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TRANSLATING THE PAST, WRITING THE SELF: THE LANGUAGE OF THE EXILE EXPERIENCE THROUGH TEXT AND FILM BY NATALIE CATASS A Thesis Submitted to the Division of Humanities New College of Florida in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree Bachelor of Arts Under the sponsorship of Dr. Miriam Wallace Sarasota, Florida May, 2011
Dedicated to my grandparents, Alfonso and Aida Catass, por todo el color que han trado a mi vida.
i ACKNOWLEDGMENTS Thank you, Mom and Papi for your unwavering support of everything Ive wanted to do over the years. There was never a moment wh en you showed doubt in my decisions, and even when you might have, you let me have th e opportunity to realiz e my own mistakes and helped me through it with smiles when it came time to fix things. Thanks to all of my friends, near and far, who helped me through New College in one way or another. To my New College friends thank you for welcoming me when I was new. In the three years that have passed, Ive found another home with you. To my friends from Miami, thank you for the phone calls and the winters and the wine. There will be many more of these things. Thank you, Writing Resource Center Staffpast and presentfor creating a space to foster students ideas and ambitions. Th e WRC has consistent ly reaffirmed my confidence as a writer and as an academic, a nd I say only half-joking that it might be the best job I ever have. Thank you, Jan Wheeler for your support, your guidance, and for always seeming to understand the stresses of student life and knowing how to make them manageable. Thank you, Alexis Orgera for being a mentor, a friend, and most of all, a constant source of inspiration and encouragement. Thanks to all of the wonderful professors who have guided me in my time at New College. You are not only excellent educator s whose instruction I am honored to have received, but compassionate people whose conve rsation I am lucky to have shared. Thank you, Professor Wallace for every time I left your offi ce with a fresh perspective and a sense of direction. Thank you for the genuine interest you had in my perhaps unusual literature thesis from day one. Thank you, Professor Schatz for all of our discussions about my project, and for the wonderfully ta ngential conversations that sprung from our meetings. Thank you, Professor Labrador, for giving me the opportu nity to understand my heritage from another perspective and for the two years of advisement you gave me at New College. Thank you, Professor Vesperi, for your interest in my project and for showing me new ways to understand it. Thank you, Professor Zamsky for teaching me how to read and write about poetry. I dont re gret a single hour of sleep I lost while striving to finish papers for your class; I am a better writer as a result, and I will carry the things youve taught me throughout the lifel ong engagement Ill have with poetry. And, finally, thank you, Professor Portugal for helping me resurrect my lengua paterna.
ii TABLE OF CONTENTS ACKNOWLEDGMENTS .................................................................................................i ABSTRACT ....................................................................................................................iii INTRODUCTION............................................................................................................1 CHAPTER 1: Writing the Self in th e Russian Family Chronicle....................................4 CHAPTER 2: Mediation and Authenticity in Theresa Hak Kyung Chas Dicte.........29 CHAPTER 3: Testimony, Film, and Family History: A Multilingual Approach..........51 WORKS CITED.............................................................................................................70
iii TRANSLATING THE PAST, WRITING THE SELF: THE LANGUAGE OF THE EXILE EXPERIENCE THROUGH TEXT AND FILM Natalie Catass New College of Florida, 2011 ABSTRACT This thesis explores how writers and film makers approach the issues of authority and authenticity in their work as they rec onstruct personal narratives that extend beyond their own experiences and into the past ex periences of relatives who faced political oppression, exile, and cultural displacement. Au thors Sergei Dovlatov, Michael Ignatieff, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha address their medi ated access to a lost past through the memories, myths, and documents that th eir families have passed onto them, while filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha offers a filmic appr oach to this same i ssue. The final chapter centers on my own projecta testimonial f ilm about my grandparents exile following the Cuban Revolution. The th esis treats works by authors from Russian, Korean, Vietnamese, and Cuban national traditions to focus on the similarities in the authors processes and stylistic techniques as they navigate their roles as mediators between a past that exists only in memory and the present moment of literary or filmic creation. Dr. Miriam Wallace Division of Humanities
1 Introduction Most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered. Rainer Maria Rilke Authors of memoir and autobiography must always grapple with the difficulty of reconstructing the past. What ma y at first seem a manageable task of recollection turns out to be an act of translation that must cr oss distances of time, location, and experience. They must probe into the elusive, fluid sp ace of memory and imagine back across time passed in order to access and reconstruct lif es events. But memory is faulty, and the linearity demanded by text contradicts the simultaneous way we process experience. To translate life into text is to flatten out the robust simultaneity of lived experience into the linear medium of language. To complicate matters, authors whose in terests extend beyond autobiography and into familial and national history have anot her set of problems on their hands. How can an author faithfully write about a past event th at he or she did not e xperience, or a person he or she never knew? Can the use of ex tra-textual sources (memoirs, photographs, historical records, etc.) make the past more real to a reader? If the author acknowledges his or her own limited access to the past, does it make the text more authentic? My thesis explores how authors and fil mmakers treat these questions as they construct personal narratives that come out of experiences of political oppression, exile, and cultural displacement. Each chapter treats works by authors of different nationalities
