Interview with “Markd Y (Archives & Invocations)” Author Catherine Sasanov

A Q&A by Leslie Lindenauer

For a little over two years now, Catherine Sasanov has been searching through archives in Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, trying to find traces of an unnamed woman, enslaved and branded Y. In 1719, the woman had been sent by ship from Barbados to Kittery, Maine, where she was to be sold on consignment by merchant, William Pepperrell. She died approximately three weeks after her arrival. The work in Poor Yorick is the first section of what is currently a 26-page manuscript titled “Markd Y (Archives & Invocations).” “Markd Y” is part of a larger body of work Sasanov has been undertaking, exploring slavery in Colonial Massachusetts. Maine is included since it was a province of Massachusetts until achieving statehood in 1820.

Please see the beginning portion of Catherine Sasanov’s interview, including details about the bill of lading that inspired her poem, on our blog.


PY: I’m interested in which phrase(s) seem most significant to you/served as your inspiration, especially in the excerpt from the nineteenth-century Life of Sir William Pepperrell… and the twentieth-century Browne-Wilkinson excerpt. I ask largely because so much of your work is inspired by the starkness of the early eighteenth-century documents, yet all of these documents are primary sources.

CS: To answer this fully, I need to first refer to another section of the larger “Markd Y” manuscript. Fortunately, that section will be published next month in the Winter 2015 issue of the online journal Common-place. It is the three pages that directly follow what Poor Yorick has published here, along with an appendix to the work called “Opening the Archive Doors.”

The language that was most significant to me and propelled my writing “Markd Y” is this:


Y          five          ten


I originally thought I’d never find anything more about the unnamed woman after first sighting her in the bill of lading, but a few weeks later, I picked up a book on the slave trade a friend had lent me a few months earlier and found her on the first page I opened to! She was caught in a letter from merchant William Pepperrell to his agent Benjamin Bullard in Barbados. The woman had arrived sick in New England and had died approximately three weeks later. What the letter also revealed was that she hadn’t been alone on the ship: Bullard had sent four other “negroes” (negro and negro servant were usually euphemisms for slave during the Colonial period) to Maine with her. Whether the small group was family, friends, enemies, strangers, or some combination; what their names were; their gender and ages—nothing was said. “All the rest died at sea” is all Pepperrell wrote. What was also unspoken was how the woman would have had to witness the deaths of each of these people before finding her own in Maine.

I was stunned. Just to have found the woman again (and so easily when there had been so little to go on in the first place) seemed nothing short of miraculous. That four other people had been on the ship with her, and that all of them had died, was also a shock. I wasn’t sure how much more I would be able to find, but I immediately got online and threw some of the language from Pepperrell’s letter into Google. What came up next is what truly set the larger manuscript into motion.

In a laudatory, nineteenth-century biographical article on William Pepperrell (who, besides being one of New England’s wealthiest merchants, was also a war hero), I found the letter quoted again, verbatim except for the numbers: now there were ten, not five, enslaved people onboard the ship; two, not four, died at sea; seven, not zero, people survived.

What did this mean? The first version of the letter I read had originally been published in an 1855 biography of Pepperrell, the second in an 1881 magazine. Why would one of the two authors decide to rework the numbers but leave the rest of the language unchanged? What was the motivation? The only thing that seemed clear was that one of the two men found the people onboard to be so inconsequential that it didn’t matter if their number was pared down or inflated, if people were erased or invented.

These indignities and mysteries—the unnamed woman being branded with the initial of a yet unknown slave owner’s surname; the conscious erasure or creation of other enslaved persons with her on the ship; what I’ve found, so far, in my fruitless search for the original letter that would reveal how many people were actually onboard the brigantine Sarah—these drove the larger manuscript into being.

As for the Parsons and Browne-Wilkinson passages, let me focus right now on Browne-Wilkinson. As I was going through archives and libraries, taking note of whatever I could about the unnamed woman and her companions, a phrase, passage, or detail that I might have read days, weeks, or months earlier would rise up in my head, taking on a new, heightened, or ambiguous meaning. So lines like “Today is the day for trying to sort out the letters” or “I was surrounded by letters and half-defined people, some with husbands and children and cousins, others adrift in a world of anonymous…” suddenly became infused with a whole other meaning. “Letters” were no longer just the innocent messages from an ancestral past that charmed Browne-Wilkinson, but individual characters of an alphabet burned into people’s flesh. And the “half-defined people… adrift in a world of anonymous” were too much like the unnamed woman and her companions onboard the brigantine Sarah. The whole scene was no longer metaphor but actuality.


