storytelling bodies

I’ve written, in the past, about the importance of taste and the palate as markers not only of identity, but also as tools for politics, histories, and more. Now, in the past two weeks, I’ve read a few articles that actively examine the possibilities of other senses – sound and movement – as ways of understanding and making meaning of the past. In the first, Michael Schmidt assesses the relevance of sound and sound archives to historical research. In the second, Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim writes about attending a baroque dance workshop.

Culinary historians taste the past, bringing to life the textures, smells and flavours of common historical meals. In so doing, they bring to the present flavours that had been lost to us. But these textures, smells and flavours are not merely curious experiments; rather, they infuse our reading of other documents, from intimate letters to royal proclamations.

Dance and fashion historians ask us to consider the ways that historical bodies moved through space: What did it mean to wear 25 pounds of clothing? How does one sit with a bustle skirt? How does one play violin with a ruffled collar? What are the physical relationships between individuals when a dress is four feet wide? How does candlelight reflect and play with intricate lace? How do bodies move through a detailed Sarabande? And how does any and all of this shape things like posture, breathing, comportment? Exploring these questions opens new windows into historical experience, identity, and subjectivity.

Specialists in musical performance practice, meanwhile, explore sound, rhythm, texture and harmony. In their hands, physical space becomes meaningful not only as a resonating chamber, but also as a space that unites performer with audience. Performance practice asks us to consider not only the performer, but also the listener, and the space between the two. Indeed, it critically interrogates the space between “text” and “act” (to follow the terminology put forward by Richard Taruskin). Historically-informed performers (HIP, ironically), seek to explore the myriad ways of bringing the textual remnants of history into a performative present. Indeed, HIP-sters are never solely concerned with notes, markings, and text. Rather, their performances emerge in spaces and with audiences: How long will a note resonate? What is the physical relationship between the performer and the audience? How does an ornament speak in different physical spaces? What role does the instrument itself play in the realization of the composer’s musical vision? What, indeed, are the relationships between the performer, the composer and the audience?

In all of these cases, interest lies not in the text, but in the embodiment of the text; that is, in bringing the text to life both through and with the body. As scholars working with embodiment have argued, embodied knowledges offer conceptually different ways of approaching research and produce very different results. But these results are just as vital as any that might emerge from more conventional conceptual lenses.

I’m headed off to the annual meeting of the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies in October. On the agenda: minuets, musical performance and the university classroom. When was the last time you actively engaged your body – or those of your students – in the university classroom? What did your body tell you, not only about the material you were exploring, but also about embodied knowledge? What did it tell you about yourself?

Corinna da Fonnesca-Wollheim observes that:

According to Ms. Turocy, many dance manuals of the period emphasize the primary importance of the figures the dancers draw in space as they move through a work, with one dance master recommending that performers first memorize a piece by walking this blueprint and only then adding the steps, jumps and ornaments. In the dance notation of the time, these outlines have all the symmetry and grace of a manicured French garden. Perhaps in music, too, the harmonic progression holds its own geometric logic that needs to be honored before we consider the virtuosic embellishments above it?

By the end of the workshop, my feet were no closer to mastering the Sarabande than before. But my ears had learned to see Baroque music in a new way.

Come, dance with me.


Pop over to the Wonders and Marvels blog for a short introduction to the art of faking virginity in early modern Europe.

Here’s what Elizabeth Goldsmith writes:

On what basis, I thought, do we continue to assume that Marie remained a virgin until her wedding night? Was it possible that young women of her time knew how to convincingly fake it? A little more research led me to Ambroise Paré, whose 1573 treatise on “monsters and marvels” includes the description of popular techniques, known since the time of Galen, for creating false evidence of virginity by inserting a fish bladder filled with blood into the vagina , so that the sheets on the wedding bed would be stained with the necessary proof. Paré further argues that the very existence of the hymen in the female anatomy is at best questionable, and possibly simply a myth.

Seems simpler than today’s vaginal rejuvenation surgeries (which, when done in micro-form post-childbirth, were just referred to as the “husband stitch”).

Simpler still would be just doing away with the virginity crap altogether.

