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A haunting lifeline between archive and memory, law and poetry

In November, 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered that some 150 Africans be murdered by drowning so that the ship's owners could collect insurance monies. Relying entirely on the words of the legal decision Gregson v. Gilbert―the only extant public document related to the massacre of these African slaves― Zong! tells the story that cannot be told yet must be told. Equal parts song, moan, shout, oath, ululation, curse, and chant, Zong! excavates the legal text. Memory, history, and law collide and metamorphose into the poetics of the fragment. Through the innovative use of fugal and counterpointed repetition, Zong! becomes an anti-narrative lament that stretches the boundaries of the poetic form, haunting the spaces of forgetting and mourning the forgotten. Check for the online reader's companion at

224 pages, Hardcover

First published March 1, 2008

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About the author

Marlene NourbeSe Philip

18 books82 followers
M. NOURBESE PHILIP is a poet and writer and lawyer who lives in the City of Toronto. She was born in Tobago and now lives in Canada. In l965, when graduating from Bishop Anstey High School, M. NOURBESE PHILIP was awarded the Cipriani Memorial Scholarship for standing first in a Caribbean wide examination at the high school level. This award entitled her to carry out her undergraduate studies at the University of the West Indies. In l968 Ms NOURBESE PHILIP received her B.Sc.(Econ.) degree from the University of the West Indies.

M. NOURBESE PHILIP completed a Masters degree in Political Science (1970) as well as a degree in law at the University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada(1973). She practised law for seven years in Toronto, first at Parkdale Community Services and then in the partnership, Jemmott and Philip. During this time she completed two books of poetry. In l983 she gave up the practice of law to devote more time to writing.

Although primarily a poet, NourbeSe Philip also writes both fiction and non-fiction. She has published three books of poetry, Thorns - l980, Salmon Courage - 1983 and She Tries Her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks - 1988 and has been the recipient of Canada Council awards, numerous Ontario Arts Council grants and was the recipient of a Toronto Arts Council award in l989.

In l988 M. NOURBESE PHILIP won the prestigious Casa de las Americas prize for the manuscript version of her book, She Tries Her Tongue... She is also the l988 first prize winner of the Tradewinds Collective prize (Trinidad & Tobago) in both the poetry and the short story categories.

Ms NOURBESE PHILIP's first novel, Harriet's Daughter, was published in l988 by Heinemann (England) and The Women's Press (Canada). This book was one of two runners up in the l989 Canadian Library Association Prize for children's literature. Harriet's Daughter was also first runner up in the Max and Greta Abel Award for Multicultural Literature. Her second novel, Looking For Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence, was published in l991. In l994, NOURBESE PHILIP's short story, "Stop Frame" was awarded the Lawrence Foundation Award by the journal, Prairie Schooner.

In 1990, M. NOURBESE PHILIP was made a Guggenheim Fellow in poetry and in 1991 became a McDowell Fellow.

M. NOURBESE PHILIP'S short stories, essays, reviews and articles have appeared in magazines and journals in North America and England, and her poetry has been extensively anthologized. Her work - poetry, fiction and non-fiction is taught widely at the university level and is the subject of much academic writing and critique. She has taught creative fiction at the third year level at York University.

Two collections of Ms PHILIP's essays, Frontiers: Essays and Writings on Racism and Culture and Showing Grit: Showboating North of the 44th Parallel, were published in November l992 and June l993. CARIBANA: African roots and continuities -Race, Space and the Poetics of Moving was published as a chap book in 1996 and a third essay collection, Genealogy of Resistance and Other Essays-followed in 1997.

In 1995 M. NOURBESE PHILIP was awarded the Toronto Arts Award in writing and publishing.

M. NOURBESE PHILIP's first play, Coups and Calypsos, was produced in both London, England and in Toronto during 1999. A stage adaptation of Harriet's Daughter, her popular novel for young adults was successfully work-shopped in both 2000 and 2001 using a script written by the author.

In 2001 NourbeSe Philip was recognized for her work as "a revolutionary poet, writer and thinker" by the Elizabeth Fry Society of Toronto which presented her their 2001 Rebels for a Cause award .

