In her first work of nonfiction, Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief, Victoria Chang explores her relationship to silence. Chang, the daughter of immigrant parents, grew up in a house where “loud language was everywhere—bundles of Mandarin from Mother’s mouth, Father’s nearly perfect English but Taiwanese-accented Mandarin. Then our Chinglish. But in our house, silence arranged itself like furniture. I was always bumping into it.” For Chang, silence emerged in her family’s struggle to talk about trauma, racism, or their past.
Now, Chang writes letters to confront that lack of conversation. She writes to her grandmother, grandfather, and mother, all of whom have died. She writes to ask “questions I’ve never had before,” questions “it’s too late” to ask. “The things that didn’t matter at the time,” Chang suggests, become “urgent … after someone has died.” Chang writes seeking birthdates, marriage dates, pedigrees. Her questions compound, become urgent, as she works to construct the story of her family. Chang also writes to her aging father, whom she struggles to care for, even though she knows he will not answer.
Letters are designed to prompt a response. They address the receiver directly: “Dear Mother.” Because Chang desires a connection with her mother and grandmother—and answers to her questions—she writes to them. But no one writes Chang back. Dear Memory is a collection of one-sided correspondences. Each letter underscores her family’s lack of answers.
Chang uses the letter, which collapses time and space, to write to the dead. Franz Kafka described letter writing as “an intercourse with ghosts.” The writer imagines her reader in the present as she writes a letter. But by the time the reader receives that letter, days or weeks will have elapsed; she reads it as a future version of herself. Both the imagined addressee and the writer of the letter are gone. They are ghosts. In Dear Memory, Chang makes this literal. When she writes to her grandmother and mother, who have died, Chang literally writes letters to ghosts.
Chang punctuates her letters with collages, which she created from family documents. She layers her mother’s account of immigrating to the United States over photographs, birth certificates, and marriage licenses. Chang’s collages create gaps between her letters. They exist in the space between, visual representations of the silence that characterized Chang’s family.
In a final letter addressed to the reader, however, Chang belies the meaning of these collages and letters when she explicitly justifies her choice of form. Chang explains that “the epistolary form was a way for me to speak to the dead, the not-yet-dead, the sky, the wild turkey scurrying away, its white feathers waddling deeper into the woods, into myself, into a younger self, away from myself. Toward my dead mother. Toward my history. Toward Father’s silence. Toward silence. Toward death.” When Chang explains her creative choices, she disrupts the silence she has cultivated in collages and letters throughout the rest of the book.
Chang uses collages and letters to craft a family memoir that pulses in the white space. Dear Memory reveals the contours of a family that struggles to speak to each other. “I’ve since read that children of immigrant parents simply don’t have the experience or context with which to understand their parents’ trauma,” Chang writes, “so the trauma continues onto the next generation in a different form.” “While my parents may have maintained silence as a form of survival, silence had a heartbeat, grew up, and became the third sibling.” Silence also asserts a physical presence in this book, between the fragments of collages and the unanswered letters.
Chang’s struggle to elicit answers from family makes her wonder if silence can be generative. She muses: “All we had was silence. How does one interact with silence? How does one not die of silence?” Then Chang answers these questions, wondering if “my thinking has been wrong all along. Maybe silence is not something to interact with, to be filled in, but rather to let wash over you, to exist within.” If this is true, then silence can be a prerequisite for creation. It is, after all, what exists before we start to speak.
Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief
By Victoria Chang
Published October 12, 2021
Morgan Graham is an English PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota. She is Managing Editor at Pleiades and has published work in Colorado Review, Great River Review, Split Lip Magazine, The Evansville Review, and Salt Hill Journal. Find her at morgandianegraham.wordpress.com and @morgraha on Twitter.