listening to letters

Madame la consultante, aged 40, possessed a relatively strong constitution. Sanguine in temperament, she had a vivacious and sensitive personality. Married at the age of 18, she was mother to 14 children born over a 17 to 18 year period….


back up.

14 children. 17 years.

Quiver-full, much?

Madame later began to suffer from what her doctors refer to as delirium, a state which included worrying, agitation, sorrow, boredom, and indifference to anything in her environment.

I can fully appreciate the complexity of any kind of mental illness, but it strikes me that the psychic and somatic repercussions of being pregnant almost continuously over a 17 year period could be quite dramatic. Certainly this isn’t the only Tissot consultation of this type.

Fast forward 180 odd years…

It’s hard to believe that contraception of any kind was illegal in Canada until 1969. And even then, if I recall correctly, it was only for properly married couples….

Re-reading articles and books about methods and methodologies this week. I just came across this, written by the Swiss medical historian, Micheline Louis-Courvoisier:

Par son existence même, [la consultation épistolaire] fait surgir les paradoxes liés à la question corporelle : comment soigner un malade par lettre, alors que son corps n’est pas concrètement accessible au médecin ? Comment interpréter les foisonnement parfois submergeant parfois laconique, souvent imagé, des symptômes décrits par le patient ? Un malade est-il vraiment réel pour le soignant, même en l’absence de son corps ? Finalement, qu’est-ce qu’un malade sans son corps?[1]

I am uncomfortably reminded that, like the doctors to whom such letters were addressed, I, too, encounter a disembodied correspondent whose stories exist only in language.

What, indeed, is a patient without his or her body?

Good question.

[1] Micheline Louis-Courvoisier, “Qu’est-ce qu’un malade sans son corps?:  L’objectivation du corps vue à travers les lettres de consultations adressées au Dr. Tissot (1728-1797),” in Franziska Frei Gerlach et al., eds. Körperkonzepte=Concepts du corps (Munich : Waxmann, 2003), 299-310, 302.

Imagine taking a cruise through waters filled with deep sea turtles, dolphins and flying fish. Imagine a sky filled with colourful birds by day and the magic of the aurora borealis at night. Imagine a living sea, at once calm and placid and in the next moment heaving, groaning, sighing. Imagine the winds, the squalls, the snow, the storms. Imagine the crashing against your boat’s hull and fog sometimes almost too dense to breathe in.

If I were a PR person, I’d have the glossy brochure ready, complete with scintillating text and full colour photos. I’d sell it as an experience of a lifetime.

Such were the journeys undertaken by John Newton and his crew between 1750 and 1754. Each voyage took them from Liverpool to Africa’s West Coast and then on to Antigua and then back home. The journeys were long, sometimes more than a year in length. Each stage involved the transport of cargo, trading and the exchange of goods, and the building of wealth.

Six months anchored along the African coast. Negotiating good prices for healthy slaves. Examining their bodies for defects. Accounting for age, height, sex, reproductive state, and curiously, breast shape and size. Turning away the seemingly infirm, the blind, those on crutches… Keeping careful accounts of prices and specimens. Assigning numbers to each of them. Folding them under the decks into chambers where they were lined up, in Newton’s words: “in two rows, one above the other, on each side of the ship, close to each other, like books upon a shelf…” (Martin, Bernard and Mark Spurrell, eds. The Journal of a Slave Trader (John Newton) 1750-1754 (London: The Epworth Press, 1962), 110)

Books upon a shelf. It’s an arresting image. I had to stop when I read that. I stopped. And I read it again. And I stopped. And then I needed to read it one more time. Even now, at least ten reads in, I’m still confronted by something so provocative that it stops me in my tracks.

Books upon a shelf. It’s an analogy I never would have considered.

Books, to me, are rich treasures filled with delight, imaginings, provocations, wonderment and awe.  Even John Newton’s Journal of a Slave Trader , an ugly, tawdry tale of greed, wealth, power, corruption, and profound inhumanity, has so much to offer.

How could something so precious, so rich – a bookcase filled with words, ideas, voices – be linked to the atrocities of the slave trade?

What was Newton thinking?

There can be no doubt that he chose his words carefully. Linking the cramped, disease-laden misery of the slave quarters with the cozy romance of an overfilled bookcase brings horrors that might otherwise be ignored – easily bypassed as happening far away to foreign people with foreign beliefs, in foreign climes,on foreign shores – into the sanctity of a comfortable, educated, elite British home.

