Written in Skin

Sonja Boon, What the Oceans Remember: Searching for Belonging and Home (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2019); 315 pages; ISBN 978-1771124232 (hardcover)

Tessa McWatt, Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2019); 230 pages; ISBN 978-0735277434 (paperback)

• February 2022

Sonja Boon’s What the Oceans Remember and Tessa McWatt’s Shame on Me share more than their publication year. Boon, an academic who currently teaches at Memorial University in Newfoundland, and McWatt, a novelist who teaches creative writing at the University of East Anglia in Britain, have written family memoirs that are also meditations on what it is like to move through the world as complexly diasporic and ambiguously racialized subjects. They trace the histories of colonialism, labor exploitation, racial management, and migration that brought their African, Chinese, Indian, and European ancestors to the Caribbean plantation colonies of Suriname (Boon) and Guyana (McWatt); conditioned the lives their families made there; and shaped Boon’s and McWatt’s own middle-class immigrant childhoods in late-twentieth-century Canada. Like Hazel Carby’s Imperial Intimacies, which also appeared in 2019 (and was the focus of a recent Small Axe book discussion), What the Oceans Remember and Shame on Me testify to the force with which such histories are felt on the most intimate of scales: our bodies, our desires, our relationships with others.1

Both Boon and McWatt locate the impetus for the journeys of enquiry that structure their books in childhood encounters that awakened them to the hypervisibility of their bodies in the White communities where they grew up—Boon in rural Alberta, McWatt in suburban Ontario. The particulars of their embodiments and family situations subject them to different forms of racialization. Born to two Guyanese parents with Black ancestry, McWatt learns how her Blackness signifies to others in a classroom incident that ends with the teacher inviting her to identify as “Mexican[,] . . . Brazilian[,] . . . Filipino,” an invitation she refuses even as it radically undermines her relationship to her body (14–15; ellipses in original). McWatt’s own beloved “Chinese” grandmother, who fosters in her a sense of affinity with Chineseness—“The only single tradition that I have ever imagined I could fully inhabit,” she writes—counsels her against marrying a Black man, communicating lessons learned early on from intersecting colonial and Chinese racial orders (91). Like McWatt, Boon descended from enslaved Africans on her Surinamese mother’s side. However, Boon does not read as Black, at least not within the Canadian or European contexts where she has spent most of her life. Nor does she identify as Black. Rather, Boon says, her (uncertain) sense of self and belonging reflects the anomaly of her “strange, indefinable, chameleon-like brown[ness],” which made her stand out in Fort Saskatchewan and has always confounded people’s attempts to place her (20). Thanks to the historical accident that brought Boon’s ancestors to Dutch Guiana (now Suriname) rather than the neighboring British colony where McWatt’s ancestors were transported (now Guyana), Boon also speaks Dutch, a linguistic inheritance that has shaped her life and intellectual practice in distinctive ways. (Her reflections on language and bilingualism are among the book’s many gifts.) What connects the two, nonetheless, is the experience of being thrown out of sync with their bodies and communities by the mismatch between the messiness of the histories of their arrivals in Canada and the requirements and false promises of Canadian multiculturalism, however seductive.

Boon, who began her professional life as a classical flautist, explains that music was the first way she found “to tell [her] own stories” (9). In What the Oceans Remember she draws on her academic training as an archival researcher to flesh out the history the family knows in outline but not in speaking, textural detail. The book is structured by Boon’s itinerary through multiple archives: in the Netherlands, where she locates her Dutch father’s ancestors, none of whom traveled very far from home, and where she peruses the records of the Dutch companies that built fortunes kidnapping African men and women for sale to plantation owners in colonies like Suriname; in Suriname, where she scrutinizes archival records, family stories, and the built landscape searching for traces of her enslaved and free Black ancestors, as well as for her indentured Indian great-grandmother and Chinese step-great-grandfather; in England, where she examines documents relating to the ships that transported Indian indentured laborers like her great-grandmother to the Caribbean; and at her home institution in Newfoundland, Memorial University, which houses the Maritime History Archive. In this way, What the Oceans Remember unfolds as a set of meditations—astute, self-reflexive, often powerfully moving—on what it means to have to rely on such archives to learn more about one’s ancestors, glimpsed, in many cases, at the moment of an encounter with power at its most brutalizing. Like other historians of slavery, Boon cannot bear to look either at or away from the records of enslavement and the violence to which they testify, including through what is left out, whether in the textual form of the account book or the “living archive” of the Surinamese landscape (175). With disarming honesty, Boon contemplates the force of her desire to create stories she “can live with” from the scraps that are often all that remains of them, such as the story of an indentured ancestor, for example, who traveled alone with her young son from India to Suriname, where she became involved with a Chinese man sometime around 1880 (207). And Boon ponders her own capacity and right to tell her Surinamese ancestors’ stories, as a person with intimate connections to Suriname who can “see [herself] in every body” she encounters there, yet also, at the same time, as a foreigner from the wealthy north who registers as White, “a bakra in a brown land” (117, 114).

