January 19, 2023

The Possible Lives of WH, Sailor

Written and illustrated by Bushra Junaid
Running the Goat, Books & Broadsides
60 pp.
Ages 9-12

Who was the 19th c. sailor whose remains were discovered in Labrador in the 1980s? Where did he come from? How did he live? What was the story of his death?  Bushra Junaid examines these questions and tells us the sailor's possible stories in poetic rhyme of historical depth.

From The Possible Lives of WH, Sailor by Bushra Junaid
In verse, Bushra Junaid speaks of the bones found on the Strait of Belle Isle and exposed by erosion in 1987 near the village of L'Anse au Loup. The bones suggest a young man of short stature and missing a forearm, with kinky hair and strong teeth. Alongside the bones were some clothing, shoes, a knife and a pouch, several carved with the initials W-H. Though the story of WH is lost, Bushra Junaid insists on remembering this man, as a memorial for "all the Black fathers and brothers who plied these waters, For all the unnamed mothers and daughters bound to plantations" and for all they experienced before and after becoming seafarers.

She wonders at his origins and the memories he may have carried from his homeland whether perhaps West Africa, the Caribbean, the American south or even Nova Scotia. Was he taken by force or did he enlist to be a sailor? Did he fight battles, learn to read and write or acquire other skills? Was he treated fairly or discriminated against? And what of his family? With her questions, Bushra Junaid gives WH's life a legacy.
All these things we can't possibly know–
They have only made my curiosity grow
About all the possible lives you have lived.

I don't know from whence you came,
And I don't know your rightful name, but you

Respect is due. It's time that you
Were laid to rest anew.
From The Possible Lives of WH, Sailor by Bushra Junaid
Born to Jamaican and Nigerian parents, Bushra Junaid accepts a responsibility to tell the story of WH, in essence claiming his bones as family. And with the telling of these possible stories, Bushra Junaid ensures that WH is honoured and will never be forgotten to history.
Some may say I've got no skin in the game,
Yet if it's really all the same,
This child of the diaspora would like to claim
You as kin.
Bushra Junaid is the respected illustrator of Adwoa Badoa's Nana's Cold Days (Groundwood, 2002) but The Possible Lives of WH, Sailor is her debut picture book as author and illustrator, and I think she successfully tells a story with great heart and lyricism. WH's true history may never be known but he will not be dismissed, and her words make us think about what that history may be and what the artifacts may tell us and what they don't. (Appended to the story are photographs of these artifacts housed at The Rooms in St. John's NFLD as well as extensive background and historical notes and references.)
Though WH's story may be a simple one of birth, life and death, that story's context is complex. As such, the simplicity of Bushra Junaid's art of lines and shapes created from pen and ink and watercolours complement her words. There is far too much that could be part of WH's story, so by focusing on simple vignettes of villages or ships at sea, Bushra Junaid grounds the man in the tangible.
From The Possible Lives of WH, Sailor by Bushra Junaid
I know that teachers will undoubtedly be using The Possible Lives of WH, Sailor for teaching purposes, especially for history–a list of discussion questions as part of an appended teachers' guide will be ever so useful–but this picture book should be seen as an exemplar for empathy and compassion for times and people gone and unknown. History, legacies and ancestry cannot always be corroborated but by giving them attention, even through speculation, we honour them.

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