That year M. NOURBESE PHILIP was also the recipient of the YWCA Woman of Distinction award in the Arts.
Her nominees stated:

"The experiences of Black women and girls are foremost in NourbeSe's works, as are issues of belonging, language, place and location."

In 2001 Nourbese Philip was

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5 stars
628 (46%)
4 stars
433 (31%)
3 stars
204 (15%)
2 stars
63 (4%)
1 star
30 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 124 reviews
Profile Image for Aubrey.
1,359 reviews794 followers
April 27, 2016
The last time I read a lawyer turned writer who happened to be a woman, others saw heterosexual romance where I saw power. What, I wonder, will the sheep make of this.

So, in post-Renaissance/Enlightenment/Humanism in the European spigot of things, we got: slavery; rape; colonization; bunch of thought stolen from Islamic Empire thinkers that sometimes were partially colonized Iranian thinkers; bunch more stolen from Indian/Chinese/other nations of non-white thinkers running through their own frames of colonization; the gynophobic side of Christianity in contrast to the Orthodox/Coptic/"Eastern"; brainwashing; white supremacy; and this. The last didn't just pop out of thin air. It took real effort of language and philosophy and social indoctrination to train entire civilizations to speak simultaneously of liberty and property in regards to the optimum state of human beings. Judging by the state of Darren Wilson and white people shooting black protestors while cops stand on by in this country, this stuff was built strong, and this shit will last, so long as a single individual considers themselves or is considered by this world to be white. You can't exist under a social label formulated for the supreme purpose for rendering humanity null and void on the basis of anitblackness, and then turn around and say you're not racist. You can't say you're not winning by any means necessary when you are and have been and will do so as long as you are able by the means of your ancestors and what you teach your progeny.

You're just going to have to sit down and read this if you want any sense at all of what's going on. I can't type it out for you for reasons of formatting and strategies of reading, my method of emulsifying these words in suspension being different from yours being different from yours being different from yours being different from that magical unicorn people like to call the universal. Not to mention the text: fourteen total languages and half of them non-European in 182 pages of vernacular of the death rattle of the drowned and the drowning. People have argued about whether this black woman, former lawyer and current experimental poet, hailing from Trinidad and Tobago and thus having a far greater chance of being related to those considered cargo on the Zong than the majority of the world, has the right to write this. I say, if you're so worried about appropriated representation, you can do a lot better in terms of size of target. Stein, for example. Or Faulkner. And that's just the blackface side of classical lit.

If you think reading this is difficult, try listening to Philips herself read out "Zong #1". Memento mori. The ways in which those others went first, and how forgetting won't stop them from coming back.
Profile Image for Adriana Scarpin.
1,430 reviews
November 20, 2022
Com muito esforço consegui terminar esse livro no Dia da Consciência Negra.
Esforço porque é o livro mais difícil que li na vida e tive que lê-lo aos pouquinhos devido ao cansaço que me dava, o li sóbria, o li com vinho, mas nada arrefecia sua dificuldade.
Tal dificuldade não se devia apenas ao experimentalismo da linguagem que segue os revezes do contraponto musical, com idas e vindas com quebras de palavras e sintaxe, mas ver o reflexo histórico desse desespero linguístico na saga do navio Zong do século XVIII, em que centenas de escravos foram atirados ao mar por ser mais lucrativo do que levá-los ao seu destino.
Todos esses espaços e quebras são silêncios e falta de ar dos que morreram naquele navio, transposto em forma de linguagem de maneira tão brilhante que não me resta nada mais do que ir em busca dos outros livros de Marlene NourbeSe Philip.
Se a autora levou quase dez anos para escrever tal épico, quem sou eu para reclamar da dificuldade de lê-lo? O que resta é apenas seu brilhantismo.
Profile Image for Amy.
Author 4 books30 followers
May 1, 2011

