Tuesday, July 04, 2023

Victoria Chang, Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief


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? (“Dear Mother,”)

Lately I’ve been going through Los Angeles-based poet Victoria Chang’s striking non-fiction project, the stunning and deeply felt, deeply intimate Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief (Minneapolis MN: Milkweed Editions, 2021), a book of memory, history and mentors. Interspersed with collaged archival photographs and other documents, the collection is composed as a sequence of letters individually directed to intimates such as her late parents, childhood friends, acquaintances and former teachers, as well as to her daughter. Dear Memory follows Chang’s poetry collections Circle (Southern Illinois University Press, 2005), Salvinia Molesta (University of Georgia Press, 2008), The Boss (McSweeney’s, 2013) [see my review of such here], Barbie Chang (Copper Canyon, 2017) [see my review of such here] and Obit (Copper Canyon, 2020) [see my Griffin Prize-shortlist interview with her here], although I’m realizing how far behind I am on her work, having missed The Trees Witness Everything (Copper Canyon, 2022), with a further poetry collection forthcoming in 2024 with Farrar, Straus & Giroux: With My Back to the World.

This is a book of contemplation, recollection and reconciliation, as Chang offers the fluidity of a combined book-length essay and memoir through the form of journaled and unsent letters. There is such an intimacy and an openness to the way she holds the book’s form, one that predates, arguably, even the novel; think of books such as The Pillow Book (1002) by Sei Shōnagon, or even Bram Stoker’s original Dracula (1897). The back-and-forth of recollection in Chang’s Dear Memory are even reminiscent to what Kristjana Gunnars wrote about in her novella, The Prowler (Red Deer College Press, 1989): “That the past resembles a deck of cards. Certain scenes are given. They are not scenes the rememberer chooses, but simply a deck that is given. The cards are shuffled whenever a game is played.” Or, as Chang writes, mid-point through the collection: “Now I admire writers who write with an intimate intensity but also a generous capaciousness. I enjoy reading work that expands while it contracts. Writing made by an instrument with a microscope on one end and a telescope on the other, leaving some powder on the page in the form of language.”

Dear Memory writes to and around her immigrant parents, offering her childhood as a foundation for the collection the narrative spreads into, through and beyond, including her own ways through thinking and into poetry. Chang writes of memory as a way to articulate becoming, and an articulation around writing, around poetry, is as foundational to her as the lost threads of either of parent’s lives, the sequence of multiple family restaurants they ran and the difficulty of being the only child of Asian descent in predominantly white communities. There is such an intimacy to these pieces, one that demands slowness, demands attention. One that is framed around an acknowledgment of loss, both long past and those losses that are ongoing, but composed in a manner through which to solidify, before those losses slip entirely away. “Memory is everything,” she writes early on, in a lettet to her mother, “yet it is nothing. Memory is mine, but it is also clinging to the memory of others. Some of these others are dead. Or unable to speak, like Father.” Or, as the piece “Dear Teacher,” begins:

I stumbled into your poetry workshop even though I wasn’t studying poetry. I was one of the few graduate students there. I remember you at the head of a long wooden table, presiding, as if your chair were a throne. The room was brown with wood everywhere. We were knights of poetry. our plates were white sheets of paper filled with our own flesh. Your words were infinite. They were an entire country.

At the end of class, you wrote each student a note. Your note said my poetry had become poems out of poetry and that my poems had begun to strike forward to the possibility… You also wrote that you wished I had made my voice more present in class and that my form of articulation was far from shy. You told me to call to talk about next semester.

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