I’m a fixer. When a doorknob in my house no longer catches the pin, I rig it with a paperclip, some cardboard and tape. When a hole widens in the seam of my jeans, I patch it over. When I read Zong!, with its words splintered into syllables reaching for each other across chasms on the page, my brain wants to close those gaps, to fill them in, to stitch the words back together into a quilt I can hold all at once, tight and coherent. I sense an underlying desire to understand, to be able to mold these poems into something I know how to read, know how to stand face to face with, to listen to. But these gaps, these silences resist closure because they are full with the voices that must be resurrected but cannot be.
There’s a risk involved in Zong!, in both its creation and its consumption. M. NourbeSe Philip says in her Notanda, “”The risk — of contamination — lies in piecing together the story that cannot be told. And since we have to work to complete the events, we all become implicated in, if not contaminated by, this activity” (198). There’s a paradox at play, in which we are all involved in the project of telling this story, of attempting to give voice to those who were silenced (both in the moment of drowning and in the recording of history), but we are also involved in the warping of this story. That is, much like my learned and automatic desire to fill in the gaps, in the act of reading Zong! I manipulate the words and turn the story into something not quite the truth. Maybe what I’m trying to say is that I am not sure how to reach whatever truth – unspeakable truth – is at the heart of Zong!. Reading Philip’s words is, for me, an act of resurrection with nothing to behold. Philip wrestles with the lack involved in death under water – she says, “unlike being interred, once you’re underwater there is no retrieval – that you can never be “exhumed” from water.” Reaching, reaching, coming up empty handed. But the hands are still wet. I want to ask, to know, How might we develop and practice an ethics of readership with an eye towards seeking justice for those who have no say in the matter?
I think the beginning of an answer lies in the silences. What we do when we encounter silence, how we come to recognize the silences in ourselves and in each other. In his essay “Love the Masters”, Jericho Brown says: “I will never understand the spirit of my ancestors, but I know it. I know it lives in me. I write because my writing mind is the only chance I have of becoming the manifestation of their hope.” For me, the first step towards the readership I want is to recognize that silence does not preclude knowledge, that there are ways of knowing that do not necessitate explicit understanding, or even the ability to hold something fully, coherent. I hope to lean into these ways of knowing which are new to me, and to check myself when I want to impose my own biased, potentially violent way of reading.