In water space has no name. In water light and matter do not interact. Photons are not exchanged to give breath to charged particles. Time runs overboard in water. It bears cargo. Space has no space in water. Time does not reciprocate. Space is opened in the graves of lungs. In water there is no cargo. Time fills up. Space has no name without time. Light and matter are unable. The water has no name for cargo. In space water water is never overboard. Spacetime breathes. In water space has no name. In water light and matter do not interact. Photons are not exchanged to give breath to charged particles. Time runs overboard in water. It bears cargo. Space has no space in water. Time does not reciprocate. Space is opened in the graves of lungs. In water there is no cargo. Time fills up. Space has no name without time. Light and matter are unable. The water has no name for cargo. In space water water is never overboard. Spacetime breathes. In water space has no name. In water light and matter do not interact. Photons are not exchanged to give breath to charged particles. Time runs overboard in water. It bears cargo. Space has no space in water. Time does not reciprocate. Space is opened in the graves of lungs. In water there is no cargo. Time fills up. Space has no name without time. Light and matter are unable. The water has no name for cargo. In space water water is never overboard. Spacetime breathes in water.
Profile Image for Ellen.
Author 4 books11 followers
January 30, 2009
This is one of the most painful and beautifully written books I've ever read. Part plea, part prayer, and a story that unravels the way shame surfaces.
Profile Image for Emma Anderson.
38 reviews
October 12, 2022
I really liked how one reviewer described this collection of poems: “you don’t read ‘Zong!’, you witness ‘Zong!’”. I couldn’t have said it better myself. A confusing, fragmented, disjointed reading experience to describe a confusing, fragmented, disjointed, and very much real experience for those forced on these slave ships. M. Nourbese Philip’s essay at the end was beautifully composed, and provided so much clarity, though it is still a moment in history that will never be fully deciphered.
87 reviews7 followers
April 12, 2020
the whole book is worth it just for the "Notanda" essay at the end. but also this book taught me how to be a more generous reader.
Profile Image for Theodore.
126 reviews22 followers
May 3, 2022
these poems left me at a lost, disoriented, and confused. this seems precisely the point. Philip manages to convey feelings and emotions that go beyond literal and grammatical meaning. ZONG! is a significant body of work.
Profile Image for Stef De Meyer.
95 reviews1 follower
November 11, 2021
Echt geweldig hoe wordt omgesprongen met heel gevoelige materie en problemen en op wat voor een prachtige manier gebeurt het! Talen door elkaar heen en heel mooie woordspelingen. Dikke aanrader!
493 reviews16 followers
October 30, 2015
I am not rating this because I was unable to finish the final book of the text Ferrum. As it stands it would probably be a hight two or very low three star book, but I will be hearing the author read and perhaps it will make more sense afterwards.

Zong! explores the case of the Zong a Dutch slave ship that jettisoned 150 live enslaved Africans on its journey to the Americas and hoped to receive insurance compensation for the same. Philip takes the court reports and as she says "murders the text"--literally chopping words into pieces and breaking all semblance of grammatical concern--to turn them into poems that evoke the pain and horror of the event. Or that's what the poems are supposed to do. I found that the technique was unsuccessful on the whole--although there were places where a plurality of meaning would come flying out of the text as she broke words into other words and it was obvious what she was working with (which would say one thing) but the physical arrangement of letters on the page would be something else said another thing entirely. Unfortunately, these bits were few and far between and the sheer effort it requires to physically read the text--breaking words in your head where she breaks them, squishing them together where she does, running with the non-grammar of the text--promises a much greater emotional payoff than the book provides. Simply put, the poetry was wild and cracked, and intentionally so, but reading it aloud and aloud-in-my-head myself I could neither find cohesive emotional and intellectual meaning nor a connection of raw sound to feeling. In her notes, Philip says that she wanted to reduce language to a sort of protolingual mess of sounds--the grunts and moans that go beyond language--but I couldn't hear them. I hope that hearing her read, presumably knowing what it should sound like may make it clearer, but I am a bit doubtful.

I did think she treated the subject matter with incredible empathy and understanding; her notes (if pretentious--particularly when describing her aims and methods) reveal careful research into the event and a genuine desire to bring the pain of the slaughtered slaves on the Zong to life. It just wasn't enough. A literary experiment of lofty goals and great ambition, but one that I ultimately feels far short of its hope and fails to serve as the text it wants to be.

