middle cove beach

We went out to Middle Cove Beach on Father’s Day. It wasn’t a planned visit; the weather was supposed to be mauzy, as they say, grey, foggy, damp. But we were lucky: the sun popped out in the afternoon, and off we went.

Middle Cove Beach is a magical place. And perhaps that’s why What the Oceans Remember opens there. It’s where people go for a boil up. Or to look for icebergs. Or to frolic in the waves when the capelin are rolling. It’s a perfect spot for watching storms or for listening to the rhythms of the ocean. No matter the weather, you’ll always find folks there, strolling among the beach stones, clambering up the cliffs, poking about in the stream, or scanning the horizon (or, if you’re a dog, sniffing along the rocks, tail up, jaunty and eager).

I’ve taken countless photos of this beach over the years. Sun. Wind. Rain. Snow. Storm. Ice. Waves. Icebergs. Capelin. You name it, and I’ve likely got some version of it. You’d think I’d have grown tired of the view, that I’d have become bored. But this beach is different with every visit, and I don’t think I’ll ever have enough of this place.

Middle Cove Beach has many moods, and I seem compelled to try and capture them all.I can’t capture the smell, of course, that tangy blend of salt, water, fish, wind, and seaweed. And you’ll have to intuit the sound: the rhythms of the waves, the surf, and the tide, none of which, Stefanie Hessler reminds me, ever “[return] to the same spot twice” (33), washing up against sand and stones and then, each time, pulling out again. And around the water, the birds, the voices, the wind…

But perhaps, as you scroll through these photos, you can imagine ….

Our very first visit! An accidental (but fortuitous) discovery made within the first few weeks of arriving in Newfoundland in June 2008.
More from that very first visit. We didn’t yet know that the landscape constant shifts and moves…


During capelin season, the water is thick with gulls, and along the shore, folks eager to fill salt beef buckets. The beach itself is silver with fish, and a sour, ripe, tangy smell fills the air. Children skip and dance, carrying plastic shopping bags and bug nets, eager to share their catch with you.


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The waves change with the weather. Sometimes docile, gentle, calming; other times rushing, surging, heaving.


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In the winter, the beach changes again, with ice curtain and waterfalls. The light is different now; watery, dim, a sparkle that comes from the side rather than from above. In the spring, just as we’re clamouring for better weather, the first icebergs make their appearance…


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And then, it’s summer once again. Sometimes, Middle Cove Beach would almost have you believe you’re in the tropics…. until you poke a toe into the water, that is. And then you jump back, shriek. Be careful! The water temperatures averages only 6 degrees in June!


We were at Middle Cove Beach just a few days ago. But it’s sunny today, supposed to be sunny tomorrow, too.  I wonder what’s changed? Perhaps it’s time to visit again…


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



Hessler, Stefanie. “Tidalectices: Imagining an Oceanic Worldview through Art and Science.” In Tidalectics: Imagining an Oceanic Worldview Through Art and Science, ed. Stefanie Hessler, 31-81. Boston: MIT Press, 2018.


© Sonja Boon, 2019

my favourite things…

In an earlier draft of What the Oceans Remember, I made a comparison between Julie Andrews’ “brown paper packages tied up in string” and archival materials. These are a few of my favourite things…. I wrote.

“Fair enough,” Siobhan, the senior editor wrote back, “but you’re straying well away from the storyline.” I’m paraphrasing, but the point remains. She was right.

But you know what? Archival materials are a few of my favourite things!

I was reminded of this again this morning when Facebook’s memories offered me this photo.


It’s a photo I took while working at the National Archives in The Hague, exactly three years ago today. I’d captioned it: “when archival research becomes a game with layers and layers and layers of goodies to unpack.”

Just look at that series of treasures waiting to be opened! I’m salivating all over again. Working in the archives is like the night before Christmas, every single day. It’s all about anticipation, the thrill of the unknown, and the possibilities that might exist.

[for the record, the folders above held nineteenth-century maps and drawings of de Resolutie plantation in Suriname]

Sometimes—often, actually!—those early hopes are dashed, and you spend hours digging, only to learn that there’s nothing of interest in relation to your project. There’s often no buried treasure to be found. It can be frustrating. It can be disappointing. And it’s definitely exhausting.

Sometimes, too, the materials you find are dark. So dark that you have to pause, reflect, and gather yourself together again before you can even think of going on….


But opening new files? A shiver and a wonder, each and every time.

