Guest post by Sonja Boon
I first picked up the flute when I was 11 (almost 12, I would have said back then). It was Grade 7 and I was one of about ten new flute players that year, all of us sitting in a row and struggling to conjure music from shiny new instruments. I’ll confess that it took me a week to coax anything even resembling a sound out of my flute; it took much longer – and many dizzy spells – to make my way into the second and third octaves. Somehow, thirty-nine years later (yes, that makes me 50 if you’re counting), I’m still playing. Over the years, my flute and my self have become one.
It might seem odd to begin a blog post about writing a book by reflecting on music making. But here’s the thing: playing the flute taught me to think. It taught me to feel. It taught me to dream. And it also taught me to write.
I’m no longer a full-time flutist, but I still feel the flute under my fingers, and flute thinking – that is, thinking with sound, air, phrases, and music – continues to influence all of my creative and intellectual work. The music is always there, under the surface. It’s in the way I listen to words on the page, and in how I interrogate the rhythm of the text. It’s in structure. It’s in weight. It’s in the way the text breathes, pauses, stops, lifts, and soars.
But in my memoir, What the Oceans Remember: Searching for Belonging and Home, it’s in my heritage, too.
Music is what first connected me to my ancestors: my musical passions seemed to align with those of my choral director grandfather, a man I barely got a chance to know, but who studied at the same music conservatory as I did, half a century before me. And so, music gave me a way to build a relationship with him across time and space. Music is also one of the things that connects me to my children – my two sons, both of whom have found joy in musical performance (if not in practicing….).
But music reaches much further through my family histories.
Music is the rhythm of the oceans that my ancestors travelled, by choice or by force. It’s the calming rush of waves crashing and retreating along the shore. Music is the sound of voices, the mingling of heritages, languages, traditions. It’s the jangle of bracelets on a wrist, the pull and push of a steam engine, a ship’s horn, the whoosh of a whale spout, birds in flight. Music is the buzzing of insects deep in a rainforest.
But music is also the sound of silence: it’s the words I’ve never shared with my ancestors, the archival materials that disappeared or never existed at all, the conversations I’ll never be able to recover. In these moments, music resides in suspension, in spaces that only speculation can fill.
For a while, the manuscript that became What the Oceans Remember: Searching for Belonging and Home was called “Water Music.” It was an homage to the musical threads that weave through my story, both the overt ones that link me to the generations that came before me, but also the emotional and creative impulses of music making that continue to shape everything about my thinking, writing, and dreaming.
What the Oceans Remember is about family, memory, and identity. It’s about politics and history, and about finding ways to live in the present with and through the complexities, challenges, beauty – and also, indeed, horror – of the past. For that kid who picked up a brand-new silver flute way back in 1981, never suspecting where that flute might take her, it’s also – inevitably – about music.
Sonja Boon is a researcher, writer, teacher, and flutist living in St. John’s. Passionate about stories and storytelling, she is the author of What the Oceans Remember: Searching for Belonging and Home (WLU Press, 2019), a memoir that traverses five continents and spans more than two centuries.
Sonja’s creative non-fiction essays appear in published collections as well as in Geist, The Ethnic Aisle, and ROOM, among others. In addition to her literary work, Sonja has published three scholarly books and numerous articles and book chapters on a range of topics, from eighteenth-century medical life writing to breastfeeding selfies, and craftivism. For six years, Sonja was principal flutist and a frequent soloist with the Portland Baroque Orchestra (Oregon).
Visit Sonja’s website. Follow her on Twitter.