M. NourbeSe Philip
Life and works
Born in the Caribbean in Woodlands, Moriah, Trinidad and Tobago, Philip was educated at the University of the West Indies. She subsequently pursued graduate degrees in political science and law at the University of Western Ontario, and practised law in Toronto, Ontario, for seven years. She left her law practice in 1983 to devote time to her writing.
Philip is known for experimentation with literary form and for her commitment to social justice. Though her writing suggests an in-depth understanding of the canon, Philip's career undoubtedly helped to free her from the constraints of tradition and to nurture her social analysis and criticism.
Philip has published five books of poetry, two novels, four books of collected essays and two plays. Her short stories, essays, reviews and articles have appeared in magazines and journals in North America and England and her poetry has been extensively anthologized. Her work - poetry, fiction and non-fiction – is taught widely at university level and is the subject of much academic writing and critique.
Her first novel, Harriet's Daughter (1988), is widely used in high school curricula in Ontario, Great Britain and was, for a decade, studied by all children in the Caribbean receiving a high school CXC diploma. It has also been published as an audio cassette, a script for stage and in a German-language edition. Although categorized as young adult literature, Harriet’s Daughter is a book that can appeal to older children and adults of all ages. Set in Toronto, this novel explores the themes of friendship, self-image, ethics and migration, while telling a story that is riveting, funny and technically accomplished. It makes the fact of being Black a very positive and enhancing experience.
Philip’s most renowned poetry book, She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks, was awarded the Casa de las Américas Prize for Literature while still in manuscript form. As she explores themes of race, place, gender, colonialism and, always, language, Philip plays with words, bending and restating them in a way that is reminiscent of jazz. The tension between father tongue (the white Euro-Christian male canon), and mother tongue (Black African female) is always present. Most quoted is the chant-like refrain at the core of Discourse on the Logic of Language:
my mother tongue
my father tongue
is a foreign lan lan lang
Philip is a prolific essayist. Her articles and essays … demonstrate a persistent critique and an impassioned concern for issues of social justice and equity in the arts, prompting Selwyn R. Cudjoe's assertion that Philip "serves as a lightning rod of black cultural defiance of the Canadian mainstream." More to the point is the epigram in Frontiers where Philip dedicates the book to Canada, "in the effort of becoming a space of true belonging".
It is as an essayist that M. NourbeSe Philip’s role as anti-racist activist is most evident. She was one of the first to make culture her primary focus as she argued passionately and articulately for social justice and equity. Specific controversial events that have been the focus of her essays include the Into the Heart of Africa exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum, the Toronto production of Show Boat, and Caribana. Her essays also put the spotlight on racial representation on arts councils and committees in Canada and there have been definite advances in this area subsequently. It was at a small demonstration concerning the lack of Canadian writers of colour outside of the 1989 PEN Canada gala that she was confronted by June Callwood.
Philip has also taught at the University of Toronto, taught creative fiction at the third-year level at York University and has been writer in residence at McMaster University and University of Windsor.
Her 2008 work, Zong! is based on a legal decision at the end of the 18th century, related to the notorious murder of Africans on board a slave ship. A dramatized reading of this new poem cycle was workshopped and presented at Harbourfront in Toronto as part of rock.paper.sistahz in 2006. Poems from this collection have been published in Facture, boundary 2 and Fascicle; the later includes four poems, along with an extensive introduction. On April 16, 2012, at b current studio space in Toronto, Philip held her first authorial full-length reading of Zong!—an innovative interaction-piece lasting seven hours in which both author and audience performed a cacophonous collective reading of the work from beginning to end. In solidarity with this collective reading, another audience-performance was held in Blomfontein, South Africa.
In talking about her own work Philip has said, "fiction is about telling lies, but you must be scathingly honest in telling those lies. Poetry is about truth telling, but you need the lie - the artifice of the form to tell those truths."
Scholar Rinaldo Walcott has engaged critically with the work of M. NourbeSe Philip. His essay "'No Language is Neutral': The Politics of Performativity in M. Nourbese Philip's and Dionne Brand's Poetry", in the book Black Like Who?, is a strong example of this scholarly engagement.
- Thorns (1980)
- Salmon Courage (1983)
- She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks (1989)
- Discourse on the Logic of Language (1989)
- Zong! (2008)
- Harriet's Daughter (1988)
- Looking for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence(1991)
- Frontiers: Essays and Writings on Racism and Culture (1992)
- Showing Grit: Showboating North of the 44th Parallel (1993)
- CARIBANA: African Roots and Continuities - Race, Space and the Poetics of Moving (1996)
- Genealogy of Resistance and Other Essays (1997)
- Coups and Calypsos (1999)
- Harriet's Daughter (2000)
- Casa de las Americas prize for the manuscript version of the poetry book, She Tries Her Tongue... 1998
- Tradewinds Collective (Trinidad & Tobago) Poetry – 1st prize, 1988 and Short Story – 1st prize, 1988
- Canadian Library Association prize for children's literature, runner-up, for Harriet's Daughter - 1989
- Max and Greta Abel Award for Multicultural Literature, first runner-up for Harriet's Daughter - 1989
- Guggenheim Fellow, in poetry – 1990
- McDowell Fellow – 1991
- Lawrence Foundation Award for the short story "Stop Frame" published in the journal Prairie Schooner - 1995
- Toronto Arts Award in writing and publishing, finalist – 1995
- Rebels for a Cause award, the Elizabeth Fry Society of Toronto – 2001
- Woman of Distinction award in the Arts, YWCA - 2001
- Chalmers Fellowship in Poetry – 2002
- Rockefeller Foundation residency in Bellagio, Italy - 2005.
- Who’s Who in Canadian Literature. Toronto: Reference Press, 1997-98.
- Microsoft Encarta Africana, 2001.
- Black Heritage Month, poster, 2002.
- Dawn P. Williams, Who’s Who in Black Canada, Toronto: D. P. Williams, 2003.
- Peter Hudson, Microsoft Encarta Africana.
- Selected Resource at Intermediate level by The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, The Toronto District School Board Equity Department, Hamilton-Wentworth Elementary Teachers’ Local, Peel District School Board, Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board, York Catholic District School Board; Celebrating African Heritage, Black History Month, February 2004.
- M. NourbeSe Philip, "The Absence of Writing or How I Almost Became a Spy", She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks and Genealogy of Resistance and Other Essays.
- Walcott, Rinaldo. Black Like Who? Toronto: Insomniac Press, 1997.
- M. NourbeSe Philip website
- PennSound audio
- "The journey of the word" - interview, UWI Today, March 2010.