Books·My Life In Books

M. NourbeSe Philip shares 6 titles that helped hone her writing craft

The Canadian poet and essayist highlights six books that shaped her life and work.
M. NourbeSe Philip is a poet, essayist, fiction writer and playwright. (Gail Nyoka)

M. NourbeSe Philip is a Canadian poet, novelist, essayist and short story writer who was born in Tobago. She is the author of numerous works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Earlier in 2020, she won the PEN/Nabokov Award for International Literature.

To celebrate National Poetry Month, M. NourbeSe Philip shared some of the books that shaped and inspired her craft with CBC Books.

Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery

Lucy Maud Montgomery is best known for a series of novels beginning in 1908 with Anne of Green Gables. (NATARK-Canadian Press/Pan Macmillan)

"I still have my original green hardback copy of Anne of Green Gables, first published in 1908. I was a young girl, probably around the same age as Anne Shirley and like her, living on another tiny island, Trinidad. That other girl was white and red-headed and I was black and African-descended, yet her feistiness, her challenging of authority and her fierce commitment to herself spoke to that 11-year-old living in a country that was still a colony of the British Empire, with all that that implied. 

"So much did that and subsequent Anne novels impress me that her approach to life, as well as the surname of her foster parents, the siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, became embedded in my first novel, the young adult work, Harriet's Daughter. Margaret, the protagonist, who wants to be called Harriet (after the legendary Harriet Tubman) is described by her mother as faysty, the Jamaican vernacular word for feisty, and her father's name is Cuthbert Cruickshank. 

I still have my original green hardback copy of Anne of Green Gables,  first published in 1908.

"It was sometime after the novel was published that I became aware that I had given the surname of Anne's foster parents to Margaret/Harriet's father and that like Anne, Margaret/Harriet feels somewhat the odd one out and challenges her family. I was not at all aware that I was drawing on that earlier work when I was writing Harriet's Daughter, but such is the power of literature."

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

If Beale Street Could Talk is a book by James Baldwin. (Vintage, Allan Warren)

"I was very new to writing when I read If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin. I don't know if my memory serves me correctly, but for some odd reason I associate reading the book with a time shortly after moving into the house in which I now live more than four decades ago.

"Until then, I had not known that fiction could be inhabited by people like myself, or like Tish and Fonny, the two young protagonists. They are in love, but Fonny has been accused of rape and is incarcerated. The struggle is to get him cleared and out of jail. It was their 'ordinariness' that cornered my attention and the way Baldwin worked with that — just two young people in love caught up in a harshly racist system. They weren't exceptional in looks or accomplishment, but they weren't just two young people either — they were African Americans and all that that implied and still implies for African-descended people in the United States, Canada and indeed in the Americas.

It helped give me the courage to believe in myself as a writer.

"I had read all of Baldwin's other novels by then, as well as his essays but the context for this novel was smaller — appeared less grand. There were no large scale political issues as in his previous novels as backdrop to his narrative. Perhaps Beale Street held me fast because the core of this novel was about love and how it, too, can become a form of resilience. I have written elsewhere that 'to love is to resist.' If Beale Street Could Talk convinced me that I, too, and people like me, could make and inhabit literature, and excellent literature at that. It helped give me the courage to believe in myself as a writer."

The Black Unicorn by Audre Lorde

The Black Unicorn is a book by Audre Lorde. (Penguin Random House, Elsa Dorfman)

"Audre Lorde's collection of poems The Black Unicorn is a thematic odyssey through memory — personal and ancestral — memory as a form of resistance and love — both fierce and tender — between women, including mothers for daughters and vice versa. As a poet-in-training as I was then (and probably always will be), this work spoke to me of possibilities — the immense liberatory possibilities of writing and poetry in particular.

This work spoke to me of possibilities — the immense liberatory possibilities of writing and poetry in particular.

"'The black unicorn is not free,' — Lorde writes in the title poem — a phrase that continues to reverberate for me, while challenging me to imagine through writing what freedom for the black unicorn might look like. Lorde would also write — 'the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house,' a quote that is now used almost universally in discussions relating to societal change.

"I came closest to understanding this through the framework of poetry during work on my last book-length work, Zong!, in which the very language of the poem degrades to the point where a new language begins to assemble itself from the fragments of the old."

