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.

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3 thoughts on “The Fragments that Remain

  1. The image of the realm of the occult informing the practice of writing memoir is a really intriguing one to consider. Remembering is definitely a form of conjuring. Placing the memoir in a place of supernatural origin made me immediately think of Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In the Dream House where the dominant image is that of the haunted house as Machado recounts her experiences as a survivor of emotional abuse and documents the erased history of intimate partner violence between same-sex couples.

    As all of the articles this week circled the question of ethics, I did get a sense that a question not being asked was, what about when you write about people who are not loved ones? and I think this can be more complicated than writing about people you actually have love for. I saw a tweet some time ago and it said something to the effect of, if you’re worried about how I’m going to write about you, you shouldn’t have mistreated me, and I found myself being sympathetic to this sentiment. Mary Karr kind of pokes at this idea in “The Liar’s Club,” “Can I tell about the boy who raped me without investigating who may have raped him as a child (data that would certainly spin the moral compass a few degrees at least)?” Macahdo seems quite deliberate in obscuring the identity of her abuser in the pages of In the Dream House – off the top of my head, I don’t think Macahdo even describes her appearance – and I think that’s one of the better examples of completely obscuring the identity of someone you’re writing about. As a fellow survivor of emotional abuse, I feel a bit torn about the ethics of writing about these kinds of experiences. On one hand, as Karr suggests, there’s always more to a story, and as Maia quotes Emily Deprang saying that your writing shouldn’t deprive someone of their voice and their right to tell their own story. But I also feel very validated when Halsey (she/they), in both songs on her Manic album and poems in their I Would Leave Me If I Could collection, very clearly and unapologetically put her ex-boyfriend G-Eazy on blast (and of course in that context, G-Eazy’s team attempted to claim that it was Halsey’s bipolar disorder that caused the drama and disintegration of their relationship, not his abuse or serial cheating).

    I think a question also not asked by these articles was, is it okay for a writer to back off and conceal the truth (and would that mean to lie?) when the writer is concerned about the feelings of their subjects? In Robin Ha’s graphic memoir Almost American Girl, in her author’s note she does confess that she was afraid to cause conflict between herself and her mother and wrote the memoir with reservations – and I definitely felt Ha pulling away from uncomfortable topics as a reader. I also felt like whether or not a writer should feel the need to hold back, not because of explicitly being asked like Karr’s friend who wanted to spare her elderly mother upsetting information about her previous self-harm and the record could be corrected after her death, but because of fear of a reaction, and maybe retribution, was a question not being asked when considering the ethics of memoir writing.
    I
    feel like a lot of my thoughts were running alongside the readings this week and maybe I’m not responding to your post in a completely direct way. Also, your writing is very beautiful and evocative! I definitely think you’ve captured that anxiety over writing about memory, especially in the dangerous remnants of the wisps that don’t dissipate even after trying to tidy them.

  2. I’m also very intrigued by the thought that what I take as the natural foibles of memory could actually be a supernatural transmutation. A word that I typically use to referring to a natural, though perhaps radical, change – but that I suppose can also refer to more supernatural acts of literal transubstantiation. But I suppose that, to the extent that the past has its most tangible existence in our brain neurons that remember it, the fact that two different brains can remember it differently has graver implications for reality than is implied by phrases like “he-said-she-said”. If a stable, objective truth is impossible, and the thing that makes it impossible is the fallibility of memory, and a given memory becomes even more fallible every time it is remembered, then such a public act of memory as a memoir can drastically alter reality. I’m not sure that’s quite how I think about it, but considered in that light, it does seem appropriate for a memoir to invoke the occult just as a simple signal of awareness of its potential effects.

  3. The idea of constructing memory in autobiographical form always occurred to me as more “natural” than “supernatural”. The need to access one’s memory especially when their mind and interpretation of events is ever so changing was the way things were. However after browsing this week’s readings and analyzing your response, more of what we access in our minds can definitely be the supernatural. What we are calling upon when partaking in autobiographical pacts is simply not just memories that we stored in our mind with small details being exchanged due to the passing of time. Instead we are invoking an interpretation of objective reality with our own subjective landscape every time we look upon a memory. Each time we access that memory it is either closer to that truth or farther from it. But each time we do so, it is an act of the occult that allows us to further explore what we call the memories of our mind, in order to openly display to others what we believe is the truth of a situation. The more I think about it the more I realize perhaps it is not so “natural” after all.

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