Brainstorming for a 2021 Edition of ‘I Remember’

Possible Editors and/or Commentators

Samuel Delaney

Jacqueline Woodson

Robert Reid-Pharr

Kazim Ali

Siri Hustvedt

Ariel Francisco

Kimiko Hahn

Paul Legault

Possible Essay Topics

  • Queer text ahead of its time in its portrayal of sex and sexuality
  • What do we choose to reproduce and how does construct our sense of history–who is remembered, how and why? Emphasizing race and gender?
  • Influential formal technique
  • Portrait of suburban, white America in the 50s and 60s
  •  The effects of the AIDS pandemic on American ar
  • Portrait of experimental / avant garde New York City artists in late 60s and 70s
  • Memory and the act of remembering
  • Examination of American masculinity in the 50s, 60s, and 70s
  • Essay that contexutalizes and challenges Brainard’s representation of racism

Marketing

 

Paratexts

  • Move Padget to foreword
  • Facing pages with creative translations, maybe funny?
  • Creative endnotes
  • Online mock encyclopedia / wikipedia
  • A series of essays at the end
  • New blurbs for back cover–updated!

 

 

 

…An intellectual is someone who tries to figure out what is true by means of the best processes available, and uses them in a rational, disciplined way to try to avoid deluding himself. . . . [C]onsider a general situation of looking for the truth: you have a pile of conflicting assertions about some matter and you want to know which are true. There are two basic games you can use, the doubting game and the believing game. . . . The believing game also proceeds by indirection. Believe all the assertions. .  .  . In the believing game the first rule is to refrain from doubting the assertions, and for this reason you take them one at a time and in each case try to put the others out of your head. You
don’t want them to fight each other. This is not the adversary method.

–Peter Elbow, “The Doubting Game and the Believing Game— An Analysis of the Intellectual Enterprise” (from Writing Without Teachers) *See our Documents page for a longer excerpt.

Doubting

  • Find internal contradictions
  • Find lapses in logic
  • Doubt even reasonable assertions
  • Look for imprecision
  • Look for mistakes
  • Uncover hidden (and not-so-hidden) assumptions and question them
  • Compare with your own experiences, reading, and observation to find places of dissonance with proposition
  • Consider negative implications of proposition
  • Consider what good may be accomplished by doubting
Believing

  • Don’t doubt any assertions
  • Enter into the skin of a person with other perceptions
  • Remain open; be willing to change your mind (at least during game)
  • Find ways to believe by metaphor, analogies, association
  • Find reasons that it makes sense to agree with the proposition
  • Consider positive implications of proposition
  • Consider what good may be accomplished by believing

Remembering A Time Beyond Us

Joe Brainard’s I Remember teaches us a vital aspect when it comes to our memories and.      how we access them. The sporadic nature in which we take the god, the bad, the unimportant and the mundane. In many stanzas we are given what matters most of each memory. Some may have more content than others, but most opt to focus on the main points and finer details. No long build ups to some of the memories, just the key points and how that connect to other memories residing within us. A collective of memories are used to convey a central idea.

This is not just Joe Brainard using writing to effectively get at some idea in his head, he is displaying what is the beginning of any autobiographical material. The act of remembrance and what that did to us and for us. How does the act of remembering something affect us from the time of the memory to the current you?  Perhaps you was once mad at the memory, but now view it as nothing. Brainard explores the depth of his mind and in doing so allows us to reminisce. This is autobiography at its base, being able to take an experience and convey that to an audience who may gain from it. Some of those memories may be spotty or even incorrect upon initial review (as shown in the text) but it is us nonetheless. That is the point, that is a message, perhaps not the message but a point that his works is meant to evoke.