By the time he wrote these words, Newton had had second thoughts about the slave trade. He’d become a staunch abolitionist. He’d petitioned William Wilberforce. (He’d also experienced a spiritual awakening, found his calling as an Anglican priest and composed the hymn, “Amazing Grace”). And he’d written a pamphlet denouncing the evils of the slave trade, declaring: “I know of no method of getting money, not even that of robbing for it upon the highway, which has so direct a tendency to efface the moral sense, and to harden it like steel, against all impressions of sensibility” (Martin and Spurrell, 102-3).

In Newton’s critique, we learn of slaves being tossed overboard, alive, in times of water scarcity – so that the cost of lost slaves could be picked up by the underwriters rather than by the ship’s owners. We learn of insurrections, violence, death. We learn about the extent of human depravity. According to Newton’s account, one quarter of transported slaves and one fifth of crew members perished during these journeys. Newton’s own journals reflect this, with an average of 1-2 slaves dying every week of the voyage:

Tuesday 7th May …. At 10 a.m. went on shoar again. Peter Williams showed me 6 slaves out of which I took 5, 2 men, 1 woman, 1 man boy and 1 boy (4 foot). Bouth likewise a man from young King Cole, and refused 2 others. In the afternoon came off and paid the goods to George and Peter, Mr. Williams’ Deputy’s. Sent them on shoar in the yaul in the evening. Buryed a man slave (No. 105) of a flux. Made a new awning for the quarter deck of the yaul’s sails. Overhailed and reloaded all the arms. A canoo brought us 12 casks of water.

Saturday 11th May … Buryed a man slave (No. 101) of a fever. Saved a french butt of rain water. (52)

Fryday 17th May … Buryed a man slave (No. 34) of a flux and fever. Boatswain at work securing the main rigging (53).

Monday 20th May … In the night 2 slaves that have been long ill of a flux dyed. A man (No. 113) and a girl (No. 129) (53)

Wednesday 29th May … Buryed a boy slave (No. 86) of a flux. Had 3 girls taken with fevers this morning… The moon was eclipsed about 3/4ths (55).

The numbers are stark. Uncompromising, they reflect the dehumanization of the slave. Reduced to numbers – 105, 101, 34, 113, 86 – these slaves were not accorded the dignity that accompanied the death of ship crew members.

Saturday 17th August …. At 6 a.m. departed this life Mr Robert Arthur, our surgeon, of a fever which seized him a few days before we left St. John’s [Antigua]. I would willing have persuaded him to stay behind, but could not, as he did not apprehend himself in so much danger (nor indeed anyone else) as he really was. (59)

Like cattle, sheep, pigs… slaves were precious commodities whose value needed to be protected, at least while on the voyage.  Insurrections needed to be quickly quashed.

So, too, however, did Newton have to pay close attention to his own crew:

Wednesday 31st January …. Buryed a girl slave (No. 92). In the afternoon while we were off the deck, William Cooney seduced a woman slave seduced a woman slave down into the room and lay with her brutelinke in view of the whole quarter deck, for which I put him in irons (75)

[as an aside, I’ve never seen rape worded quite this way … except in the aptly named bodice rippers]

Lest you, dear reader,  labour under the assumption that Newton was interested in his slave’s well being, I’ll continue Newton’s retelling:

I hope this has been the first affair of the kind on board and I am determined to keep them quiet if possible. If anything happens to the woman I shall impute it to him, for she was big with child. Her number is 83… (75)

Rape was a crime, not against the woman in question, but rather, against Newton’s investment. According to his later pamphlet against the slave trade, the threat of rape was constantly present. Women, herded naked onto a ship, are subject to the proprietary and predatory gaze of white crewmen:

In imagination, the prey is divided, upon he spot, and only reserved till opportunity offers. Where resistance or refusal, would be utterly in vain, even the solicitation of consent is seldom thought of…. (105)

And yet for all the horrors of the Middle Passage, their lives would only get worse upon their arrival in the Carribbean. For plantation owners, just as for slave traders, the bottom line was the most important consideration.

If there is one thing that comes out of reading Newton’s journal and later pamphlet, the trade  was about money and little else. For slave traders such as John Newton, this meant keeping a close eye on their cargo in order to ensure its safe arrival in Antigua. In all instances, he had to maximize his profit; this is why he inspected the slaves so closely; this is why he negotiated so carefully.

Plantation owners, too, undertook calculations on how most efficiently to manage slaves:

One thing I cannot omit, which was told me by the gentleman to whom my ship was consigned, at Antigua, in the year 1751, and who was himself a planter. He said, that calculations had been made, with all possible exactness, to determine which was the preferable, that is the more saving method of managing slaves:

‘Whether, to appoint them moderate work, plenty of provision, and such treatment as might enable them to protract their lives to old age?’


