Students enter the Malaga Island school building around 1910. (Courtesy of Peter Roberts)

BRUNSWICK — Maine poet Julia Bouwsma has spent the past decade immersing herself in fragments of the story of Malaga Island, a place that dwells in the shadows of a dark chapter of Maine’s history. Bouwsma explores the haunting tale of human tragedy by picking up the pieces of the lives that were shattered on the island in her latest book of poetry, “Midden.”

Julia Bouwsma (Morgain Bailey photo)

Bouwsma will present a reading and talk about Midden at Curtis Memorial Library at 2 p.m. Saturday, May 4.

In the 1860s, the 42-acre island located at the mouth of the New Meadows River in Phippsburg was home to a mixed-race colony of residents with ancestral ties to Africa, Scotland, Ireland, Portugal and elsewhere. The islanders lived off the land and the sea — fishing, clamming, and lobstering — in a time when the coast of Maine was dotted by small, hardscrabble communities. The arrival of the 20th century, however, brought with it a series of social and economic changes that forever altered the lives of Malaga’s families. The coast of Maine was quickly becoming a popular tourist destination and, with the decline in the fishing and shipbuilding industries, more focus was placed on increasing property values for development.

The changing economy and the widely held distaste for interracial communities ultimately lead to a decision that would scrub out the island’s population. In 1911, Governor Frederick Plaisted initiated the eradication of the colony when he declared that “the best plan would be to burn down the shacks” on the island. Within months, eight residents were committed to the Maine School for the Feeble Minded, located at what is now Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, and the remainder of Malaga’s 47 residents were officially evicted from the island as of July 1, 1912. State officials exhumed the island’s cemetery, combining the remains of 17 individuals into five caskets, which were then transferred to the cemetery at the Maine School for the Feeble Minded. Within one year, all evidence of lives built upon the island had been erased.

Bouwsma stumbled upon the story of Malaga shortly after moving to Maine and began to explore the sense of identity defined by place and the individual and cultural impact of its loss.

“I started thinking about my own growing connection to my land and what it would be like to lose that,” she said. “The land has become a really central part of my own identity in a very short amount of time. … The severity of that kind of loss was very clear to me from the beginning of thinking about the story [of Malaga]. It became one of my initial lenses into exploring the book.”

Growing up in Connecticut, Bouwsma began writing poetry at age 8 and eventually pursued her interest in literature at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Bouwsma found her way to Western Maine in 2005, where she has since made her home on 85 acres of forested land, which, coincidentally, has poetic roots. Bouwsma’s property is home to a small cemetery, which is the final resting place of ancestors of Maine poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. She immerses herself in the land upon which she lives — homesteading, raising pigs, gardening, making maple syrup.

“I think there are some people who leave home to find home,” she said. “When I came to Maine, I realized this is the place I’m meant to be.”

Resident John Eason repairs a building on Malaga Island, off Phippsburg, a few years before the 1912 state-sponsored eviction.
(Photo courtesy of Peter Roberts)

Bouwsma cultivated her interpretation of the story of Malaga one piece at a time. She participated in an archaeological tour of the island with USM Associate Professor of Archaeology Nathan Hamilton, who began recovering artifacts in 2006. Bouwsma spent the next few years conducting extensive research and soon realized that the majority of information about Malaga consisted of dissertations, newspaper articles, one documentary and one children’s book. There were no personal accounts or descriptions of individual experiences; no interviews, no stories, no artwork, no diaries, no insights into the lives of Malaga’s people beyond what artifacts could convey.

“I learned as much as I could when I was writing the book, but it also became apparent to me that what I didn’t know, and why I didn’t know, was as important as what I did know,” Bouwsma said.

She grappled with whether or not she had a right, as an outsider, to tell the story. She had no intention of being an authoritative storyteller for other people; instead she focused on exploring elements of her own experiences, concerns, doubts and the sense of bewilderment that would accompany the loss of one’s identity and the silence that surrounds it. Bouwsma explored the parallels with her own Jewish ancestry by depicting the gaps and erasures that are passed down through the generations. She has never known the real names and countries of origin of her great-grandparents, which led her to “start thinking more about lineages of silence and inherited traumas.”

Bouwsma captures and amplifies the emotional experience of the loss of the individual and collective identities of Malaga She employs a wide range of literary techniques in her poetry — erasure poems, traditional lyric verse, prose poems, lists of objects, and letters to ghosts — as a way of listening to history and being “present to the story and the people who are in it, and the silences around it,” she said. She tells the story that is impossible to tell with remnants, pieces and slivers of moments buried in history like the layers of shells in Malaga’s middens.

“These are the stories that we need to keep telling because they keep happening,” she said. “Sometimes the stories we need to hear the most are from the people who can’t tell them.”

“Interview with the Dead”

By Julia Bouwsma

Then we were a people sculpted of wind,

and when we left, we scattered as breath,

lingered as breath—

then we were a people carved of gravel and dust,

and we left as the land

stripped from the land—

carrying our heart in our fists.

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