Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence and Grief
Years ago, before my father died, he asked if I would like to have the letters his mother wrote to him throughout his life, hundreds of epistles and cards tucked away in a few boxes. I had no doubt that I would like to go through my paternal grandmother's words to her son, especially as he had always been reserved in talking about family life and history, but he could never quite hand them over in his lifetime. After he passed, I self-selectedly inherited the boxes and finally felt ready to tackle them in quarantine, reading her letters and those of his best friends and siblings, plus the occasional reserved and brief missive from his father, over each morning's breakfast for weeks and weeks. Throughout, I cherished the personal nourishment it brought: the smart wit and storytelling capacities of my grandmother, the sense of connection to my dad. But I also found myself wondering if there was something to do with them, some way to make the act of reading them not just a series of moments in 2020 but rather a way of sharing, preserving, turning them into something. Always I came up against this barrier: the idea of family letters might matter to any family who has them, but do each each family's letters and documents warrant preservation or sharing beyond that family? Is there a way to build a home for them outside of our own hands and hearts?
Victoria Chang's Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief seems, by its very existence. to answer this question with an emphatic yes. The mixed media book, published this fall by Milkweed Editions, brings together the poet's meditative essays, in the form of letters to her parents, daughters, friends, teachers, and readers, with photographs, documents, and interview excerpts that attempt to tell the story of her parents' and grandparents' lives—stories that they concealed with silence and evasiveness over the years. Chang attempts to use what she learned from pressing her mother for detail, for accounts of her past life and family history, and share it in fragmented nonlinear form alongside immigration documents (as her parents came from Taiwan), pictures, and other materials, making the book feel like a personal archive of sorts. Readers can sense Chang's struggle throughout the documentation process, as she supplements her findings with her own letters that contain an element of desolation. She seems to know that the obsessive force with which she mines her family history might seem bizarre to some. "Some days, I want to tell everyone I meet that my mother died," Chang writes. "Sometimes I do tell them, just to see who reacts. Most people don't. Most people probably wonder why I am still writing about my mother. I want to tell them that it is because my mother is still dead."
While deeply specific in nature, Dear Memory also tackles wider questions about memory and assimilation for those making new lives for themselves in a new land: "I wonder whether memory is different for immigrants, for people who leave so much behind. Memory isn't something that blooms but something that bleeds internally, something to be stopped. Memory hides because it isn't useful. Not money, a car, a diploma, a job. I wonder if memory for you was a color. When we say that something takes place, we imply that memory is associated with a physical location, as Paul Ricoeur states. But what happens when memory's place of origin disappears?" For immigrants to form essentially new lives in a new home, must they abandon their past selves and histories to assimilate? Do their cultures have a place here to be celebrated, or are they best left behind? How much of this is a personal decision, to ease the pain, and how much an imposition of the new society and culture in America?
In Dear Memory, Chang questions if memory can be "unhoused" or if it is "the form in which everything is held." Perhaps that's the best way to encapsulate what her unique book is, if not quite singly either a memoir, poem, collection of essays, compendium of documents, or chronological history. It is the form of memory itself, a printed vessel trying to hold and sort through that which was written, that which occurred, and that which was often not spoken in Chang's family. The beauty of the book is that it secretly posits that all of us, whether immigrants or not, deserve the space to untangle our family histories. That it is a messy but worthy process.