2 in order to focus on the similarities in their processes, styles, and techniques, rather than on the content specific to any one national tradition. In the first chapter I look at two Russian family chr onicles that focus on the experiences of the authors relatives as they lived through the unstable political atmosphere that pervaded Russia in the twentieth century. Sergei Dovlatov wrote Ours: A Russian Family Album following his exile from the Soviet Union in the late 1970s, and The Russian Album was written by Michael Ignatieff, a second-generation exile who was born in Canada to a Russian exile father a nd a Canadian mother. Each text offers a distinct approach to reconstructing family history, and this chapter analyzes how the authors respective styles demonstrate their atte mpts to write themselves into a lost past. This type of writing privileges personal experience and thus provides an important supplement to official historical narratives I discuss writing pe rsonal narrative as a politicized activity that responds implicitly and explicitly to the larger political environment, and an analysis of the authors writing styles illuminates the complexities of this writing process. The second chapter closely examines the language of the experimental KoreanAmerican text Dicte to expand upon the idea of writing as a political act. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, exiled from Korea to the United St ates when she was thirteen, turns to the experiences of her mother and other influent ial female figures to address the cultural erasure that resulted from the Japanese occu pation of Korea in the first half of the twentieth century. The text uses avant-garde techniques to challenge some of the conventional modes of writing and reading po stcolonial texts. Chas attention to the representational nature of la nguage and her mediated access to the past are the primary
3 points of discussion in this chapter. I also refer to Vietnamese-American filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-has film Surname Viet, Given Name Nam as a visual example of how experimental techniques can destabilize prec onceptions of authority in documentary in order to promote a more critical engage ment with films and texts about minority experience. The third chapter sees a shift in perspective from the third to the first person as I recount my own experience making a testimonial film about my gra ndparents exile from Cuba following the 1959 Revolution. Here, theo ry and scholarly analysis turn into a personal reflection informed by the theoreti cal concerns I present in the first two chapters. This final chapter augments the discussion with an authors perspective on the practical process of constructi ng a personal narrative. I discuss the origins of the project, my initial concerns, and my own difficulties navigating the issues of representation, mediation, and authenticity. On the whole, the thesis demonstrates a shift in attention from the political and historical implications of writing personal narrative to an intimate reflection on the process of negotiating ones subjectivity amid st the pressing influences of community, audience, experience, and personal aesthetic. But at the heart of this thesis is the issue of language, and it must be examined in its fu ll range of possibility. Language might be understood as a limiting medium of represen tation, or as a key to unbound expression. This thesis demonstrates how in both cas es, language can be understood as a site of opportunity.
4 Chapter 1: Writing the Self in the Russian Family Chronicle Terror is present in the act of writing, and in the poten tial act of not writing. Irina Paperno, Stories of the Soviet Experience Official History & the Emerg ence of Personal Documents In the wake of political oppression, wr iting can be understood as a way to claim ones presence in history. In the last century, Russia has seen many changes in its political climate as the 1917 revolution mark ed a transition from the unstable Tsarist regime to the communist Soviet Union. At th e peak of Soviet oppression was Dictator Joseph Stalins Great Purge in the late 1930s when Stalin commanded his police to identify and persecute dissidents and nonaffilia ted persons through a wave of widespread surveillance, imprisonment, and execution. The oppressive atmosphere during the Soviet Era left citizens fearful of publicly displaying any hint of political dissidence. Daily public self-expression was severely limited by the political circumstance, and any sign that a person was not in support of the party was a risk. People were not individuals but faceless parts of a collective national identity bound together by a shared history. Historical documentation has tended to tr eat the Soviet Era much the same way, ignoring individual experience and focusing in stead on shared historical events. In her book Stories of the Soviet Experien ce: Memoirs, Diaries, Dreams, Russian literature and history scholar Irina Paperno ex plains that following Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachevs
5 declaration of glasnost in the 1980s, Russian literature has seen an emergence in the publication of personal documents, many written during the Soviet Era, as well as others written retrospectively. The vast quantity of personal narratives (i.e. memoirs, diaries, autobiographies, and family chronicles) from the Tsarist and Soviet eras exemplifies writing used to assert ones subjectivity under pol itical oppression. This surge of personal documents has been understood as a means of undermining the authority granted to the official historical narrative. The official history is what one would expect to read in history books, and it often dominates popular knowledge of major political and social events. Official history documents these events and emphasizes their national and global effects, effectivel y privileging the shared experience over the individual experience. They often afford attention to im portant political figures who affected major historical events, but rarely to the specific people who were affected by them. This generalized approach to history offers little insight into the textures of the lives people were living and also fails to register the immediate impacts of major events and the daily struggles of individuals. Where personal experiences do appear in official histories, they are often appropriated only as examples from which broader implications are generalized. With regards to the Soviet Era, the probl em is twofold. While official history has dominated public knowledge, as with most national histories, the Stalinist regime developed an oppressive official history that conflicts even with what is commonly understood to be the official history of the Soviet Union. Stalin exerted tremendous influence over what kind of information w ould be disseminated and what would be recorded, and as a result there exist two dominant and often conflicting histories.
