a week in the Netherlands

Earlier this fall, I got a lovely invitation from Dr. Babs Boter to present a keynote talk for Unhinging the National Framework: Perspectives on Transnational Life Writing, an annual symposium at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. Close on the heels of this invitation came another from Garjan Sterk, a colleague and friend working in the Gender & Diversity Studies program at Radboud University, Nijmegen. And thus it came to pass that I was able to spend a week in the Netherlands in early December – what an absolute treat!

The program for “Unhinging the National Framework”

Because in addition to the talks, I’ve also got extended family and friends in the Dutch NL (as opposed to the NL where I live), and because there was a Suriname exhibition at the Nieuwe Kerk while I was there, every minute of that week was quickly accounted for, with stops in Purmerend (aunt and uncle), Den Bosch (cousin), Nijmegen (talk), Amsterdam (symposium and friend and uncle and museums), Diemen (aunt), and then Purmerend again. I can’t even begin to count how many trains, buses, and trams I took!

A most amazing seared tuna/salad sandwich concoction in Den Bosch. I had no idea how to eat it, so I disassembled it….
Early evening giddiness with my friend and colleague, Garjan Sterk on the train from Nijmegen to Utrecht after my presentation in Nijmegen.
even giddier…It’s a wonder I found my way to my friend’s apartment in Amsterdam after this…

The talks were great: what a fantastic opportunity to bring work to a completely different audience (and to think through things with a different audience in mind), to share conversations and thinking, and to learn from the presentations of others! I loved every minute of my Nijmegen afternoon and the day-long symposium in Amsterdam.

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Middle Cove Beach: thinking about oceanic histories… and the politics (and possibilities) of speculation. Unhinging the National Framework, Amsterdam

At the symposium, I was particularly struck by the presentations/conversations of Esther Captain, Guno Jones, and Lizzy van Leeuwen, which revealed substantive similarities between the Netherlands and Canada/North America in terms of how the politics of race continue to structure not only the research/writing process, but also the reception of research (and, indeed, canon formation as well). Plus ça change and all that…

The program!

Also fascinating to me were two other presentations: one by Monica Soeting, about the marketing of Dutch monarchs (including the most recent marketing phenomenon – which has been around for more than half a century now – ‘monarchs on bikes’), and one by Karin Willemse, which looked at abandoned houses as sites of stories, traditions, and histories among Nubians in Sudan. Another keynote by Elleke Boehmer, on promoting transnational understanding through curriculum change, and “pitches” by Ernestine Hoegen and Barbara Henkes, were also interesting.

Karin Willemse, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, on abandoned homes…

And on top of all of this, two extra treats: My uncle was able to come to the morning sessions (you can see the back of his head on the photo below) and I was able to meet Gloria Wekker, whose incredible work I was first introduced to by a St. John’s colleague and friend way back in 2008!). Gloria will be the keynote speaker at next year’s Unhinging the National Framework gathering and I’d love to be able to attend again.

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the best part of this picture? Capelin rolling in Newfoundland on the screen, the back of my uncle’s head in the audience, and all of this in a room in Amsterdam. Past and present all together.
A stack of books – and they all went!

While in Amsterdam, I also visited the Grote Suriname Tentoonstelling at the Nieuwe Kerk.

The Nieuwe Kerk has long been a venue for big exhibitions, and while we lived in the Netherlands, we went to at least two that I can remember: one on Thailand and one on Catherine the Great. Because of this, I hadn’t really considered the relevance of location.

Dam Square, looking toward the Palace; Nieuwe Kerk, with the red and green of the Surinamese flag, on the right.

It was only when I found myself back on Dam Square after many years that it struck me that an exhibition about one of the Netherlands’ overseas colonies, in a giant church right next to the Paleis op de Dam, a former town hall built just before Amsterdam took on a 1/3 share in the Society of Suriname, which governed the colony of Suriname for a century, was both deeply disturbing and absolutely fitting. So, too, then, was the exhibition both deeply disturbing and fitting.

The exhibition itself didn’t necessarily tell me things I didn’t already know, but it was still presented in a way that gave me much to think about. In the beginning, we were introduced to Indigenous communities deep in the rainforest. The air almost seemed tropical: that close damp and cloying sweet smell. It felt oddly warm….

