Silenced Truths

I have been reading Philip NourbeSe’s work for my Major Author class. While, she is a difficult author to tackle, I believe that her work is essential to shift narrow and confined perspectives on truth. Her work leans towards poetry and prose, and so it would be inappropriate for me to claim that her work is CNF. It does not have the structure which qualifies it as CNF, nor does it have the language. Yet, there is something that I can take from her all of her books, but most specifically “Looking for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence,” which contributes to my knowledge and perspective on fact vs. truth.

I have struggled with fact and truth since I came to college. The idea that truth is rooted in fact seems wrong to me because it is so often that we find truth within other things that have not been spoken or even proven with evidence. In “Looking for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence”, NourbeSe speaks about a journey across Africa throughout which she encounters numerous tribes in search of Dr. Livingstone. The man who has-as history claims-been credited with the discovery of Africa. On her, (based solely on my own interpretation) metaphorical journey, NourbeSe claims to have found her silences, which had been lost. She is shown these silences by the tribes she encounters in Africa.

I understand if you’re confused, I was too. But as I continued to read this book, my mind began to adapt to NourbeSe’s language, to understand where she was coming from. Most of NourbeSe’s work deals with the limitations of a language that has been defined by our ancestors. We were given words and we were taught their definitions; we were not taught to question these definitions. This is the same with fact. We are given facts and we are taught to categorize them as truth, without question. The authority of the label “fact,” carries within it a weight that we prefer not to challenge. Facts must always be true – or as Dewey, from my introductory education course puts it, facts have “warranted assertibility.” They have been justified  as true and thus, it is widely accepted that they should not be questioned. Truth on the other hand, is not always fact. Not all truths have been proven, not all truths have been discovered – recovered. There are truths which hide within facts or behind facts. Facts are pretty or logical. Truth is messy, complex and sometimes misunderstood.  It could even be found in silence and it needs not be spoken.

To wrap things up, because this is a subject that I could rattle on about for days due to its complexity, on pages 67-68 of NourbeSe’s “Looking For Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence,” the narrator asks Dr. Livingstone is he knows what fact is:

Narrator: Do you know what fact is, Livingston-I-presume? Livingstone: Yes, of course. Narrator: No you don’t – a fact is whatever anyone, having the power to enforce it, says is a fact. Power – that is the distinguishing mark of a fact. Fact – Livingstone discovered Victoria Falls. Livingstone: That is a fact. Narrator: That, Livingstone-I-Presume, is a lie, and a fact, because you and your supporters, your nation of liars, had the power to change lie into a fact. Those falls had a name long before you got to them…



2 thoughts on “Silenced Truths

  1. Noah Zweifel

    This makes me wonder about the outcome of Adnan Sayed’s potentially upcoming trial and the responsibility that Sarah Koenig has undertaken as a result. If Sayed is found guilty once again, then the fact will remain that Sayed is a murderer; if Sayed is found not guilty then the fact will be that he is not a killer, and that he was wrongly convicted — in which case he might be able to sue the responsible police department. But no matter the outcome, we do not know the truth. I imagine that this weighs heavily on Koenig. She will play a huge role in the process and has to live with the consequence. If Sayed remains convicted, then she may believe that she failed in her attempt to bring out the “truth,” but if he is freed, she will have to wonder if she helped a killer walk free.

  2. Katie Soares

    I agree with you about NourbeSe’s point about truth being rooted in fact, and in “Looking for Livingstone” fact is asserted by those that have the most might. The non-fiction element, although I agree that her work would never be labelled as creative non-fiction, is found within the characters that she works to embody. In both “Zong!” and “Looking for Livingstone” she captures (on and off) real events and real people–even goes so far as to quote directly the legal material used, or even undermine infamous/unreliable dialogue. The personal search for original identity or silence could read like a CNF if you removed the magical realism, and you know, the fact that all the facts are fiction. Nevertheless, i think the point i’m grasping at is that NourbeSe’s writing possesses the same sort of special intimacy not usually seen in fiction, which is most likely done through its narrative form/ interiority . The Traveller calling Dr.Livingstone “Livingstone-I-presume” is making a point about the ridiculous matter of naming things, (Victoria Falls is used as an example) it is a matter of presuming something over another that allows us to believe.


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