6 However, sorting out the contradictions between these two official hi stories is beside the point. The influence of this oppressive stat e resulted in both lit erary and historical censorship, but it also hindered citizens ability to engage in acts of self-expression even outside of written forms. Keeping Counterhistories One of the ways people contended with th e suppression of the self was to keep private diaries, many of which have seen publi cation in the last thirty years. Even diarykeeping was risky at the time because, as Pa perno explains, diaries were habitually confiscated during searches and used as ev idence of anti-Soviet persuasion (Paperno 60). The number of diaries, memoirs, and aut obiographies that have been published since the fall of the Soviet Union is a testamen t on the one hand to peoples fear of the consequences of exposure at the time when they were writing. On the other hand, the increase in the publication of these persona l documents demonstrates a popular need to publicly share what Stalinist history suppresse d and what official hi story simply did not record. In this way, personal narratives serve to develop an ongoing counter-narrative, or counterhistory, to the offici al historical narrative (Galla gher & Greenblatt 52). They enable the reader to gather a more vivid sense of what people s homes, neighborhoods, jobs, and relationships were like. Pers onal documents offer individual peoples perceptions of their own privat e lives and their responses to the sociopolitical contexts that affected them. Essentially, they assert the authors presence within history. The texts written during and following the Soviet Era de monstrate that their authors existed as individuals during those historical moments despite the fact that, at the time, they could
7 not publicly express their subjective experience s or opinions. The result of this is an attempt retroactively to insert oneself into history through the act of writing. Historical Self-Consciousness & Pluralizing History History plays a necessary role in these texts because it functions as the setting for the authors stories, regardless of how explicitly they refer to specific historical events. Paperno defines historical se lf-consciousness as the sens e of self derived from the coincidence of personal life and world history (Paperno 9). This kind of historical selfconsciousness is often evident in memoirs a nd other autobiographical genres because at the time of the events, the writers individual experience was not acknowledged and he or she must retroactively claim th eir presence in history, asserti ng that they had subjective, personal experiences that differ from those of others. The co llecting of these experiences textures and complicates history for the sake of demonstrating a plurality of experience rather than a condensed collective one. However, as was previously mentioned, the tendency to make generalizations about the personal side of hi story based on a handful of personal narratives is a tempting one, but it undermines the importance of plur ality, and it denies the tremendous role each authors subjectivity plays in these texts. While part of the project of personal narratives is to develop counterhistories, they do much more than document the private counterpart to public history. A detached, objective voice tends to pervade official histories. The author of these texts fades into the background, allowing an anonymous third-person narrator undetectably to impart information. The obj ective voice creates an air of authority, suggesting to readers that the transmittance of information is hard f act, unmediated by its
8 author. Alternatively, the presence of an identifiable subjective voice in personal narratives inherently veers away from claims of authority and privileges the idiosyncrasies of the autho rs perspective and style. The Family Chronicle The genre of the family chronicle ex emplifies how a personal narrative both documents the past and allows the author to insert him or herself into history. This situates family history as occurring parallel to official history over an extended period of time, conflating the two and emphasizing the affective relationship between them. The familys story is influenced by historical events in such a way that makes the two histories difficult to disentangle, and the au thor is by extension connected to the same events that affected his or her family. Two Russian family chronicles are particularly effective in illustrating some of the techniques authors may use when writing about the past. To start, Ours: A Russian Family Album (1983, translated 1989) by Sergei Dovlatov establishes some of the conventions of family chronicling and show how the authors style and voice affect the reconstruction of his familys history. Building from this, Michael Ignatieffs The Russian Album (1987) demonstrates how employing self-reflexive techniques can more explicitly expose the process and the difficulties of constructing these types of texts. Ours: A Russian Family Album Sergei Dovlatovs Ours: A Russian Family Album is an example of a Russian family chronicle that recounts the stories of different family members across four generations living before, during, and after the Soviet Era through a highly stylized series of written family portraits. In the original Russian, Dovlatov s chronicle is simply titled
9 Nashi (Ours) without the subtitle A Russi an Family Album. On its own, nashi suggests that the text belongs to a familiar pl ural; it indicates possession and intimacy. Immediately, the book is aligned in contrast to o fficial history in its claim to the personal and the private. Though it may be superfluous description, the additi on of the subtitle in the English translation explains from the onset the conceptual basis for the structure of the book, which becomes apparent upon starting to read th e first chapter. The Family Album & Inheritance Dovlatov uses the family photo album as a structuring principle for the text. Each chapter is titled after a different family me mber and functions as a small written portrait of each one. The portraits are minimalistic, abandoning concern for factual accuracy and instead preferring anecdotal portrayals of each relative that reflect a high selectivity of detail. These self-contained vignettes give th e reader quick impressions of each relative as Dovlatov sees them. The word portrait is useful for descri bing these chapters because the author, like an impressionist artis t, renders each from his own point of view, selecting what he deems to be the most crucia l details of his charac ters and reconstructing them for the reader. Ours functions as a written rather than a visual family album. The concept of the portrait within the family album references a concrete physical object that uses visual information to convey something of the past. These written portraits preserve something of the essence of Dovlatovs relatives by taking memory and transferring it into a tangible and shareable object: the book. Mo reover, the use of the family album as a structuring principle emphasizes the personal nature of the text and allu des to how family histories are passed down. A family album is an extr emely personal object, often kept out of an
10 interest in posterity and a desire to share memories down generations. Dovlatovs conceptual revision of the family album undercuts the value placed on impersonal facts and relocates significance to inherited memory and inherited experi ence. As collections of family photos pass through the hands of va rious family members, they may be added to, reorganized, damaged, and so on. Similarly, family stories, as in a game of telephone, are in a constant state of alteration as they make their way down the generations. Certain names may be forgotten, dates confused, points of intrigue exaggerated. Family stories are in a constant state of flux and therefore vulnerable to the perceptions and inclinations of their tellers. However, to identify this as a problem is to mistak e where value ought to be located. Dovlatovs highly stylized treatment of his various family members throughout the book appreciates and even reenacts the mythological st atus family stories often gain. Grandpa Isaak & Myth To illustrate this, Dovlatovs treatment of Grandpa Isaak merits close examination, as his story is re peatedly referenced throughout the successive portraits. He writes of one of his grandfat hers experiences in the army : During one troop inspection he was noticed by the Tsar himself. Grandpa was almost seven feet tall. He could put an entire apple in his mouth. His mustache drooped to his rifle sling (Dovlatov 4). This is the primary visual information the reader has about Grandpa Isaak, and rather than for the sake of description, these impossible physical features appear in the text as necessary supporting information that explains why th e Tsar took notice of him at all. The fictionalized elements of Gra ndpa Isaaks description indisputably suggest that he stood out, that the Tsar couldnt have not noticed him. Whether or not these are Dovlatovs
11 embellishments is irrelevant. Dovlatov is te mporally and physically distanced from his grandfather, thus his knowledge of him is mediated by the various incarnations of the story as it was transmitted over the years. Wh at matters is that Grandpa Isaaks physical appearance was responsible for the encounter between a fi gure in Dovlatovs personal history and an important histor ical figure, and this illust rates Dovlatovs own connection to such an event. By drawing this connection between a fi gure of personal hist ory and a figure of official history, he demonstrates how the two histories cannot be separated. Dovlatovs own connection to the event ex ists only because someone told him this story about his grandfather; it exists only in family history, in family myth. Regardless of whether the facts are accurate, it is the story itself that shapes Dovlatovs understanding of this past. Consequently, Dovlatov is not writing to document the past, but writing to document memory. Because he cannot access his grandfathe r, he writes about his experience of his grandfather from the moment of writing, which in this case li es in his understanding of a family myth. Agency in Subjectivity By writing individual portrait s, Dovlatov allows each of his relatives to act as a temporary main character of the text. As a result, none of them are merely minor characters serving secondary functions; rather, they are agents who each have stories that are equally worthy of being written. The valu e this places on the personal narrative is immediately apparent. Every portrait contains traces of the influence of Soviet life, ranging from Dovlatovs grandfat her who was shot at Stalins command to his cousin who was detained in a high-secur ity labor camp during the Terror.
