The Assay Interview Project: Sonja Boon
May 2, 2022
Sonja Boon is Professor of Gender Studies at Memorial University. Passionate about stories and storytelling, she has published on a variety of topics, from considerations of gender, embodied identity, and citizenship in eighteenth-century medical letters, to breastfeeding selfies, virtual activism, and craftivism in the feminist classroom. Her literary work appears in ROOM, Riddle Fence, The Ethnic Aisle, and Geist, as well as in anthologies. For six years, she was principal flutist and a frequent soloist with the Portland Baroque Orchestra. She is the author of four books, most recently What the Oceans Remember: Searching for Belonging and Home (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2019). In October 2020, she was awarded the Ursula Franklin Award in Gender Studies by the Royal Society of Canada.
About What the Oceans Remember: Sonja Boon’s heritage is complicated. Although she has lived in Canada for more than 30 years, she was born in the UK to a Surinamese mother and a Dutch father. An invitation to join a family tree project inspired a journey to the heart of the histories that have shaped her identity, as she sought to answer two questions that have dogged her over the years: Where does she belong? And who does she belong to?
Boon’s archival research—in Suriname, the Netherlands, the UK, and Canada—brings her opportunities to reflect on the possibilities and limitations of the archives themselves, the tangliness of oceanic migration, histories, the meaning of legacy, music, love, freedom, memory, ruin, and imagination. Ultimately, she reflected on the relevance of our past to understanding our present.
Deeply informed by archival research and current scholarship, but written as a reflective and intimate memoir, What the Oceans Remember addresses current issues in migration, identity, belonging, and history through an interrogation of race, ethnicity and gender through archives and memory. More importantly, it addresses the relevance of our past to understanding our present. It shows the multiplicity of identities and origins that can shape the way we understand our histories and our own selves.
Emily Smith: This book explores your complex and unusual multiethnic heritage. In the early stage of this search for sense of identity and belonging, you express a frustration about your connection to many different worlds but of feeling “at home” in none of them. Early in the text, you are forthright about an initial desire to identify with your Dutch roots over your African, Surinamese, or Hindustani heritage: “European music and a European family were precisely what I was looking for. …Europe was an inheritance I had come to claim” (64). Can you talk about how you eventually grew from this selective claiming to a more holistic embrace of your roots? How have you come to understand your identity differently as a result of this writing journey?
Sonja Boon: I knew the general contours of my heritage, but I found it hard to articulate to others, and also, I never really understood clearly what it meant to me; that is, how I located it in my body and my self. It was easiest, for a long time, to just claim Dutch, because that was something that made sense to people. It also made curious sense to me, because it’s where most of my relatives on my mother’s side lived, having migrated from Suriname to the Netherlands to study and work. Oddly, looking back now, I think my claim to being Dutch was also a perverse response to people who weren’t expecting that response. When I moved to Canada and people asked (and continue to ask) where I am from, it is because they read me as not-quite-white and thus as being ‘from away’; that is, their expectation of unquestioned belonging is premised on the idea that to be ‘Canadian’ is to be white. They read me as someone who doesn’t quite fit into their imaginings of belonging, and thus, as someone who must be from somewhere else. This was particularly relevant in the very white small town where I grew up (and my whole understanding of myself would likely have been very different if I’d grown up in an urban centre like Toronto, or, perhaps like most of my cousins, in the Netherlands).
All of this said, I also turned to Europe as I sought to claim an identity as a classical musician: European art music is a classical musician’s bread and butter, and while there is now more work being done to expand the musical canon, it’s still overwhelmingly white and male. ‘Dutch’ provided an entrée into that musical world.
Finally, “Dutch-Canadian” was – and is – easy. And it’s legible, in that people understand – or think they understand – what the Netherlands is.
Over time, however, it became clear that that framing was not sustainable (and it wasn’t correct, either). I needed something deeper, more nuanced, richer. Something that tried to make sense of complexity, rather than smoothing it over with an easy answer, because while it was easy for others, it wasn’t necessarily easy for me. I needed something that captured a bigger picture, as messy or tangled as that picture might be. Where am I now? Comfortable, I’d say. I feel more grounded, even if that ground covers half the globe!
It was a cousin’s invitation to collaborate on a family history project that spurred your effort to recover family heritage. Over the course of the research, you used such a wide array of source material: ships' logs, accounting books, letters, musical scores, newspapers, plantation census and slave registers, oral history, photos and paintings, museum artifacts, digital scans… How do you find such varied material, and what are some of the biggest challenges in working with archives that are idiosyncratic in their form and content? What suggestions can you offer to the many beginning researchers who want to uncover their own family stories?
