Sonja Boon's memoir What the Oceans Remember (Wilfrid Laurier University Press) is a wise and deeply researched meditation on both her own family history and current issues in migration and identity. Using her family background (which encompasses roots in Suriname and the Netherlands, and time in Europe, Asia, and South and North America) as a lens, she asks one of the most fundamental questions one can: What does it mean to belong?
Incorporating discussions around race, gender, ethnicity, and memory, What the Oceans Remember is thoughtful and timely, teasing out the complexities of identity that are often over-simplified in seemingly straight forward questions like "where are you from?"
We're excited to welcome Sonja to Open Book today to talk about What the Oceans Remember as part of our memoir-focused interview series, My Story. She tells us about writing her way into this book in order to find its truth, how fresh air and walks can be an integral part of the writing process, and how she copes with the vulnerability of sharing herself and her stories on the page.
Is there a question that was central to this project? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?
The question that underpinned the project as a whole is one that’s been dogging me for years: Where does someone like me – a brown immigrant whose family history spans five continents – fit in? I’m not white. I’m not black. I’m not South Asian. I’m something else. Something in between. A mix. Not easily definable. “Exotic,” as many have told me. What does this background, which includes histories of slavery and indenture, among other things, mean today? How do I honour it? How do I live it? How do I engage with it? And what does this all of this mean in a country like Canada, which celebrates the hyphen but doesn’t know quite what to do with those of us for whom a single hyphen will never be enough?
Did your memoir change significantly from when you first started working on it to the final version? Was there anything that surprised you about the process?
Short answer: I don’t know! I had absolutely no idea what this memoir was going to look like when I started this project. I generally write my way into things, which means that I’m usually almost halfway through before I’m at a point to even consider the idea of an outline. For What the Oceans Remember, I couldn’t even manage to do that successfully. I had loads (and I really do mean loads) of freewriting and other bits and pieces but found it very challenging to organize and work with them.
I struggled a lot with both structure and voice. I wanted to write something that balanced the intimacy of memoir with the analytic lens of scholarly research. But it was hard to find that balance. For a long time, my writing was either maudlin and overdone or dry and too direct. I couldn’t find my own voice; nothing felt or sounded right. And structure was just a complete tangle. I spent months and months and months experimenting with different approaches and shuffling sticky notes and piles of paper around. I’m really glad I had a good editor to help me navigate all of this.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
Sun, wind, walks, writing notebooks (Moleskine, please!), markers, pens, and sticky notes. Well, and my computer. But all the other stuff comes first. And if I don’t have my walks and my fresh air, everything goes to pot.
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
Here’s the right answer: I go for a walk (see above). Air moving through my body. Rhythm of my steps. It’s what I need to clear things out. But often I forget this prescription, and instead, I medicate as follows: I curse. I ask myself why I ever thought this was remotely a good idea. I decide it’s all awful. I curl up into a ball somewhere. I waste time on social media. I binge random shows on Netflix. Unsurprisingly, none of these things really help and seriously, I should have just gone for a walk.
Did you use any materials, documents, interviews, or other research that became part of the writing process?
This book is all about archives, and because of who I am, it had to be. Working with archival materials is one of my happy places. There is nothing I love more than sitting quietly with documents: reading them, touching them, smelling them, listening to them. It’s magic, what can happen in the archives. It can also be deathly boring (and often is), but there’s always a spark of wonder—that alchemy of past and present—that keeps me going. What the Oceans Remember wouldn’t have been possible without a wide range of documents from archival collections in Canada, the Netherlands, Suriname, and the UK, as well as materials from my own personal collections. These documents included: ships’ logs, plantation accounting declarations, slave registers, paintings, passports, historical photographs, musical scores and books, and more.
Did you experience any anxiety about making a part of yourself public in this way? If so, how did you or do you cope with the vulnerability of publishing a memoir?
Yes. And for a long time during the writing stages, I didn’t make much of myself public at all. It was all too easy (and all too comfortable) to retreat back into my analytical academic voice, to step back and observe the process, rather than to actually inhabit it. I am a relatively private person and do not easily share my longings, desires, griefs, and sorrows. As a result, I am still, on the eve of publication, somewhat wary about what I might have unleashed. But this is the story that needed to be written, and this is how it needed to be written. Right here, and right now, there was no other possible way for me to tell this story. I know this deep inside, and that has to sustain me.
What are you working on now?
Honestly? Mostly, I’m just breathing. There are a few projects percolating, but they need to brew a bit longer before I’m ready to fully commit to them (or, perhaps, before they’re ready to commit to me…). I can say that I’m hoping to write an autobiography of my flute (which turns 100 in 2022), and that I’m in the very (very!) early stages of experimenting with a project about telepathy and telegraphy.
Sonja Boon is Associate Professor of Gender Studies at Memorial University. An award-winning researcher, writer, and teacher, Boon is the author of three scholarly monographs, the most recent titled Autoethnography and Feminist Theory at the Water's Edge: Unsettled Islands (2018). For six years, she was principal flutist with the Portland Baroque Orchestra in Oregon.