Indigenous histories and presents were the entry point into the exhibit

After this, we moved right into the heart of the colonial period, with all the horror and violence and cruel logic that this period entailed. There was a branding iron, and the remains of a whip. There was a poem, written by an enslaver, about how the enslaved appreciated their lives. There was a vat for stirring sugar into molasses, a dangerous job that could lead to dangerous burns and a book listing the punishments meted out to those who disobeyed. There were contracts for indentured labourers .

A published listing of all the punishments meted out to disobedient slaves…
branding iron and fragments of a whip
sugar vat.

Another section, built right into the existing structures of the church, brought people into an imagined hold of a slave ship. Random limbs reaching out: arms and feet mingling with bottles and kegs. Inside, the documents of bodies as commodities: maps, bills of sale, provisioning lists, and more. Haunting.



the traffic in enslaved humans. And what remains today: what Christina Sharpe, in In the Wake, refers to as the “afterlife of property”

But next to that horror, there was also beauty: the stunning artwork of Maria Sibylla Merian, for example, a botanist who captured the insects and plants of the colony.


Equally stunning:  the vibrant colours of Maroon textiles and stitchery.

The exhibition also included the work of four contemporary Surinamese artists, each of whom took on these complex histories (and their legacies) in different ways. Particularly resonant, given the very recent  (November 30!) sentencing of Surinamese president Desi Bouterse for his role in the 1982 kidnapping and execution of fifteen political dissidents, was the work of Iris Kensmil.  Kensmil superimposed excerpts from autopsy reports of the fifteen executed men over colonial postcards, in this way bringing longer colonial histories into direct conversation with Suriname’s fraught independence processes.



And then, at the very end, a colourful kaleidoscope of contemporary multicultural Paramaribo that so evocatively captured my own experience that I had to just stand and breathe for a while, all of my senses on high alert.

Perhaps the most famous poem in Suriname, Wan Bon, in Sranan Tongo, by R. Dobru.
Translations, in both Dutch and English
Look at all the colours and patterns of contemporary Paramaribo. Now imagine all the sounds, smells, and flavours that would go along with them. Amazing.



I’m hoping to return to Paramaribo sometime this spring; can’t wait!


My deepest thanks to Babs Boter and the Vrije Universiteit, Garjan Sterk and Gender & Diversity at Radboud University Nijmegen, and Wilfrid Laurier University Press for making all of this possible.



Still looking for the perfect gift for the reader in your family? What the Oceans Remember: Searching for Belonging and Home is available online (Indigo, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and more). and at many local bookstores, in both hardcover and e-book format. (My suggestion? If you want to get it, go hardcover. WLU Press made a gorgeous book)


(c) Sonja Boon, 2019.

round the bay

I spent last weekend in Trinity, at a writing workshop and retreat. What a privilege and a delight it was to have 3.5 days of thinking, writing, creating, and imagining together in such a magical place.


The retreat, hosted by Allyson Latta (who edited What the Oceans Remember), has been over two years in the making. That we were able to meet together, now, in Trinity, was the confluence of several factors: the strength of our campus autoethnography reading and research group (which brings together students and faculty members from all over the campus, from Gender Studies to Music, Education, Sociology, Community Health, Engineering, and more), the good folks at Artisan Inn (one of whom, Tineke Gow, is a Dutch ex-pat who has lived in Newfoundland for forty-plus years), a Vancouver writer’s decision to visit Newfoundland and join the retreat, and midterm break.

Blueberry Cottage – where all the writing magic happened.

It’s been an incredibly busy fall term on the teaching and administrative front, and these 3.5 days gave us much-needed time to recharge, return, and reflect, and from there, to grow and expand our writing and thinking. Indeed, writing together is part of the magic of a retreat: sharing space and talking through ideas made all of our writing stronger and richer.

Trinity, for those who don’t know, is a small community in Trinity Bay. Surrounded on almost all sides by water, it’s a gorgeous, easily walkable town, and almost every single room is a room with a view. As a tourist we ran into one day put it, “It’s like being in a movie set.” And truly, it is.





