Writing into the World: Memoir, History and Private Life, Part Five

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The intersection of personal experience and history, whether the circumstances are chosen or imposed, positions the writer in the pincer grip of forces within and without. One discovers early that memory is not a reservoir of stored past, but something more protean and certainly more conflicted. There are the contending versions of events among individuals, and collective or cultural memory, which is more than the aggregate recollections of individuals, becomes something larger than the sum of particulars. There is what the French call histoire de grands événements, history according to great figures and important events. But this is a past constructed by historians in the service of national identity and power, and the great events can become like an archipelago of false touchstones in a sea of forgetting. Historical memory is not the literary memoirist’s concern; nothing is deader in literature than a reiteration of the facts.

The Polish author Ryszard Kapuściński argued with his critics that if they wanted names and dates, they should go to the library and look everything up. His work as a writer was to write his subject alive again, from the point of view of the worm rather than the bird. He called this "literature by foot," and lamented that he saw so few fellow writers in the poorer and vulnerable parts of the earth. After filing his journalistic newspaper reports, he set himself to write a new literature, written into the world from the vantage point of a single soul, on the ground in the midst of things.

For a writer to find herself “in the midst of things” can be seen as great opportunity or curse. But experience lived in the midst can never be excised from consciousness; there are some realities from which art cannot hide. It is my conviction that when a memoirist writes within historical experience, she had no choice but to write about what it was like to live in such a time.  According to poet Czesław Miłosz, it is as if the writer is given a questionnaire and is asked to fill it out so that people in the future will have an account of what took place according to a single, perceptive, and transfiguring imagination.

My memoir, tentatively titled What You Have Heard Is True, is not about myself, but about the woman I once was, who did not know then what was ahead, nor that she would survive. I have torn up several versions of this work over the past decade, but now feel certain I am coming to the end. Oddly, I knew how the story ended when I began, but was not aware of how much I would necessarily have to leave out, nor where it would begin if it were not to begin when I was born. I tell people this: the memoir is not about myself, but about other people. It does not provide history but writes from within it. Most of the characters are dead. I write so that they may not be forgotten. My book is for the living, and for the students I have encountered over the years who came from El Salvador in the arms of fleeing parents, so that they may no longer suffer the pained curiosity aroused by the intergenerational silence intended to protect them. I am aided in this work by more than fifty boxes of notes, newspaper clippings, leaflets, posters, boarding passes, reports made public or embargoed, a thick file having to do with U.S. interference in the affairs of a rural labor union, the so-called “white papers,” the napkins with my mentor’s sketches and his butcher-paper drawings rolled into scrolls. There are also shoeboxes of miniaturas—tiny clay figures playing music, getting married, holding funerals, and making love in various positions under small clay domes—and there are remnants of decommissioned rifles affixed to wooden plaques on which flowers and volcanoes have been painted, given as gifts in remembrance of the civil war that was already inevitable and would be fought for twelve years. On the mantel, there is a bullet retrieved from a camera lens, and a bullet-holed metal bowl lifted from the debris of a massacre. In dreams, cane smoke rises over burning cane, and much later mortar smoke that, seen from a distance, resembles an orchard in blossom. On one note it is scribbled that the human brain weighs 1,300 to 1,400 grams, and the skull protecting it is composed of 22 bones, a list of facts absent their context, and on another, in Leonel’s hand, the words “we are running out of time.