Edit: Having seen Philip read from Zong! today, I have and have not changed my mind. The word breaking was much more successful when she red it, already knowing how they should sound--meaning fell apart, but she did manage to convey feeling in the senseless garbled chant. Where the performance had problems was that it was just that--a performance. She chanted, sang, engaged in a sort of slow dance, the non-text elements were by far the strongest part of Philip's reading of the poem. This says to me that it is not really intended to be read but rather to be seen; it is more play than poem and almost as much music as play.
Profile Image for Lluvia.
56 reviews
January 28, 2022
just incredible, will always be thinking about this masterful & spiritual & languagebending work of (un)telling
Profile Image for Cait.
1,071 reviews30 followers
May 6, 2021
This may be closer to 3.5 simply because it was an exhausting read--which I absolutely think was by design, but somewhere during Ferrum it became very difficult to keep reading, and more due to the way in which it was written than the content. I had gone with a 'read every word and make sense of it' approach, which was rewarding because there were so many small pockets of phrases and meaning that I would have missed otherwise, but it also was a very taxing task. So most of Ferrum onward got a much less close read. Philip uses repetition to, for the most part, great effect, but sometimes it feels 'done' or amateurish; there were times when I thought 'I wrote very similar things in undergrad' about certain techniques and passages, and I don't think that's a compliment to Philip. I will say that I thought there was an overemphasis on Romance languages that didn't make sense in context and that felt like a bit of an easy shortcut. Oh, and there really could have been more--something--ANYTHING--paid to the use of the 'co-author' Setaey Adamu Boateng. On the whole, though, I think this is a very important work, and I cannot imagine what it would have been like Philip to undergo writing it (and indeed she writes a bit about the pain of it in the Notanda).
Profile Image for Sarah.
15 reviews1 follower
November 6, 2015
I think it's about time to write my first book review on here, and this is a good one to begin with.

I read this book for a capstone class on postcolonial women writers, and I'm glad that I read it despite the frustration I felt while reading it. I'm giving it four stars because of the creativity of this text which gives the reader an experience, not a novel. That's something I can get behind, even if this was a challenging read.

If you're working on this book, I recommend listening to a live reading so you can keep some of that in your mind while you read it yourself. After that, your should literally read it aloud to yourself--it's so helpful. That's because this text begs to be a performance (which it actually was before it was written). Furthermore, it falls less into the novel genre and more into the affective text genre (yep, *A*ffective, not effective). It should therefore make you feel something (like, actually experience certain emotions) when you read it. I think that this text seeks to emulate the frustrating, confusing, fearful, shameful, and painful experiences of those who were involved in the event the book describes upon the ship Zong.

Profile Image for Janet.
334 reviews28 followers
January 9, 2021
This is not a book I want to rate. Here is what I can say.

"It is a story that cannot be told; a story that in not telling must tell itself."

There are names she finds and truths that the language of the law cannot hold.

Different languages hide in the same words or letters.

"The oba sobs."

The first movements are primers for deciphering "Ferrum" - finding its logic of enunciation and moments where the poetry sparks.

Ebora (water spirits)- the words cannot be deciphered in parts when everything is under water.

The work at hand is exaqua.

It's a visual fugue of loss.
Profile Image for John Hyland.
32 reviews
March 26, 2012
This is an important book. But I still don't know how successful it is . . . I know that some find the closing notes "problematic"--they don't bother me as much. More, it is a question of form somehow and how that is (re)working the history herein engaged/(re)documented/encountered.

