Wayfinding in the Marginalia

  • Sonja Boon
    What the Oceans Remember: Searching for Belonging and Home.

Sonja Boon, a professor of Gender Studies at Memorial University, former professional flutist, and co-editor of the Life Writing series from Wilfrid Laurier University Press, has made us the beneficiaries of her extensive research into a seemingly innocuous but, in reality, supremely intimate question: “[w]here are you from?” In accounting for complex and painful interactions regarding origin that resonate with many of us with heterogeneous lineages—whether they stem from geography, racial and/or ethnic identity, or traumatic fractures as a result of internal or external pressures—Boon’s What the Oceans Remember assuages its readers (and its author) that it is okay when presumably simple questions do not produce synonymous answers. As a work of life writing composed of personal memoir and archival research that centres on the ravaging effects of colonialism upon family lines and human lives, especially when those lives are reinterpreted as chattel within the transatlantic slave trade, Boon’s text echoes the haunting qualities of Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return and M. NourbeSe Philip’s critical companions to her masterpiece Zong!, as well as the thematic, affective, and geographic considerations of scholars including Saidiya Harman, D. Alissa Trotz, Katherine McKittrick, Sylvia Wynter, and Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley.

Boon levies critiques of bureaucratic institutions that tout genealogical records, and of Enlightenment and existential philosophers who paved the way for our modern understandings of freedom. She points out that the quest for one’s genealogy in an archive would rely on documents such as certificates of marriage and birth, but would fail to account for children born out of wedlock or conceived to enslaved mothers. Immersed in the archives of an eighteenth-century Dutch trading company, the Middelburgsche Commercie Compagnie, Boon is startled by the realization that her genealogy is told “in beer and wine, cutlery and weapons, fabrics and pots, in the price of a slave . . . [i]n the marginalia of a trading company journal.” Ultimately she questions how to live with the weight of her freedom in the face of her ancestors’ bondage and the subsequent acts of violence and dehumanization they suffered. While Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jean-Paul Sartre offered, respectively, that “[m]an is born free . . . and everywhere is in chains” and we are “condemned to be free,” Boon is unconvinced by such explications in that neither of these men wrote from the lived experience of enslavement. Coming to terms with her past thus requires Boon to attempt connecting with her ancestors’ lives through the scraps of documentation available and to resist the temptation to turn to staid theories, as they prove incapable of addressing the singularities of her ancestors’ experiences.

While the author admits to being fatigued by the never-ending barrage of questions about her heredity, she ultimately demonstrates painstaking self-reflexivity and compassion about the very human process of trying to find connection through shared cultural or ethnic backgrounds. Late in the book, Boon includes a photograph of her grandmother, Henriette, whom she describes as Catholic with a Chinese name and “Hindu indentured ancestors.” Henriette married Boon’s grandfather, described as “the child of a German man and his Creole concubine and the descendant of enslaved Africans.” Such descriptions hint at the complexity of her roots in the former Dutch colony of Suriname, and also account for the incessant commentary she is privy to regarding her phenotype and physical features: “[e]xotic creature . . . What’s your treaty number? . . . A dark woman.” While this text is replete with emotional epiphanies and intimate offerings, one of the moments that has stayed with me is an anecdote about studying at the conservatory in The Hague, where Boon was constantly mistaken by women wearing headscarves who would stop and question her: “Turks?” With regret, Boon would shake her head. She explains: “The women were looking for a translator, someone who could help them navigate the various bumps . . . of daily living in the Netherlands.” As such, “‘Turks’ was not just a question; it was an endearment, an intimacy. It was a way of seeking allegiances, a moment of recognition that acknowledged that we were both outsiders here.” Boon thus deconstructs the impetus for the question “Where are you from?” While it can be, and often is, intended to affirm an “other’s” status as an outsider, it can also stem from a place of desiring connection. Boon’s musical training has given her an ear for subtlety in both human interaction and archival excavation for which her readers are indebted.

This review “Wayfinding in the Marginalia” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 20 Jul. 2020. Web.

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