PY: So often as historians we try to “give voice” to the enslaved, trying to make up for having muted those voices for so long. Please discuss the primary (and secondary?) sources that reveal the whispers of past lives. Whose voices are they?

White voices in documents like those that inspired “Markd Y” often seem the most clearly articulated given the extant documentary evidence. Does your poetry serve as a vehicle for adding flesh to the faces of the slave owners, too, who, like the majority of slave owners, have been absolved from being the face of an immoral institution? How does the starkness of the language in the documents, and your poetry, serve this end?

CS: Allow me to begin answering this by way of a quote from writer Saidiya Hartman. At the “Archaeologies of Black Memory” symposium at the University of Miami in 2007, she stated (and this is my transcription from the video):

There’s a way that a kind of a revisionist historical scholarship often indulges in something of a narrative fetishism. If we just have all the little pieces together, we can tell the whole story again! And I’m saying, No… We’ve been created in the aftermath of a certain kind of rupture… of fracture… It doesn’t mean that it makes the project of story-telling or recovery impossible, but it seems that the goal isn’t to suture over those fractures; the goal isn’t to make a new narrative from whole cloth out of those pieces… There is a kind of critical gain in living in the space of fractures, too, that it’s not only a bad thing.

Hartman, by way of example in her book Lose Your Mother, and by way of reflection in her essay “Venus in Two Acts,” argues for strategies to “destabilize the archive” when it comes to writing histories of the enslaved. She urges historians to push against the limits of the archive to illustrate the contradictions and absences housed there. She also challenges writers to find ways to work against penning “history ripped away from feeling.” Discovering Hartman’s work helped articulate for me what I’d been wrestling with, in my own way, for a number of years, and what I might further strive for. Her counterpart, poet M. NourbeSe Philip, in the essay that accompanies her poetry collection Zong!, sums it up this way: “How to tell the story that can’t be told?”

One way poets “give voice” is by creating persona poems, something that’s only successfully done by way of empathy and imagination. But for the very reasons Hartman states above, my instinct was not to succumb to this but to find the “gain of living in the space of fractures.” Perhaps the best respect I can pay to the unnamed woman right now is to search out and bring together the far-flung documents throughout which she’s been scattered—this woman drawn and quartered with a pen—and find a way in my writing to create a pause before that paper grave. In a sense, it’s asking the reader to keep watch there and bear the limits and unreliability of the archive in how it remembers—and doesn’t remember—the existence of the woman and her companions.

One way I hope to establish this pause in the larger “Markd Y” manuscript is to articulate the silences white voices create in the documents the woman and her companions are enmeshed in. I think we forget that language itself can perpetrate silence. Not the kind held at the foot of the grave, or that which is meant in let us now take a moment of. Rather, a silencing, a kind of erasure. So, in the bill of lading and the Pepperrell letter I am still searching for, the words referencing the woman and her companions are never really about them. The language is all about commodities. So when Pepperrell writes in that letter “I am sorry for your loss,” it has nothing to do with grieving the dead but with the financial hit Bullard will take from the loss of his “property.” Even in twentieth-century Pepperrell biographies, authors breaking away from directly quoting Pepperrell’s letter still paraphrase it with lines like “a shipment of blacks” and “the perishable nature of the cargo” (the latter making the little group onboard the ship sound like a transport of fruit and vegetables).

As I worked through secondary sources looking for the woman and her companions, I hoped to find the citation that would lead me to Pepperrell’s original letter and the actual number of people onboard the ship. What I found was the group caught up in the tape loop of Pepperrell’s lost letter, tossed by his biographers from book to book, article to article, to serve various purposes. The people are never talked about for their own sake but always to further some usually laudatory point about Pepperrell. This, too, is its own kind of silencing. It also feels in the same vein as “faithful slave” obituaries that showed up in early twentieth-century newspapers. They were often an excuse to wax nostalgic about the past and the white families who had enslaved the persons supposedly being remembered.