It is useful to read this alongside Ian Baucom's SPECTERS OF THE ATLANTIC (Duke UP 2005), which is also considers the Zong incident.
Profile Image for J.A..
Author 18 books115 followers
February 10, 2013
This was recommended at a reading I recently attended and was definitely worth tracking down at the univ. library. In 1781, 150 slaves aboard the slave ship Zong were thrown overboard in order for the captain and crew to collect the insurance, and this book, in steeply poetic and minimalist narratives, attempts to tell the story they couldn't. An intersection of history and arts that is as brutal as the synopsis indicates.
3 reviews
October 28, 2015
haunting. important. a demonstration of what you can do with words -- m. nourbeSe philip stretches words, objectivity, subjectivity, history, breath, time across the page, throughout the book. this is both a masterpiece and a tragedy. in my reading thus far, there is no other text that embodies the trans-atlantic slave trade as fully, as affectively as m. nourbeSe philip does in zong!.
Profile Image for Evelyn.
32 reviews7 followers
June 29, 2013
Such an amazing endeavor and a beautiful collection. I found it helpful to read her notes at the end first, as an introduction to her process.
Profile Image for Jacob Wren.
Author 9 books370 followers
February 7, 2016
Right now I'm feeling it's one of the best books of poetry I've ever read. I actually can't think of anything that's blown me away, page by page, to the same degree...
Profile Image for Kate Savage.
669 reviews120 followers
May 29, 2020
There is a legal document where judges analyze a question about insurance claims. In the language of the law, it tells about a ship called the Zong, which carried a 'cargo' of enslaved human beings. The inexperienced captain got them all lost at sea and before they reached land they threw 150 people overboard. Once he got back home, he asked the insurance company to pay for the loss of his 'cargo.'

In two pages, the justices deliberate the case. It is not a murder case. It's an insurance question. This is the only historical document that reveals what happened on the Zong, but it more actively conceals than reveals. Actively erases the lives of enslaved people, obscures the mass kidnapping, mass rape, and mass murder at the core of the story.

What does this say about law? This document has been on my mind as the murderers of black people continue to be found innocent by the court system. As families are separated at the border, and screaming children are dragged to their own kiddie jails. These institutions of police and courts and borders and prisons: how they repeat their cold words of law to try to guide our gaze away from the horror of their violence. How 'reasonable' moderates nod along with those cold words, find security in them.

A line from Ta-Nehisi Coates: "The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one's eyes and forgetting the work of one's hands."

Zong is "a story which can't be told which must be told," writes M. NourbeSe Philip. She un-tells it through the words of the legal document itself, which she excises and unravels into poetry that hints at the agony and horror papered over by the law.

It is an astonishing and brilliant endeavor. It is also extremely difficult to read. Not only because of the subject matter, but also just logistically, with words in many different languages broken up across the page, evading any narrative through-line. The earlier sections are completely haunting, but the later ones grow more complex and difficult, and I found myself engaging more with Philip's explanatory essay at the back than the poetry itself.
9 reviews1 follower
February 27, 2020
The idea behind this collection is fascinating, but the execution was definitely below average. I wish I could say that I enjoyed reading it, but it really just made me feel as though I lost the ability to read. As intentional as the confusion may be, Philip's work simply just misses the mark for me.
Profile Image for •Paula•.
106 reviews
March 13, 2022
Terrible story of the death of the enslaved on board of Zong explained through the words used on its trial. It was difficult to read it on my own since I was not paying attention to the fact that verse-to-verse silences were not optional but mandatory; it was complicated as well because I was trying to understand the poem, not feeling it. I must admit the greater hardship was the form itself, but once I understood why it has it, the poems made a lot more sense, and I could connect more with what the writer was conveying.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Simon.
1,489 reviews9 followers
August 30, 2022
One I let wash over me more than anything, aside from the end essay. At times dipping in to exact words, at times letting the patterns wash over me, with a sense of waves, thrashing and overpowering. Either way, devastating.
Profile Image for Bella Stevens.
32 reviews1 follower
January 30, 2023
This book is incredible in concept, but it is quite apparent that its author is a lawyer, as it is a bit long-winded. Would adore it more if it were cut in half. Nevertheless it remains a beautiful testament to language, ancestry, and pain.

I like the idea that the author plays with, that readings like this put us all, no matter our language, on an equal playing field akin to pre-literacy. It's beautiful.
Profile Image for Leon.
116 reviews
July 30, 2021
I do appreciate how the anti-narrative mirrors the strained piecing-together of the senseless Zong tragedy. However, I did not enjoy reading it that much.
Profile Image for Rebecca Chretien.
65 reviews4 followers
March 2, 2022
this was probably the most confusing book i've ever read. but like. i get why.
"to not tell the story that must be told"
Profile Image for Susan Steed.
162 reviews7 followers
March 5, 2022
One of the most important and sacred books I've come across. Thank you to the person who told me I must read this book.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 124 reviews

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