Persons and Voices: Sounding Impossible Bodies in M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!


I argue that in her book Zong! (2008), which concerns the 1781 massacre of 150 enslaved Africans incarcerated on the ship Zong, M. NourbeSe Philip turns toward lyric and legal concepts of personhood in order to theorize poetic voice as bodily emission. Zong!’s politics lie in this historiographic challenge: it must create forms appropriate to the legal nonperson, and must use them to transform this figure “back into human.” Thus, Philip confronts the longstanding philosophical conception of personhood as the ownership of oneself in three ways: first, through “affective possession,” where personhood is not an effect of property in the self, but is conferred upon others through the investment of affect. Second, Philip uses lyric modes such as apostrophe to confer personhood upon the murdered slaves. Third, she proposes a conception of poetic voice as physical utterance, not as expression of interiority, acknowledging the ways in which the body persists beyond and is shaped by its nonrecognition by regimes of power. Thus Zong! returns to concepts of personhood whose promise remains unfulfilled.

This article “Persons and Voices: Sounding Impossible Bodies in M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!” originally appeared in 21st-Century Poetics. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 210-211 (Autumn/Winter 2011): 43-58.

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