12 Less apparent influences of the polit ical situation also appear throughout Dovlatovs portraits, such as the fear that perv aded his mothers daily life. She worked as a copy editor for a newspaper, and Dovlatov suggests that the noisy communal apartment they lived ina consequence of national economic and political conditionsprevented her from getting adequate sleep and therefore put her at risk of making mistakes in the workplace: My mother could not get enough sleep. And her job carried a lot of responsibility. Stalin was still alive then, and a single misprint in a newspaper could mean prison for the person responsible. When it comes to printing newspapers, disaster can follow the omission of one letter. The word that results may be either obscene or, even worse, anti-Soviet (and sometimes both). (Dovlatov 55) While using this anecdote to portray a condi tion of his mothers life and to further develop her portrait, Dovlatov is also locating Stalin as the indirect cause of his mothers stress at work. This is just one example of how the storie s of all of these people are inextricably wrapped up in events that are subjects of disc ussion in official histories. It is widely known that Stalin ordered executions on the ba sis of political dissidence. However, what Dovlatov provides is the story from the persp ective of the victim and of the victims descendents. By sharing their stories, he gi ves voice back to thos e who were silenced by the official history as well as the oppressive history propagated by Stalins regime. Amidst describing what his upbringing was like, he expresses his own confusion at his fathers opinion on Stalin: My father felt great esteem for the Leader, though he was the one who had good reason to hate Stal in, especially since his father had been
13 shot (Dovlatov 53). Here, the author notes an intersection of public and personal history. This instance of historical self-consciousness demonstrates how these two histories cannot be isolated from one another because Dovlatovs fathers opinions on Stalin permeated their home life and shaped D ovlatovs perspective on his father. The confusion he expresses through th e narration regarding his fathe rs attitude toward Stalin shows that he is drawing connections between past events and current attitudes. Here, past events are trickling down and affec ting the Dovlatov family through multiple generations. Narrator as Main Character It may come as a surprise that Dovlatov does not include himself as the main character of any of the chapters of Ours. His role in the text appears somewhat peripheral, as he writes in the first person but focuses most of his attention on the subjects of each chapter. The book begins with his grandfathers portrait and ends with his newborn sons, but includes no chapter on hims elf. The prevalence of the first person narration and the way Dovlatov peripherally inserts himself into each chapter indicates that whereas each relative may be the main character of their own chapter, Sergei Dovlatov is the main character of the book. As early as in the first chapter Grandpa Isaak, Dovlatov appears not just as narrator, but also as a character in the story. Reflecting upon his grandfathers death, Dovlatov expresses concern a bout what he does not and perhaps can never know. He writes, For me the questions are: Just wh at was going on back then? In the name of what, exactly, was that daft and amusing life cu t short? I often think of my grandfather, though I never knew him (Dovlatov 8). The au thors voice pauses the narrative flow
14 with a series of rhetorical questions that exposes the t hought processes he undergoes as he is writing. This happens throughout th e book, often concluding with a resigned, I dont know. Dovlatov treats his grandfather Stepan with similar uncertainty about his character and a string of unanswerable questions. He e xplains that in his old age [h]e became a figure of the landscape. It was said that, jackdaws sometimes landed on his shoulder, (Dovlatov 12, my italics). Again the mythological status of his grandfathers story is revealed, this time through the more explicit acknowledgement that his source for the story was hearsay. Dovlatov states that he ha s often tried to understand w hy Stepan was so morose, then follows with somewhat of a r eenactment of his attempt. He asks, What made him such a misanthrope? Perhaps the universe, such as it was, did not suit him. I wonder, did it not suit him in its entirety, or just in certain details? Was it the changing of the seasons? The i ndestructible order of life and death? The law of gravity? The contradicti on of sea and dry land? I dont know. (Dovlatov 12) This philosophical series of questions is almost hyperbolic, which emphasizes how far Dovlatov has to stretch his imagination in order to even come close to knowing what could have troubled his grandfather so much. The resignation that follows these ruminations concludes this particular though t process. His decisi on to move on from it signals an acceptance of not knowing. By acknowledging that certain inform ation and understanding is simply unavailable to him, Dovlatov draws attent ion to the unbridgeab le distance between
15 himself and the events of the past. Here, his narrative voice functions as a character that exists in present time and is affected by past events. Temporal Distance: Narra tor as Double-Character The writers existence in present time while telling his story in retrospect creates a temporal distance between the writer as narrator-character and the writer as protagonistcharacter. This is a featur e more common to memoirs where the author reflects upon his or her own life, but it is useful for this discussion because it helps explain how the writers reflection on past events is inevitabl y influenced by everyt hing that has occurred in between. In this way, the narrator-character and the protagonist-cha racter are separate entities with different knowledges. The tension between the presen t self (the narrator) and the past self (the character) is intensified in the family chronicle because the narrator and the character are rarely the same self. That is to say, Dovlatov narrate s his relatives stories rather than his own, thus his access to the events themselves is limited even further. Self-Reflexive Writing As previously mentioned, Dovlatovs narr ation demonstrates an acknowledgment that his access to fact is limited, if not comp letely nonexistent. This is evident in the multiple instances throughout the text wher e the narration becomes somewhat selfreflexive and consequently draws attention to the construction of th e text. The narratorcharacter that Dovlatov constructs for himself reminds the reader that he is engaging in a process of remembering and recording. Th e movement between past time (content describing past events) and present time (D ovlatovs questions and contemplations) is apparent in instances that at fi rst seem somewhat tangential.
