Writing Radically

Speculation, Magic Realism, and Minding the Gaps

In commissioning this feature, editorial fellow Rachel Moss asked contributors: how can we radically re-imagine the writing of history? Over the next few weeks, our contributors reply with creative new methods, sources and forms that they are using to reshape what history writing can look like. In this instalment, Sonja Boon speculates radically on the value of uncertainty in the archival record.

Immigration Depot in Paramaribo, Suriname. Julius Muller, 1882 – 1902. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

On October 16, 1873, the Liverpool-registered ship, Kate Kellock, sailed out of Calcutta, nosing its way down the Hooghly River towards the Indian Ocean. Aboard were 469 indentured labourers, all bound for five-year contracts in Suriname. Among them were my great-great grandmother, Joorayee Radha, and her young son, Sahatoo.

The ship’s log and immigration record are all that remain, in textual form, of their lives. Piecing these fragments together thus involves a high degree of speculation. And in that process, it also involves careful navigation of – and perhaps resistance to and refusal of – what essayist, critic, and journalist Gaiutra Bahadur, drawing on the work of historian Khusha Haraksingh, has referred to as “the structural stealing of voices”. After all, these are colonial documents, created with the needs of colonial authorities in mind. The needs, concerns, and interests of the 469 labourers were not taken into consideration. What might it mean to read – and write – speculatively? To resist and to refuse what Haraksingh refers to as “the tyranny of the archive” (qtd. in Bahadur 246)?

While the immigration records for those who arrived aboard the Kate Kellock are available in digital transcription, the log, which journeyed with the ship from Calcutta to Paramaribo, is too fragile and cannot be accessed in hard copy. However, the immigration log for the Medea, a ship that arrived in Paramaribo, Suriname, on Valentine’s Day 1874, just a few weeks after the Kate Kellock, is available, and it offers one possible way in. Indeed, accessing the Medea’s record proved revelatory in that it suggests that there were many processes of interpretation that likely came into play in relation to the transcribing process for the Kate Kellock. Knowing this shaped not only the way that I read the transcription that was available to me, but also how I approached my writing.

Indian Ocean. JM Dav, Unsplash.

The Medea’s log is a large, mouldy document designed to record extensive detail about all the incoming “agricultural workers.” It includes a range of information about the indentured labourers, including name, gender, age, religion or caste, region, city and village of origin, height, and any bodily markings. Each of these columns was carefully filled in with fine black ink, probably by a British colonial bureaucrat based in Calcutta. That anonymous bureaucrat also took care to delineate kin relations, bracketing family units together. Later, red and blue annotations, likely added by immigration authorities in Paramaribo, positioned them in relation to the plantations at which they would serve out their indenture contracts. Black penciled markings, also added upon arrival in Suriname, translated imperial body measurements into metric.

All of this seemed straightforward; black and white (and red and blue), if you will. But a closer look indicates that the penciled markings that translated imperial into metric also changed things that would appear to have been immutable, like age.

On the surface, such discrepancies wouldn’t necessarily be surprising; after all, it’s not uncommon to find that numbers have been incorrectly transcribed and need adjustment. But these adjustments aren’t minor ones: sometimes the age difference is a matter of a decade or two. Thus, for example, Goolam Daibee, a Hindu man indentured at the combined Leasowes-Sarah plantation along with his wife and two daughters, is originally listed as being 28 years old. The penciled marking, however, lists him as 45. Doorjun Gungoo, sent to Zorg en Hoop with his family, was also originally listed as 28 years old. By the time he arrived in Paramaribo, however, his age had changed – to 38. More striking still is the record of one Rampersad (last name unclear), who arrived with his wife and two sons, all of whom went to Groot Chatillon plantation. Originally, he’s listed as 36. His revised age? 60.

How can there be such great chasms in the records? What happened in those spaces between 28 and 45, 28 and 38, 36 and 60? How could the record keepers have gotten things so very wrong? Such annotations mark complicated encounters between emigrants and colonial officials. They mark points at which the colonial bureaucracy broke down, points where the colonial drive for transparency, clarity, and certainty couldn’t be guaranteed; indeed, where this drive was fundamentally undermined.

Perhaps translation failed.
Perhaps stories changed.
Perhaps birth records went missing.
Perhaps they never existed to begin with.
How was age determined? Who decided how old a labourer was?
Perhaps these are the wrong questions; I’ll never be able to trace back exactly what happened

What’s more important is the fact that something went awry. Something didn’t make sense. Something didn’t work within the metrics of colonialism. It’s in these cracks – in that space between 36 and 60 – that new questions might emerge, new stories might be told. How could a person age 24 years in the space of a three-month voyage?

