile.

In Harriet’s Daughter there’s Margaret, who’s speaking standard Canadian English. And at the other end is Zulma who is speaking Tobago talk. Right there, there’s a kind of Pan-African linguistic pattern in the book. And you go to works like She Tries her Tongue: “I have no mother tongue I must therefore be tongue dumb.” What I’m trying to say is that this language is brought to us by a male coloniser, so it is a father tongue – but it’s the only language we have. For me as a writer, I never feel at home in English; as much as I love it, I always treat with it as if it’s a bit of a foreign language. That pays dividends in certain ways because you’re working with it in a very conscious way, you’re not taking it for granted, and I think that’s why I employ a lot of avant-garde techniques around it.

In ideas, issues of memory/history have been issues driving Caribbean thought and continue to drive it. It’s the writers who are creating new ways of looking at these things – the transatlantic slave trade, indentureship. I feel very strongly that the people who are going to heal us are our griots – dancers, musicians, writers, poets – they are the ones who are going to help us come to terms with what has happened. The wounds are still there.

I have always seen myself as a Caribbean writer. The subject matter I’ve written about has been connected with the Caribbean in some way or form. I was already fully formed (when I went to Canada) and what formed me was this place, particularly Tobago…that’s where I write from.
I have two favourites in my own work. Fiction: I would say Harriet’s Daughter. That was my second novel. My first novel has never been published. I put it aside ten years ago. My all-time favourite piece is the last section of my most recent book, Zong! In that section I feel like I got my revenge on the English language. The way I’ve done it is by breaking the words up, fragmenting it, so although they are English words they begin to sound like another language. I feel like it’s capping a career of struggling with the language.

They speak about these islands being paradise, but we know paradise comes with a price. It’s always on a knife’s edge. Maybe it’s the history that’s always under the surface. So much blood, so much death. When you confront the pain of what these islands have meant, you have to hang on for dear life and keep them going, for the little ones.