The larger “Markd Y” manuscript ended up being created out of my diligent recording of all the silences and erasures of the woman and her companions that I came across. In doing so, I reworked Pepperrell’s letter to include all of the contradictions, regurgitations, misreadings, and paraphrasings of it I had found. Finally, from that reworked letter, I created one last version (what would be the hidden backside if the reworked letter were an embroidery). It is composed entirely of citations leading readers back to where I’d found every bit of the reworked letter—a multitude of citations but not one that would lead me the original letter and its answer to how many people were onboard with the woman.

It’s counterintuitive, but gathering the silences and erasures of the woman and her companions allowed me to catch sight of them again, but in places I hadn’t originally expected. Like in the “half defined people… adrift” from Browne-Wilkinson’s passage. Or when Usher Parsons speaks about the papers he’s drawing from for Pepperrell’s biography as being “stained and defaced… of little value.” It feels less like Parsons is describing the documents (of which Pepperrell’s still lost letter is one) than the woman and her companions. In fact, another author, John Austin Stevens in an article on Pepperrell from 1878, refers to those same documents as “much injured.” The papers are given more personification than the enslaved persons found dead in their pages.

Gathering those silences and erasures reminds me how meager, untrustworthy, and emotionally disconnected history can be in remembering the lives of enslaved men, women, and children. As for the faces of slaveholders, when we write poorly about the enslaved (racist language, thoughtless wording, sloppy or nonexistent citations, language that works against the recognition that it is people being discussed, etc.), I feel like we become living extensions of long-dead slaveholders. We don’t have to add flesh to their faces, but just look at ourselves in the mirror.


PY: When you wrote “Markd Y” did you imagine it spoken in more than one voice? This probably seems vague… I guess I wonder if there is a distinction between the more lyrical example, the rather lading-like list of names.

CS: I wasn’t thinking a lot about this as I was writing. For a long time, I wasn’t completely sure what I was up to; I just followed the work where it wanted to go. The larger manuscript wasn’t written in a linear fashion; the individual parts took on their own form and tone, then eventually found their positions amongst one another. A number of voices are interwoven in the piece: mine, Bullard’s, Pepperrell’s, Pepperrell’s biographers. Echoes of Stevie Wonder and a wedding vow float in (again, I direct readers to the section of “Markd Y” in the January 2015 issue of Common-place). Then there’s the white space, the silences and silencings. The larger manuscript begins with a letter we’d look at and sound out as “why,” either aloud or in our heads. But seen as a scar on the flesh in eighteenth-century Barbados, the pronunciation forming in a white man’s mind would be Yeamans, Young, Yorke, Yelldall, Yellings, Yates, or the Y initialed surname of some other slaveholder.

The manuscript ends with an s floating alone on a page—a last reference Pepperrell made regarding the woman’s companions. I found this in the only other piece of correspondence I have uncovered so far, where Pepperrell speaks of the woman and her companions (the image of this letter will be published with my work in Common-place). Among other things, Pepperrell asks Benjamin Bullard to reimburse Pepperrell and his father for the money they put out getting medical care for the “Negros” who died. But Pepperrell catches himself, remembering it was only the unnamed woman who lived long enough to reach shore. He goes back and crosses out the s so it now reads “Negros”. That s: Now, for the people who died onboard the ship, to be dead is even to be unpronounceable.

The various voices, silences, what’s unpronounceable, what’s pronounced differently from what one would think here and now and so far from eighteenth-century Barbados—all of this sets up interesting challenges for when I finally read aloud from the manuscript.

Finally, I’d just like to say that, when I address the unnamed woman branded Y in the poem, it isn’t as rumination. I address her because I believe in the afterlife of the soul. I don’t want to forget her as I gather up all the language that tries to diminish her and her companions. To address the woman is a reminder that, in spite of what little we know and all the language that fights against her humanity, she was a real person. I’m weary of all the paper graves I keep finding women like her buried in. Sometimes I wonder if I should even be calling them graves—they’re too shallow, and, as readers, we keep stumbling over the bodies. But in so many cases, these documents are as close as we’ll ever come to having a burial site at which to grieve.