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The Continent Of Silence
by Phil Hall

MARLENE NOURBESE PHILIP is the 1988 winner in poetry in English of the prestigious Casa de Ias Americas Prize. She won the $4,000 award for a manuscript called She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks, to be published in Havana later this year. Nourbese Philip is the first anglophone woman to win the award, and the second Canadian. (Austin Clarke won it in 1980.) Likely, though, you've never heard of her. I hadn't either. That's one of the facts about writing in Canada these years: awards, or obscurity.

Nourbese Philip has published two previous books of poetry, with WilliamsWallace: Thorns, and Salmon Courage. Both are out of print. She has also just published, with Heinemann in England and the United States, and in Canada with the Women's Press, a novel for young people called Harriet's Daughter. Young Margaret wants to be "at least 5 shades darker." She changes her name to Harriet, emulating Harriet Tubman, the famed "driver" of the underground railroad that helped slaves escape to freedom in the North. Then Harriet invents an underground railroad game in which groups of kids designated as "guides and slaves" or "slave?owners and dogs" track each other through the neighbourhoods of Toronto on Saturdays. Harriet also succeeds, in true Tubman fashion, at an elaborate plan to return her friend Zulma to her Gran in Tobago. .

Nourbese Philip says she stays very close to the child within herself, and that she knew she had written something good.

First she sent it to Canadian publishers, who in effect told her that black kids in Canada don't read about themselves, black kids don't read, there's no market. At this, .of course, Nourbese Philip was so angry she considered leaving Canada. But first she sent the novel off to publishers in England ? and got two offers right away.

Ironically, though, Nourbese Philip says that she could never have written what she has in Britain or in the United States. Canada offered her a "void, an emptiness, a space." In Britain and the United States her books might have been overly influenced, quickly absorbed, or she might never have written them from within the depths of such established black cultures. But in Canada "there is nothing." Nourbese Philip, Claire Harris, Dionne Brand these women and a few others are creating the first modem black women's written culture in Canada.

The other aspect of being in Canada, says Nourbese Philip, is that Canada's daycare programs (daycare being, at best, scarce in the U.S. and England) permit her to both write her books and raise her young family.

Even a glance at the writer's titles makes it obvious that a distinctive voice has gradually emerged. There is an obvious symbolic growth from stationary, defensive Thorns (her first book), through Salmon Courage (her second) ? that private pilgrimage ? to She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks (the title is a line from Ovid's Metamorphoses).

The award?winning manuscript, She Tries Her Tongue. . ., is a book?length linguistic and feminist odyssey in which Nourbese Philip documents her triumphs over the uni?voiced, uni?verse?all, white forces of the English language, Christianity, and tradition. At the book's core is a chant that? should become famous for its music and bravery:and engtish is my mother tongue is my father tongue is a foreign Ian Ian lang language l/anguish anguish mother tongue me mother me touch me with the tongue of yours Ian Ian long language l/anguish anguish english is a foreign anguish. Around this dub?chant Nourbese Philip has packed facts ("the scientific legacy of racism," "the physiology of speech"). Her stated ambition is to "question the tongue as organ and concept." Thus she hopes to put poetry "in its place," which is within "a particular historical sequence of events."

The result is an extremely private ("I went with my gut"), feminist, linguistic, and racial triumph. In Canada, there is very little poetry like this; only Claire Harris's work comes to mind. (Nourbese Philip says the writer she feels the strongest affinity with is the French writer, St.?John Perse.) And the Quebec feminist writers? Their concerns with the politics of language? Well, Nourbese Philip says that the allegiances, of her work and theirs are similar, but that her concerns come out of a completely different culture and stew of problems. Nourbese Philip's intent is more physical ? her work is based less upon, ideas than upon necessities. She wants to 'Ire?encrust" the poem, and put it back into "the mire of its origins."

Now that Marlene Nourbese Philip has won the Casa de Ias Americas Prize, publishers will notice her here. (A number of presses have already expressed interest in the award?winning manuscript.) And now we will be more predisposed to listen to her. But otherwise, her life as a writer in this country will continue in the, same benevolent void. In a new manuscript, Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?, Nourbese Philip sets out to explore silence in all its positive and negative forms. When she speaks of "the continent of silence" is it Africa or Canada we think of?

Nourbese Philip is now working on an adult novel, a murder mystery that features a black, feminist, Toronto lawyer. As the author says, "This may make me enough money for time to write the poetry."


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