A Review of Victoria Chang’s Dear Memory
January 28, 2022 § 2 Comments
By Lindsey Anthony-Bacchione
To read Victoria Chang’s Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief is to step inside the making of a sculpture, to feel the deft hands of an artist carving a body of language from scraps of memories, histories, trauma, and hope. Dear Memory is a masterful work that births a new genre-bending narrative, a true experiment in capturing the experience of the generational effects of losing a language to migration, a culture to assimilation, silence, grief, and the profound effects of racism. Chang delves into Marianne Hirsch’s concept of postmemory when she quotes Hirsch from her book Memory and Migration explaining postmemory as “the experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are evacuated by the stories of the previous generation, shaped by traumatic events that can be neither fully understood nor re-created.”
After the death of her mother, while concurrently losing her father to dementia, Chang uses the epistolary form to write letters to the living and the dead, former teachers, fellow poets, high school bullies, her body, memory, silence. In these letters she engages with the experience of absence, burrowing deep into that which is lost, questions unanswered, stories now buried with the dead. She reflects on her upbringing as a Chinese American, being “remarkably Chinese” with no idea what that meant, nor what being American was. She captures the effects of racism with a razor’s edge when she posits:
The racist act is not always the most harmful. It’s the surprise of it, the fraught waiting, each moment like a small trip wire. You never know when you might confront it, so to survive, you live your life in stillness, in self-perpetuated invisibility. And then there’s the aftermath of shame.
Within this devastation, Chang positions herself a most compelling narrator, capturing what it was like to grow up in the outline of a Chinese family in the American Midwest, the disconnection between her and family when she visits them in Taiwan, and the shame and pain of a lost tongue.
I first met Victoria Chang at Antioch’s low-residency MFA program. I was a mom with two young children, a burgeoning teaching career, and 100 pages of a memoir that I could not see my way through to an ending. I could not see my way through motherhood to a writing career. I could not see myself through a grief reignited by the process of writing and remembering. Victoria Chang caught me in a moment when I was trying to compose myself. She asked if I was okay, and I told her I wanted to quit. How was I ever going to do this with two kids? She said to me that I would do it because of my kids. I include this memory, because it draws a dotted line between the narrator I experienced in Dear Memory and the mentor I encountered in a moment of grief and how her words saved me. It was her use of the word because that writing my story and my family’s history of secrets and silence—deceptions by omission—became imperative. Chang dissects these family survival skills with her language and imagery to cut right to the heart of so many family institutions, “…while my parents may have maintained silence as a form of survival, silence had a heartbeat, grew up, and became the third sibling.”
She quotes poets and writers in nearly every letter, and in her letter to Silence she quotes Mary Ruefle who wrote “what words will do to a poet” when speaking about writing painful experiences. In reflection, Victoria Chang makes this sentiment her own by musing, “I don’t think though, that Ruefle meant that we should only write about painful life experiences or feelings, but rather that we should write to put language at risk.” This is precisely what Dear Memory does. It experiments with this risk and in so doing it weaves together a family history through visual clippings of conversations pasted over unearthed photographs of her family and their migration from China to Taiwan to the United States. She tracks the fracture of this family, an identity lost, a language besieged, when she writes, “I wonder what it would have been like to grow up in a family where everyone spoke the same language. The only language we had wholly in common was silence. Growing up, I held a tin can to my ear and the string crossed oceans.” Chang knits together a history of largely missing pieces. “The problem with silence,” she writes, “is that you can’t undo it.”
While writers are sure to experience an extra layer of skin in reading Dear Memory, Chang examines big universal themes in this hybrid creative nonfiction work, stitched together with a poet’s sensibility. When watching a video of her daughter running in a track and field event, she writes, “it was a wonder, beautiful, like watching a hummingbird resting on a branch, escaping itself and its history for a moment that seemed to last a generation.” I can’t help but feel a particular adoration for Chang’s letters that feature glimpses of her daughters. I hear her words “because of your kids” and I can’t help but take away hope. In one letter to a teacher, Chang writes, “…to learn from you that writing was a possibility, not as a career, but simply as a way to move into and out of pain, was the real gift.” Dear Memory is more than a gift. It is an intimate portrait of grief, a reflection on what it means to be estranged in one’s family, culture, and country:
When people leave a country, they leave everything. The land, the smells, the people. The objective is simple: to build a better life, without the incisions of the past.
But what does this do to memory? In a letter to her mother, Chang ponders this concept more deeply when she writes:
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.
Victoria Chang’s Dear Memory is a lifeline, a beating heart for all that is lost, taken, or stopped in the quest and hope for a better life: “the making of a person.”
Lindsey Anthony-Bacchione writes creative nonfiction and book reviews. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles and a BFA in dramatic writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her work can be seen at About Place Journal, Sentience Literary Journal, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, and a book review forthcoming in The Rumpus. She is currently working on a memoir and can be found on Instagram @thingsivelearnedfrommydaughter and Twitter @LABacchione.
[MOU1]I don’t understand “what I misunderstood.” It would seem it is or isn’t a memoir, whether it’s good or not or whether you can see your way to the end. Maybe just leave out this phrase?