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

The Known World is a novel by Edward P. Jones. (Harper Collins, John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

"In their ability to conjure the range and depth of feelings, emotions and reactions they do, books retain an almost magical quality for me. There was an occasion when I wanted to murder a book. I had never had such a reaction to a book before, but something about it, perhaps it was a fundamental dishonesty within it, made me seethe and thoughts of murdering the book seemed the most (in)appropriate reaction.

In their ability to conjure the range and depth of feelings, emotions and reactions they do, books retain an almost magical quality for me.

"The Known World, by Edward P. Jones, left me with a very different feeling: it was as if I had had my eye pressed to a keyhole through which I was observing a carefully intricate and lovingly designed world, despite the narrative being about a formerly enslaved African man in the American South, bought out of slavery by his formerly enslaved father, but who, in turn, becomes a slaveholder himself.

"The title for me then becomes somewhat of a tease because the idea of looking through a keyhole implies spying on something that is illicit, not known, forbidden, even taboo. Yet it's called The Known World.  Is the author suggesting that we all know the contradictions of the human heart and the working of the human psyche? It remains for me a work of deep compassion about the complexity of human nature. And I still haven't figured out how Jones accomplished that sense of my/the reader spying on this very particular segment of humanity. Perhaps because I don't wish to know, desiring to keep the magic alive."

Waiting for God by Simone Weil

Waiting for God is a book by Simone Weil. (Harper Collins)

"Simone Weil is someone to whom I return often and who always repays my continued interest in her work. Born in Paris in the early 20th century, she was an intellectual and philosopher — a fierce thinker whose work is committed to truth-telling (an increasingly scarce commodity in these times) and an engagement with spirituality — Christian spirituality. 

"Although I was raised in that faith, I no longer observe its tenets or belong to it; Weil's engagement with Christianity, however, transcends for me belief or non-belief — an approach she may not have agreed with. It's her intellectual process, however, that interests me, as well as what has been described as her mysticism. A stringent observer of the political and social conditions of her times, she wrote incisively about them and her commitment to certain truths lead to her living with many contradictions. She was, for instance, a Jew who embraced Christianity yet refused to be baptized into the faith because she believed that it excluded too much of the world's wisdom.

She observed that the existence of hunger presupposes the existence of bread. It is an idea that continues to sustain me as a writer who remains actively engaged in issues related to social justice.

"Waiting for God and The Need for Roots are the two works that I return to when I want to continue to contemplate and revisit a certain way of being in the world. Weil lived her desire for a more just society by becoming a labourer despite her middle-class upbringing and training and died in England after having contracted tuberculosis. It is believed that by insisting on only living on the rations allowed by the Germans in occupied France during the Second World War, she eventually starved herself to death. She observed that the existence of hunger presupposes the existence of bread. It is an idea that continues to sustain me as a writer who remains actively engaged in issues related to social justice."

Anabasis by St. John Perse

Anabasis is an extended poem by the late Nobel laureate and poet St. John Perse. (AFP via Getty Images, Houghton Mifflin)

"I came to Anabasis by way of the poem Pour Célébrer Un Enfance by the Nobel Laureate, St. John Perse. The poem is an extended memory of growing up in the French Caribbean island, Guadeloupe, which today remains a départment of France. He and I share little beyond being both born in the Caribbean and sharing a love of poetry: He was a white creole and a descendant of the plantocracy and I, a descendant of enslaved Africans. Despite this, Pour Célébrer… opened veins of memory of my childhood in the Caribbean, which then led to my engagement with Anabasis and eventually his oeuvre.

Perse's work remains an essential part of my poetic DNA.

"Epic in style and form, Anabasis chronicles the journey of a man who appears to be of some stature through unidentified lands and climates.  It is simultaneously excessive and spare. The edition I read and reread for years, even travelling with it to the Caribbean several times, was the 1930 edition translated by T.S. Eliot with the French and English on facing pages. Unconsciously, I would appropriate this motif of the unnamed traveller (ad)venturing through unnamed lands, which would later manifest in my book-length narrative poem, Looking for Livingstone: an Odyssey of Silence, in which the Traveller, female in this case, travels through time — eight billion years—and space, a generalized Africa, seeking the adventurer David Livingstone and the source of her Silence.

"Anabasis in particular and Perse's work in general, taught me how to take up space as a female poet and showed that the epic, a form so wedded to male exploits, could be put in service of another way of being — the way of being female. Perse's work remains an essential part of my poetic DNA."

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