When I mentioned this example to poet Kaie Kellough, he observed that this gap is exactly the point where magic realism – that genre of writing that brings fantastical elements into otherwise realist writing – begins. Suddenly, the gap became much more important than the record itself.

Thinking through magic realism, is it possible to use speculation as a way of destabilizing archival certainty, a way to undermine the presumptive authority of the record itself?  What happens if we understand speculation as a radical approach that challenges us to think not only about archival silencing and erasure, but also, about archival violence?

In her most recent book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, an exploration of black intimate life in early twentieth-century New York and Philadelphia, literary scholar and cultural historian Saidiya Hartman releases herself fully into speculation. Asking questions about what it means to live, love, be intimate and make family as free, rather than enslaved, people, she looks for the stories that reside underneath and around the archival record. Hartman suggests that the text that results is a “fugitive text,” one that is constantly escaping the boundaries that have been created for it. As she writes,

The goal is to understand and experience the world as these young women did, to learn from what they know. I prefer to think of this book as the fugitive text of the wayward, and it is marked by the errantry that it describes. In this spirt, I have pressed at the limits of the case file and the document, speculated about what might have been, imagined the things whispered in dark bedrooms, and amplified moments of withholding, escape and possibility, moments when the vision and dreams of the wayward seemed possible.

This notion of fugitivity – of resistance, refusal, and flight – can offer a way of thinking differently about speculative writing itself. A fugitive approach is not only excessive to the conventions of the scholarly text (and indeed, to the archival materials on which it is based), it refuses those conventions altogether.

Fugitivity allows us to work very differently with archival materials. Not just to read against the grain, but, following poet and essayist M. NourbeSe Philip, to push, to strain, to break apart, indeed, to “mutilate” and “murder” the archival record. It allows us also to explore the space of magic realism. We might be, pace Audre Lorde, using the master’s tools, but instead of using them to build the master’s house, we are taking that house apart, phrase by phrase, word by word, and, in case Philip’s case, letter by letter, and starting over again.

Zong! #1, by NourbeSe Philip. Image from Pedagogy & American Literary Studies.

In this way, a speculative methodology can also be a deeply political response to the conventions of archival research. Speculation can break open how we work with archival materials, but also how we then choose to write about our research; that is, what we consider ‘results.’ Indeed, it can enable us to enter that space of magic realism, where we are no longer bound by the dictates of a colonial narrative.

Like Bahadur, Hartman, Philip, and others, I, too, was confronted – indeed, confounded – by archival silence and archival violence. Dutch and Surinamese colonial records offer both too much and too little. The textual materials are contradictory and frustratingly vague. The photos of indentured labourers that remain reveal only amorphous groupings, serious faces looking directly at the camera. And of course, from logs to immigration records to photo collections and more, everything is told from the perspective of colonial authorities. As I worked through the materials, I found few, if any, answers. Instead, each new potential lead led me to still more questions.

In the end, I don’t know which of the possible stories I conjured—if any of them at all—might be true, but ultimately, I don’t think that’s the point. Rather, the process of digging through possible pasts has given me insights not only into the lives of my ancestors, but also into the kinds of choices and decisions they may have had to make while living them. Together, they’ve offered me a semblance of a story, a spark, a whisper, a hint; indeed, a treasure.

Speculation, for me, has been about asking questions; and sometimes, in that way, about leaving stories unfinished, untold; leaving threads hanging. It’s also been a way of inhabiting many different possible stories, of living in that space of magic realism – a space where both anything and nothing are possible, a space of constant questioning, a space of desire, yearning, and longings that can never quite be resolved.


Further Reading

Bahadur, Gaiutra. “Conjure Women and Coolie Women.” Small Axe 22, no. 2 (2018): 244-53.

Hartman, Saidiya. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. W.W. Norton, 2019.

Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 2007, pp. 110-114.

Philip, M. NourbeSe. Zong!  Wesleyan University Press, 2011.


  1. Readers might be interested in a piece I published on “controlled speculation” as a methodology useful in contexts where records might be missing, partial, or one-sided (specifically, in that piece, the case of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith) – originally in 1996, revised for a second edition which is the one I recommend. Insofar as I can tell from online resources, it’s one of my more widely taught publications. “Controlled Speculation and Constructed Myths: The Saga of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith”, in Reading Beyond Words: Contexts for Native History (second edition, 2003). Jennifer S. H. Brown and Elizabeth Vibert, eds. Broadview Press.

    1. Yes, I enjoyed your essay. In the longer talk that this post draws from, I mention both your chapter and Kiera Lindsay’s work on speculative biography, as well as considering Christina Sharpe’s “annotation and redaction” (from _In the Wake: On Blackness and Being_), among others.

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