Skip to content
Victoria Chang’s “Dear Memory” Explores Memory’s Links to Identity: NPR


Dear memory: Letters on writing, silence and sorrow, by Victoria Chang

Milkweed


hide caption

toggle legend

Milkweed

Victoria Chang’s “Dear Memory” Explores Memory’s Links to Identity: NPR

Dear memory: Letters on writing, silence and sorrow, by Victoria Chang

Milkweed

A revolutionary collage of epistles, memorabilia, poetry and literary criticism, Victoria Chang’s Dear memory asks a profound question: “Can memory be / dislodged, or is it / the form in which / everything is contained?”

Resuming the expressively compressed approach of his 2020 Obituaries, the last work of the poet represents a double articulation of memory and creation, as if “[e]each word, a clavicle, a femur, [and] each sentence, an organ. “By defining language as the core of the experience, Chang’s innovative montage recalls that of Jorge Luis Borges Aleph – a haunting story that reconciles mortality with the creative imagination via a point in space – where time and memory converge as an omniscient reality.

Although structurally complex, Dear memory articulates the basic grieving anxieties: “Things that didn’t matter back then are often the most pressing issues after someone’s death. A person’s mental decline or death can exacerbate pre-existing norms of silence within their family – silence caused by shame, trauma, ignorance, language and cultural attitudes. In this case, Chang was able to interview his mother Jeng Jin and learn facts about her life in Taiwan and her subsequent immigration to the United States before her death from pulmonary fibrosis. However, the poet’s father – a former project engineer at Ford Motor Company – had refused to talk about his past, deeming such dialogue “unnecessary” shortly before suffering a debilitating stroke that damaged his frontal lobe.

While most of the biographical material in the book is based on Jeng Jin’s recollections, Chang cannot dispel the feeling that his mother’s recollections – official documents translated into English for immigration and naturalization purposes long after the original events occurred – seem insignificant, performative: “Mother had a photocopy of each of these documents. And then she made another copy of the copies. So many copies to forget her past. Without reliable narrators or corroborating witnesses, the Chang’s family history seems both elusive and static. As the loud tongue echoed through his childhood home – “packets of Mandarin from mother’s mouth, father’s nearly perfect English … [t]hen our Chinglish “- emotional silence” is arranged like furniture “.

Defining memory as being “shaped by movement, movement and migration” Chang sees a direct link between memory and identity formation. An immigrant’s identity is bonded with displacement, her cultural memory suppressed, “Much of our identity is based on how others… want us to behave, dress, speak, how others perceive society. Chinese food. All expectations, all until [menu’s] police. Nonetheless, Chang sees his immigrant parents’ determination to assimilate into American culture as economic, not political or cultural: “Resolution is a living animal. We carry on the story given to us to survive. “

Chang’s poignant motherhood anecdotes, drawn from her own experience and that of others, can be read as tangible ways to illustrate the paradoxes of memory. An immigrant’s conscious resolve to form a new memory is analogous to the decision to nurture an accidental adoptee. Jeng Jin told his daughter how a woman, aboard a boat fleeing Communist China and realizing too late that she had taken someone else’s child’s hand during the stampede, nevertheless decided to stay with the child. At the same time, losing the vital connection to one’s existence can feel like having a miscarriage – having an expelled, “dislodged” memory.

To resist the corrosive nature of memory / history which seems to murder the past every time it is recalled, Chang uses language as both a scalpel to dissect and a unifying tool, connecting his cultural dislocation with those who still suffer from the consequences of discrimination. Implicit dismantling of the imperialist view of memory in Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright” – that “the earth was ours before we were earth” – Chang retorts, This land is a facade for the land I really come from. There is land behind the land. based on political expediency, while being open to new ways of assessing the influence of the past on the present.

One of Chang’s recurring concerns is transgenerational trauma – the idea that his parents’ imperfect assimilation was passed on to subsequent generations as a psychological defect, with unforeseen manifestations due to his unstable relationship with memory. But to consider its non-conformity as a mental handicap is once again to succumb to the myth of monolithic culture. Chang resolves his anxiety by reformulating the ideal of E pluribus unum, “Maybe my kids are already American, but a different kind of American. And maybe my kids aren’t really themselves. They are thousands of years old from other people. . My trauma. The trauma of the mother. The trauma of the father. Their silence. Passed through me. “

Like Borges’ notion of unity embodied in the letter aleph ?? in the Hebrew alphabet, Dear memory achieves the holistic concept of Yuanmin 圆满 – roundness, completion, finish – by dispassionately exploring its antitheses: gaps, rupture and departure. In this sense, Chang’s lyrical experience memorably evokes the time capsule of an individual family and an artist’s timeless desire to transform carbon dust into a glowing gem.

Thúy Đinh is a freelance critic and literary translator. His work can be found at thuydinhwriter.com. She tweets @ThuyTBDinh.