Who needs fish bladders or hymens, anyway?

wild blueberries from our secret patch...

wild blueberries from our secret patch…

It’s full on foraging season here and I’ve spent many hours berry picking over the past few days. And as I’ve been enjoying nature’s bounty, I’ve also been thinking about food, taste, berry picking practices, place and identity.

It occurred to me, as I picked saskatoons (known locally as Chuckley Pears), that berry picking practices can be read as markers for regional identity.

You see, nobody picks saskatoons here.

Well, nobody except for people from away – mainlanders, if you will.  And yet, saskatoon bushes laden with fruit line many of the local trails. Picking, usually a quiet, contemplative activity (except for when you reach higher and higher for the juiciest berries that are always just slightly beyond your reach…), becomes a social activity. People stop. They ask questions. They nod. They taste. And then they walk on. And in that conversation, boundaries are marked and boundaries are broken. We are separated by my picking and by their questions, but we come together in our shared interest in wild berries (or, perhaps more prosaically, free food….)

On Facebook, however, saskatoons are a common currency. I mention the word and my community rejoices. Many people, it seems, have good memories of picking and eating saskatoons. Saskatoon pie. Saskatoon crumble. Saskatoon jam. Stewed up berries over yogurt. The possibilities – and the memories – are endless.

saskatoons from Kent's Pond, St. John's.

saskatoons from Kent’s Pond, St. John’s.

My memories of saskatoons are mixed. I loved eating them. But I didn’t love picking them. They grew along the riverbanks in our hometown, a mosquito-infested hell that we had to brave in order to secure our treasured fruit. Picking berries was a complex process that involved not only tubs and berries, but also bug spray, long sleeves, careful breathing, and arm flailing.

Saskatoon picking is much easier here, largely because there are so few bugs.

But saskatoons aren’t part of local identity. Here, identity is measured in blueberries, bakeapples and partridgeberries. People have their coveted berry picking spots. They measure the weather. They keep their eyes peeled. And once it’s berry picking season, everyone’s out.

And nobody is allowed home until their buckets are full.

Well, that’s not true.

But I have been amazed at the sheer volume of berries that people can pick here. Salt beef buckets. Lots of them. Or laundry detergent pails. Also lots of them. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are determined pickers. Perhaps it’s because the berries are plentiful. Perhaps it’s because it’s hard to grow so many other things. Perhaps it’s because they just taste so darn good.

Well, except for bakeapples, which have never really grown on me.

Bakeapples (also known in other parts of the world as cloudberries) are a unique fruit. Bright orange. A bit like raspberries, at least to look at. But completely different in flavour. Juicy. Somewhat sour. Yogurty in texture. Each plant produces only a single berry. And while you would think that picking them would be impractical, you’d be amazed at how many plants can congregate in a single small area.

a bakeapple, just outside the old Templeman cemetery, near Newtown, Newfoundland and Labrador

a bakeapple, just outside the old Templeman cemetery, near Newtown, Newfoundland and Labrador

In Central Newfoundland, you can buy bakeapple jam by the side of the highway. Big jars stacked on the hood of a car. I always wonder how many hours of picking went into them. Later in the summer, those same hoods will hold buckets of blueberries, and, early in the fall, buckets of partridgeberries.

Partridgeberries (or lingonberries) are my favourite, but I’ve never really figured out when, exactly, I’m supposed to pick them. Do I pick them before it freezes? Or after the first frost as local lore would have it? The very fact that I need to ask this question is, in itself, also a marker of identity.

Mainlander. It’s a word that whispers through my ears, settling itself on my body, my taste buds, my identity.

What do your berry practices tell you about who you are?

more goodness from the secret blueberry patch!

more goodness from the secret blueberry patch!

This summer, I’ve invited my graduate students to submit blog posts to Luckily, they’ve almost all expressed an interest. They’re a highly diverse bunch and I’m really looking forward to reading and posting their thoughts.

The second of these comes from Margot Maddison-MacFadyen, a doctoral candidiate in the Interdisciplinary PhD program here at MUN. Margot, who has vicariously wandered through this blog before, is working on The History of Mary Prince, a slave narrative published in 1831. Margot is working with supervisors spread around the university: Elizabeth Yeoman (Education), Neil Kennedy (History), Rob Finley (English) and me (Gender Studies). You can find out more about Margot, her work, and her publications, here.

