'Dear Memory' digs into the shame accompanying immigrant silence

Oct 12, 2021
Originally published on October 12, 2021 11:57 am

Updated October 12, 2021 at 9:58 AM ET

In her new book, Chinese American poet Victoria Chang writes, "Shame never has a loud clang. The worst part of shame is how silent it is."

After her mother passed away in 2015, Chang found boxes full of family documents, letters and birth certificates in a storage facility.

Milkweed

"And a flood of questions came through my body but I had no one to ask them to," Chang says. "So I decided to write a letter to my mother, and that was sort of the first letter that I had written for the book with no intention of writing more."

But, as writers do, Chang kept on writing these letters — to her parents, her grandparents, her daughters, her teachers — until they turned into a book. And with the letters came questions, many of which had no answers. So she dug into what she remembered. And the result is Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief.


Interview Highlights

On understanding memory

Memory is such a strange thing, and the present is kind of a pointed tip. It doesn't really last long. And memory [is voracious] to grab that present. Dragging a memory up is hard. Memory arrives when we least expect it and then it changes and morphs. It's such a fascinating process for everyone to reflect on what [they] remember, and why [they] remember it.

On shame that accompanies immigrant memory, and the context behind the following excerpt:

"Dear Daughter,

What I didn't tell you is that I sat in the front row of the reading, ready to smile and to give a good introduction like a good host. What I didn't tell you is that when the reader had a white character call an Asian American one a squinty-eyed, feckless c**t. I remembered all the times when others took their fingers and pulled their eyes wide into a horizon. All the times people yelled Chink! to my family or me. The times someone wrote Chink on our driveway in chalk.

What I didn't tell you is that the reader intimidated me with his confidence that my mother never taught me how to speak to white people, to loud white people. Shake the hands of confident white people. Speak in front of white people. At a lectern. With a white piece of paper with black tape on it."

These micro and macro aggressions happen all the time. And this was just one instance where I was at a writer's conference and I was in the front row and I was the host, so it was particularly challenging. I didn't understand why that was even in the story. It was hard because I had to go up there and thank the reader and clap for him. And right before that event, another host, a white woman, had come up to me and lectured me for not introducing myself to that particular guest, who was a friend of hers. And so it kind of felt doubly a moment of really asking myself, when do I speak up, when do I stay silent? And [I realized] most of the time I stay silent.

On resenting her parents for passing their silence onto her

They experienced these things all the time, and I witnessed them. That's the hard thing as a child of people who may be immigrants or even people who are just different in some way. To see them being publicly shamed in some ways, many times in your life, is actually a really destabilizing feeling. And then to see most of the silence in how they respond [where they] just ignore it, just move on. Because what's the alternative? So now looking back on it, it's partly cultural, I imagine. Maybe some language based things, but also probably as now I'm a parent — safety for your own children. It's like, when do you speak up? When do you let it go?

On teaching her daughters to avoid silence

I have biracial children who, you know, look very Asian, so I'm constantly thinking about what I could do as a parent to help prepare them for the different things that are going to happen to them. And that's from misogyny or sexism to the racism that they'll experience or have already experienced. How do we navigate through that? Well, maybe not utilizing silence as our main communication tool.

I try to be really open and name things, so I always talk to them about how if we can't really address anything, then we can't really feel better, or maybe even learn from the experience. And so they probably say that all the time, "There's nothing to be embarrassed about. There's no shame in anything, really." So I find myself maybe reacting to the way that I was raised, and changing how I was raised, and then raising my own children differently because I think it's mentally healthier to communicate.

This story was edited for radio by Reena Advani and Jeevika Verma and was adapted for the web by Jeevika Verma, Reena Advani and Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The poet Victoria Chang traces her family history through letter-writing in her new book "Dear Memory." When she was cleaning out a storage facility, she discovered much of her parents' lives packed in boxes.

VICTORIA CHANG: I found all these papers and letters and birth certificates. And then I had - a flood of questions sort of came through my body. But I had no one to ask them to. So I decided to write a letter to my mother. And that was sort of the first letter that I had written for the book - and with no intention of sort of writing more. But then, you know, writers do that. We just keep going.

MARTIN: And so in "Dear Memory," she writes letters to her parents, her grandparents, her daughters, her teachers interspersed with photographs and documents going back to her parents' journey from China to Taiwan to the U.S. She also writes about dealing with racist microaggressions. And a warning to our listeners - what you're about to hear includes ethnic slurs and offensive language.

At one point in the book, I'm going to quote here, you write, "dragging a not-yet-ready memory, thought or feeling toward language too early feels something like the dog. I can move it, but it will be difficult." Did you come up against that in writing these poems?