Here, then, are a few (more) of my favourite things…

archival records relating to the indenture period in Suriname. National Archives of Suriname.
One of the Log Books for the Kate Kellock‘s 1873-74 voyage from Calcutta to Paramaribo. National Archives of the UK.
Accounting declaration for Sarah plantation, 1862. National Archives of the Netherlands.


PS. The Sound of Music? It’s also one of my favourite things.


© Sonja Boon, 2019



anatomy of a book cover

Yesterday, I met the woman who designed the cover – and layout – for What the Oceans Rememberand it was wonderful.

I’ve just finished the proofreading and indexing stage and while this was painstaking, detail-oriented work, I also revelled in it. Not because of the indexing, which made me want to poke my eyes out with a fork. Rather, much of my revelling has to do with the fact that the book has been so beautifully designed – from the cover right down to the insides. Even in its current form – a bunch of photocopied pages bound in cerlox – it feels good to hold it, page through it, see it come together. It’s a thing of beauty, an art object, and I can’t wait to hold the actual book in my hands in a few months.

And that’s exactly what I said to the designer, Lara Minja, of Lime Design.

So let’s look more closely at the glorious cover…


I don’t remember exactly how I replied when I was asked for cover preferences way back when, but I suspect my answer included some combination of colour, texture, layers, and collage. I’m nothing if not predictable that way.

One thing I do remember is that at some point, I sent along some low resolution scans of mid-nineteenth-century watercolour paintings of Sarah plantation (where my ancestors were enslaved) from Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum collection.

“Plantagehuis met oprijlaan en tuin.” January 1867. Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures [CC BY-SA 3.0 (
“Aquarel voorstellende het hospitaal op planate Sarah” Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures [CC BY-SA 3.0 (

And then I got back to whatever it was I was doing at the time

Later, having read and thought through the manuscript some more, Wilfrid Laurier University Press’s senior editor, Siobhan McMenemy, weighed in with a thought that it might be an idea to somehow include a page from the accounting registers – documents produced by the Dutch administration to determine the amount of compensation slave owners were eligible for after the abolition of slavery. What she had in mind was a wash of an image, a hint, in the background, of some of the names of the enslaved.

That sounded good to me, too. But beyond that, I had no idea what to expect.

The alchemy of cover design is something I can’t even pretend to understand, but suffice to say, Lara did an incredible job.

The cover for What the Oceans Rememberis everything and more than I could have imagined, and it represents the book more evocatively than I ever could have imagined.

The cover image is a series of layers, each one a facet of the story itself.

The main image is a watercolour dating from around 1860. The description states that it depicts Nijd en Spijt and Alkmaar plantations along the Commewijne River in Suriname. In the eighteenth century, Alkmaar was a coffee plantation and later, became a sugar plantation. By the mid-nineteenth century, it had grown to become one of the largest plantations in the country, with almost 450 slaves.

“Zicht op de buurplantages “Nijd en Spijt” en “Alkmaar”, aan de Beneden Commewijne rivier” Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures [CC BY-SA 3.0 (
Nijd en Spijt – which translates to Envy and Regret – was a coffee plantation. Much smaller than Alkmaar, it has nevertheless played a large role in Surinamese history and folklore. This is because one of its owners, Susanna du Plessis, was known as one of cruelest and most violent slaver owners in the colony.

This violence isn’t visible in the paintings; indeed, the enslaved are completely invisible. And yet, there is much that I love about this painting. First and foremost, the riverside setting, along with white house and the palm trees, allows one to imagine this as an idyllic, Caribbean getaway, even as the Dutch flag centres this as a colonial space. The lighting is diffuse, watery; this appears to be a fully cultivated dreamspace at the edge of the South American rainforest.

Dreamspace. Diffuse. Watery… but also: Appears. Seems. Allows. Imagines….. This painting is simultaneously about the artifices that sustained colonial societies that depended on enslaved and indentured labour, and about the lush, abundant beauty of this place.

Here, for example, is a photo I took of Frederiksdorp, a former coffee plantation and later police post, now resort.


But behind this watercolour, washing through the painted sky, hints of handwriting bleed through, in this way highlighting the dark underbelly of this imagined tropical getaway: the complex, violent, and harsh realities of a slave society, and indeed, of notorious enslavers like Susanna du Plessis. This is a page from the record of Sarah plantation, where a number of my ancestors were enslaved.

The ledgers bleeding through into the watercolour…

Finally, the main image is criss-crossed with latitude and longitude lines. To me, these represent not only the complicated migrations – both forced and voluntary – that brought the enslaved, the enslavers, and later, the indentured, to Suriname, but also the memories of oceanic travel, where latitude and longitude markings notated in logs and journals by ships’ captains and crews are the only signposts, the only way to mark time and space during oceanic crossings, and in some instances, the only way of marking the passage of life into death.