Like the Moon Illuminating Shadows at Night: The
Memory of Slavery in the Public Spaces of Bermuda and Prince Edward Island
by Margot Maddison-MacFadyen

At length the vendue master, who was to offer us for sale like sheep or cattle, arrived, and asked my mother which was the eldest. She said nothing, but pointed to me. He took me by the hand, and led me out to the middle of the street, and, turning me slowly round, exposed me to the view of those who attended the vendue. I was soon surrounded by strange men, who examined and handled me in the same manner that a butcher would a calf or a lamb he was about to purchase, and who talked about my shape and size in like words–as if I could no more understand their meaning than the dumb beasts. I was then put up for sale. The bidding commenced at a few pounds, and gradually rose to fifty-seven, when I was known to the highest bidder; and the people who stood by said I had fetched a great sum for so young a slave.

(Mary Prince 1831)

I’m planning a research trip to Bermuda this fall, where the memorialization of my research subject, Mary Prince, is hotly contested by the descendants of the victims of the Atlantic slave trade, the enslaved, and the descendants of the perpetrators of the trade, the slave-owners and the slave-merchants.

In short, it looks like I’m headed for a dustup.

Coming from Prince Edward Island (PEI), Canada’s tiny island province, purportedly the ‘gentle’ island where lobster suppers and Anne of Green Gables form identity, you might wonder how I’ll fare, and how I’ll enter the fray.

Prince, born in Bermuda in 1788, is the first known freed black West Indian woman to author a slave narrative. She is the storyteller of The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, which was compiled and edited by an abolitionist team in 1829-30, and published in 1831.

She had five successive Bermudian slave-owners, and she lived in three West Indian colonies–Bermuda, Grand Turk Island, and Antigua–before self-emancipation in London, in 1828. She walked out of her last slave-owner’s London residence and was a free woman, at last.

I’ve already been on research trips to Grand Turk Island and Antigua where I found buildings associated with her life in those islands still standing. I also found her listed in the Slave Registers of Former British Overseas Territories for Antigua. These findings are written up in my 2012 article, “Mary Prince, Grand Turk, and Antigua,” that is published in Slavery & Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies.

In June, 2012, Bermuda’s first black local government, the Progressive Labor Party (PLP), designated Prince a Bermudian National Hero. Her new status as hero, long overdue in my mind, unleashed a wave of debate, one of many in Bermuda’s current convulsion of racially-charged political tension. This is exemplified in the following excerpt from the Bermuda Royal Gazette and the comments that follow.

The article, written by Owain Johnston-Barnes, appeared in the Gazette in the early morning of June 19, 2012. Bermudian Premier Paula Cox was quoted on her announcement of Prince’s induction as Bermudian National Hero:

“Mary Prince is the hero of her own story,” Premier Cox said. “She is a woman who stood up for principle. She is a woman who stepped outside her comfort zone, and she is a woman who felt we have to become the change that we want.”

“She did it at considerable risk, cost and peril to herself and here tonight it is certainly a privilege for us all to celebrate and acknowledge and salute the 2012 National Hero.”

Reading the official proclamation, she said: “Her words live on in the pages of her autobiography, a first hand description of slavery whose publication in the UK in 1831, while slavery was still legal in Bermuda and the Caribbean, contributed to its abolition in Bermuda and the Caribbean.”

On the heels of this Gazette story, readers took to their keyboards leaving over 40 comments and an ongoing interchange in the Gazette’s comments (weblog) section to the story. The following exchange, between two participants known only by their pseudonyms – Observer and Only in Bermuda – launched this discussion. Their comments illuminate what became a much lengthier racially-charged debate.

Observer: June 19, 2012 (9:40.)
Nominating a character from a work of fiction as a national hero is an insult to real heroes and to the intelligence of Bermudians.

May as well have nominated the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny!

Only in Bermuda: June 19, 2012 (10:06)
Observer — What work of fiction?