16 For example, regarding his Uncle Leopold, Dovlatov explains that he was staying with a German man named Reinhardt at the time he and his uncle were reunited after years of separation. After describing coming ho me to Reinhardts house after his meeting with his uncle he writes, I spent time with Reinhardt every day after that. To tell the truth, I dont know how he got in to this story. I was talking about an entirely different person, my uncle Leopold (Dovlatov 37). Here, Dovlatovs narrator-character speaks directly to the reader and explicitly acknowledges the por traits construction, reminding the reader that he or she is reading a story. His sh ift into present tense emphasizes the fact that he is speaking from the present, which in this case is the moment of writing. Dovlatov says here that the co ntent, specifically the attention to Reinhardt, is tangential to his story. However, he is not simply trying to document the story of his Uncle Leopold. More accurately, he is documenting his own thought process as he engages in the act of remembering and reconstructing a past. In just a fe w sentences, Dovlatov addresses the reader and acknowledges the te mporal distance between the event and his present self, both of which are stylistic techniques that blat antly expose the processes of writing and remembering. Style, subjectivity, and mediation are inextricably intertwined in Ours The family chronicle as well as other genr es of personal narrative privil ege the subjective experience, and therefore afford the authors more leeway in terms of the stylisti c decisions they make in their writing. With emphasis shifted away from objective fact, the personal narrative permits the texture of subjectiv e experience to materialize. It is because of this that Dovlatov can treat his grandfat her as a mythological character and allow his subjective narrative voice to influence the content of the portraits.
17 This self-reflexive mode of writing signals that the content of the text is always mediated. The text is unreliable in term s of the conventional ways of understanding nonfiction, which entails the assumption that the writing documents true and factual events. But Ours rather than document the facts of experiences, preserves the colors of Dovlatovs memories. The reader may not be able to access th e truth of the events that the portraits grew from, but neither can Dovl atov. He is limited by temporal distance, the embellishments of oral tradition, and his ow n subjectivity. Because his access is limited, these self-reflexive moments are precisely the types of details he is able to share with readers. The process of wr iting and remembering is an experience immediate to Dovlatov, and that is the truest reality any author can ever hope to convey. The process is an impression or an echo of the event, and if one cannot access the event itself, its afterimage is the next best thing. The examples that appear in Ours only scrape the surface of the kinds of artistic moves available to an author in order to undermine the authority that historical texts have asserted over their subjects. Dovlatov avoids e ffecting an authoritative voice, and this is apparent in his frequent ruminations on his ow n ability to answer questions and also in his acceptance of that fact th at he will never be able t o. He acknowledges that direct access is not an option. The oral sources of Dovlatovs writing are occasionally implied through fleeting self-reflexive phrases such as i t is said that but for the most part, the reader has to deduce this. The types of sour ces that can inform pe rsonal narratives expand far beyond oral tradition, and a turn to another Russian family chronicle will help to illustrate how different types of personal and historical documents may find their way into writing.
18 *** Autobiography is viable only when one recogni zes that it creates truth as much as expresses it. Fiction is implicit in the idea of a self. Elizabeth Bruss, Autobiographical Acts The Russian Album Michael Ignatieffs The Russian Album is a family chronicle that spans five generations, beginning in nine teenth century tsarist Russia and documenting his familys exile and eventual emigration to Canada following the 1917 revolution. The bulk of the text focuses on the authors grandparents, Paul and Natasha, though the first few chapters devote much attention to their parents and thei r involvement in the aristocracy and in the military. Whereas the content of Ours is primarily based in the oral tradition of stories in Dovlatovs family, The Russian Album draws a substantial amount of its content from Paul and Natashas personal memoirs, as well as from the familys personal records, public records, and historical documents. Ignatieffs primary sources for the chronicle are his grandparents' memoirs and family photograp hs, which he regularly describes in detail throughout the text. He also supplements th is information with some historical investigation, the extent of which is difficult to determine from the text itself. Ignatieffs sources are readily apparent in The Russian Album both in his direct references to them
19 and also in the style of hi s narration, which often slips into the voices and styles particular to his gra ndparents memoirs. Grandparents Memoirs Natasha began her memoirs in the 1940s, twenty years after leaving Russia. This means that instead of documenting her daily lif e (i.e. with a diary) Natasha engaged in the activity of reconstructing her past from memory. Ignatieff notes that the memoirs had a very personal tone to them and were comprised of free associations about her childhood, marriage, life in St. Petersburg, the revolution, the civil wa r, and their escape (Ignatieff 13). He describes them as "a fra nk and faithful echo of the woman she was, put down just as she spoke in every meandering turn of phrase" (Ignatieff 14). He explains that she wrote in stream of consciousness, largely ignored punctuat ion, and wrote in the "English she had learned from her governess" (Ignatieff 13, 164). All of these features, according to Ignatieff, rendered the memoir s unreadable and therefore unpublishable. There is no evidence in The Russian Album that indicates that Natasha had intended or even hoped that her memoirs would be publis hed, and Ignatieff explai ns that she wrote not for a public audience, but for her gra ndchildren whose native tongue she knew would be English. Ignatieff's grandfather Paul's writings were written during his initial years of exile in the 1920s when he was working in Pari s for the Russian Red Cross. Ignatieffs description of them indicates a far less personal tone in the memoirs than he attributes to his grandmother's. He writes that the prose was "dry, orderly and re strained... an exercise in discretion and concealment," (Ignatieff 14) Ignatieff laments that while Natasha's memoirs were unpublishable due to their erra tic style, Paul's me moirs could not be
20 published because they described events that ha d been "exhaustively retold in the deluge of the Tsarist memoir" and confined his story to his official career as a gentleman farmer, governor, deputy Minister of Agriculture, and Minister of Education (Ignatieff 14). It is because he deemed the memoirs of both grandparents unpublishable that Ignatieff decided to reconfigure them into his own text. For him, this was an activity of investigating and organizing information for future generations. He was, essentially, writing his own family album. A Historian of Ones Family Ignatieff suggests that, at first, his background as a trained historian seemed like it would be an advantage in the process of putting together his gr andparents stories. However, after some time trying to treat his grandparents as historical specimens through research, he found himself uncomfortably di stanced from them. Of the process of researching some official reports his grandfat her had written, Ignatie ff says, The sharper I drew his definition as a historical being, the more blurred he became as my grandfather... The historical way of know ing the past is to place a figure in the background of serial time; I wanted the opposit e, to make him present in simultaneous time with me (Ignatieff 15). Ignatieff explains that this approach stripped his project of the personal element, which was clearly very important to him. His concern that his grandfather's writings bore too great a resemb lance to the official historical narratives reflects his interest in conveyi ng the personal in these storie s. After all, he did share motives for writing that were similar to hi s grandparentsposterity in the interest of ones descendents and an investigati on toward understanding ones past.
