The Tragedy of Malaga Island

The Loring Wallace family in 1900. Courtesy of Peter Roberts, in the Portland Press Herald

In 1912 the State of Maine forcibly evicted an interracial community of roughly forty-five people from Malaga Island, a small island off the coast of Phippsburg, Maine. The Malaga school was dismantled and rebuilt as a chapel on another island. Seventeen graves were exhumed from the Malaga cemetery, consolidated into five caskets, and reburied at the Maine School for the Feeble Minded. Just one year after the start of the eviction proceedings, the Malaga community was erased. (Fordham University Press)

Julia Bouwsma’s Midden probes deeply into this troubling history, for which the State of Maine formally apologized in 2010. The poems are stories, both of the hard lives of the residents of Malaga Island, and of the even harder lives they faced after eviction. Midden won a Poets Out Loud prize for 2016-2017, and was named an NPR Best Book of 2018.

Our April 30 concert will feature two new choral works based on settings of poems from the book, and the poet will be present to read from her book as well.

Students gather on Malaga Island in 1910. Courtesy of Peter Roberts, in the Portland Press Herald

Malaga’s people were certainly poor. The island’s soil is inappropriate for farming, and fishing, laboring or doing laundry and carpentry for mainlanders didn’t pay well. Their homes were modest, and one family lived in a converted ship’s cabin. Some relied on charity from the town to get through the winter, and in 1908 private donors stepped in to help build an island school. School ledgers have survived.

Portland Press Herald

A 1907 postcard is part of the Maine State Museum’s collection. Courtesy of Peter Roberts, in the Portland Press Herald

“Racism is an undeniable linchpin to this story, but it is far from the only reason things happened the way it did,” said Allen Breed, a North Carolina-based reporter for The Associated Press, who has been researching a book on Malaga for more than a decade, and said there were other mixed-race hamlets on Great Yarmouth and Hen islands that were left alone. “They were on a very visible, potentially valuable piece of real estate near the mouth of arguably the state’s tourism crown jewel, Casco Bay.”

Portland Press Herald

The poet was kind enough to take some time out to answer our questions about the genesis of the book, and her experience of having the poems set to music.

When and how did you first learn about the history of Malaga Island?

JB: The story of the Malaga Island eviction found me first in bits and fragments: an anecdote my father-in-law told me about meeting a Malaga Island descendant named Justeven in a bookstore in Hallowell, Maine; a ten-minute Maine Public Television video I happened to flip across one late night; a photocopied and now tattered collection of 1900s news articles given to me by a librarian at the local elementary school more than ten years ago; a series of blurry black and white images that immediately transfixed themselves in my mind.

What inspired you to write a poetry collection about it?

JB: I wrote Midden because as a poet the only way I know of dealing with an obsession is to write into it. The story of Malaga Island haunted me: How in the 1800s and early 1900s Malaga was home to an interracial community of Black, white, and indigenous people. How in 1912 the State of Maine forcibly banished all forty-seven inhabitants. How nine residents, including one entire family, the Marks, were committed to the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded. How the others were told their homes would be burned unless they took them down themselves. How they did because they needed the materials to rebuild, but then they struggled to find anywhere they were welcome. How the Malaga school was dismantled and rebuilt on another island. How the seventeen graves were exhumed from the Malaga cemetery, consolidated into five caskets, and reburied, unmarked, at the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded. How it took only one year to erase these people from their home, but their erasure was reinforced by the century of silence that followed.

Above all it was the silence and fragmentation surrounding the story of the Malaga eviction that compelled me to write this book. When I began my research I discovered a broken archive. Each time I thought I knew the whole story—each time I thought I’d connected the trails of names and dates—I’d come across another inconsistency: a date or name or spelling that didn’t add up, a contradictory story, a new person I couldn’t account for, a family who seemed to have disappeared from the documents without a trace, some sentence I recalled reading but couldn’t locate when I went back to confirm it. This fragmentation—this sense of the ground shifting beneath my feet—seemed fitting for poetry and worked to fuel my obsession and my writing.

How would you describe your poetry style in general, and did writing Midden bring out anything new in your writing?

JB: From a stylistic standpoint, I suppose that my work would be considered lyric poetry. And in terms of subject, all of my work centers, in one way or another, around the intersection of place, body, narrative, and identity.

In writing Midden, I did notice my formal range expanding. Midden contains traditional free-verse lyric poems, but it also incorporates erasure, epistolary poems, prose poems, and other experimentations. My mother actually pointed this out to me after the book was published. She said, “It reads as if you were faced with a story that was so terrible that there was no right way to tell it, so you tried every single way you could think of.” I didn’t realize until she said it that this was exactly what I had done.

What was the process of researching and writing Midden like – emotionally, logistically, etc.?

JB: I like to tell people that my research was a poet’s research—that is, obsessive but also intuitive and emotionally driven, often circular or looping in nature, sometimes scattered. I studied old newspaper articles, watched and listened to documentaries, read anything even remotely related that I could find, pinned photographs of Malaga and its people to my walls so I could be surrounded by them as I worked.

Emotionally, I wasn’t able to think about the people of Malaga without considering my own land: eighty-five acres, roughly twice the size of the island, that I have only known for about twelve years now but already love as if it were a second body—every turn, every rut in the road, every glacial erratic, every scar on every tree. I wrote this book while thinking about my relationship to my own land—how it’s so deeply a piece of my identity and my narrative that taking me from it would be like severing a vital cord, like cutting my tongue. From a logistical standpoint, I wrote the first three drafts of the book in intense bursts at residencies where my homesickness allowed me a small lens into imagining such loss.

The other key emotional experience for me in writing the story of Malaga—a story encased in intentional silence, a story in which I am outside, an other—was how it led me to consider the erasures in my own genealogy. As a descendant of European Jews, the details are different, but many of the patterns are similar—above all, the silence that runs through my family history like a vein of quartz through granite. Writing Midden helped me develop a wider understanding of what such erasures mean, how they link us, how what we don’t know (and why we don’t know it) is as important as what we do know—all themes I’m now beginning to follow into my newer work.

What are you most looking forward to in hearing your poetry set to music?

JB: I’ve never had my poetry set to music before, so I have no idea what to expect, but I’m incredibly excited about artistic collaboration in general. The idea that my work might lead to an emotional response in another reader that would then in turn lead to another work is a thrilling and tangible manifestation of the power of poetry. Additionally, I’ve been really excited to see the vast range of work that people in Maine have been producing in response to the Malaga Island story—visual artwork, young adult novels, plays, documentaries, community performances pieces, meals, and more. I’ve begun to think of all of these responses as collectively forming another type of shell midden. So it’s wonderful to see a musical response to this story, and to see the conversation expanding beyond the borders of Maine.

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