‘By rigorously straining their strength to the utmost, with little relaxation, hard fare, and hard usage, to wear them out before they became useless, and unable to do service; and then, to buy new ones, to fill up their places?’

He farther said, that these skilful calculators had determined in favour of the latter mode, as much the cheaper; and that he could mention several estates, in the island of Antigua, on which it was it was seldom known that a slave had lived above nine years. – Ex pede Herculem! [Newton, John. Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (London: J. Buckland; J. Johnson, 1788), 38-39].

Imagine taking a cruise through waters filled with deep sea turtles, dolphins and flying fish. Imagine a sky filled with colourful birds by day and the magic of the aurora borealis at night. Imagine a living sea, at once calm and placid and in the next moment heaving, groaning, sighing. Imagine the winds, the squalls, the snow, the storms. Imagine the crashing against your boat’s hull and fog sometimes almost too dense to breathe in.

Imagine… an experience of a lifetime.

For the 468 slaves and 84 crew who sailed Newton’s three Atlantic cruises, it most certainly was.


Take a peek over here:

Paul Cutting has dedicated his life to documenting and restoring old Norwegian houses in Iowa. Most are a century old. All are falling apart, forgotten spaces, imagined by many as blemishes on the landscape. But in his photos, Cutting honours their histories, their heritages. He celebrates the buildings and the stories they have to tell. In his hands, they’re not just decaying structures; rather, they are places filled with memories….





Early in his book, Place: A Short Introduction, Tim Cresswell writes:

“…place is not just a thing in the world but a way of understanding the world….But place is also a way of seeing, knowing and understanding the world. When we look at the world as a world of places we see different things. We see attachments and connections between people and place. We see worlds of meaning and experience…. To think of an area of the world as a rich and complicated interplay of people and the environment – as a place – is to free us from thinking of it as facts and figures…..At other times, however seeing the world through the lens of place leads to reactionary and exclusionary xenophobia, racism and bigotry. ‘Our place’ is threatened and others have to be excluded. Here ‘place’ is not so much a quality of things in the world but an aspect of the way we choose to think about it – what we decide to emphasize and what we decide to designate as unimportant.” (11)

I’ve started thinking a lot more about space and place recently. I think it’s related to my thinking through questions of nation and nationalism and imagined community, and all that messy stuff about inclusion and exclusion.

I’ve already been thinking of embodied identity and corporeal virtue in relation to my current SSHRC project, but as I further develop my ideas, I find myself moving into new terrain, terrain that won’t make it into my current book project, but that needs to be explored in a new field.

That’s both exciting and overwhelming.

But where I’ve come to has me thinking about what Sandra Whitworth, when she was here earlier in the fall, referred to as “narratives of national identity”; that is, the stories that nation-states tell about themselves and what those stories mean for those who make their homes within the boundaries of the nation-state.

Canada’s official borders, marked by territories and by degrees of latitude, define a space of gargantuan proportions. But the place that is Canada is much smaller. Shaped by histories of colonialism and later, by mass migration (both voluntary and forced), it is a place that resists easy identity making. There is nothing simple about the stories that make up Canada as place. Perhaps this is true of all national places, but it seems particularly pertinent in the case of a settler society.

What is it that transforms this massive space into a place to call home? And in the telling of our stories, our histories, our struggles, our joys, which stories do we tell, and why?

In elementary school, place-making came in the form of the “multicultural mosaic.” We defined ourselves by our interest in hyphenated others, by the foods and traditions that came together in Hawrelak Park on sunny August holidays, and in opposition to the American “melting pot.” There is much to critique about the implementation of multiculturalism in a Canadian context, but it is also true that a multicultural framework has allowed for the articulation of some stories that would otherwise never have been told. But increasingly, Canada-as-place is shaped more by its exclusions – by those who have not been granted the right to belong – than by its inclusions. The imagined community is growing narrower and narrower by the day.

Whose stories become part of a national identity? Which ones are left out? By what mechanisms are such stories suppressed? And what might this mean for those whose stories are ignored, silenced, forgotten?

Anyone who knows me knows that I am an infrequent, thoroughly unskilled, but generally enthusiastic sewer. That is to say, I take out the machine twice a year and stitch up something that requires nothing more than straight lines (and even that is too much, sometimes) over a few afternoons. My “repertoire,” if you will, runs to gift bags and pillows.