Can I start by saying that l love archival research? And what I love best about archival research is the tactility – the ability to literally touch the past. It’s amazing. And it never ceases to be amazing.
Finding archival sources comes from a combination of research and serendipity. So, it often starts with a question: How would I learn about [insert your chosen topic here]? That leads me then, to thinking about what kinds of materials might help me learn about that topic, and from there, to identifying some possibly relevant archival collections. Then, I’ll dive into online catalogues to search for key words and terms. Eventually, this leads me to some specific primary documents: a series of letters, perhaps, or a ship’s log. Reading through this material inevitably suggests other questions, and those questions lead me on another search through catalogues, and so the process continues.
Archivists are enormously helpful at identifying materials that you may not have thought of, and they can also point you to online collections that you didn’t know about. Colleagues and friends are helpful, too. And, of course previously published books offer insight. For example, a book on indentured labour might be based on ships’ logs and immigration records, which lead you to exploring similar kinds of records in the context of your own research.
But sometimes, even after all that, it comes down to serendipity. Sometimes a well-timed and yet random tweet opens up a whole world. Sometimes you request the wrong document, mistyping a call number, only to discover that it’s absolutely exactly what you were looking for. Sometimes you scour a newspaper for specific details only to learn other things that are equally important. Sometimes the marginalia is more important than the main text. Sometimes what you find changes the whole question you thought you were trying to answer!
Biggest challenges: I think the biggest challenge is accepting that things don’t reveal themselves in any kind of linear way. Archival research, and particularly the kind of research that underpinned this book, is about working with fragments. Those fragments may remain fragments throughout the process, or at some point, you may be able to join them up with other fragments. But the puzzle is never clear.
The second challenge is that the stories that remain in the archives may not be the “right” stories, and what I mean is this: Who is telling the stories? For what purpose? To what end? Who only appears through the voices of others? Who doesn’t appear at all?
For example, in a previous research project, based on letters sent to a celebrated eighteenth-century Swiss doctor, I reveled in the fact that I had complete and often lengthy patient-authored letters available to me; that is, I could feel relatively secure that I was reading the words of archival subjects on their own terms. But some letters in that collection, particularly those dealing with forms of mental illness, were written by doctors who were observing their patients. These patients’ voices, as such, appeared only through the mediation of a medical professional.
Similarly, in What the Oceans Remember, I considered all manner of colonial materials. And while these materials often included extensive detail, they were written not for those represented in the documents (the enslaved, the indentured) but rather, for colonial authorities. And the needs of colonial authorities were very different from the needs of the indentured and enslaved. The enslaved and indentured appeared only when they confirmed or challenged colonial authority. Thus, for example, they appeared in lists destined to compensate enslavers on abolition, or in court documents or other records when they defied or resisted colonial authority. But however, they appeared, they only appeared through the voices, words, and lenses of others; in other words, they almost never spoke for themselves.
So, too, do you have to consider that sometimes, with seemingly straightforward things like dates and ages, there will be transcription and communication errors. And sometimes those errors are far more substantive than you can imagine. Uncertainty, therefore, remains the name of the game. And that uncertainty, itself, opens new questions and possibilities (as I observe in a blog post I wrote for.
And beyond that, finally, here’s the thing: no matter how much research you do, you’re still dealing with fragments. There will still always be gaps and silences. That’s not to say that gaps and silences are always bad. There is absolute wonder in gaps and silences because they suggest an almost infinite array of possibilities. There is magic there. But there is also, simultaneously, grief for what is lost and can never be known.
In terms of suggestions for beginning researchers:
One of the most arresting and astounding moments in this book occurs when you are reading a register of the 324 enslaved persons at Sarah plantation in Suriname (80-85). You devote five pages to listing many of the enslaved individuals by name. Tell me about this act of naming these nearly-forgotten lives. How did you determine what, or who, to include.
To tell the story of the enslaved is, in many ways, to tell stories of silence. Most of those whose names are listed in slave registers left no other written trace of themselves. They exist in the slave registers only for economic reasons: recorded as possessions of their enslavers. How, then, to even try and make them visible on their own terms? How to emphasize them not as numbers, but as fleshy, living individuals – each one with voices, hearts, lungs – and also with loves, dreams, hopes, frustrations, and longings? I chose to write down the names of all those enslaved at Sarah plantation on the day that the enumerator came around in 1862 to record them because I wanted to locate my own ancestors within a community, and because I wanted to honour all the enslaved by putting the focus on them, rather than on the enumerator. For me, this writing down was about honouring and about keeping vigil. It was a roll call. And speaking their names out loud was a way to put their stories inside my own body, to carry them with me. In this way, it was a form of resistance, a talking back to archival violence. My approach here is also influenced by the approach taken by poet and essayist M.NourbeSe Philip in Zong!, where she calls the silenced and murdered enslaved – recorded only as numbers in ships’ logs – into being along the bottom of the first section of the text.
