Many immigrant stories begin with trauma. The decision to leave behind one's country of birth is rarely a whim and more often a decision reached in the face of repression, imminent threat, or — in the case of my own parents — a sense that in their homeland, there was no future. For the children and grandchildren of immigrants, it can mean that learning more about "where we came from" means asking loved ones to retrieve memories they have no wish to revisit. It doesn't mean that there are not happy memories to be shared, but getting to them may mean excavating dark spaces.
Victoria Chang's "Dear Memory" comprises words and illustrations that illuminate Chang's path back into time. In a series of letters addressed to those who play a part in her memories, she explores with tenderness and compassion the ways that all of us construct our stories of what lies both in our family's past and in our own lives.
Chang, too, escaped the town where her parents settled, an event that brings its own ambivalence. "In truth, I am ashamed to write this, to still think about the past, to still have these memories. I wonder if I am ashamed of the memories, the events, or myself. That fundamentally there was something wrong with me, my family, my countries I never knew."
As she excavates her own memories in the wake of her mother's death and her father's dementia, she recognizes that while she grew up with parents who didn't volunteer a lot of information about their experiences in China and Taiwan, she also missed many opportunities to hear those stories. The fraught relationship with her mother left behind lost opportunities to fill in the blanks. "The problem with silence is that you can't undo it. In that way, it's like death. Small silences toward my mother accumulated over the years. Now they return as a stack of grief."
She also does not have access to the extended family who might fill in the gaps. The child of immigrants often misses the chance to explore repositories of family stories, the mythologies that tell us who we are, where we come from.
The letters that she writes to people from her past show readers how much of what we call "memory' are the stories we tell ourselves and others, how we make narratives of sense impressions and snatches of remembered conversations. The photo collages she assembles gesture toward the ways we create our pasts.
"Dear Memory" is the work of a gifted poet, a wordsmith who is conscious that absent a chance to be an eyewitness to the past, we are left to spin our own webs of emotional significance and nostalgia.
Lorraine Berry is a writer and critic in Oregon.
Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence and Grief
By: Victoria Chang.
Publisher: Milkweed Editions, 168 pages, $25.