m. nourbeSe philip

Award-winning Poet, Writer, Lawyer

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  • An Evening with M. NourbeSe Philip


“Brilliant, lyrical, and passionate… running along the themes of language, racism, colonialism, and exile.”―Publishers Weekly

“m. nourbeSe philip writes a poetry whose innovation―her spells of silence, her stuttering syntax―is not an abstract experiment but a form of mourning for African words prohibited by ‘the ceremony of White in the elsewhere of time.'” ―Literary Hub

“Those still confused about why poetry might fracture and splinter and stutter can find an answer in the work of m. nourbeSe philip. She delves into the trauma of the plantation economy and allows her language to be shaped by the conflicts between telling and not telling, between naming and not naming that define [history]… Exceptional and uniquely moving.”―Juliana Spahr

Poet, essayist, novelist, playwright, and former lawyer m. nourbeSe philip was born in Tobago. An author across genres, her collections of poetry include Thorns (1980), Salmon Courage (1983), and the seminal work, She Tries Her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks (1988, 2015), which, in manuscript form, was awarded the Casa de las Americas prize for poetry. philip’s best known work is her fourth book of poetry, Zong! (2008, 2011, 2023), the book relies entirely on the words of the legal decision Gregson v. Gilbert, the English case related to the massacre of 150 Africans murdered by drowning so that the ship’s owners could collect insurance money in 1781.

Equal parts song, moan, shout, oath, ululation, curse, and chant, Zong! excavates the legal text by colliding memory, history, and law resulting in a 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. Nathaniel Mackay says of the work: “A brash, unsettling book, Zong! wants to chant or shout history down, shut history up. It not only laments and mimics history’s unreason but, verisimilar and retributive both, deranges history, as if to reorder its linguistic protocols might undo or redo history itself. Fretful, possessed, obsessed, upset, curse and homeopathy, both, it visits a breathtaking run of glossolalic scat upon historical trauma.”

Her published fiction includes short stories and her first novel, Harriet’s Daughter (l988, 1989, 2022), a now-classic young adult work that navigates the adolescent friendship between two girls of Caribbean background living in Toronto. The work was one of two runners up in the l989 Canadian Library Association Prize for children’s literature as well as first runner up in the Max and Greta Abel Award for Multicultural Literature, and required reading for Caribbean secondary level students for over a decade. Her second novel, Looking For Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence (1991, 2007, 2018), is a hybrid quest narrative in poetry and prose, which explodes Western assumptions about the “silence” of indigenous peoples; this is an elegant work which beautifully gives voice to the ancestors to whom it is dedicated.

philip’s dramatic work includes Coups and Calypsos (2001), which was produced in both London and Toronto in 1996.

Her essay collections include Frontiers: Essays and Writings on Racism and Culture (1992), Showing Grit: Showboating North of the 44th Parallel (993), and A Genealogy of Resistance and Other Essays (1997). Her essay “Caribana: African Roots and Continuities–Race, Space and the Poetics of Moving” (1996) was published as a chapbook. Like her other collections, her most recent collection, BlanK (2017), demonstrates her continuing engagement with the tradition of the socially and politically-engaged poets, novelists and artists of the Caribbean. Alongside her poetry they articulate a powerful and decades-long engagement with issues generated by the destructive legacies of colonialism in both the Caribbean and Canada, even as they display a lifelong concern with the possibilities afforded by language to interrogate and remake these legacies.

philip is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize for her poetry, as well as the Lawrence Foundation Award by the journal Prairie Schooner for her short story “Stop Frame.” She has received awards, fellowships, and grants from both the Guggenheim Rockefeller (Bellagio) Foundations, the McDowell Colony, the Canada Council for rhe Arts, the Toronto Arts Foundation Award, and the Ontario Arts Council. She was also the winner of the 1988 Tradewinds Collective Prize in both poetry and short fiction, the Toronto Arts Foundation Award in writing and publishing, the YWCA Woman of Distinction award in the Arts. 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. She was awarded a 2002 Chalmer Fellowship for research by the Ontario Arts Council and in 2021, she received the Canada Council for the Arts, Molson Prize, awarded annually for artists who have “distinguished themselves by their outstanding achievements.” In 2023 she was the Bain-Swiggett Chair in Poetry at Princeton University for the Spring semester. In 2024 she became a recipient of the Windham Campbell award for poetry.

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.  Her poetry and fiction have also been translated into Spanish and German.

She resides in Toronto, Ontario.


Short Bio

Born in Tobago, m. nourbeSe philip is an unembedded poet, essayist, novelist and playwright who lives in the space-time of Toronto. A former lawyer, her published works include the award-winning YA novel, Harriet’s Daughter, the seminal poetry collection, She Tries Her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks, the speculative prose poem, Looking for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence, as well as her genre-breaking book-length epic, Zong! As told to the author by Setaey Adamu Boateng. She has written several collections of essays including Frontiers: Essays and Writings on Racism and Culture and A Genealogy of Resistance; her most recent collection is BlanK. philip is a fellow of both the Guggenheim and Rockefeller (Bellagio) Foundations and in 2020 was the recipient of PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature. In 2021, she was awarded the Canada Council for the Arts Molson Prize by the Canada Council for her outstanding achievement in the arts. In 2023 she was the Bain-Swiggett Chair in Poetry at Princeton for the Spring semester. In 2024, she became a recipient of the Windham Campbell Award for Poetry.

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