I remember a time before now, one where my mind was clouded and full of resentment for past actions. I remember viewing it with a strong sense of melancholy. I now view it with a bittersweet after taste. These points on which I reminisce  may not be the same but I remember  that both matter to me and those around me. A change in perception automatically means a change in a memory. Not the truth nor the autobiographical pact that one must upkeep changes, but what I see in them always does. I Remember is simple yet complex, just as the way we traverse truth and excavate old scenarios in our conscience. The book is in some ways the autobiographical pact, and in some ways an antithesis to it with parts of memories being rearranged or expanded upon.

 

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I Remember How Much She Remembers

My daughter used to tell perfect strangers she remembered being inside her mother’s belly.

Yesterday, I asked her what she remembered from when she was really little: That time you let me eat snow!

I remember, in the Coney Island surf, a woman grabbing her by the wrist and pointing at me, Do you know that man? like I was plotting an abduction.

I remember, on the Upper West Side, her mother being asked if she was the nanny, as if a young black woman has no right entering a playground without a work permit.

I remember Is she adopted? and Where did you adopt her from? and even her motherfucking pediatrician, Do you have the adoption papers?

I remember when she learned to walk. Even though I was not around much when she was a baby, living two flights and one ocean away, she took off one morning and didn’t stop, and I was there, watching, just like I was there when she was born and her tiny wrinkled paw clasped my pointer finger and squeezed it.

I remember how my heart detonated with joy that I was there to witness her living breathing beauty with my own hands and eyes, and while that joy dissipated through my body, I felt it ossifying into a chunk of regret as my limbs and toes and the skin on my face remembered how soon I would be leaving her.

She doesn’t remember her family in Zambia, her cousins, her auntie, her Kuku, though they all lived in the same house for the first year and a half of her life.

But I remember her suffering a rare pang of shyness at a kiddie birthday party, and telling me how much she misses them, how she wants to go back because she doesn’t belong here.

Even though I’ve never met anyone who belongs so exceptionally everywhere she goes, amassing friends like an avalanche, such that this birthday girl’s mother took to posting on all the neighborhood parent groups Does anyone know Sepo’s family? because her daughter couldn’t stop talking about how much she wanted Sepo at her party.

And now Sepo is at the party and all she can remember is a phantom of her own displacement.

I remember seeking the desolate corners of playgrounds and singing songs to myself when I was her age, and I still seek those same corners when I take her to the playground and bury my nose in a book, hence that mother’s need to marshal a social media search party just to get my contact information.

I remember asking Sepo how she feels when she makes up songs: Like my soul has a new bed.

I remember she has had more new beds than most children, more new beds than many adults.

I remember, in her rhyming phase, “Thank you, wank you, shank you!”

I remember, the little ham, “Has anyone ever been a STAGE for Halloween?” and slicing those velvety red curtains.

I remember the next year, Whitney Houston AND Prince, and this year, Little Richard.

She must not remember the way she used to perform for her mother, beaming silly spontaneity, anything to force a smile or at least a response from the woman crumbling before her eyes, who couldn’t get herself out of bed, take her to daycare, or even speak words by the time I delivered her to the hospital.

But that must be where Sepo’s spark comes from, this irrepressible need to connect with everyone she meets; for some time there, sparking her mother awake was a matter of survival, and survival is something we remember even when we don’t remember it.

But she remembers sleeping on her daddy’s couch for the rest of her third year on the earth, and then her own bed, and then a move and her own bedroom.

I remember when I told her Mama was sick, how her mouth popped open and wailed My Mama is sick!

It was a repetition, a statement, but it was so much more, a sheer epiphany that this was her life now, and it still haunts me, how a two-year-old could know and see and feel so much in one moment, so chaotic, and yet so lucid.

She might not remember the last time she slept at her mother’s house because she didn’t actually sleep there, because her mother called me after midnight saying Come get her, she’s being a brat, because Sepo was crying for daddy, because her mother had kept her awake till midnight to blow out birthday candles only to realize she didn’t have candles or cake so she dragged her out squalling to the bodega, and I still see her waving a bundle of incense sticks to purge the room of her child’s ingratitude and shouting I don’t get it, I just don’t get it.