21 Sources & Style Ignatieffs sources play a crucial role in the style of his writing. His description of his grandmothers summer home reveals his process of investigation, starting with himself and steadily tightening in on what his grandmother would have seen there. He begins, I take out Baedeke rs guide to the Russian Empire, 1914 edition, and follow the railway lines 200 miles west from Moscow to the province of Sm olensk. (Ignatieff 25). His use of the mapand perhaps more pointedly his mention of the edition of the bookexplicitly announces the physical source he uses to shape his own understanding of this distant place and time. As his description closes in on the estate, he imagines the activity that would have surrounded the house when the family arrived at the start of summer. His repetitive use of the phrases would have been or would be first implies speculation, but also effects a sense of timelessness and even nostalgia surrounding this annual occurrence. Where the map and speculations end, Ignatie ff mentions that he looks at photos to aid his description of the interior of the house. He writes, In the photographs I count thirty-four windows looking out onto the Englis h garden (Ignatieff 26). He shifts into the present tense here and consequently lets the reader know that he is presently looking at the photos. The process of reconstruction occurs in the present, whereas the subject he treats exists in the past. Next, the text enters an intimate space wh ere the reader has access to the personal thoughts his grandmother wrote down in her own memoirs. Ignatieffs narration often slides almost undetectab ly into her voice to show her perspective according to how she presented it in her writing. He says:
22 Wherever she was afterwards, Natasha could always guide her minds eye through the vanished rooms, along the big entrance hall lined with oak benches, up the two flights of stairs, past the i llustrations... in gilt frames, through her fathers study, to the danc ing hall, the dining room furnished in maplewood, past the china cabinets, to her mothers boudoir. There her memory moved to a portrait of her grandmother.... (26) The step by step explication of Natashas line of vision as she moved through the house completely enters her perspective and exits the realm of what Igna tieff can access first hand. The sentence that explains that, no ma tter where she was, sh e could always guide her minds eye through the house alludes to the act of recalling things from a remote time and place. The tone of certainty in this statement, that she could always do this, suggests that Ignatieff specifically references some thing Natasha herself wrote in her memoir. Though the passage focuses on a description of the house, Ignatieff does not let the reader forget that he is mediating his or her access to it. Furthermore, his explicit and implicit references to his sources acknowledge that his access is also mediated. His movement between the description of the house and the description of his reconstruction illustrate this tension. Narrative Distance Ignatieffs distance from the events he writes about along with his various sources seriously complicates the relationship betw een himself as narrato r-character and his grandparents as protagonists. His research ha s left him with a wealth of knowledge that no one person he writes about had in their time. He explains that in his writing, he has to withhold certain things he knows about the circumstances in order to present them as his
23 subjects may have experienced them. He uses a photograph of peasants outside the family chapel to raise this issue. He descri bes the picture in deta il for the reader, then goes on to say, In just twenty years those peasants were to burn Doughino [the familys house] to the ground. This ironythat I know what is coming and Natasha could notis one of the barriers between us. I have to forget what comes next. To share her past, I have to forget her future (Ignatieff 38) Here, Ignatieff shows the problem that the pa ssage of time changes ones perception of events. To write about those events, the writer must su spend the knowledge that was gained after the time that passed. Though at first he cites this as a barrier between himself and his grandmother, Ignatieff quickly begins the follo wing paragraph with the realization that this is actually something they have in common. He give s his grandmothers recollection of the Coronation of the Tsar in her memoir as an example of this suspension of knowledge. He asks, How, for example, was she to preserve the original colour of her memories of the Coronation ceremonies of 1896 from the wa sh of retrospective foreboding that swept over all recollections of Nicholas and Alexandra after 1917? This was one of exiles subtler woundsthe way time future recoloured time past. She was fighting to save her past from the pall of inevitability that the future cast back upon it like a malign shadow. (Ignatieff 38-39) Ignatieff situates this information within his discussion of his ow n difficulty controlling the tension in the act of retrospective writi ng. By imagining that his grandmother must
24 have had this same trouble in writing her own memoir, Ignatieff strengthens his connection to her. The fact that they enga ged in the same process of remembering and reconstructing lets Ignatieff use this shared experience as another way to access his grandmothers character. By ruminating on a common process that he identifies with, he can draw on his understanding of his presen t experience (writing) as a means to understand his grandmothers experience. Constructing a Self: Selectivity of Memory Like Dovlatov, Ignatieff treats his relatives in the third person and slides into the first person where he enters as the narrator-ch aracter. However, Ignatieffs presence as a character in the text is fa r more pronounced. The first ch apter of the chronicle is strikingly self-reflexive, as he explicitly discusses writing as a process of constructing a self by reconstructing a past. He admits that this process is inevitably influenced by ones subjectivity, which is evident in the selectivity of detail that the writing requires. Ignatieff explains that, Just as in the moment of flight exiles must grab the treasures that will become their belongings on the road into exile, so they must choose the past they will carry with them, what version they will tell what version they will believe. From being an unconsidered inheritance, the past becomes their i nvention, their story. (Ignatieff 8) Here, Ignatieff draws a comparison between th e exile experience and his own experience as a writer who must decide what information is crucial to the portr ayal of an event and what can be left out without compromising the storys integrity. His use of the word invention illustrates the storytellers power to choose from an infinite number of