When McWatt travels to Guyana, where she was born and briefly lived, she too feels at once comfortable as nowhere else—“In the tropical air I am in my body,” she writes—and uneasy, “more like Jane [Eyre] than Bertha [Mason]”: the racial and color hierarchies that emerged to govern postabolition life across the Caribbean also facilitated, she knows, her family’s departure for Canada and middle-class life as “good” immigrants (71, 66, 23). The documentary archives that so captivate Boon exert less of a pull for McWatt, who instead takes the body and its knowledges as her starting point throughout, mediated by the “fragile map of stories” others have told about her body and bodies like hers, in the form of family stories, photography, touch, racial science, popular culture, and state violence (22). Early in her archival journey, Boon is struck by the uncanny familiarity of the noses she encounters in the paintings at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam: like McWatt, she emphasizes the queerness of the ways complex family histories manifest in the body, which the language of “mixing” entirely fails to convey. As is appropriate for a book that describes itself as an “anatomy,” Shame on Me wrestles with this notion of the circulating body part as a principle of organization, beginning with the nose, proceeding through lips, eyes, hair, ass, and bones, ending with skin and blood. As McWatt comes to realize, however, the sense of fragmentation, of being divided against herself, that makes it difficult for her to cultivate sustaining relationships cannot “be pinned [only] on the outside world, on the way it reacted to [her] hair, [her] eyes, [her] skin, [her] ass,” but reflects, in addition, the particulars of her upbringing and personality (135). In “Minimal Selves,” Stuart Hall writes that “identity is formed at the unstable point where the ‘unspeakable’ stories of subjectivity meet the narratives of history, of a culture.”2 Desiring “integrity” or “wholeness,” McWatt turns to psychoanalysis for help tending to the former, a process that leaves her feeling more “porous to people around [her],” as well as with a more expansive sense of belonging (157).

Together, What the Oceans Remember and Shame on Me continue the work of showing how the racial governmentalities that sustained colonial capitalist modernity in the plantocracies of the Caribbean were lived and also reworked through people’s everyday practices of relation, including (though by no means only) across racial lines. As both memoirs make clear, these histories continue to reverberate both in Guyana and Suriname, where their meanings have been bitterly contested as part of postindependence struggles for new forms of collective life, and in the diaspora, where for emigrants like Boon and McWatt whose experiences of the Canadian social worlds where they end up are shaped by the fundamental illegibility of the ancestry—what Boon calls “the histories of five continents” (241)—they carry in their bodies, on their skins, and in their memories. Neither Boon nor McWatt wants simply to add new entries—more heterogeneous, more complicated, more mixed, more Caribbean—to the lexicon of Canadian multiculturalism, so that references to one’s Surinamese origins or Afro-Asian ancestry provoke recognition rather than perplexity. (Not that this would be a bad thing!) Both argue, rather, for the proliferation of complex stories, including through the imaginative exercise of writing itself, as against the multiculturalist demand for single origins and straightforward narratives that enables Canada to situate itself as the site of enlightened mixing and cultivated heterogeneity. For McWatt in particular, coming to terms with “how much movement” she is “made of” prompts her to a politics that is rooted less in identity than in opposition to the “living archive” of the plantation as an infrastructure of colonial capitalist modernity (207).

What is less clear is how such projects of storytelling, identity, and relation making, rooted in distinctive Caribbean histories of labor exploitation and racial formation, might intervene in the material conditions of twenty-first-century life not just in Canada (where Boon resides and McWatt still spends time) or Britain (where McWatt currently lives) but in Suriname and Guyana themselves. On the one hand, this requires understanding how the colonial and racial orders that underpin the uneven distribution of power and other goods in Canada (or Britain) also condition how Blackness, Chineseness, South Asianness, and Indigeneity come into relation there, or are presumed not to, in ways that conspire to frame Boon and McWatt as abject anomalies. On the other hand, it requires understanding how twenty-first-century Canadian, British, and Caribbean racial orders articulate within a global economy of power and knowledge haunted by empire and its afterlives. What do Shame on Me and What the Oceans Remember have to offer Guyanese and Surinamese conversations about the inheritance such pasts could be for the present? Toward the end of What the Oceans Remember, a startling encounter in the streets of Paramaribo forces Boon to the realization that she is not necessarily recognizable “at all” to the city’s residents, their shared history notwithstanding. What “responsibilities,” Boon asks, does she have to a place she has “only just begun to know” (247)? A resonant question, to which recognition is just one possible answer.

 

Nadine Attewell is an associate professor of global Asia and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at Simon Fraser University, in Burnaby, British Columbia. She is currently at work on a book titled “Archives of Intimacy: Racial Mixing and Asian Lives in the Colonial Port City.” 

 


[1] Hazel Carby, Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands (London: Verso, 2019); see Small Axe, no. 64 (March 2021): 167–203.

[2] Stuart Hall, “Minimal Selves,” in Houston Baker et al., eds., Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 115.