Tracing the Black Diaspora in Canisia Lubrin’s “The Mongrel”

“The Mongrel,” from Canisia Lubrin’s debut collection Voodoo Hypothesis, offers an inventory and ontological sketch of the modern Caribbean subject through the figure of the mongrel, a recurring trope in Anglophone Caribbean literatures that refers to the racially and culturally hybrid Caribbean self. In “What the Twilight Says,” Lubrin’s fellow St. Lucian, the poet and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, figures the mongrel as the ideal descriptor of the West Indian subject: “[M]ongrel as I am, something prickles in me when I see the word ‘Ashanti’ as with the word ‘Warwickshire,’ both separately intimating my grandfathers’ roots, both baptizing this neither proud nor ashamed bastard, this hybrid, this West Indian” (What 9). While Walcott locates the mongrel within a regional-nationalistic frame to assert a vision of a creole Caribbean identity, Lubrin’s imagining of the mongrel emerges through the frame of a diasporic Blackness that is always in the process of composing its ontology in the wake of intergenerational transatlantic violences. Lubrin’s account of the mongrel traces the spectre of the Caribbean subject that simultaneously haunts modernity and proves incalculably indecipherable to modernity’s desires for a discernible sovereign subject.


“The Mongrel” is a suite in six sections, each framed by a mathematical symbol: the radical sign, which could also be read as a check mark (√ or ✓), and the symbols for “congruent to” (≅), “not equal to” (≠), “greater than or equal to” (≥), “less than or equal to” (≤), and infinity (∞). Through the use of these symbols as headings, Lubrin prompts readers to consider the fraught relationship that mathematics and the natural sciences more broadly have had with Black subjects historically and contemporaneously. Using the symbols to frame poetic reflections on the mongrel, the creolized Caribbean subject, Lubrin calls to mind the work of Denise Ferreira da Silva, particularly her essay “1 (Life) ÷ 0 (Blackness) = ∞ − ∞ or ∞ / ∞: On Matter beyond the Equation of Value.” Ferreira da Silva creatively appropriates mathematical discourse and applies it to the question, does Black life matter? She contends that “[i]n the modern Western imagination, blackness has no value; it is nothing. As such, it marks an opposition that signals a negation, which does not refer to contradiction.” Ferreira da Silva arrives at an answer, namely that Black life “is undeterminable, it has no form: it is ∞ minus itself or ∞ divided by itself. It is neither life nor nonlife; it is content without form, or materia prima—that which has no value because it exists (as ∞) without form.”


This rendering of Blackness in relation to empirical reasoning resonates with utterances of the speaker in “The Mongrel,” who casts the Caribbean subject beyond, or in a parenthetical relation to, empiricism: “science, inexact like birth” (4), “the Mongrel’s Creole maps / mathless” (5). In her repudiation of empiricism, Lubrin asks us to consider what it means to reject ontological determinism in relation to the deracinated and racialized subjects of the Americas. The stakes of this questioning are best articulated by Ferreira da Silva: “blackness as matter signals ∞, another world: namely, that which exists without time and out of space, in the plenum.” Put differently, to trace the figure of the mongrel outside of deterministic mathematical logic is to imagine a world beyond the present, which is buttressed by dehumanizing pseudo-empirical racializing logics.


The opening lines of “The Mongrel” are evocative: “Still unravelling from ghosting stars, / she moves us, light-formed, cue, / of Mongrel, also a corpse” (4). The image is amorphous; the “she” is ambiguous throughout the poem, but is suggested to be a maternal figure who gives birth to the mongrel. The “ghosting stars” from whence the mongrel “us” is moved resonates— especially when coupled with the phrase “Mongrel, also a corpse”—with assertions in Black and Caribbean studies of the ontological status of those who are considered arrivants. Jodi Byrd (Chickasaw) borrows the term “arrivant” from the late Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite “to signify those people forced into the Americas through the violence of European and Anglo-American colonialism and imperialism around the globe” (xix). Consequently, Lubrin’s “ghosting” animates thoughts of how the figure of the “mongrel” arrivant functions as a “ghosting of modernity,” especially if we understand that “ghostly discourse is the discourse of blackness” (Carter 591). The invocation of the “corpse” furthers the notion of the arrivant as a subject shrouded in grief, particularly when one bears in mind Orlando Patterson’s conceptualization of social death, along with Frank B. Wilderson III’s and Jared Sexton’s elaborations of that concept.


Sexton argues that in a “perverse sense, black social death is black social life” (37) because of the centrality of transatlantic slavery to the composition of the Afro-Caribbean subject. Indeed Sexton asserts that “social death might be thought of as another name for slavery and an attempt to think about what it comprises” (17): “[T]he concept of social death cannot be generalized. It is indexed to slavery and it does not travel” (21). When not presented as socially dead, the mongrel is never rendered whole in Lubrin’s poem. The mongrel is the bearer of a “wounded / head” (5), “bone branding flesh” (7), “the wounded name” (8)—a reference to how the word has been used as a racist, derogatory term—and “the Black bruising self ” (6). This fleshly discourse is also indexed to the experience and legacies of transatlantic slavery. Theodora Danylevich turns to the work of Hortense Spillers, Saidiya V. Hartman, and Alexander G. Weheliye, contending that “black flesh is a zone of suffering; an assemblage of resistance and alternate world-making; a designation of accumulation and death.” “The Mongrel” emerges then, resulting from these resonances, as an ontological account of the arrivant in the new world that has been made through the deracinating experiences of the transatlantic slave trade and plantation society.