On the final evening, Allyson and Tineke worked together to host a pop-up pre-book launch for What the Oceans Remember. We’d thought it would be a quiet event, with seven to ten folks (our crew plus a couple more) in attendance. But Tineke spread the word and there were about 20 people in total under the cozy eaves of the Twine Loft. Some were local. Others were just visiting. Some came far (France! Israel!); others had popped in from St. John’s for a quick getaway (including a colleague from MUN). And what a wonderful audience they were: they laughed at all the right spots and asked great questions. It was, as they say in Dutch, ontzettend gezellig.

pop-up launch in the Twine Loft, Artisan Inn. Photo by Allyson Latta
Twine Loft. Photo by Allyson /Latta
Signing books. Photo by Allyson Latta.

Now back home, I’ve got another busy week ahead of me. There’s teaching. There’s stack of grading waiting and another, larger stack coming later this week. There are meetings. And emails.

Fog fingers moving and stretching

More importantly, there’s the St. John’s launch of What the Oceans Remember!. I’m thrilled that Angela Antle will host it, and equally happy to have my former student (and musician), Kate Lahey sharing her music with us. Broken Books, our local independent bookstore, will be selling books. And there will be  homemade food, a reading, a door prize, examples of archival materials, some (small) freebies, and more. I. Can’t. Wait.

Our room with a view in Trinity.

What the Oceans Remember: Searching for Belonging and Home is available in ebook and hardcover formats through all major booksellers (both big box and independent). It can also be ordered from WLU Press.

© Sonja Boon, 2019.


beginning anywhere….

Sometimes I get the opportunity to blog for other sites… and today’s post comes to you direct from the blog hosted by Wilfrid Laurier University Press :

“Begin Anywhere. Just Begin.” That’s what I saw when I stood by the checkout counter at my local arts and crafts store. I’m not usually one to notice motivational cards and posters, but this pack of cards – rendered in Mary Engelbreit’s typically cheerful colours and patterns – made me pause.

“Begin Anywhere.” I remember my master’s supervisor saying this to me when I came to him, overwhelmed by my research project on eighteenth-century Parisian salon women. It’s a piece of advice I’ve since shared with countless students of my own. There’s a hopefulness to this statement. You can’t go wrong, it says, as long as you begin. One step is all it takes, and just like that, you’ve undermined the tyranny of the blank page.

Want to read more? You can find the rest of my post here.

52 Hours in Winnipeg

This past week I got to do something I’ve never ever done before and it was a total thrill. I flew to Winnipeg to for two presentations and a radio interview for Thin Air: The Winnipeg International Writers’ Festival!

I’ve gone to literary festivals before as an audience member, but I’ve never been a real author on the festival stage.

What. A. Thrill.
That’s all I can say.




Winnipeg, for those who don’t know, is smack dab in the middle of Canada. According to Google Maps, it’s 4566 km from St. John’s. Apparently, it would take 812 hours to walk there from here (Google Maps also tells me that I’d need to take a ferry, that the fastest route crosses briefly into the United States, that some roads are closed in winter, and that Winnipeg is in a different time zone).

In many ways a typical prairie city, it sprawls out from the meeting of two rivers, the Red and Assiniboine. The horizon is low; the sky is huge.


Looking up at the glorious blue sky. Provencher bridge. Winnipeg
sky. just because. just look at it.
Red River
A memorial in honour of Manitoba’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls



As friends reminded me while I was there, Winnipeg had its heyday in the early twentieth century. Located as it is in the middle of a continent, it was ideally placed for the growth and development of industry, especially once the railway was completed. Everything had to pass through Winnipeg on its way west or east. Tall warehouse towers followed, and Winnipeg became known as the Chicago of the North. The population exploded. But this newfound wealth was fleeting; the completion of the Panama Canal, in 1914, transformed transportation networks, and soon Winnipeg’s glory faded. Today, the warehouses still stand. Some have been repurposed; others remain vacant. On their walls, the shadows of histories past remain in the form of ghost signs.



Today, Winnipeg is probably best known (to other Canadians, at least) for its cold winters (Winterpeg is accurate…) and its mosquito-filled summers. Some, thinking back to their school years, may remember the six-week General Strike of 1919. Others will recall Métis leader, Louis Riel.