25 available details, the various combinations of which could result in an equally infinite number of completely different stories. Of his decision to write about his grandparents he says, Between my two pasts, the Canadian and the Russian, I felt I had to choose. I chose the vanished past, the past lost be hind the revolution it was the one I had to recover, to make my own (I gnatieff 10). The fact that Igna tieff so frankly discusses the issue of choice within his narration signals a concern that the reader be aware of the malleable nature of storytelli ng even within nonfiction genres. Moreover, Ignatieff acknowledges the select ive nature of memory, which further limits a persons access to the past. He writes, The knitting together of past and present that memory and forgetting achieve is mythological because the self is constantly imagined, constructed, invented out of what the self wishes to remember (Ignatieff 6). Ignatieff suggests that selectivity entails active decisions about what details to remember, and his use of the word invented introduces the same idea that was evident in Dovlatovs treatment of his Grandpa Isaak: the mythological has a role in the family chronicle because it is an inherent part of the way stories are transmitted down generations. Ignatieff admits this by stating that bringing together the past and present through writing is mythological as a result of the fluid nature of memory. The phrase selective nature of memory reminds the reader that memory itself is a fallible and mediating factor in the process of reconstr ucting a past. Not only does the writer choose what details to include, but memory is a s ource that has already filtered out and perhaps confused the facts of the past, creating yet another la yer of mediated distance. These issues of selectivity demonstrate th e power Ignatieff has as the author of the text, but his decision to acknowledge them in the book seems to undermine that
26 authority. His explanation that exiles, and al so authors, must choose the past they will carry with them, what version they will tell what version they will believe (Dovlatov 8) attributes a tremendous amount of agency a nd subjectivity to the individuals who are reconstructing their pasts. He s uggests that there exis ts an option to choose what past they create for themselves. This is posed to be true not only of the pe rception of ones past, but also in the writing of ones past. In this way, Ignatieff tells the reader that he has accepted that the only way to tell his story is through his limited subjective perspective. His discussion of his so urces, though it could be superficia lly taken to be an attempt at transparency, actually emphasizes that it is im possible to get at the truth, regardless of what physical or historical documents one has as evidence. This is apparent in Ignatieffs difficulty with understanding who his grandfathe r was, despite having his memoir, family oral tradition, family photos, and a large qua ntity of public records to work with. Posterity Ignatieffs explicit discussion of hi s sources and his process is more a documentation of his remembering and writi ng than it is a preservation of his grandparents legacies. At vari ous points throughout the book, he identifies writing as a self-making process where the writer may c hoose how to interpret and represent his or her past. However, in the final chapter he wr ites, I have not been on a voyage of selfdiscovery: I have just been keeping a pr omise to two people I never knew. These strangers are dear to me not because their lives contain the secret of my own, but because they saved their memory for my sake (Ignatieff 185). Here, Ignatieff announces a personal responsibility to preserve their storie s. However, he cannot pass on their real
27 experiences, and he deals with this by expli cating his own process in order to explain his decisions about what would be incl uded and what would be left out: I had to stay close to the initial shoc k of my encounter with their photographs: that sense that they were both present to me in all their dense physical actuality and as distant as stars. In recreating them as truthfully as I could, I had to respect the distance between us. I had to pay close at tention to what they left unsaid; I had to put down a marker at the spots that had not been reclaimed by memory. I could not elide these silences (Ignatieff 16) His presence in the text is an unavoidable side-effect of his deci sion to acknowledge his inability to fully access his grandparents, and he explains that because of this, he could not remove himself from it. Ignatieff reflects frequently upon what it means for him to write this chronicle, and though he claims that it is not a process of self-discovery, it becomes apparent that his writing is more accurately defined as an act of self-making. The term self-discovery implies some preexisting truth from which one can gather knowledge about the self. To call it self-making recognizes the selectivity of memory and perception. In the final chapter, Ignatieff writes, I have learned that you can inherit loyalt ies, indignation, a temperament, the line of your cheekbones, but you cannot inherit your self. You make your self with your own hands, here and now, alone or w ith others. There is no deliverance, no imperative in the blood. You cannot inhe rit your purposes. I know what I cannot have from Paul and Natasha a nd so we are reconciled. (184)
28 This final self-reflexive passage illustrates Ignatieffs awareness that his research for The Russian Album did not illuminate something profound within him that could only be accessed by delving into his family history. Ra ther, he notes that the process of writing the book was what was ultimately meaningful. These thoughts demonstrate an attempt to preserve the processes of remembering, writi ng, and reconstructing, and the fact that he shares them with the reader illuminates th e value of personal process over documented fact.
