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  • A Poet of Place:An Interview with M. NourbeSe Philip
  • Kristen Mahlis (bio)

The following interview took place over the course of two meetings, April 13 and 14, 2002, in Toronto, Canada.

MAHLIS: You begin your collection of essays A Genealogy of Resistance with a striking image of your father bringing light to the family, an image that seems both symbolic and deeply personal. Could you talk about that image as a prelude to discussing your family background?

PHILIP: It's a very powerful image that remains with me from my childhood. We didn't have electricity at that time, we lived in Plymouth, literally on the coast, we had one of those kerosene lamps—I think people use them now for camping—and after you lit the little filigreed bag you pumped it and the light got brighter and brighter. There was something very overwhelming and powerful in that image of my father bringing light to the house every night in that way. I never saw my mother do it; I don't think she ever did. I think that act of bringing light to the house becomes something of a metaphor for his role in the family: when some years later he moved us from Tobago to Trinidad because the education system was "better" in Trinidad—I think that his bringing light to the house in that figurative sense was carried over into his trying to bring some light—in the form of education—to the family, from his perspective. I say from his perspective, because those kinds of actions are always fraught with contradictions and gains and losses, but I think that there is something lasting for me around that metaphor.

MAHLIS: How did your life change when you moved from Tobago to Trinidad?

PHILIP: One of the things I recall, and it has always remained with me, is that it was the move from a time that—I'm almost close to tears as I talk about this—a time that was—I suppose the best word would be, idyllic. Tobago was and to a large degree is still very rural and not developed or organized in the way Trinidad is—Trinidad has oil and natural gas, which has led to a kind of industrial development—and so I have memories almost of a sense of running wild in Tobago, although knowing my mother, I don't think there was a lot of running wild! But in the sense of playing outside and among the trees in the hot sun, there remains in my memory this image of being at home and at ease in the natural environment. The green of the vegetation, the gold of [End Page 682] the sun—these are the enduring images from that time. Trinidad, on the other hand, was all concrete and paved over. It was also the place where I would have a much more formalized education that was very directed, particularly in terms of it being a colony moving into independence, and if you were "bright enough" then you were supposed to advance in a particular path from secondary school, hopefully to win scholarships and go on to university. So, in my being, there's a split—a before and an after that Tobago and Trinidad represent for me.

MAHLIS: You've described yourself as "poet of place," developing a voice out of a sense of place, and I wonder if in that move from Tobago to Trinidad you feel split between the two places, although you talk about writing not so much about place as from place.

PHILIP: In terms of what you said to me about your topic [topic of interviewer's book on Caribbean women writers and exile] of exile, that move from Tobago to Trinidad was my first experience of exile, and probably the most profound, because I have said, and probably written, that the place I write from is Tobago, even though I only spent the first eight years of my life there. So it has a disproportionately large presence in my psychic life and casts a very large shadow in my life as a writer. I think if you write from place...