Observer: June 19, 2012 (10:14)
Only in Bermuda — The pamphlet written and published by members of the Anti-Slavery Society in London purporting to be about a former slave called Mary Prince is the whole basis for this ridiculous and politically motivated award.

Curiously, these comments – and others posted in response to the original story – have since been expunged from the comments section. Is this yet another rewriting of history?

Dr. Quito Swan, Associate Professor of African Diaspora History at Howard University, recently published a book chapter (2012) titled, “Smoldering Memories and Burning Questions: The Politics of Remembering Sally Bassett and Slavery in Bermuda.” Although the chapter was written prior to the public controversy surrounding the nomination of Mary Prince, it illuminates the issues underlying the debate.

Sally Bassett, an enslaved sixty-eight year old black woman, was burned at the stake in Bermuda in 1730 for allegedly poisoning the slave-owners of her granddaughter, Beck. In 2009, the PLP, the same black local government that designated Mary Prince a Bermudian National Hero, erected a ten-foot-tall sculpture of a pregnant Bassett in front of the Government’s Cabinet Office. Swan attests that this was to: “memorialize the struggle of blacks against slavery” (p. 71). As in the case of Prince’s 2012 nomination, a racially charged-public debate ensued. (For images of the statue, click here)

The process of publicly memorializing slavery is fraught with contention, particularly in such a small colonial space as is Bermuda, “a society that has historically criminalized black protest but now features a black government committed to the promotion of Bermuda’s ‘national’ heritage” (Swan p. 71). These memorializations of slavery in Bermuda are hotly contested spaces of thought and culture that are reflected in contemporary issues of power, race, racism, and colonialism.

Historically, white Bermudian pamphleteers, journalists, and historiographers promoted slavery in Bermuda as a ‘benign’ institution, insinuating that in Bermuda slavery was less horrific than in other colonies. In this discourse, colonialism is legitimated, racism is downplayed, and black protest is made invisible, insignificant, or criminal. It is this depiction of Bermuda’s past that is currently contested.

Scholars are bringing forward from memory a different past for Bermuda, one that is replete with numerous instances of slave resistance, brutality, and racial division, of which the burning of Sally Bassett and the History of Mary Prince are but two examples. Significantly, these two historical figures selected by the PLP for memorialization are evocative of women and children. A gendered account of slavery recognizes that enslaved women working as domestics and, therefore, living in close proximity to their slave-owners, were subject to torture and sexual abuse.

As a result of this revisionist work, scholars are also bringing forward from memory a different past for Europeans, Africans, and South and North Americans, ones in which racial exploitation is ferocious, terrible, an abomination. In The Smithsonian for example, Henry Wiencek’s October, 2012, article, “Master of Monticello,” paints a new portrait of Thomas Jefferson, Founder of the American Nation, which he “decided from evidence recently unearthed or long suppressed” (p. 40).

A unique finding excavated from archives is that Jefferson clearly knew he was making a 4 percent profit from the births of black enslaved children, and that he fostered this, the silent profit of enslavement. Writing to one of his plantation managers, Jefferson instructs that, “A child raised every 2. years is of more profit then the crop of the best laboring man. in this, as in all other cases, providence has made our duties and our interests coincide perfectly . . . . [With] respect therefore to our women & their children I must pray you to inculcate upon the overseers that it is not their labor, but their increase which is the first consideration” (Wiencek 96).

“In his lifetime,” Wiencek relates, “[Jefferson] had owned more than 600 slaves. At any one time about 100 slaves lived on the mountain, [Monticello]” (p. 42). They had been owned by his family for generations and were all descended from the enslaved matriarch Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Hemings.

Slaves being his largest asset, reclaimed memory shows that Jefferson, purportedly the moral leader of his era, used them as collateral for a 1796 bank loan to rebuild Monticello. Like Mary Prince, who was first on the auction block at about age twelve, Jefferson’s slaves were monetized.

What’s this got to do with Canada, the True North Strong and Free?

It turns out that PEI isn’t all about lobster suppers and that hot-tempered little red-headed orphan with pigtails running around Cavendish shores.