Later, Sepo remembered being scared at Mama’s house because there was a big bug in the bathroom, and maybe the bug was her mother, or maybe her memory is just a baffling Kafakesque parable, or maybe that’s what childhood is, and all of life after it.

She will remember something between nothing and everything.

I just pray she remembers how happy she was, how joyfully and bountifully human, squeezing life out of every moment like the world owes it to her.

The world does, my love. Just take it. It’s yours.

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Who Reproduces Cultural Memory? Who Remembers?

In the Afterword of I Remember, Ron Padgett quotes Michael Lally’s review of the book in The Village Voice (this quote is also featured on the book’s back cover), “Joe Brainard’s memories of growing up in the ‘40s and ‘50s have universal appeal. He catalogues the past in terms of fashion and fads, public events and private fantasies, with such honesty and accuracy and in such abundance that, sooner or later, his history coincides with ours and we are hooked” (170). Coincidentally, I read Matthew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World right before reading I Remember, and Salesses discusses how fiction, specifically how fiction is workshopped and by whom fiction is workshopped influences the reproduction and transmission of cultural norms. After finishing I Remember, I saw a post from the Instagram account @impact called “Stop Romanticizing the 1920’s-1950’s,” which pointed out that these were times of oppression for women and people of color, particularly black Americans. All of these texts coming together immediately raised red flags at the notion that I Remember could have “universal appeal” given the period Lally identifies as his and Brainard’s youth. For white men like Lally and Brainard, their experiences of childhood in the 1940s and 1950s would be drastically different than those of children of color in the United States experiencing the social turbulence of World War II and its ripple effects, including but not limited to Japanese internment, lack of federal funding for services on Indian reservations, the Zoot Suit riots, and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. In the text, Brainard periodically makes unflattering remarks about “Negroes” and “Orientals” which consistently snapped me out of whatever rhythm I fell into while reading. Early in the book, I was shocked by, “I remember my father in black-face. As an end man in a minstrel show” (33). It is one thing to internalize racist ideas that are insidiously embedded in American culture and to reproduce it (perhaps unknowingly), but it is another to remember – and in the words of its collaborators and initial reviewers, I Remember is an honest accounting of Brainard’s memory – how one’s father actively participated in the reproduction and transmission of racist ideas. Later, I was again more shocked by, “I remember feeling sorry for black people, not because I thought they were persecuted, but because I thought they were ugly” (Brainard 133). While the point of the book is not to reflect on the memories and to critique or address the writer’s upbringing or challenge the beliefs of the younger self, I have found through browsing casual book reviews that the focus is largely on the craft of I Remember, and not the content of the remembrances so neither the writer nor the reader is engaging in the work of examining exactly what kinds of things Brainard remembers and why it’s these memories that he chose to immortalize in published writing.

Thinking of Salesses and the way homogenous groups of writers continue to perpetuate the same cultural ideas in fiction until it is the norm, I really have to question Lally’s claim of I Remember’s “universal appeal,” that goes unchallenged even in Padgett’s 2001 Afterword, and if what Lally really means to say is that the book’s appeal is for white readers only. I think the craft of the book distracts readers from questioning what kinds of cultural memories are reproduced within, and that this book too contributes to the rosy view of American history that obscures the truth and prevents white Americans from coming to terms with the reality of America. When the people doing the remembering and immortalizing the remembrances are not remembering the realities of prejudice and oppression, they are producing cultural memory that continues to obscure the truth of history.

 

Works Cited

Brainard, Joe. I Remember. 1975. Granary Books, 2001.

Impact. “Stop Romanticizing the 1920’s-1950’s.” Instagram, designed by Tania Velin, 14 October 2021, https://www.instagram.com/p/CVBVgW6B1NU/.

Padgett, Ron. Afterword. I Remember, by Joe Brainard, 2001, pp. 169-176.

Salesses, Matthew. Craft in the Real World. Catapult, 2021.

