What the Oceans Remember: Searching for Belonging and Home by Sonja Boon

In an effort to expand the range of titles we review here at The Miramichi Reader, I will often browse the book catalogues of Canadian university presses. These publishers often get overlooked by those of us outside academia, but they truly produce some fascinating non-fiction titles, and Sonja Boon’s What the Oceans Remember from Waterloo, Ontario’s Wilfrid Laurier University Press is no exception.

A Diverse Background

Ms. Boon’s memoir makes for engaging reading for her background is diverse, to say the least: she was born in Manchester, England to a Dutch father and a Surinamese mother. They soon moved to Venezuela, then to Canada (Windsor, ON), then to Alberta. She then became a Canadian citizen. Currently, she lives and works in Newfoundland. She is, as she calls herself, “a child of the world”. Her search into her past was started by an offhand remark by a colleague in St.John’s regarding a book about women’s sexual cultures in Suriname. Her mother being from Suriname, Ms. Boon was immediately impacted by the fact that her past had found her almost 5,000kms away in Newfoundland.

Educational? Yes!

The thoughtful layout and writing cadence of What the Oceans Remember is something I particularly enjoyed. A mix of creative non-fiction and essay-style writing, Ms. Boon reveals what she discovers to the reader as she herself uncovers them in various archives from Amsterdam to Suriname. Being the educator she is, teaches us the history of the Dutch slave trade, working plantation life on Suriname (Dutch Guyana) and, later, as slavery is abolished, the arrival of indentured servants from such countries as India, which accounts for her Surinamese origins. Her great-great grandmother, in fact.

“Over-the-Shoulder” Reading

To say that What the Oceans Remember is engrossing reading is to do it a disservice. For, here is a topic I have no real investment in. I am not of any of Ms. Boon’s mixed background, I have very little interest in ancestry and no real desire to research it by travelling back and forth across the Atlantic ocean. Yet here I was, looking over Ms. Boon’s shoulder the entire time. I was with her in the archives as she handled papers over a century old. I was with her as she travelled the historic streets in Amsterdam and The Hague, as well as the footpaths and overgrown graveyards in Suriname. Using sights, sounds and smells of the world outside her doors and windows wherever she is living at that particular moment makes for an immersive read. Many memoirists leave such things out of their reminiscences and the resulting story is the poorer for it.


In addition, Wilfred Laurier University Press has done a beautiful job of packaging this book. My review copy was hardbound, with an intriguing cover design by Lime Design Inc. (The same design group responsible for Rachel Bryant’s The Homing Place: Indigenous and Settler Literacy Legacies of the Atlantic) There are maps, a timeline, and black & white photos to round out this exceptional volume. Highly recommended reading for those interested in ancestry research, archives, social science, travel, and history, especially as it relates to emigration and immigration, forced or voluntary.

What the Oceans Remember is breathtaking in scope. Reaching across continents, oceans and histories, it shows us what it means to live in the shadow of freedom while unfree; how the colour of a person’s skin can determine if they are seen or invisible; how the word home can exclude; how the beauty of music can be a balm; how the invaluable quiet of an archive can quake with unearthed voices.”

– Lisa Moore, author of the story collection Something for Everyone

Sonja Boon is an Associate Professor of Gender Studies at Memorial University. An award-winning researcher, writer, and teacher, Boon is the author of three scholarly monographs, the most recent titled Autoethnography and Feminist Theory at the Water’s Edge: Unsettled Islands (2018). For six years, she was the principal flutist with the Portland Baroque Orchestra in Oregon.

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Wilfrid Laurier University Press (Sept. 25 2019)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1771124237
  • ISBN-13: 978-1771124232
  • Product Dimensions: 13.3 x 2.5 x 21 cm (5.2 x 1 x 8.2 inches)

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James M. Fisher is the owner and editor-in-chief of The Miramichi Reader. He began TMR in 2015, realizing that there was a genuine need for more book reviews of Canadian literature. It has since become Canada’s best-regarded source for the finest in new literary releases. James has been interviewed about TMR on CBC Radio and other media sites. James works as a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Technologist and lives in Miramichi, New Brunswick with his wife Diane and their tabby cat Eddie.