When Dr. Sonja Boon arrived in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2008, she was struck by the province’s deep-rooted identity.
While Dr. Boon was born in Britain, her mother originally hails from Suriname and her father from the Netherlands.
While looking out at the Atlantic Ocean from Middle Cove Beach one day, she was compelled to take a deep dive into her own lineage.
Her journey of personal discovery is chronicled in intimate, conversational style in What the Oceans Remember, the Coast Lines book club’s current selection.
Dr. Boon, who is also a world-class flutist and professor of gender studies in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Memorial, says her editor and online writing group gave her the courage to write something so personal to her.
“I didn’t have the thrust on my own. It was much easier to hide behind the archival material and to settle back into my academic voice — even though I wanted a more intimate voice. I’m generally quite private about things,” she said.
“As a musician, we express our inner selves with sound, not words. Words are altogether different. Suddenly there’s a concreteness. We’re not just staring at ourselves in the mirror, the mirror is staring right back. And that’s a discomfiting feeling.”
“It took a lot out of me, intellectually, emotionally, creatively, personally.”
Unsure of whether she could write in the genre, she wasn’t sure if she was ready.
“But it pulled at me. It felt necessary, not just for me at a personal level, but more broadly speaking. It took a lot out of me, intellectually, emotionally, creatively, personally. I was exhausted afterwards. For months I couldn’t write anything at all.”
Happily, she says the process made her more confident about her writing and how she can work with words to get her ideas across. She is also now more committed to creative approaches to research.
The past: Messy, uncomfortable … as it should be
When it comes to exploring our pasts and how the past shapes the contemporary world, Dr. Boon emphasizes that it cannot be ignored.
She says we cannot pretend that the past only happened to ‘other people,’ or that it’s not our responsibility because ‘we weren’t there.'”
“Stuff happened to all of us. And that stuff shapes who we imagine ourselves to be and what we think we can be in the future. It is never just individual or personal. Trauma embeds itself in our bodies and moves through generations — we know this. And so that stuff is social and it’s political and it’s for all of us to work through.”
When digging into the past, she says, people need to protect themselves.
Her own journey revealed that some of her ancestors were enslaved.
“It’s uncomfortable. It’s messy. It’s all tangled up. And really, that’s the way it’s supposed to be,” she said.
“You never know exactly what you’ll find, and no matter how well you think you’ve prepared yourself, you’re never actually in a position to know exactly how you’ll react once you’re there. So, if I were to give advice to anyone working with difficult materials, it would be this: take time, be gentle with yourself, breathe, step back when necessary. And then return. Wash, rinse, and repeat as necessary.”
On Tuesday, July 20, Dr. Boon will join host Angela Antle, along with panellists Dr. Ailsa Craig, acting dean, Faculty of Humanities and Social Studies; Dr. Fiona Pollack, an Australian-born professor in the Department of English; and Dr. Sobia Shaikh of the School of Social Work and the project co-lead on Addressing Islamophobia in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The group will discuss issues related to the book, including racism, history, the role of home and place and more.
You do not have to be a Coast Lines member to watch the event or ask questions. The event will be livestreamed on YouTube.
Interested in joining Coast Lines? You can do so here.