Although you have said you are private by nature, so much of the book feels incredibly intimate, as if you are confiding in a dear friend. There’s a wonderful moment on page 47, when you are grappling with the problem of remaining objective while working with appalling documents of the slave trade. As you are trying to photograph one of the documents—the account books of a company that traded in enslaved laborers—you describe becoming frustrated because no matter how you shift, your shadow always falls on the document. It’s a poignant image that speaks to the ways in which researchers can’t erase their own presence from the process and work. This tension arises again when you find yourself trying to imagine the world through the eyes of a Hindustani immigrant (your great-great-grandmother). Although you lean into it eventually, you seem wary of the ways you might misrepresent her. What have you discovered about the responsibilities writers and researchers have in telling other people's stories? How do you negotiate question of what we “owe” to the dead?
It was a long journey towards revealing my inner self, and I have my editor, Allyson Latta, to thank for this (Allyson was also my instructor for two memoir courses I took via the University of Toronto’s Continuing Studies creative writing program). My writing group, which formed out of those two memoir courses, also encouraged more personal reflection.
I found it very hard to find a good balance for my voice. It was easy to slip back into my academic, research-based, scholarly voice. For Allyson and my writing group – and when it came down to it, for me, too – that wasn’t nearly enough. But when I experimented, I found myself falling back into my teenage maudlin poetry voice, where everything was overdone and excessive.
Neither approach worked on their own; nor did they complement one another. I had to find a whole new voice that took into consideration the various parts of ‘me’: I had to honour the researcher (because that’s who I am) but I also had to honour the inner me, who was trying to figure things out at an emotional and embodied level. And that inner me was, for a long time, very reticent, and needed an awful lot of (gentle) coaxing, not just to come out, but also, to find its own voice (if that makes sense!). Part of this journey was trying to figure out what I was trying to say, and why. I wrote a bit more about this process in a blog post after participating in a conference on Creative Histories (that took place at a zoo! But that’s a whole other story).
You use all your senses to conduct your research, not just your eyes and ears. I love your description of the openness of the archives in Suriname and all the activity there (127-9). You write that some of the other researchers—a mother with her toddler, a man in flip-flops— “would never have been allowed to set foot in a European or Canadian archive,” because they don’t have a professional appearance and might lack some academic credentials that are often required. This prompts you pose the questions: “To whom should archives belong? …And who should be allowed to access them?” (129) And I am wondering: How can archives become more accessible and open? Does access determine whose histories are “worth” preserving?
I’ll start by saying that I can fully understand why archival collections have strict guidelines on how materials can be handled. Archival materials are irreplaceable. But the gatekeeping, as it currently stands, is often excessive, and it’s based on longer class- and education-based exclusions, and those exclusions need to be interrogated and challenged. When I did my PhD, I needed a letter from my supervisor to gain admission to a given collection in Paris. But suppose I hadn’t been a PhD student with a supervisor who could write a letter for me? Would that mean that I wouldn’t be able to access the materials? If archives are public, then they should be accessible to the public, and not just the privileged public. There need to be ways to make them accessible to all (and not just via digitization, which is a whole other story that could take up many, many books!)
Throughout the book, US readers are confronted with how slow the United States has been in abolishing slavery or in striking down anti-miscegenation laws, even as compared to other imperial powers. Americans' unwillingness to reckon with our past seems to prevent us from becoming the progressive or enlightened nation we imagine ourselves to be. And yet, our national heritage—like your personal heritage—does not belong simply to one people, one place, one set of traditions. What insight have you gained from your writing journey that might help our nation cope with the tangled legacies of globalization and slavery?
This likely will sound like a cop out, but here it is: I don’t feel comfortable answering this as I’m not American, and not living in the USA and not an historian of American slavery. That being said, I will point any interested folks to fantastic and really ground-breaking work by Saidiya Hartman, author of such books as Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route and Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, and Marisa Fuentes, author of Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive, among others, who have really challenged researchers (and readers) to think critically through archives, archival approaches, and life stories. I’ll also highly recommend the work of Dionne Brand and M. NourbeSe Philip.
You spend lots of time exploring the landscapes of your family’s past, but ultimately, you discover that the oceans are the key to your sense of place and belonging; you began “thinking through oceans,” because “the oceans…brought us together.” (239) Can you explain what it means to “think oceanically,” and what this approach might offer to others who are trying to understand the personal and environmental implications of imperialism, diaspora, and globalization?
