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Interview with Saidiya Hartman

The first time I encountered Saidiya Hartman, she was a voice in salt., an award-winning play by artist and performer Selina Thompson. Woven carefully into the play’s text, Hartman’s words guide Thompson as she embarks on a cargo ship voyage, with the intention of recharting the path of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The effect is seamless. Over the course of the production, Thompson offers excerpts from Hartman’s 2007 book Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, in which Hartman shares her own account of tracing the same history, in Ghana, years earlier.

 

Born and raised in New York City, a place she still calls home, Hartman is a professor at Columbia University within the department of English. Across each of her books, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (1997), Lose Your Mother and Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (2019), Hartman’s writing unpacks what she terms ‘the afterlife of slavery’. With an emphasis on the word life, Hartman is relentless in fleshing out the ongoing intricacies with which the trade formed – and persists in forming – the racialised relations of our present world.

 

Her mastery, however, is in how she does this, how her encounters with archival material – inventories documenting the enslaved, photographs, songs, names, or the sheer lack of them – become stimuli for a narrative technique that stories the silence of loss without speaking over it. In her 2008 essay, ‘Venus in Two Acts’, she calls this methodology ‘critical fabulation’: an ‘impossible writing that attempts to say that which resists being said’; an account of history written both ‘with and against the archive’, often bending time, rendering the past, present and future coterminous. As Chicago-based poet and vocalist Jamila Woods sings, Look what they did to my sisters, last century, last week. Over the last two decades, Hartman has made it her life’s work to gaze incredibly closely. Never with the clinical detachment of an outsider. Always, as she writes, from ‘within the circle’ of black diasporic culture and thought.

 

Where Scenes of Subjection and Lose Your Mother deal more intimately with the workings of enslavement, Wayward Lives, her most recent book, attends to the vibrant urban lives of black women born after emancipation. Reading as a long meditation, Wayward Lives celebrates a generation of forgotten women who chose to live freely within the cages of their cities; to love multiply, beyond the state’s oppressive dictates of gender, race and class.

 

I met Hartman recently when she was in London to give a talk at Birkbeck. Sitting across the table from her, as we worked our way through lunchtime sushi, Hartman had the aura of someone for whom introspection comes naturally. She is as measured and deliberate in person as she is on the page. I believe, too, that her respect for silence – by which I mean: the private doorway to deep thought that only silence can provide – is what enables her to write so fluidly into the voids and failures of history. In an age where action or thought is so often paired with a broadcast on social media, Hartman’s quietude is a needful reminder that only the work truly counts.

 

Q

The White Review

—  How would you describe your process?

 

A

Saidiya Hartman

—  I research and write in separate stages. I read widely and takes tons and tons of notes, and then I begin writing. I rarely consult the notes, but simply begin writing. What I recall most clearly – or the details that emerge from the file or document – are the beginnings of the story or narrative. What I remember and where I start is with the detail that is the equivalent of the punctum, the moment of a life, the shape of an object, the darkness of a room, that solicits me, most often because it represents an opening or a detour.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Your work serves as a guide for writing into the empty spaces of archives and memory, particularly your methodology of ‘critical fabulation’ – a way of imagining one’s route through voids. I am also thinking of Christina Sharpe’s recent writing around ‘wake work’ – her framing this work as an expression of care – which is also such a brilliant term for these explorations.

 

A

Saidiya Hartman

—  One of the things that I really love about Christina’s book {In the Wake: On Blackness and Being} which I don’t think would have been possible, a decade ago, is its engagement with the Atlantic in relation to the Mediterranean and its capacious account of the black experience across Europe, Africa and the Americas. I’m sure you feel this personally – you’re black in a way that your Ghanaian parents never were. What does blackness mean for the experience of African migrants and their brutal racialisation, and also what does it mean for first, second and third generation black Europeans to be considered outsiders within their national contexts? It’s so much about time and place. Thinking blackness in these terms had no resonance whatsoever in Ghana when I was there. Sharpe is able to expand our thinking in this comparative and nuanced way because the language of blackness has become shared and universalised.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Here in the UK, our histories of black radicalism have faced a lot of erasure – perhaps one reason why we’re still searching for ways to articulate the specificities of our being here.

