I love how Victoria Chang employed the form of the letter in her gorgeous book, Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief. The interplay between her letters and the imagery shimmers with life. And I love how she grapples with gaps in memory, gaps and erasures in family stories, and struggles in the reaching toward understanding that is the human urge, and an impossibly hard urge to sit still within. It’s a gift: there is so much to learn about the writer and the process in these pages.
The beauty and clarity of Chang’s voice in these pieces is simultaneously heartbreaking and heart-mending.
“These are the kinds of questions that absolutely did not matter at the time. The things that didn’t matter at the time are often the most urgent questions after someone has died.” (from Dear Mother, p. 27)
“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?” (from Dear Mother, p. 49)
“Each book isn’t just a book, but a period of life, a period of learning how to write. Each book has its own hair color, its own glasses, its own favorite mug, its own computer, its own shirt and pants, its own tears.” (from Dear Teacher, p. 77)
“As I write, more and more of my cells are replaced by language. When they burn a writer’s body, the smoke will be shaped like letters.” (from Dear Teacher, p. 77)
“You told me that suffering can deepen and expand a poet’s work. And that sometimes suffering can put so much pressure on a person that they have no choice but to become a poet. You told me that suffering is one’s fate and that regardless of whether the fates have distributed suffering to me, if I see the world around mew, care about and for other people, face the setbacks of the world, read with hunger, get older, encounter illness, and if life is not lost on me—and if, all the while, I learn how to write better and pay attention better—maybe, just maybe, I would be able to write better poems.” (from Dear Teacher, p. 87)
“I don’t know if you know that Charles Simic once said: The world is beautiful but not sayable. That’s why we need art. I think that’s why we need all art. Not just art from some people. Or whether you know what Osip Mandelstam said: What tense would you choose to live in? I want to live in the imperative of the future passive participle—in the ‘what ought to be.’ I don’t know where this is or what it looks like, but I know somehow it begins with language.” (from Dear B, p. 130)
“Working on these letters and listening to the interviews made me think that grief and memory are related. That memory, trying to remember, is also an act of grieving. In my mothers case, sometimes forgetting or silence was a way to grieve lost lands and to survive. In my case, trying to know someone else’s memories, even if it’s through imagination and within silence, is also a form of grieving.” (from Dear Reader, p. 144)
“In the end, these epistles brought me much sadness and shame to write, but the process was also joyful. I’ve always loved what Jeanette Winterson in Art Objects says about the chisel:
The chisel must be capable of shaping any material however unlikely. It has to leave runnels of great strength and infinite delicacy. In her own hands, the chisel will come to feel light and assured, and she refines it to take her grip and no other. If someone borrows it, it will handle like a clumsy tool or perform like a trick. And ye to her, as she works with it and works upon it, it will become the most precise instrument she knows. There are plenty of tools a writer can beg or borrow, but her chisel she must make herself, just as Michelangelo did.
I’m still learning how to make my own chisel, but everything I write, no matter how crude, is an experiment with my unfinished chisel. Each time I sit down, I pull out my imaginary chisel, listen to the words that come up, like eavesdropping, crane my neck into language, into memory, into silence. And each time I write, the chisel becomes more and more finished and distinctly mine. And with each word, I become more and more myself.” (from Dear Reader, p. 146)