Thinking oceanically, for me, is about thinking with waves, currents, flows; that is, with movement and depth. That movement has a rhythm to it, but it’s a rhythm that is endlessly buffeted by external forces, both human and more-than-human. Depth, meanwhile, asks me to think of layers, and also, to consider the unseen, the haunted, the drowned. And it also asks me to think about currents that sometimes work against one another.
The stories I find in archival collections are not – and can never be – straightforward; they are layered and contradictory texts that need to be carefully contextualized, considered, interrogated, and challenged. So, too, do I need to understand them as unfinished but also neverending texts; they float in an endless ocean, arranging and rearranging themselves, breaking into waves but then also, reorganizing and aligning themselves. How does the order in which I receive documents shape my reading of them? Suppose, like M. NourbeSe Philip, I take the text completely apart and then rearrange it, reordering the story at the level of individual letters?
But there’s also much to think through in relation to sound, smell, and spray – that is, to think oceanically is also about feeling salt sting the document, touching the handwriting of the past, listening to how paper crinkles as it unfolds, smelling the mustiness of a two-hundred-year-old page… Where were documents stored? Who had access to them? What did it feel like to write lengthy epistles aboard an endlessly rocking ship? What does it mean to touch paper that was touched by so many before me? How do I respond to paper that crumbles as I reach for it?
And then, as oceans meet land, I think, too, of mud, mixture, erosion, and more. What did colonial encounters look like? Who met ships? How did people communicate? How might they have felt? What happens when whole plantations erode away into the ocean?
Research is not your only creative endeavor here; you explore your questions of family and belonging and heritage through other projects too, including a quilt you planned to make from scraps of textiles reflecting your ethnic heritage (191), and a small model house that you decorated for the artist, Pam Hall, to represent the question: “What does home mean to you?” (165-6) You covered the house with images of historical maps of the places of your heritage, but came to acknowledge that the representation was insufficient. I’m curious to know, how would you approach this project now? Would you decorate it differently?
What a great question! I will need to visit Pam to check on the little house again. I think, honestly, that I would move away from maps. I know what I was trying to do there; I really wanted to resist a possible fixity embedded in the concept of home by trying to understand home as a mode of migration, because that’s what it meant to me. But, while using historical maps made the migrations visible, it also – because the maps I used were all European maps – further centered European ways of knowing and seeing. In addition to this, by their very nature maps seek to ‘fix’ things in place; that is, they try to construct a sort of geographic form and reality. But when I think through identity, I’m thinking of something that is much more fluid, more layered. I’m thinking of Renisa Mawani’s oceanic methodology, which is premised on currents that layer over each other and sometimes contradict. And I’m thinking of an ever eroding shoreline that never quite remains the same. And from this, I’m thinking too of how identities layer themselves with, against, and through one another. I think if I did it again, I would do something with textiles and stitching. There’s a softness and malleability there; there’s the potential to play with frayed edges and with loose threads, and from there, to experiment with knotting, tangling, and untangling.
Your musicianship is a constant thread in this work, in that it is a passion you share with your grandfather and (as it turns out) several other ancestors. You even relate your archival research to music-making (256): “There’s a sense of give and take—the score is a space of play. How will the music unfold? What kinds of tonal landscapes will we explore? And how will we negotiate the pauses, the silences, the spaces between the notes?” Do you have a favorite composer or genre you prefer to hear when you are writing?
Hah! I don’t listen to music at all when I’m writing! I need quiet, or I get distracted. But that doesn’t mean that music wasn’t part of my research landscape. For example, when I learned about a nineteenth-century concert series in Paramaribo, I searched out the different pieces that I didn’t know, so I could get a sense of them. Similarly, I searched for online recordings of my grandfather’s choir, so I could get a sense of the choir’s sound. In my current project, I’m spending a lot of time with early twentieth-century flute recordings, and also, playing many early-twentieth-century pieces on my early-twentieth-century flute.
Now, in terms of just listening to music for the sheer pleasure of it, I like a lot of things in the classical music world, so perhaps it’s easier to say what I won’t listen to: opera (unless it’s Baroque) and Wagner (sacrilegious, I know).
Emily Patton Smith formerly worked as an archaeologist and as Collections Coordinator of the Randolph College Natural History Collections / founder of RC Natural History Collections Project (2011-2020). She assisted with the design of Museum & Heritage Studies major at Randolph College, where she taught courses in Natural History Collections and Collections Management, and curated five exhibitions exploring interconnections between natural science and the humanities. She plays violin and guitar, restores antique stringed instruments, and composes music in blues, classical, and traditional idioms. Emily writes poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction, as well as scholarly essays and articles.
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