Memory In Its Finest Form

After reading Maia’s  “Whose Story?: The Ethics of Writing Memoir”, I couldn’t help but agree with her. The events that took place in her life were ultimately her story to tell. If it were me though, I would keep in mind and consider how it might affect the characters/ people I am including in my story. Maia strongly supports that because she is relying on her own memories, that she is the sole proprietor of her writing and is free to write whatever she wants as long as she is relying on her own memories.

When listening to Ariel Francisco and Jason Tougaw’s video on writing about other people, I noticed that Ariel also relied on his father’s memory to write his poetry. I find this interesting because sometimes people don’t want to be involved in someone else’s autobiographical writing, whereas others are more than willing to help.

Mary Karr’s “The Liar’s Club” begins with a great hook. She starts with “As soon as you start to leave things out—to shape a tale—you’re maneuvering the actual.” This to me seems important to recognize for any writer out there. By omitting certain parts, you aren’t exactly lying per se, but you’re not stating things as they are. By “maneuvering the actual”, you aren’t really writing an autobiography anymore, are you? Even if it’s not intentional, and you start to fabricate details here and there, then it can start becoming a work of fiction.

The final paragraph from Jason Tougaw’s “Memory and Memoir” is also striking, yet familiar to me and something that I have done myself with my own writing.

Memory is not so different from imagination, if you think about it. They commingle with just about every act of remembering or imagining. Every memoir is a remaking the past. Rather than avoid or work around that simple fact, I decided to play around with it.

Tougaw decides to combine memory with imagination, rather than try to separate them. That could be more of a hassle and even worsen the writing, so he doesn’t hesitate to play around with both. Instead of justifying one element, why not use both to create a perhaps stronger piece of writing?

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The Fragments that Remain

There are many things I wanted to consider in our readings this week, so please forgive me if this post undergoes many sporadic deviations.

Almost all of the readings converged on crafting autobiographies in conversation with the supernatural. It’s interesting how autobiography, especially elegy, often finds itself in the realm of the occult, as if locating truth transposes our reality. In this way, the autobiographical genre seems to rely on a system of belief. Amanda Yates Garcia’s “In Order to Write, I Had to Break a Family Curse” is more overtly influenced by the occult since the article focuses on the affinities between witchcraft and the craft of writing. Maia’s “Whose Story?: The Ethics of Writing Memoir” is less conspicuous, but shares the process of “transmutation” with Garcia’s piece. Although Jason Tougaw’s “Memory and Memoir” doesn’t use any supernatural terminology, there is a focus on transmutation as discussed in Garcia and Maia’s pieces. This transmutative process, as Tougaw writes, is the reconstruction of memory rather than the replication of it. It seems that all autobiography is transmutative since memory is never stagnant. Rather, they are sedimentary fragments that are always transforming through the dulling or sharpening of time.

Another shared term in these discussions of autobiography is “invocation.” I think that all writers are subjected to this process whether it’s to the Muses or any of our best-loved influences. It was a form of unsuspecting but welcoming invocation to read, watch, and listen to writers invoke their past, their doubts, and their loved ones.

The ethics of autobiography involves the pacts (in no particular order) writers make with themselves, with the genre, with their subjects, and with the readers. Ethics are never as binary as most would reduce them to be. Listening to both Phillip Gourevitch & Nicholas Christopher’s “The Ethics of Memoir Writing” followed by Ariel Francisco and Jason Tougaw’s discussion in “Writing about Other People” motivated me to think of how we can contextualize the complicated ethics involving the subjects in autobiography. I was compelled to try recontextualizing this process and the anxiety involved when writing about others, especially loved ones:

After decades of lost time, I finally secured a jar of Lao Gan Ma to substantiate the fine threads of Sōmen. Eager for a taste, I swiveled the red lid only for it to launch into unreasonable heights. I felt time thicken into an opportunity to catch the jar, but my reflexes had been at leisure for too long. The excess of time was spent in disbelief of myself, my strength wrongfully distributed, the stubborn jar, and the inevitability of gravity. Disbelief gnawed into worry for my loved ones’ unsuspecting feet. Some noise escaped me as the fractures of that beautifully broad and oil-tainted glass skidded on the kitchen floor. 

