Grand Marronage was a project book in every sense of the term. Over the two years in which I wrote it, I was a pediatric resident (doctor-in-training), so I did not have a lot of time to wrestle with blank pages. Therefore, it was helpful for me to choose specific themes to guide my writing. At the suggestion of my partner (who’s a historian), I decided to write about my paternal grandmother’s life, and initially attempted to do so using prose. But prose required a level of attention to detail that disinterested me. I was fascinated more by the emotional truths of her life than by the material details that help to make a novel compelling. I crafted the poems based on informal interviews with my grandmother about her life experiences.
Grand Marronage was also a project book in that it was a projection—I focused as much on reading between the lines and imagining into my grandmother’s silences as I did on the detailed stories she told. I wanted to know what lived in the speechless places and under the façade of platitudes, and poetry was the best tool for such an excavation. To do so, I had to put my twenty-first-century self into her 95-year-old shoes and approximate as best I could—an act of profound imagination and creative license.
I realized I would also have to write poems contextualizing my grandmother’s life in the time/place where she spent her youth (mid-twentieth-century New Orleans), as well as poems in my own, contemporary voice as I attempted to make sense of her experiences. My poem “a foolish controversy over the color of the skin,” published in SHR issue 52.1, is an example of the former; the poem “archival,” published in issue 154 of TriQuarterly is an example of the latter.
In addition to interviewing my grandmother, my research for Grand Marronage involved reading the works of prominent Creole writers and thinkers, particularly Alice Dunbar Nelson. I wanted to better understand how they defied racial and gender binaries in order to claim a kind of freedom while simultaneously assimilating to the status quo in ways that kept others marginalized.
The book’s title refers to the formation of “maroon communities,” created by formerly enslaved and Native people in various parts of the U.S. and Latin America. It is an aspirational title—while my foremothers tried to get free in many senses of the word, in other ways they conformed in order to thrive. Writing Grand Marronage created the space for me think about how, generations later, I might continue that work of liberation.
Manuscript Making: On Crafting Collections
a foolish controversy over the color of the skin
a woman passing as a pecan
a woman breaking open a pecan and
passing as its beige meat.
a woman passing as a fig tree’s bark
a woman passing as a fig
a woman passing as swamp water after rain,
and a man passing as a pinewood floor.
a man passing as a piano
his voice passing as honey-colored notes
floating above a crowd of masked revelers,
a man passing as cypress
a man passing as the prow of a ship run aground
a man passing as a bowl of clabber
or a bowl of molasses.
have you ever heard of such a country
where a woman passes for an oak banister
and a man passes for a leather-bound Bible,
or a book of law?
what you see here is a true phenomenon:
a man is disguised as a shoe in need of polishing
and a woman is burnished and heavy as a worn saddle.
little boys and girls are made of dried sassafras,
nutmeg, burnt flour, and clam shells.
hold one of our small, round babies in your hands
and see how it turns into a chicken’s egg before
Read in TriQuarterly.
IRÈNE MATHIEU is a pediatrician and writer. She is the author of Grand Marronage (Switchback Books, 2019), orogeny (Trembling Pillow Press, 2017), and the galaxy of origins (dancing girl press, 2014). Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Narrative, Boston Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Callaloo, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. The recipient of fellowships from Fulbright, Callaloo, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Irène works as an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Virginia..