Secrets, Omissions, the Unknown: On Victoria Chang’s “Dear Memory”

November 27, 2021   •   By Heather Scott Partington

Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief

Victoria Chang

VICTORIA CHANG IS interested in the space between things. Lacunae. The unsaid. The unspeakable. Secrets, omissions, and the unknown. She applies a poet’s sensibility and an artistic eye to the details of her personal history in her memoir, Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief. The book is an excavation of her family’s story, as well as an exploration of Chang’s relationship with her parents and her past. Chang’s mother, now gone, closely guarded details about her life before she moved to America. What little Chang knew of her mom’s story was drawn out reluctantly in one spare interview before her mother’s death. It was only when Chang found a box of family photographs and documents after her mother died that she began to wonder about the specific details of her parents’ lives and what motivated their decisions. Much of their history was lost to time after her mother’s death, and her father’s Alzheimer’s illness rendered his memories inaccessible.

In Dear Memory, Chang uses an epistolary form to write a series of letters to various people in her life — her mother, her father, friends and teachers, even her own body. Each of these letters is a chance for Chang to catechize her beliefs about life, art, literature, and the intimacy of family relationships. She says these letters allow her to move “[t]oward my dead mother. Toward my history. Toward Father’s silence. Toward silence. Toward death.” Many of them allude to the work of other poets and writers.

“I used to think I was a transcriber of my own experiences and memories,” she muses,

adding an image here and there, but now I think I am more of a shaper. I take small fragments of imagery, memory, silence, and thought, and shape them with imaginary hands into something different. What’s left doesn’t need to have a firm, precise shape that resembles reality though. It can be unshapely. Splayed.

Though Chang’s memoir is written in letters, attaching itself to a plot with only the most delicate threads, what emerges is a picture of a woman searching for a way to use words and tangible forms to observe and reshape the world. The development of Chang’s literary philosophy is as important to her as how she views her parents or her memories of past relationships. Dear Memory is ontology as much as it is ontogeny. Each letter is composed of imagery, remembrances, and poetic aphorisms. Together the letters form a literary collage.

Chang’s letters are accompanied with — and punctuated by — visual art, too. Collages of photographs, government documents, and poetry written in the author’s precise and acutely angled handwriting on bits of lined paper. Chang’s letters to her mother and father highlight the fact that they failed to share so many details about themselves while they were alive or able. The presence of secrets in Chang’s life is underscored by these collages that take the form of repeated photographs. Chang’s visual art nods at the poetic form, as she makes slight alterations to each repeated image. Many times a body is filled with paper, a negative space; the stark outline of a family member reminds us that their history is largely unknown and unknowable to Chang. She makes art out of that vacuum. The overall effect is one of dislocation. Motifs of Chang’s visual art repeat as the memoir continues, evolving with each iteration. Hand-cut line breaks display Chang’s poetry over the images. The spaces between words become larger, more striking. Empty voids within the outlines of the bodies in each image are given numbers. A photograph’s numbered legend, a set of enjambed poetic lines. Art gives Chang’s longing and bereavement a shape.

At times the mood of Chang’s work is distant or cold, yet it becomes clear that the author is acutely aware of this and of perception’s role when it comes to language. For children of immigrants, she writes, “Language is theater. We are always performing.” So then is her memoir embodied with both a refusal to perform and a careful dance within the bounds of expectation. She lives in a space of contradiction: the author’s need to express herself freely (“with each word, I become more and more myself”) and a sense that she has been forced to navigate the world carefully. She has found approval by performing well in classrooms and by using her writing to prove herself. Writing is both a means of development and a way to earn recognition. These pages elucidate a sense of obligation while showing how much freedom there is in creation.

Dear Memory relies on a vocabulary of poetic devices for its most resonant passages. Chang uses image, metaphor, and pithy reflection in these short paragraphs to give the reader mental pictures — or shapes — of the ineffable things she describes. Her syntax shows an awareness of the power of repetition or refrain. This fluid style allows the reader to envision the very specific nature of Chang’s anguish. Each sentence unspools elegantly into the next in text that is deceptively simple. Of her mother’s passing and taking her lost secrets with her, she writes: “Mother knew everything. Mother hoarded everything, even history. Those who know everything always seem to die first. There was a mother. Then there wasn’t a mother. There was a history. Then there wasn’t a history.” Dear Memory is sparse but powerful. With each image, each refrain, Chang claims — and forms — her identity on the page.

Chang’s letters are addressed to a variety of recipients, sometimes identified only by their first initial. It’s as if she is working through all of the relationships in her life not as an attempt to define how she feels about others, but how she identifies herself in light of her history. Her poetic imagery and art both address a notion of absence. In this absence, or silence, Chang wants us to pause with her to reflect on the idea that there are things we can never know, and there are things that we can attempt to know — art is created from each of those scenarios. “I’ve since come to think that maybe emptying out is the beautiful thing,” she says. But there is also the sense that for Chang, the act of writing down a memory or experience does not further tether it to reality so much as it shapes the memory into a new thing: art. She struggles with this on the page: “Do I want to risk going into you in order to come out with words? To let the words build into something that is no longer me?”

Though the memoirist is always someone who creates identity through the superimposition of narrative and structure, Chang asks her reader to consider another layer of the creative process. By accompanying her letters with visual collages overlaid with handwritten poetry, she suggests that the act of creating visual and literary forms is equally transformative for reader and creator alike.

“Perhaps there’s no truth,” Chang writes. “Just memory and words.” Her memoir is itself a collage of ideas, experiences with teachers who encouraged her to find herself on the page, and her parents’ secrets that drove her to discover and develop the truth. If truth is not a destination we can find, can it be something that we create through the act of searching? When Chang’s mother dies, taking a life’s worth of reflection and information with her, it isn’t the end of Chang’s history, even if it feels that way. Writing from her longing, she creates: “When she died, I thought there had to be letters to me inside her body, but someone burned her body.” Chang pushes into the spaces between things to try to feel the borders of what’s missing, to define the limits of memory and history. She reveals herself as a deep thinker whose hunger for information will never be sated.

Most notably, Chang writes about the artist as someone who observes. “I now think words are light,” she writes. “[H]ow they illuminate the small beak of a lark isn’t up to the writer. It’s up to the lark and the light. A writer is just a guest, the birder.”

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Heather Scott Partington is a writer, teacher, and book critic. She is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle, where she serves as Vice President in charge of the Emerging Critics program.