Staff Picks: Chantelle reads And I Alone Escaped To Tell You
This Staff Picks Week, we're sharing books from the #ReadAtlantic VOICES collection. Chantelle (Manager of Programming and Member Services for the Atlantic Publishers Marketing Association) picks And I Alone Escaped To Tell You by Sylvia D. Hamilton (Gaspereau Press).
I remember hearing Sylvia Hamilton talk to Shelagh Rogers on CBC's The Next Chapter, where she described the excavatory work of weaving together historical records, memories, and experiences while imagining and re-imagining the voices of early Black Nova Scotians, including her own ancestors who came to Nova Scotia after the War of 1812. She talked about the time she spent searching through letters and documents in the Nova Scotia archives: "I began reading what was in the record, and what was not in the record," she says, and "at the point that these voices became urgent and needing to speak, it really seemed like poetry was the way" (Listen to the full interview here). It really crystallized something about the book for me, this book that so deftly brings together musicality and memory.
Poetry allows for the time and space between lines to explore that countering, the space to address what's in the records and imagine what's not. And the way the history and re-imaginations are woven together lyrically creates a musical counterpoint: the intertwining of melodies, of independent voices.
Been away from longer than my memory
my mother's memory
my grandmother's memory
So long gone. Still I remember--
Awakened by the pulsing tam tam, surging like an electric current
I am who they imagined.
This poem highlights the layering that makes these pieces so powerful: imagining and giving voice to the memories and lives of her family, who would have also been imagining and dreaming for her future.
As she notes in the Acknowledgements section of the book, some of the archival records related to the Black Loyalists and Black Refugees of the War of 1812 that she consulted while writing are now available online from the Public Archives of Nova Scotia. She opens the third section with an epigraph from Pablo Neruda about the poet's two sacred obligations: "to leave and to return." Sylvia Hamilton returns. To the records of enslavement and historical injustices in Nova Scotia, to the “sea which could not sing,” to her own family history. From those places, she draws out in vivid detail individual characters like Little Sarah, Flora, Vera who wants to be Véronique, and so many more, as she traces the reverberations from a history that must continue to be reckoned with.About the book: The settlement of African peoples in Nova Scotia is a richly layered story encompassing many waves of settlement and diverse circumstances from captives to ‘freedom runners’ who sailed north from the United States with hopes of establishing a new life. The poems in And I Alone Escaped to Tell You endeavour to give these historical events a human voice, blending documentary material, memory, experience and imagination to evoke the lives of these early Black Nova Scotians and of the generations that followed. This collection is a moving meditation on the place of African-descended people in the Canadian story and on the threads connecting all of us to the African diaspora.