In August, 2012, Lawrence Hill, author of The Book of Negroes, visited PEI to not only give a public talk about his craft and published works, but to be present when the municipality of Stratford held a street-naming ceremony to honour the Shepard family. David Shepard and Kesiah Wilson were two of four slaves owned by Edmund Fanning, a former PEI lieutenant-governor who first came to PEI in 1786. Many islanders descend from this couple, and the road named after them is Shepard Drive.

Shepard Drive, Stratford, PEI. Image copyright Margot Maddison-MacFadyen, 2013.

Shepard Drive, Stratford, PEI. Image copyright Margot Maddison-MacFadyen, 2013.

Fanning left the colony for England in 1813, and it is assumed that he emancipated his slaves that same year. Although slavery was legal in British colonies until Emancipation on August 1, 1834, court cases that ensued in Great Britain in the 1770s (beginning with Lord Mansfield’s 1772 Somersett v. Stueart ruling) – thus forty years prior to Fanning’s departure – implied that slavery was illegal in England, Wales, and North Briton. There was, therefore, no reason for Fanning to take his slaves with him to England.

The first slaves had arrived in the colony in 1730, eighty-three years earlier. Are we to believe that slavery here on PEI was benign, a notion clung to by some Bermudians about their territory to this day? Slavery is never benign. Owning others and monetizing them as if they were farm animals is not. The resistance of the enslaved, whether they be personal acts of defiance or group acts of rebellion, shows that it is not. And the violence perpetrated by slave-owners and slave-merchants to control uncooperative slaves teaches us that it is not.

Sally Bassett was burned at the stake. Mary Prince reports beatings and whip lashings by four members of the five different families that owned her, one a woman. A second woman, though she did not beat Prince herself, incited her husband to do so.

In her 2006 book, The Hanging of Angélique, which is a Canadian slave narrative, Afua Cooper brings forward from memory the enslavement story of Marie-Joseph Angélique, a slave owned by Thérèse de Couagne de Franchville. Marie-Joseph Angélique was hanged in 1734 for the burning of Old Montreal.

In the book’s preface Cooper writes that “[s]lavery has disappeared from Canada’s historical chronicles, erased from its memory and banished to the dungeons of its past. This in a country where the enslavement of Black people was institutionalized and practiced for the better part of three centuries” (p. 7).

Moreover, George Elliot Clarke, in his forward to Cooper’s book, informs us that “slavery was practiced in a solid third of what is now Canada–in Upper Canada (Ontario), New France (Québec), New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia” (p. XVI). I would add Newfoundland to this list. In my 2012 article in the Newfoundland Quarterly, “Turks Islands’ Salt, Enslavement, and the Newfoundland-West Indian Trade,” I show that at the very least, Bermudians fishing the Banks in 1788 and using vacant fishing rooms south of St. John’s to land their catches, used slave labour brought with them from Bermuda.

My research in Bermuda, Grand Turk Island, and Antigua lies at the crossroads of public and private histories of enslavement. By examining the unfolding of abolition and contested freedom in these small island communities, I hope to be able to speak to current debates about the legacies of enslavement, not only in the West Indies, but here in Canada, as well.

I’ll do this as a white woman raised in the wealthy community of West Vancouver, with the privilege of an excellent education. My ancestry traces back to early colonists in North America in the 1600s, Ojibwa peltry brokers working in the fur trade, fishers in Newfoundland, and to British Empire Loyalists settling in Upper Canada. Certainly, some must have been slave-owners, if not slave-merchants.

My white ancestors are memorialized in Canada: pioneers, settlers, explorers, war heroes, and politicians. I see their statues everywhere. A 2010 addition on PEI is a statue of Sir John A. MacDonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada, reposing on a Charlottetown bench at the entrance to Victoria Row, an area highly visible to tourists flocking off cruise ships at dock in the harbour.

John A. Macdonald statue, Charlottetown, PEI. Image copyright Margot Maddison-MacFadyen, 2013.

John A. Macdonald statue, Charlottetown, PEI. Image copyright Margot Maddison-MacFadyen, 2013.

The statue is situated right next to the Anne of Green Gables Store, which sells Anne hats, Anne calendars, Anne dolls, Anne snow globes, Anne mugs and cups. Indeed, just about anything to do with the commodification of L. M. Montgomery’s fictional character Anne, can be got at this store.