 

A

Saidiya Hartman

—  Part of my own black experience is a consequence of growing up in New York City. Many of the friends I went to school with were black but we didn’t speak the same languages at home. They were from Haiti, Panama, from the Dutch-speaking Caribbean, so that blackness was already so differentiated. Blackness was never really defined by sameness. Because of my father’s family’s history of migration there were some people in the family who were never black – and there you also see the work of identification, or disidentification. Blackness doesn’t presume any unanimity of culture, or reference, you know? Even as the structural condition is shared. People who were outsiders, not from New York – it could be a white person or a black person who came from the South or the Midwest, a much more homogeneous cultural formation – would say, how can you look at someone and tell if they’re Panamanian or Haitian? I took difference for granted. I had a friend who was a southerner who moved to New York, and her landlord was Jamaican and his wife was from Grenada, and she thought that to have a Caribbean identity was to say that you were not black, because she’d grown up in a context where people were only black or white. She was a fairskinned black woman, and still the lines were solid.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Let’s talk about the figure of the circle because it appears in all of your books. It arises when you speak about writing ‘from inside the circle’, it comes up when instances of dance occur in your texts, and it seems to me that there’s something very black about it as signifier. What are your thoughts on the circle as a symbol, as a framework, and as a mode of relation within blackness?

 

A

Saidiya Hartman

—  You’re right in that there are these three spaces or architectures that are absolutely foundational to my work: the Atlantic, the hold, and the circle. And I think that the circle is a central figure when trying to describe black radical imaginaries and anti-slavery philosophy, from Frederick Douglass’s description of the circle as a space of sociality and radical thought, to the historian Sterling Stuckey, who looks at circle formations in African American culture, tracing them to Congo culture – specifically, the Bakongo cosmogram. So all that is to say that I think you’re right that the circle is this deep, diasporic formation that travels with us. It’s so rich with the potential of relation, possibility, care, other modes of understanding – it’s the knowledge we have and make with one another. And that’s why Douglass is so pivotal for me. It may seem like nonsense to the outside world, but in here we know it is a tome of philosophy. It resonates with Édouard Glissant’s discussion about ‘the right to opacity’. Lose Your Mother closes with a circle formation. In Gwolu, these young girls give me the possibility of another language of relation – and I think that I became aware of the gift after the fact; it wasn’t that I was trying to build or even assume a connection. In Wayward Lives there is a beautiful stark image of the Atlantic, and as I was writing, I reflected on why it was important to have this image in the book. It is one of the spaces or milieux that define blackness. Alongside the circle, the hold, the colony, the native quarter, the carceral landscape. The circle forms inside the enclosure and even in the worst circumstances, there is making and relation.

 

Q

The White Review

—  What was the genesis story of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments?

 

A

Saidiya Hartman

—  When I started writing the book, I had no idea of its scale and ambition. The book began with my encounter with the girl in the Thomas Eakins photograph and trying to account for her life. What was the life of a young black girl like a few decades after the legal abolition of slavery and in anticipation of the new century? The photograph was a condensation of centuries of black existence, an enduring image of captivity and commodification, and an image that raised questions about the meaning of freedom. It was an image of temporal entanglement.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Can we talk about the word wayward? I love this word because there’s something in it that suggests going rogue, going off-course, but also finding a course; searching for one. Not just moving outside of imposed limits, but being in favour of making a new way. It seems to me to be the key word, the keystone in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. How did you arrive at it?
A

Saidiya Hartman

—  Wayward was so resonant with other terms – detour, errant, fugitive – and it is a word that brings to mind this practice of variance or deviation, so it seemed richly suggestive. In the chapter ‘Wayward: A Short Entry on the Possible’, it’s connected to all of these other words like anarchy and queer and unruly, but there was something about the gendered character of it that was exactly right, it seemed both old-fashioned and absolutely contemporary. The wayward girl is the girl who won’t succumb to or obey the gender script. The challenge when describing black women’s lives, black women’s radical practices, is that they’re always subsumed or asterisked to a larger category. I just needed to say no, their practice is the category, you know? And this notion of being a footnote to everything else is what waywardness enabled me to challenge, it seemed an organic term for describing the radical and disobedient imaginary of young black women – so that’s why I liked it. How do we understand black radical imaginaries without understanding how central girls and women are to those projects?

 

I remember once giving a talk and people were nodding their heads like yes, yes, yes, but why not just call that queer? It’s because queer is already loaded and known; queer has also been a category that in some respects has effaced the intellectual labour and practice of black women. Few think queer as in Nella Larsen. So wayward seemed more richly suggestive, and then all of those other terms were folded in as a part of its definition.

 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

 is a poet, writer and filmmaker. A former Barbican Young Poet, her work has appeared in The Poetry Review in addition to featuring on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour. She won a Royal Society of Authors Eric Gregory Award in 2018, and has held residencies internationally in the US, Brazil, and the V&A Museum in London. Victoria is the director of MOTHER TONGUES, an intergenerational poetry, film and translation project supported by Arts Council England and Autograph. Her debut pamphlet is Girl B.


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