I picked up the larger fragments first, laying one on top of another and mooring the splintered edges with my thumb. Then came the dustpan towing a stray apple peel for the pieces too small to collect. Lastly, with conviction, I ran the vacuum over the faint wisps, the most dangerous remnants of all. 

The kitchen was restored to a better form. Something caught my eye, a reflection I hoped. It could be one of the wandering wisps that I couldn’t contain. Suddenly, the floor didn’t feel spotless. It didn’t feel safe.

Figure out why you needed to have a N-, and we’ll figure out how to move towards change

After watching “I Am Not Your Negro” and reading “The Fire Next Time,” the motif of confronting the past, and the truth about America and oneself as a necessary step towards change, is one that stays with me. As a black woman, I always saw the race problem in America as White people not being willing or ready to “accept” black people as equals. While being of the target of hatred is exhausting and traumatic among other things, I have never internalized it as a problem with myself. I have not succumbed to destruction by believing I am “what the white world calls a nigger”(Baldwin 9). I have always believed it was a problem with white people, who for some deluded reason, hate black people. “I Am Not Your Negro” and “The Fire Inside” drives home the point that, people, particularly white people, have to face the past and themselves or hope for future change is improbable.

“I Am Not Your Negro” reinforces this point in numerous ways. Baldwin’s words and sentiments, explain that story of America is one designed to convince us that no crime has been committed in its conception and thus turns something that is nothing short of a massacre, into legend. America’s history is a lie of pretended humanism, that offers the deception that the racist history of this country is justifiable. The Negro problem is the means of providing this justification, and crucial to safeguard white purity, and soothe a guilty and constrained white imagination. White Americans invented the negro as an inferior entity and has based their entire ideology and moral justification on the idea that the negro is in fact inferior, not human,  and deserves to be treated as such. To protect that delusion, cowardice, immaturity, and blindness has been woven into the American fabric as virtues that attempt to convince people of baseless ideas. Examples of these ideas include: black people have no reason to be bitter, white people are innocent of any atrocities, America is a place of humanity and life is without issue here, Racism doesn’t exist anymore. Living and accepting delusion (I cannot find an appropriate synonym) in this way, covering up and ignoring the reality of the past, does not inspire change. In the film Baldwin says, “What white people have to do, is try to find out in their hearts why it was necessary for them to have a nigger in the first place. Because I am not a nigger. I’m a man. If I’m not the nigger here, and if you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you have to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it is able to ask that question.” This quote brings to light for me the fact that, the goal is not for white people to be ready to accept black people,  but for white people to accept themselves. To face the realities of history, of their own prejudices and dispositions, in order for any change and reconciliation to be possible.

To face the realities of ones own  prejudice and harmful dispositions. however, is not something that is appealing, or something that people want to do, upholding the idea that black people are inferior has destroyed and is “destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and [many white people] do not know it and do not want to know it” (Baldwin 10). It is not easy to be released from a history has needed to uphold the idea that black makes a human inferior to white. Baldwin explains that many white people know better, but find it difficult to act on what they know because,

“To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations” (Baldwin 12)

To reconcile an integrated future with black people, white people would have to dismantle the foundations of their identity and country. Only then can change be a possibility. But again, to this day, some people are not ready to confront these realities, thus racism and fire persists. Also important, though not presented as the most glaring priority, is the need for white people and black people to confront the reality that we need each other if we are to exist successfully in this country. Baldwin offers the knowledge that “we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation—if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women” (Baldwin 59).

Both the film and the book had me thinking about the narrative of a nation, especially one as interdependent as America. Whose story is at the forefront? What are the ethical implications of painting a moral history for a country rooted in hatred, barbarianism, and delusion? How concerned is America with the truth? How do we negotiate the fictions American identity is founded on?