John A. Macdonald seated outside of the Anne of Green Gables store at the entrance to Victoria Row, Charlottetown, PEI. Image copyright Margot Maddison MacFadyen, 2013

John A. Macdonald seated outside of the Anne of Green Gables store at the entrance to Victoria Row, Charlottetown, PEI. Image copyright Margot Maddison MacFadyen, 2013

The Anne of Green Gables Store, Charlottetown, PEI. Image copyright Margot Maddison-MacFadyen, 2013.

The Anne of Green Gables Store, Charlottetown, PEI. Image copyright Margot Maddison-MacFadyen, 2013.

I’d like to see the ancestors of others memorialized, including black men, women, and children who came to this country enslaved, those who fled here to escape enslavement, or were freed here, either by emancipation or self-manumission. It’s long past time to see this done.

Our anonymous Gazette commenter, Observer, whose words introduced this discussion, remarks that nominating Mary Prince a national hero is an insult to real heroes–that she is a fictional character.

I would say that she’s more like the moon illuminating shadows at night.

I’d like to see a ten-foot-tall statue of her when I get to Bermuda, right next to the one of Sally Bassett. I’d also like to see a ten-foot-tall statue of Kesiah Wilson, ancestral matriarch of so many Prince Edward Islanders, at Victoria Row.


Clarke, George Elliott. Forward. The Hanging of Angélique. By Cooper. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2006. xi-xviii.

Cooper, Afua. Preface.  The Hanging of Angélique. By Cooper. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2006. 1-13.

Hill, Lawrence. The Book of Negroes. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2007.

Johnston-Barnes, Owain. “Mary Prince Inducted as National Hero.” Bermuda Royal Gazette, June 19, 2012:

Maddison-MacFadyen, Margot. “Mary Prince, Grand Turk, and Antigua.” Slavery & Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies. published online 26 November2012.

Maddison-MacFadyen, Margot. “Turks Islands’ Salt, Enslavement, and the Newfoundland-West Indies Trade.” Newfoundland Quarterly  104, no. 4(Summer 2012): 40-44.

Swan, Quito. “Smoldering Memories and Burning Questions: The Politics of Remembering Sally Bassett and Slavery in Bermuda.” in Politics of Memory: Making Slavery Visible in the Public Sphere. Ed. Ana Lucia Araujo. New York: Routledge, 2012. 71-91.

Wiencek, Henry. “Master of Monticello.” Smithsonian 43, no. 6 (Oct. 2012): 40-49 & 92-97.

text and images copyright Margot Maddison-MacFadyen, 2013.

I spent a lovely weekend relaxing – well, somewhat – after completing another chapter draft early on Saturday morning. The book is taking shape as I write, and I’m excited to see it slowly coming together.

On today’s agenda: reviewing all my notes for another chapter, (re)thinking structure and organization, identifying relevant examples, ordering books from other library collections…. Today, in short, will be a day of sorting.

But, before that, some literary yumminess….

I’ve been reading Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us, the story of two women in India – an educated, upper middle class woman – Sera – and her servant, Bhima. The space between them is huge, yawning through all of their encounters. Bhima sits on the floor. Sera sits on a chair. Bhima lives in the slums, squatting on the ground of a communal toilet, rising early to fetch a day’s water. Sera lives in a comfortable home. But the space between them is also a shared space: the shared experiences of working together in Sera’s home for over two decades, the shared sorrows of unhappy – and for Sera, violent – marriages, the shared experiences of shattered dreams, of stories that might have been differently told…if only.

In the first half of the books (that’s as far as I’ve read, to this point), Bhima reflects on her only granddaughter Maya’s pregnancy and planned abortion. Maya is a college student in her late teens. She is not married and through her pregnancy, she has not only brought shame on her family, but she has dashed all of Bhima’s hopes and dreams. Every time Bhima looks at Maya, she is overcome by a complex range of emotions: rage, sorrow, love, desperation, resentment, affection… all of these tumble through her and she can hardly contain herself.

Sera knows all of this. Like Bhima, she has watched Maya grow, develop, mature. She has taken a close interest in the child. She has even supported Maya’s education so that Maya would not live the impoverished shanty life that Bhima is living. In this sense, Sera acts as a second grandmother, a fairy grandmother who grants the wish of education.