CHANG: Of course - I mean, I think the present is kind of a pointed tip. And how voracious memory is to grab that present. And I think that dragging a memory up is hard. I mean, memory just sort of arrives when we least expect it. And then it changes and morphs. It's such an interesting thing.

MARTIN: Shame shows up a lot in this book - in one poem in particular. This is titled "A Letter To Your Daughter." It's on Page 118. I wonder if you wouldn't mind reading a section of that.

CHANG: (Reading) Dear Daughter, what I didn't tell you is that I sat in the front row of the reading ready to smile and to give a good introduction like a good host. What I didn't tell you is that when the reader had a white character call an Asian American one a squinty-eyed, feckless [expletive], I remembered all the times when others took their fingers and pulled their eyes wide into a horizon, all the times people yelled Chink to my family or me, the time someone wrote Chink on our driveway in chalk. What I didn't tell you is that the reader intimidated me with his confidence, that my mother never taught me how to speak to white people - to loud white people - shake the hands of confident white people, speak in front of white people at a lectern with a white piece of paper with black type on it.

MARTIN: It's a really powerful passage. Can you explain the context of it?

CHANG: Sure. I mean, it happens all the time.

MARTIN: Yeah.

CHANG: And this was just one instance where I was at a writers conference. And, you know, a white man went up to the podium and was reading a story. And I was in the front row. And I was the host, and so it was particularly challenging. I didn't understand why that that even was in the story. So it was hard because I had to go up there and thank the reader and clap for him. And right before that event, too, another host - and she was a white woman - had come up to me and lectured me for not introducing myself to that, you know, particular guest, who was a friend of hers. And that was really hard because I, you know, apologized and said, oh, I'm really sorry; I've been really busy. And so it kind of felt, you know, a doubly moment of really asking myself, you know, when do I speak up? When do I stay silent? And most of the time, I stay silent, (laughter) you know?

MARTIN: But as we heard in that same passage, you quickly pivot to your parents and it sounds like resentment for not preparing you better to live in a racist world.

CHANG: Well, I mean, they experienced these things all the time, and I witnessed them. That's the hard thing as a child. And you don't know how to put words or thoughts to that - is that as a child of people who may be immigrants or even people who are just different in some way, you don't realize how much you witness your parents, who you've sort of elevated in many ways as sort of godlike figures, but then to see them being publicly shamed in some ways many times in your life is actually a really destabilizing feeling. And then to see most of the silence and how they respond - you know, just ignore it, just move on - because what's the alternative? So now looking back on it, I think - it's partly cultural, I imagine, maybe some language-based things, but also probably - as now I'm a parent - safety for your own children. It's like, when do you speak up? When do you not speak up? When do you let it go?

MARTIN: So this was a letter to your daughters. What did you want them to take away from this?

CHANG: Yeah. I mean, it's really tough because I have, you know, biracial children who, you know, look very Asian. And so I'm always constantly thinking about what I could do as a parent to help prepare them for the different things that are going to happen to them - and that's from, you know, misogyny or sexism. And so we talk about those kinds of things - and then the racism that they'll experience or have already and how do we navigate through that? Well, maybe not utilizing silence as our main communication tool is something that I've had to really think hard about because I don't necessarily have those skill sets innately because of the way that I was raised.

MARTIN: What have you taught them about silence?

CHANG: I think a lot, hopefully - you know, I think that I try and be really open and name things, right? So I always talk to them about - like, if we can't really address anything, we can't really feel better, maybe even, and learn from the experience if we don't name it, if we don't talk about it. And so they'd probably say that all the time. Like, you know, let's talk - there's nothing to be embarrassed about. There's no shame in anything, really. So I find myself maybe reacting to the way that I was raised in changing how I was raised and then raising my own children differently because I think it's mentally healthier to communicate.

MARTIN: Have you made peace with the parts of your parents' histories that you won't ever know now?

CHANG: Yes, of course - we don't have a choice (laughter). And so I think making peace is what we do on a daily basis. But I've also - in writing about these things, I've made peace. I think I've made peace with my entire self, my entire upbringing, their history. I used to be ashamed of everything and not like anything and think I was this or there's something wrong with that or - and now I realize, oh, it's all a gift. Everything - all of our backgrounds - it's all a gift in some ways. And the more we sort of lean into that, the richer our lives will be.

MARTIN: The book is called "Dear Memory: Letters On Writing, Silence And Grief." Victoria Chang, thank you so much for talking with us.

CHANG: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

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