Philip, Marlene Nourbese 1947–
Marlene Nourbese Philip 1947–
An innovative poet, Marlene Nourbese Philip has used the English language to reflect upon the situation of Africans in the Americas who have been dispossessed of their ancestral languages. She has written a successful novel for young adults that brought home to Canadian and U.S. readers some of the problems faced by black Canadians of Caribbean origin. Also an activist, Philip has sometimes become embroiled in public controversies in the course of standing up for her beliefs. Through her writing, Philip has established herself as an articulate explorer of the lives of black Canadians and African Americans generally.
Philip was born on the southern Caribbean island of Tobago in 1947. Born Marlene Philip, she was named after the white German film star Marlene Dietrich— “which I think is quite hilarious,” she told the Toronto Star. “But she was political! That’s why I’ve never given it up.” Philip later took the middle name Nourbese (pronounced noor-BEH-she), an African name meaning “marvelous child,” and she has sometimes used the name M. Nourbese Philip. Philip’s parents were relatively well-to-do for blacks in the British-controlled Caribbean; her father was a school principal, and her grandmother had been a plantation owner. Yet an education for Philip and her four siblings was by no means guaranteed. Her family moved to nearby Trinidad when she was eight.
As Trinidad and Tobago approached independence from Britain in 1962, Philip was able to attend high school and then college. The education she received was essentially a British one: “We learned about King Arthur and daffodils and nightingales, while surrounded by hummingbirds, hibiscus, and a silenced tradition of insurrection,” she told Books in Canada. Linguistically she was schooled in British English but was fascinated by Caribbean street vernacular speech. Enrolling at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, Philip showed early signs of activism when she locked the school’s chancellor in his office during a demonstration protesting the presence of the American Central Intelligence Agency in the university’s orbit.
After graduating with an economics degree, Philip moved to Canada in 1968. She earned a master’s degree in political science and a law degree from the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, and began practicing law in Toronto. On top of this ambitious career path she found time to marry and start a family. But when her marriage started to break up—her first marriage, to engineer Delf Omar King, ended in 1974—Philip found that writing, which she had never considered as a career, offered her an emotional outlet. She kept a journal and began writing poetry, and as the years went by and she entered into a second marriage, it became clear that her heart was in writing rather than in the law.
Her first book, published in 1980, was Thorns, a volume of poetry. Several other poetry collections followed, and by the mid-1980s Philip had given up the legal profession altogether. In the introduction to She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks, her
At a Glance…
Born Marlene Philip in 1947, in Moriah, Tobago; daughter of Parkinson Philip-Yeates, an elementary school principal, and Undine (Bowles) Philip; moved to Canada, 1968; married Delf Omar King, an engineer, 1969 (divorced 1974); married (by common law) Paul Chandless Chamberlain, 1975; children: three. Education: University of West Indies, B.A., economics, 1968; University of Western Ontario, M.A, political science, 1970, LL.D. law degree, 1973; passed Ontario bar exam, 1974.
Career: Poet, novelist, dramatist, and essayist. Practiced law in Toronto, 1975–82; published first book of poetry, Thorns, 1980; Carswell Publishing, staff member, 1981–88; Ontario Legal Aid lawyer, 1983–86; Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal, Toronto, vice-chair, 1986–88; published novel Harriet’s Daughter, 1988; York University, Toronto, lecturer, 1989–91; University of Toronto, lecturer, 1992–.
Awards: Our Choice selection, Canadian Children’s Book Centre, for Harriets Daughter, 1989–90; finalist for numerous other children’s book awards for Harriet’s Daughter; Guggenheim fellowship for poetry, 1990; City of Toronto Arts Award, 1995.
Addresses: Publisher—Mercury Press, 2659 Dundas Street West, Toronto, Ontario M6P 1X7, Canada.
third book of poems, Philip wrote, “The last thing I expected to end up doing was writing, and when I upsed and left a safe and decent profession, I was the most surprised person.”
Philip remained best known for her only novel, Harriet’s Daughter. Published in 1988, the book arose out of Philip’s frustration at a dearth of material for young adult readers that depicted the lives of black Canadians. The novel, set in Philip’s own neighborhood in Toronto, has for its heroine a 14-year-old girl who is inspired by the memory of Harriet Tubman, the 19th-century American leader who led many hundreds of fugitive slaves to freedom. Philip was disillusioned by the initial rejection of the book by Canadian publishers, who felt that a book with all black characters was unsuited to the Canadian market. Eventually published in Britain, Harriet’s Daughter sold widely in Canada as well and earned Philip several awards over the next few years.
Partly as a result of her difficulties in finding a publisher for Harriet’s Daughter, Philip began more often to feel the impulse to stand up for her ideas in the public arena. Some of her efforts in the 1990s were directed toward the world of Canadian writing, which she saw as lacking in efforts to nurture the talents of African-descended and other minority writers. She led an effort to increase the black membership in the Canadian chapter of PEN, an international writers’ organization, and wrangled with a Canadian newspaper that tried to reduce her effort to the level of a personal clash with a leading PEN member.
Philip also extended her activist efforts to areas beyond writing, becoming involved with an ultimately successful protest against a historical exhibition on Africa at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum; many black Canadians came to believe that the exhibition glorified European imperial conquests of African peoples. She also spoke out against a Toronto revival of the 1927 musical Show Boat, which contained racial stereotypes typical of its day and age. Philip became somewhat controversial, and, in one celebrated incident, was attacked on the air by right-wing Toronto radio talk show host Michael Coren.
Canadian arts enthusiasts of all races, however, rallied to Philip’s defense, and she won a Toronto Arts Award in 1995. Philip’s writings in the 1990s took her yet again into new genres; she published an extremely unorthodox novel, Looking for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence (1991), a collection of short nonfiction pieces, Frontiers: Essays and Writings on Racism and Culture (1993) and a play, 1997’s Coups and Calypsos. The latter work, although the Toronto Star noted critically that it “relies almost exclusively on rhetorical argument to carry the drama,” depicted the effects of an Islamic coup d’état in Philip’s homeland of Tobago. And many observers noted throughout Philip’s career that she attempted to mix the genres defined by European conceptions of literary art—including essays in her books of poetry, including poetic passages in nonfiction works, and so on.
Philip has taught at various Canadian institutions of higher education, including York University, the University of Toronto, and the Ontario College of Art. She has read and lectured widely in the United States as well as in Canada, and has credited U.S. readers with supporting her during a dry spell that arose after the controversies in which she was embroiled in Toronto. Philip won a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 1990 and was a recipient of the Canadian Children’s Book Centre Choice award for Harriet’s Daughter.
Thorns, 1980 (poetry).
Salmon Courage, 1983 (poetry).
Harriet’s Daughter, 1988 (young adult novel).
She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks, 1989 (poetry).
Looking for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence, 1991 (novel).
Frontiers: Essays and Writings in Racism and Culture, 1992 (essays).
Showing Grit: Showboating North of the 44th Parallel, 1997 (essays).
Contemporary Women Poets, St. James Press, 1998.
Books in Canada, January-February, 1989; September, 1991.
Ottawa Citizen, March 5, 1996, p. A16; November 5, 1996, p. A14.
Toronto Star, July 11, 1990, p. A17; June 12, 1993, p. D2; September 7, 1995, p. G9; December 2, 1995, p. K4; November 5, 1996, p. A12; May 11, 1997, p. E3; February 20, 1999, Life-1.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2000; reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2001.
—James M. Manheim
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