And it is Sera, too, who is called upon to find a good doctor willing to perform an abortion, Sera who has been asked to take Maya to her appointment. A fairy grandmother who, as a result of her social status, can guarantee Maya’s medical care and attention in a way that her own grandmother’s presence cannot. The space between them looms large.

In a beautiful passage, Sera reflects on the body, its memories and its knowledges. It’s worth sharing in full.

But you’re not doing this for Maya, she reminds herself. You’re doing this for old Bhima. The thought is immediately accompanied by a dull ache below her shoulder. It is a phantom pain, she knows, a psychosomatic ache, but still she feels the hurt. After all, it has been many years since the blow that made her arm swell and ache for days. On the other hand, who knows? Perhaps the body has its own memory system, like the invisible meridian lines those Chinese acupuncturists always talk about. Perhaps the body is unforgiving, perhaps every cell, every muscle and fragment of bone remembers each and every assault and attack. Maybe the pain of memory is encoded into our bone marrow and each remembered grievance swims in our bloodstream like a hard, black pebble. After all, the body, like God, moves in mysterious ways.

From the time she was in her teens, Sera has been fascinated by this paradox – how a body that we occupy, that we have worn like a coat from the moment of our birth – from before birth, even – is still a stranger to us. After all, almost everything we do in our lives is for the well-being of the body: we bathe daily, polish our teeth, groom our hair and fingernails; we work miserable jobs in order to feed and clothe it; we go to great lengths to protect it from pain and violence and harm. And yet the body remains a mystery, a book that we have never read. Sera plays with this irony, toys with it as if it were a puzzle: How, despite our lifelong preoccupation with our bodies, we have never met face-to-face with our kidneys, how we wouldn’t recognize our own liver in a row of livers, how we have never seen our own heart or brain. We know more about the depths of the ocean, are more acquainted with the far corners of outer space than with our own organs and muscles and bones. So perhaps there are no phantom pains after all; perhaps all pain is real; perhaps each long-ago blow lives on into eternity in some different permutation and shape; perhaps the body is this hypersensitive, revengeful entity, a ledger book, a warehouse of remembered slights and cruelties. (103-4)


Umrigar, Thrity, The Space Between Us (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007)

It’s been a summer of thinking and writing and thinking and revising and thinking some more. One of the things I’ve been working through is storytelling: if everything is a story, then how can those stories best be told?

Those of us working in academia can tell you that academics are not necessarily good storytellers; indeed, our bookshelves and ereaders are filled to capacity with unreadable tracts and desperately boring articles. The “publish or perish” approach increasingly valued by university administrators who value quantity as a measure of academic ‘excellence’ (values that trickle down into promotion and tenure committees) hasn’t done much for knowledge production; nor has it done much for the art of writing.

But writing itself, as many of us know, is part and parcel of knowledge production. Storytelling is an issue of methodological and theoretical concern. It is not just “what comes after the data has been collected and analyzed”; it is the heart of the research itself.  “Stories,” Thomas King reminds us, “are wondrous things. And they are dangerous.” (The Truth About Stories, 9)

And this is where I’m at right now. I’m deeply committed to telling a meaningful story. I want the story to be critical and thoughtful. I want it to matter. But I also want it to be engaging. I want it to be compelling. And I want people to take pleasure in the act of reading itself.

My research is about stories. It’s about the stories people tell about their bodies and about the stories that bodies tell about their people. It’s about bodies become stories and it’s about how stories shape lives and subjectivities.

But what makes a compelling story? That’s the question that propels all my thinking and writing and revising. Why is it that some of these archival stories speak louder than others? What draws me into one particular thought world while turning me away from another? And as I write, how is it that I, myself, construct my own story about stories?

In a 2008 interview, the noted historian Natalie Zemon Davis observes that her research process includes reading stories:

I always have a novel, biography or autobiography going, and read a little every day, and I recommend that to others.  Often I read novels or autobiographies from the part of the world I’m working on at the moment, even though the time period may be very different.

