Book Review

Following the multiple-award-winning success of Obit, Victoria Chang’s Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief, contemplates heartache, memory, and identity in epistolary form. These letters—addressed to unnamed family members, educators, friends, even to silence—may appear to be one-way communications, but the reader is carbon copied as confidant and silent recipient, enjoined to consider her own experiences of memory and loss.

Chang writes: “An elegy reflects on the loss of a loved one. What form can express the loss of something you never knew but knew existed. Lands you never knew? People? Can one experience such a loss?” In the same way we move through the invisible atmosphere, which impacts us whether or not we’re aware of it, our history, including all those we don’t know that we don’t know, does the same. We are walking through loss from our first moments on Earth, through later abandonments and the silences that echo unrecorded voices of those we want so desperately to hear.

Take note of the title: even though these letters are specific to individuals in Chang’s orbit (as well as some she never met in life), this is an ode to and interrogation of memory, individual and collective. Especially after we lose parents, beyond natural grief, those links to the past, that ground from which we spring, becomes a snipped connection from which we are stranded, alone. How can we be prepared to never hear the voice, not have the opportunity to ask one more question, one more time? Chang writes: “. . . memory, trying to remember, is also an act of grieving. In my mother’s 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.”

Yet these essays aren’t simply about grief. They are also an attempt to reframe one’s narrative—creating a bespoke suit of what one knows, doesn’t know, and can never know—to experience the forward temporality of memory or as Julia Creet—one of the many authors and poets Chang cites—wrote, “maybe memory is where we have arrived rather than where we have left.”

Whose memories belong to us? How do others’ memories affect who we are? Can memories carry hidden DNA that’s invisibly handed down from ancestor to progeny, supporting or sabotaging who we are and what we do? How can we create and continue creating that self, without access to all those histories that made those who made us? In Chang’s words and world, we are a process, much like writing, with a narrative that shifts and swerves, created from unexpected changes and conflicts, similar to the frictions that source gemstones in the Earth. She writes: “perhaps because identity can be based on an unreliable postmemory, identity relies on the making of a present—through every teacher, friend, even enemy, and through all the books I’ve read. Maybe the act of writing for someone like me, isn’t about speaking, but about making a person.”

There’s an added complexity around memory and belonging for immigrants or their children. “I wonder whether memory is different for immigrants, for people who leave so much behind,” Chang writes. Unless you’re one of the less than one hundred people in the world who have hyperthymesia (near-perfect memory), your impressions of past experiences aren’t reliable. Even if you are one of those blessed, perhaps cursed, few, the memories of others will never be attainable. Yet as we yearn to understand ourselves better, knowledge of the experiences of those who have shaped us, especially our families, feels imperative. For immigrants, this can be especially sensitive ground, with language proficiency an issue, or generational silence, or origin countries that may be entirely closed.

In a sense, these are questions that couldn’t have been asked, or easily answered, in the fullness of life, when emotional filters can limit the ability to see clearly and speak honestly. The black and white photos and documents that intersperse these pages offer a two-dimensional view that makes it equally clear how little we know about the internal lives and past experiences of many who have impacted us. Chang writes: “I wonder what it would have been like to grow up in a family where everyone spoke the same language. The only language we had wholly in common was silence. Growing up, I held a tin can to my ear and the string crossed oceans.” Perhaps that’s one of the reasons Chang is a poet, as they also have regular conversations with silence, that blank page that demands much, rarely responds directly, and even when conquered temporarily, always returns.

In Chang’s case, many of her family members kept much of their histories to themselves, whether because of painful experiences or the strictures of cultural and generational rules that keep everything close to the vest, or vaulted entirely. Chang is breaking such family traditions—with which many readers will identify—with these letters, as much as a poet as an essayist.

They say that many of the stars we see in the sky are already dying or dead, but they live in a liminal space because of how long it takes for light to travel to us. And so these essays—these signals sent into the universe—addressed to the past from the present inhabit a temporality in which connection may be possible, if not direct interaction.

There are many filters to our memories: who we are now, who we were when they were formed, the necessarily limited perspectives that each of us have, buffeted by context, environment, and the unreliability of our narration. Chang writes: “Memory is everything, yet it is nothing. Memory is mine, but it also clings to the memory of others.”

These letters to the past that are paving stones to the future is the verdant ground that Victoria Chang explores in these, dare I say, memorable essays. How will you consider your own memories and what they express and hide? Will you revise the questions and conversations you’ll share with those who are here, now, so briefly?

About the Reviewer

Mandana Chaffa is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Nowruz Journal, a periodical of Persian arts and letters, and Editor and Senior Strategist at Chicago Review of Books. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in several anthologies, as well as in The Ploughshares blog, Chicago Review of Books, TriQuarterly, The Los Angeles Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She serves on the board of The Flow Chart Foundation, and was named a 2021-2022 Emerging Critics Fellow by the National Book Critics Circle. Born in Tehran, Iran, she lives in New York.