Louis Riel’s grave in St. Boniface.
St. Boniface Cathedral ruin


Others of artistic frames of mind, will know that Winnipeg hosts a renowned contemporary music festival in the depths of winter, and that it is home to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.



It’s also home to Thin Air, a writers’ and readers’ festival now over twenty years old. Thin Air brings writers from across the country into conversation with readers from Winnipeg and environs. There’s something for everyone: evening mainstage events with international literary stars, Voices in the Circle events featuring Indigenous writers, events in French for francophones, school events, university events, and more. It’s a jam-packed week of activities and I’m sorry I was only able to be there for such a short time.

I participated in two events: an afternoon Big Ideas event (for non-fiction books), and a university event at St. John’s College, University of Manitoba (together with Montreal-based but prairie-raised Guyanese-Canadian writer Kaie Kellough). Kaie and I also did an interview for UMFM, the University of Manitoba radio station.


In mid-thought (picture by Candida Rifkind)


What was it all like? So much fun!


I was treated royally by all festival organizers and volunteers who were always there to pick me up, drop me off, answer any questions, and smile, and was totally tickled to see my name on the festival bag, among so many others whose work I have loved.


swag bag!



The audiences were welcoming and enthusiastic, with interested and thoughtful questions, and I really enjoyed getting to know them in conversations after the events. I met some writers (and bought their books, of course), and discovered shared interests in a range of themes. As a bonus, I got to poke around a bit of Winnipeg and St. Boniface and also managed to spend some time with old friends.

Sadly, even though both Michelle Obama and Jagmeet Singh were in town at the same time as I was, neither of them came to my readings (the nerve…)

Would I do this again, if asked? Absolutely.

My deepest thanks to Thin Air and to WLU Press for making this possible. What an absolute treat.

Millennium Library, Winnipeg, where the Big Ideas events took place.


© Sonja Boon, 2019.





marinating the past

I’ve been cleaning out my office in preparation for a new academic year (which starts today! I’m not ready….) and came across an essay by Aritha van Herk, first recommended to me by a good friend who recently relocated to Calgary (cue very sad face).

“Brisebois Drive” was originally published in The Walrus in 2009. In some ways, it is about Ephrem Brisebois, “the first French-Canadian officer in the North West Mounted Police,” and a murky figure in the history of Calgary. But really the essay is about history itself, about the stories we tell and about those we don’t, about how stories shift and change, and about how we use those stories to shore up our own.

As van Herk writes, “We would prefer the past to reassure us, and so enter into a false exchange with its fragments. Hardest of all for us to imagine is history as a dynamic space that hindsight cannot stop shape-shifting. So we read backwards, hunting for those turning points  that impinge on who we have become.”

Later in the essay, after piecing together the fragments of Brisebois’ life, she looks at the gaps between, trying to figure who Brisebois was, and in relation this, why she is drawn to his story. There is little that is particularly appealing about this man, and those who worked under him complained about his leadership. For van Herk, many questions remain. But are those questions about Brisebois, or are they about van Herk herself?

ruminating on the life of my great-great-grandmother, Joorayee Radha

“In truth,” writes van Herk,

the temptation of history is rooted in its instability. Even though the past is presumably complete, its rich contingency is evidenced by our revisiting stories, shaping them into a tale or a dish to tempt contemporary palates. We are treated to another book on Napoleon, on Sir Wilfrid Laurier, on crinolines and creosote, new details previously overlooked. History does its turn on the cultural boards, then retreats, a shabby coat in the back of the winter closet, shoved there on a spring day wanting to be done with the weight of wool. There it hangs, a scarecrow with aphasia, holding the rag and bone shop of experience but unable to transmit that to a constant audience. And so I marinate and barbecue Brisebois, give him ulterior motives and base desires, try to make him more interesting than the ineffectual or dreaming busboy he doubtless was.

Which stories do we marinate? Which stories do we discard? How do we build our own stories in the gaps that remain?


What the Oceans Remember: Searching for Belonging and Home is now available for pre-order and you can order it via AmazonIndigo, Powell’s Books, Waterstones, and Blackwell’s, among others! 

© Sonja Boon, 2019.