I’ve got three different books on the go at the moment. As I considered them yesterday, I realized that none of them is directly related to my current research. Lisa Rosner’s The Anatomy Murders: Being the True and Spectacular History of Edinburgh’s Notorious Burke and Hare and of the Man of Science Who Abetted Them in the Commission of Their Most Heinous Crimes, with its focus on bodies, history and medicine might qualify (albeit only very slightly), the two others – Lorna Goodison’s From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People and Sara Paretsky’s 2010 Body Work, one of the more recent installments of her popular V.I. Warshawski series – have, apart from their focus on bodies, nothing at all to do with my current project.

But appearances can be deceiving.

All of these books are stories, in the finest sense of the word.

Lisa Rosner’s book has been lauded for its readability, for the way that she has chosen to bring the dry and dusty details of history to life. While, admittedly, the basic story itself has all the elements of the best detective fiction, what matters in Rosner’s telling are not just the sixteen murders, but how such murders could have happened; that is, what were the conditions that allowed them to occur. And so, she takes us into early nineteenth-century Edinburgh, down crowded streets, into medical training facilities, drawing us ever more deeply into a world so very unlike – and yet in other respects, so very similar – to our own. Rosner’s storytelling emerges in the details, details that are so vivid that they awaken all of my senses: touch, taste, hearing, sight… and, in this tale of dead bodies spirited across town from bedrooms to drawing rooms to medical anatomy theatres, smell. Oh, the smells.

Why on earth would I ever – by choice – put this book down?

I’ve also been revelling in the detailed descriptions in Lorna Goodison’s memoir. But while Rosner shares minute details, Goodison evokes a lush landscape of memory and myth, a literary landscape both inspired by and deeply embedded in the verdant succulence of the Jamaican physical landscape itself. Goodison doesn’t just make the story itself come alive, she makes words sing.

And here, too, I must ask: why on earth would I ever – by choice – put this book down?

I discovered Sara Paretsky’s work about twenty years ago. Actually, I lie. A good friend introduced me to SP and her private eye, V.I. Warshawski. It was love at first read and I devoured a number of her books in quick succession. I don’t read Paretsky for turns of phrase. I read her because I love V.I. and I love the stories themselves. V.I. isn’t a blithering wallflower of a woman; rather, she’s a tough as nails private eye with a keen and critical eye. She barks at people. She stares them down. She speaks her mind. She doesn’t take crap. (As an aside, these books would easily pass the Bechdel test…. but I digress).

But the stories themselves also draw me in. Each of her stories brings social justice to the fore. In a 2001 article, she observes that she doesn’t “sit down to write books of social or political commentary.” She isn’t necessarily interested in what she calls “social-political novels.” What she is interested in is stories, and she is particularly interested in telling the stories of those who have a hard time telling their own stories. In this, she likens her work to that of Charles Dickens:

Dickens romanticized the virtues of the poor, but he didn’t sentimentalize the circumstances of their poverty. His books are, as my letter-writer put it, “infested” with social politics—but people still lined up by the thousands on the wharves in Boston to wait for the ship that was bringing the next installment of his work.

A hundred fifty years later, we still live an affluent life with an array of homeless children suffering from malnutrition and mal-education under our noses — the elephant in the living room we all ignore. A century after my grandparents met walking a picket line for the ILGWU, we still have sweatshops in this great land of ours. We still have crime, homelessness, parents selling their children for a nickel bag, and a host of other ills. If a master storyteller like Dickens could find his most compelling stories within that landscape, who am I to turn away from it?

Paretsky may not have set out to write political commentaries, but her books – genre fiction in every sense of the word – are nonetheless, like Dickens’ “‘infused’ with social politics.” They are entertaining, absolutely. But in their subject matter, in their characters, in the way that the various threads of the story weave in, through and around one another, these are always political works.

And here, too, I ask: why on earth would I ever – by choice – put this book down?

In asking this question, I am also asking others: how can I write a book that brings senses to life, that makes words sing, that makes social justice not only meaningful, but part of the mainstream? What can I learn from Rosner, Goodison and Paretsky? What can reading these stories tell me about the art of storytelling? About the relationships between readers and writers? And about the words and ideas that unite them?