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Monthly Archives: November 2012

“When Eli Sagir showed her grandfather, Yosef Diamant, the new tattoo on her left forearm, he bent his head to kiss it.

Mr. Diamant had the same tattoo, the number 157622, permanently inked on his own arm by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Nearly 70 years later, Ms. Sagir got hers at a hip tattoo parlor downtown after a high school trip to Poland. The next week, her mother and brother also had the six digits inscribed onto their forearms. This month, her uncle followed suit.

“All my generation knows nothing about the Holocaust,” said Ms. Sagir, 21, who has had the tattoo for four years. “You talk with people and they think it’s like the Exodus from Egypt, ancient history. I decided to do it to remind my generation: I want to tell them my grandfather’s story and the Holocaust story.””

I’m really not quite sure what to make of this. My “bodies tell stories” mind is undeniably intrigued. But my “histories memories and politics” self is troubled. I understand the need to remember. Or, perhaps, I understand that we should never forget.

But how should such remembrance be enacted? What form should remembrance take? There are so many peoples who have systematically exterminated in different historical periods, so many people forcibly expelled from anything they knew as home, so many people stolen, bought, sold and treated worse than animals. Aboriginal peoples. Slaves. Jewish peoples. Rwandan Tutsis. The list is endless.

How do we remember? How do we ensure that we don’t forget? And how do we tell the stories of our lives? Our histories. Our memories. Our losses? Our dreams?

Words often aren’t enough. And it’s true that our bodies tell so very many stories already. What role does scarring – conscious, wilful marking of the self – play in those stories?

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Today I am mourning. Or I am enraged. Or I am so very depressed that I don’t know where to begin. Or I want to shake the bars behind the yellow wallpaper until I go mad with sorrow and pain. I want to yell and scream. But mostly, I am in mourning.

The completely unfathomable death of Savita Halappanavar hit the news last night and was all over world news today. The senselessnes. The tragedy. And the absolute and complete horror of a medical system that would dare to tell a woman she was in a “Catholic country” and then deny her the medical care she so desperately needed.

Inside, I am raging. I am seething. And I am weeping. For all the women who have died because they have been denied abortions. For those who have had to seek unsafe or illegal abortions. And for Savita Halappanavar, whose own life ended in unspeakable horror.

It shouldn’t be like this.

“If you were committed to a psychiatric institution, unsure if you’d ever return to the life you knew before, what would you take with you? That sobering question hovers like an apparition over each of the Willard Asylum suitcases. From the 1910s through the 1960s, many patients at the Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane left suitcases behind when they passed away, with nobody to claim them. Upon the center’s closure in 1995, employees found hundreds of these time capsules stored in a locked attic.”

That’s how this article about stories, suitcases, mental illness, institutionalization, and memory begins. It’s an interview with photographer, Jon Crispin, about his project photographing the suitcases left behind at one psychiatric institution. I’ll let this photographer tell it for himself, as he does it very well. This is, I think, an important and thoughtful project that brings – carefully, respectfully and, indeed, reverently – some light to the stories of a messy, ugly and unfortunate history.

Abandoned suitcases and private lives. so many stories. so many fragments. who were these people? who were they, really? And in looking at their stories, who are we?

I’m up at the crack of dawn today. I’m usually up early on teaching days, but today I woke up half an hour earlier than usual. I can thank jet lag for this. But, the conference that brought me to Oxford – “War and Life Writing,” organized by the UK organisation, WAR-Net (War and Representation Network), was absolutely worth it. 32 presenters from three different continents and many different countries. Many wars in many centuries. Keynote speakers that asked us to consider refugee life writing, war and film and the poetry of the liminal spaces of a Lebanese refugee camp. And then, a final dinner where we could all talk about it some more. It was a grand day full of thinking and learning; the best kind of day, and I’m sure I’ll be drawing on it for some time to come.

One of the most interesting ideas, for me, at least, had to do with the relationship between voluntary and involuntary life writing; that is, between those narratives that fit Philippe Lejeune’s definition of autobiography as “ a retrospective prose narrative written by a real person concerning his own existence, where the focus is his individual life, in particular the story of his personality,” a definition that imagines an autonomous, reflective writer in full control of the telling of the story of their life, and those narratives that do focus on the individual life, but which are not the product of autonomous self reflection, but rather, of involuntary extraction.

Now I know that this sounds simple. And in a sense, it is. But on the other hand, this clear articulation of a difference between the stories we tell because we want to and the stories we tell because we are asked to – because we are forced to – is conceptually very important. It makes room for scholars to think critically about the life writings that emerge in the most challenging of spaces, and to consider carefully the stories embedded within them. And it asks us to map out new conceptual terrain, a critical landscape that can better address both the limitations and  possibilities in these troubled forms of life writing.

The paper’s author, a doctoral student from Warwick named Grace Huxford, was looking at the kinds of narratives produced by British POW’s during the Korean War: from the narratives produced for military psychologists before they enlisted to the journals they were forced to write and rewrite during captivity and the endless recollections that formed the basis of their encounters with military and medical personnel after their return. Every story they told, every story they wrote – each bit can be considered life writing, in the broadest sense of the term. But each telling was circumscribed by the involuntariness of the act, and that changes everything.

Thank you, Grace Huxford, for giving me another few pieces to my life writing puzzles.