That said, I’ve also managed to make a bedspread, and last summer, gathered together a bunch of colourful fabric in reds, pinks, oranges and greens to make a wall hanging. And so, emboldened by my summer success I drafted a Christmas project for my sister and brother-in-law.


As you can see from the sketch, I didn’t venture far out of my comfort zone. In what I call my cubist period, I’m focusing on rectangles and straight lines, relatively restrained variations on what I have seen in various places online as a ‘lego’ quilt. [disclaimer: in the event that my sister reads this before she gets her Christmas present and has a heart attack when she sees this, I’ll note in advance that I haven’t chosen nearly as bright colours]

So what is it?

I wanted to do something that really reflected my sister and brother-in-law (S and BL for short). And to do that, I needed to engage the idea of nature. S and BL find their passion in the natural world, their bliss in the shape, feel, touch, and sound of the land. Nature is their source of joy. A source of comfort. A source of generation. The mountains, the forests, the waters… the Land… this is what they call home, and this is where they seek inspiration, knowledge, and the source of life itself.

My project needed, somehow, to reflect this passion. It needed to tell the story of  the S and BL that I knew; the story of how they understood themselves in the world and what the world meant for them. And so, I imagined a forest. A deeply wooded space. The sun poking tentative beams between leaves. Wind moving, shifting. A space that is constantly in motion.

I drew my inspiration from the writings and paintings of Emily Carr. In Carr’s visual world, trees are alive with energy and stories. The trees move. They overwhelm a space. They envelope a space. For Carr, trees have personalities and characters all their own. They are close friends with whom she communes, spirits in and through whom she finds her peace.

Though visiting painters assumed that her beloved British Columbia coast was unpaintable, Emily Carr proved that it wasn’t. Listen, watch, wait, and learn… her trees seem to say…and nature will tell you her story. She will tell you how she wishes most to be painted.

I’m no Emily Carr. But I wanted to capture, somehow, the idea of a welcoming forest. Of the rooted energy of trees and of the wonder of the natural world. If you look closely (and use your imagination and squint a bit to make it blurry), you might get a sense of what I was after.

So off I went to Value Village to hunt down fabrics to make this work. And then I sat myself down at my borrowed Singer Genie 354 (it’s got orange daisies on it!) and set to work [as an aside, the Singer Genie is a step up from my previous machine, a Black Singer with a knee pedal]. It started out quite well. As the afternoon progressed, I started to see the pattern take shape.

Things got more challenging closer to the end, when it became abundantly clear that a straight line was beyond my scope of abilities. Suddenly, my forest scene, my towering trees and deep blue sky, was…well… askew. lopsided. crooked. bent.

Something had gone completely awry.

Interestingly, however, things looked much better if I gave up my dream of a vertical tree scene and turned the whole thing 90 degrees.

So much for my careful Emily Carr-infused musings.

What I needed was a shift in perspective. It was, in many ways, still the same story – the story of two people who find their bliss in the landscape – but I needed new details and a new narrative. I needed … quite literally… a change of scenery.


So I screwed up my eyes. And I squinted. And I used my imagination. And I thought of S and BL and their beloved dog, C, getting ready to work their way from Southern Alberta through the many blizzardy mountain passes towards their Christmas destination on Vancouver Island. I thought of snow-covered evergreens and snow-filled clouds. I thought of lonely highways winding through British Columbia before finally reaching the ocean. And I thought of land giving way to water, and of waves rolling onto wild shores. And in that moment, a new narrative was born.

My horizontal tree trunks became glacial striations. Or they told of layers of sedimentary history. Perhaps there were dinosaur bones embedded somewhere within. The rootedness of the tree gave way to the evershifting land. And as I looked through my new narrative gaze, the tree leaves became grasses and flowers, the marshy open spaces of Delta and Tsawassen that are home to so many different birds. And the blues of my sky melted into the ocean depths of the Georgia Strait, flowing around the many little islands between the mainland and Vancouver Island.

This was still my sister’s story. It was still a story of nature, of land, of water, of skies, of grasses … In some ways, it is a better narrative than the one I had originally imagined.

All it took was a change in perspective and a different way of seeing.

I am reminded of Virginia Woolf, who, in her provocative essay, On Being Ill, argued that the experience of illness was one that required a fundamental shift of perspective. Illness, for Woolf, is a horizontal – rather than vertical – way of engaging with the world. And that makes all the difference.

Happy Christmas, S and BL. I know it’s not perfect. But I still hope you like it.

trees finished