Elsewhere in Voodoo Hypothesis, in the poem “Polite Uncertainty,” Lubrin positions “history as font” (46), suggesting that history is a discursive argument, not an objective and fixed account of the past. In “The Mongrel,” history and memory function as motifs which characterize the affects of alienation and prolonged displacement experienced by arrivants. The “she” referred to throughout the poem is described as “feral / with remembrance” (5). Not only does “she” hold on to memory, but “she” is “feral” and thus agitated, distressed—the condition of the Caribbean subject in relation to history. Furthermore, the “Mongreled / air” is presented as “broken, invented again as history / in the rusted coils of coffee shops, inked / Mongrel skins” (6). The “again” in the phrase “invented again as history” is poignant, resonant of how history has been erased or manipulated by those in power to quell calls for accountability and reparative justice made by Black people in the Americas. The speaker reflexively asks, “What else reveals us, a species / of amnesiacs, cut off from the trembling that tore—/ our continents apart?” (9). These hyperbolic lines are also poignant, and point to how foundational anti-Black racism is to modernity and our collective conceptualization of “the World.” The references to history and memory do not highlight the pathology of the arrivant. Instead, Lubrin deploys a politics of implication, wherein the absence or agitation of history and memory is a result of the practices that constitute a modernity we all share in.


The penultimate section of “The Mongrel” alludes to a Canadian landscape: “that Nova Scotia beach aglow with Mongrel flame” (8). Making the mongrel present in Canada is an important move, one that reminds readers of Canada’s role in transatlantic slavery and its consequent position as a node in the transnational Black Atlantic. The invocation of Nova Scotia, in particular, orients readers to the historical and contemporary presence of people of African descent in the province. Among the first Black migrants to Nova Scotia were Black Loyalists who travelled to the province following the American Revolution. These refugees settled throughout Nova Scotia in various communities. Another wave of migration came in the form of exiled Jamaican Maroons who arrived in 1796. The figure of the mongrel is not fixed in a geographic space, but rather always on the move, diasporic, and engaged in a practice of fugitivity that is characteristic of the arrivant. The movement that Lubrin hints at is not entirely a matter of physical movement and migration, but is fundamentally about opposition, negation, and refusal. As Damien Sojoyner writes, “Black fugitivity is based on the disavowal of and disengagement from state-governed projects that attempt to adjudicate normative constructions of difference through liberal tropes of freedom and democratic belonging” (516). The Nova Scotian “beach aglow with Mongrel flame” (8) is not to be understood as a negative image, but as one illuminated by the generative possibilities of an adrift fugitivity being met by the potential of land(ed) relations.


The final section of “The Mongrel” extends the motif of possibility to suggest that more may be available to the mongrel than “this grief, a story with swords and bite, sun / whose silence holds the invisible pulls of distant worlds” (9). The speaker remarks, “The Mongrel’s / orienting grace is still its tail, showing up for things to come, / signalling that our knowledge of the Mongrel is only fragmentary” (9). To look towards the tail—a symbol of cultural retention and imagination which can engender a new world—requires abandoning the ontological conditioning of the world to which the arrivant has grown accustomed. In other words, Lubrin ends with an axiomatic statement that asserts that the diasporic subject, the arrivant, the so-called mongrel, is impermanent. To stay with the “tail” and all that it “signal[s]” is to imagine a world beyond the current. Dionne Brand writes in A Map to the Door of No Return that to “live in the Black Diaspora is I think to live as a fiction—a creation of empires, and also self-creation” (18). With “The Mongrel,” Lubrin edges us closer to understanding the fictions that have produced our current inequities. In our awareness of the power of these fictions, Lubrin asks us to claim fiction for ourselves rather than leaving it in the hands of those with power. She prods us to collectively imagine new worlds, newly rendered selves, and new ways of claiming our belonging to each other and ourselves.


Works Cited

Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging. Vintage, 2002.

Byrd, Jodi A. The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. U of Minnesota P, 2011.

Carter, J. Kameron. “Paratheological Blackness.” South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 112, no. 4, 2013, pp. 589-611.

Danylevich, Theodora. “Beyond Thinking: Black Flesh as Meat Patties and The End of Eating Everything.” Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge, no. 29, 2016,

Ferreira da Silva, Denise. “1 (Life) ÷ 0 (Blackness) = ∞ − ∞ or ∞ / ∞: On Matter beyond the Equation of Value.” E-Flux Journal, no. 79, Feb. 2017, 94686/1-life-0-blackness-or-on-matter-beyond-the-equation-of-value/. Accessed 3 Dec. 2021.

Lubrin, Canisia. Voodoo Hypothesis. Buckrider, 2017.

Sexton, Jared. “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism.” InTensions, no. 5, fall-winter 2011, jaredsextonarticle.pdf.

Sojoyner, Damien M. “Another Life Is Possible: Black Fugitivity and Enclosed Places.” Cultural Anthropology, vol. 32, no. 4, Nov. 2017, pp. 514-36.

Walcott, Derek. What the Twilight Says: Essays. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.

This originally appeared in Canadian Literature 247 (2021): 147-152.

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