Layers. Textures. Collage. Colour. This cover has it all, and I’m absolutely in love with it. It is not only a beautiful design, but it is also a deeply meaningful one. Having seen a proof of the inside, I can tell you that it’s just as evocative.

Thank you, Lara and Lime Design. This cover is magic.

Want a preview of the book? Advance readers’ copies available for request at NetGalley. I’d love to hear your thoughts about the book – both its cover and its content!


(c) Sonja Boon, 2019

Thinking with Oceans



A couple of weeks ago I was invited to write a guest post for the SSHORE blog. “Thinking  (and researching and writing) with oceans” takes up some of the theoretical underpinnings of What the Oceans Remember: Searching for Belonging and Home.


Social Sciences and Humanities Oceans Research and Education

In her blog, Sonja Boon (Gender Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland) considers the myriad ways that we think through oceans. We think with our shared histories, our sense of scale, our sense of responsibility, and our collective scholarship to meet the challenge of the oceans’ complexity and interconnectedness with who we are, what we have done, and how we might think about ourselves in this oceaned globe.

Until almost exactly eleven years ago, I didn’t think much about oceans at all. Sure, I’d lived in Vancouver for over a decade, but the ocean that laps along the shores of Lotus Land doesn’t look, feel or smell like an ocean, not like a real ocean, anyway. Vancouver’s Pacific is a playground; it’s about nude bodies on Wreck Beach, cafes and dogs on Jericho Beach, fresh German sausages and sauerkraut on Granville Island, rollerblades along False Creek. Vancouver’s ocean is about whales…

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the materiality of memory

From Jamaica Kincaid’s My Garden (book):, a wonderful description of the materiality of memory, and the stories embedded in everyday objects:

“Some of the people who were children in the house in which I now live were very sorry to have it sold out of their family. I understood their feeling so well that I told them they could come back and see the house any time they wished, and I also told them that if we were ever to sell our house we would call them all, the children of the Woodworths, the grandchildren of the Woodworths, and offer to sell it to them first. We, my husband and I believe that we shall never live anyplace else, certainly if we can help it, but we can’t really tell what we will be able to help or not help, we only know that we believe we shall never live anyplace else. When the Woodworths were clearing out the house after it had been sold to us, different people took things that meant something to them. One grandchild took a bed that she had slept in when she came to visit her grandparents; someone took fireplace implements because they were unusual and because of some special memory. I do not know who took the reproduction of an engraved print depicting the Puritan legend of Miles Standish and Priscilla Alden. When we were dismantling Mrs. Woodworth’s kitchen, someone asked us to look for recipe cards that might have fallen behind her old kitchen counter; they remembered something with meringue and kept asking us if we were sure when we said we had found nothing. Someone took cuttings of Mrs. Woodworth’s roses because they had come from her mother’s garden in Maine many, many years ago. I cannot believe that my children will return to this house shortly after I am dead ( I do believe that I will leave here for the rest of a very long life) and ask the new owners … to try to retrieve the copy of Edna Lewis’s cookbook from which our family have enjoyed the recipe for corn pudding and fried chicken and biscuits; nor will they ask for the four volumes of Elizabeth David’s cookbooks, in which are recipes for food our family have enjoyed, not the least being something called Summer Pudding, a dessert made of currants and stale bread, the berries foreign to me until in my adulthood I have grown them, and the bread distasteful to me, though only through the memory of my own childhood; ore the perpetually leafed-through but never actually used Mrs. Beeton’s Guide to Household Management. I cannot imagine my children will actually want to admit that they came from us and did not fall out of the plain blue sky, which is just what I used to wish when I became aware that to have me, my parents actually had sex.  Just the other day my husband overheard my daughter say to her friends as he approached and some other girls all huddled together, ‘OP, here comes my dorky dad.’ He was humiliated to hear himself referred to as a dork, and so he said to the other girls,’ Hi. No, do I look like a dork?’ and instead of saying in unison, ‘No, you are the most wonderful father we have ever had the good fortune to meet,’ all the girls simply looked at the tips of their shoes in what he interpreted to be silent agreement. But our children are still children, one is six and the other is ten. They perhaps think we will live forever, they perhaps think we will never go away, that they will never be able to be themselves without our reminding them of their own helplessness, their own dependence on us. Perhaps pies with a meringue topping and summer puddings are missed only when they can never be had in a particular and exact way again.” (22-23)