Disaster and History

Re-reading some of Anne Anlin Cheng’s work on Theresa Cha, and was struck by this statement:

“A painful distance lies between memory and historical event. In hindsight, in history, it seems as if disasters never cease to speak: in papers, journals, histories. Yet one’s ‘own’ relationship to that disaster (one’s ownership of that memory) can express itself only in description. Even ‘experience’ cannot guarantee authenticity for the event. For no one can be at the center of an ‘event’; its ‘eventness’ is its historicity and therefore at some level it is unavailable to personal experience or possession…., the ‘I’s relationship to historical trauma is always inherently journalistic.”

I was thinking about Underground National, and how that text was so personally painful for me to write. I have previously very much felt that span between historical event and myself, this wide gulf of unknowability that I felt I was asked to span in order to have a claim to my heritage. Who or what was asking? This sensation, this request—or rather this demand—felt outside of myself but deeply personal, like shame. More should be said and explored of this some time. Looking back, I did tend towards a documentary approach as a means for navigation. There was something journalistic about the process…of fact-finding, collecting, shaping in order to re/present this field that was my reaching for.

But there’s something that feels off-kilter about Cheng’s remarks when I compare them to my own experiences. Is the “I”s relationship to historical trauma always mediated through the process of description? Many historical traumas have been distilled down to me as a sort of psychological aftershock I contend with without knowing what it is I contend. A blankness that swells. My father’s childhood, for example. I know very little about it, but it presses down on me through him, the way he communicates with me. And that is intimately bound up in the trauma of war. And the way I express my relation to that—that skirts description, it fails to say. It rises like a mood.

 

 

 

 

 

3 comments
  1. pam lu said:

    Many historical traumas have been distilled down to me as a sort of psychological aftershock I contend with without knowing what it is I contend. A blankness that swells. My father’s childhood, for example. I know very little about it, but it presses down on me through him, the way he communicates with me. And that is intimately bound up in the trauma of war. And the way I express my relation to that—that skirts description, it fails to say. It rises like a mood.

    yes.

    maybe many of us belong to a generation of delayed response. or translated/transposed response. the nomadic unrootedness of this mood that rises, even as it is carried in the bodies of our family members but unarticulated in a form that can be discerned by mainline culture. i mean: the voice, the grief. it’s so intensely private yet so public in its tacit collective acknowledgment. trauma disobeys the physics of time & space. i’ve been thinking about these things lately and your post makes me want to think about them more. it’s good we have blogs & poetry & all kinds of writing to follow the moods & breaks & transposed communications.

    • PWL: so wonderful to hear from you on this platform. yes, yes and yes. precisely. we are thinking and feeling covalently. i am very glad to encourage you to keep exploring these things further. yes and yes.

      i think that transposition is an apt way to capture this experience. something is exchanged in some way. that’s the best i can describe it right now. i’d love to hear more of your thoughts in time on this…

      and tan’s recent book comes very swiftly to mind, too, about this. such a heavy text. it’s so light on its feet, but it has this impossible density of emotion, like the hollow of a hyperbola.

  2. pam lu said:

    your hyperbola metaphor is excellent, SJL. the two halves turned away from each other, yet connected by the convergent force field that sits in between them. definitely gets at the emotion of tan’s book, which also struck me with its un-anxious approach to potentially very anxious situations. i am the relaxed reader, being reminded that you don’t always have to be digging at the answers, at the exact who what why or name of history. sometimes it’s enough to just be in the presence of mysterious quotidian rituals shared with another, like watching tv or eating snacks from the vending machine. this presence is itself a kind of wonder that becomes an answer.

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