29 Chapter 2: Mediation and Authenticity in Theresa Hak Kyung Chas Dicte What is difficult (to swallow?) about Chas Dicte [is] that it implicates us in our very desire to know and see through readingimplic ates, in fact, our positions as private, historical, or literary witnesses. Anne Anlin Cheng, Memory and Anti-documentary Desire Overview of Dicte The previous chapter demonstrated how Russian authors Sergei Dovlatov and Michael Ignatieff both employ stylistic devices in their family chronicles to address the difficulty of accessing the past. Dovlatovs text is rich with highly stylized portraits of his relatives that demonstrate the malleable nature of oral history and family myth, while Ignatieff shares with readers his struggle to figure out how to tell th e right story when he has an overwhelming number of sources to dr aw from. Both authors use self-reflexive techniques to acknowledge their roles in rec onstructing their families pasts, highlighting the fact that these family chronicles are each a subjective interpretation of past and present events. While Theresa Hak Kyung Chas Dicte (1982) is not a family chronicle, it is loaded with stylistically experimental appr oaches to the same que stions Dovlatov and Ignatieffs texts present. However, Chas appro ach is far more experimental than either of the Russian authors. Her avant-garde techniques more radically illustrate the issues of mediation and authenticity in personal narratives coming out of oppressive political
30 contexts. For this reason, Dicte provides this discussion an extreme example that shows the ways an author can rec onstruct the past while addressing the concerns that this process raises for both the writer and the reader. The frustr ated language that pervades the book paired with Chas idiosyncratic in corporation of outside sources works to express not just the difficulty, but perhaps the impossibility of conveying a lost past. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982) was a Korean-American performance artist who studied comparative literature and fine art at the University of California, Berkeley. Born in Korea, Cha immigrated to the United States with her family when she was thirteen. She became active in the San Francisco Bay Area art commun ity during her time at Berkeley in the 1970s, and was known for blending the mediums of film, text, and performance in her efforts to address the personal and cultural losses that result from exile. Her final work and only book, Dicte recounts the strained cultural encounters of several different Korean women as they are faced with changing political and cultural atmospheres. She writes about her own experien ces, but also about the life of her mother and other women whose experiences she foun d influential. Like Michael Ignatieff does with The Russian Album Cha draws on historical, biogr aphical, and autobiographical sources for her books content, but, like her artwork, Dicte resists easy genre classification. This is due, in part, to Chas inclusion of a multitude of other documents photographs, anatomical charts, poetry, and excerpts from language textbooks. Because it draws on so many differe nt types of sources, Dicte lacks the conventional linear narrative that is typical of mo st memoir writing. Chas experi mental approach scatters the non-narrative material throughout the more traditionally narrative sections of the book,
31 creating a hybrid text that forces the reader to discern how the fragments of text and visual media work together to convey a cohesive story. The unusual narrative sequence and her pr esentation of many photographs, charts, poetry, and other visual media make it difficu lt to classify the book in even the most basic categories, such as prose, for example. Some professors have tr eated the contents of Dicte as poetry, others as an example of pos tcolonial writing. Even the University of California Press cautiously categorizes the 2001 edition as L iterature Art. The strangeness of Dicte due to its avant-garde features has also appealed to critics of a wide variety of persuasions. Since its initial publ ication in 1982, the book has been received into the Asian American canon, though as scholar Timothy Yu points out, Asian American critics have often focused on Dictes narrative elements at the expense of its more abstract sections (Yu 103). On the other hand, treatments of the book as experimental writing risk understating th e cultural context surrounding the books production, specifically the political situation of Korea in the twenti eth century and Chas relationship to it. Dicte can be analyzed from feminist, postcolonial, and postmodernist perspectives, just to name a few, and these are all legitimate mode s of understanding the book. However, in order to see how Cha prompt s new ways of reading personal narrative, one must focus on the intersection between the avant-garde and the political in Dicte Politics: Mother Tongue & Displacement Cha immigrated to the United States during the Korean War, and exile is a prevalent theme throughout Dicte. The North-South split prompted by the Soviet and American occupations following World War II fo rms part of the historical background for the work, but the theme of oppression also arises where Cha references the effects of
32 the Japanese occupation and cultural eras ure imposed upon Korea by Japan in the first part of the twentieth century. The sense of cultural loss brought on by military occupation, cultural displacement, emigration, and ex ile is persistent throughout Dicte In the epistolary chapter Calliope Epic Poetry, Cha writes in the present tense to her mothers past self, addressing her as you and recounting her mothers experiences as a young teacher in Manchuria. Chas grandparents relocated their family from Korea to escape the Japanese occupation in and settled in a Korean ex ile community in Manchuria. Chas mother, physically removed from Korea since birth yet deeply influenced by in the Korean exile community, continues to feel the effects of the Japanese occupation in her parents homeland, and this cultural opp ression repeats itself in th eir new location. In 1940 she graduates from a teachers college and the government requires her to teach in a small village for three years as repayment for her sc hool loans. By this time, the Japanese had also occupied Manchuria and the effects of this are felt in the village school, where Japans flag hangs and the language of the wor kplace is Japanese despite the fact that all of the teachers and children are Korean. Cha writes to her mother, imagining and describing her experience: Still, you speak the t ongue the mandatory language like the others. It is not your own. Even if it is not you know you mu st. You are Bi-lingual. You are Trilingual. The tongue that is forbidden is your own mother tongue. You speak in the dark. In the secret. The one that is y ours. Your own. You speak very softly, you speak in a whisper. In the dark, in secret. Mother tongue is your refuge. It is being home. Being who you are. (Cha 45-6)
33 She is required to speak Japanese and is forbidden from speaking Ko rean in the public sphere. She must speak Korean in secret, in inaudible whispers. Th e Japanese occupation not only affects her public activit y, but also attempts to cont rol something as personal as the language she speaks. The suppression of her native tongue results in an inward turn into the secret, subjective spac e that exterior forces cannot see or regulate. By equating the mother tongue with home and refuge, Cha suggests that the suppression of ones native language is equal to the suppression of ones identity and ones security. She writes that the mother tongue allows her moth er to be who she is, suggesting that the political oppression of language is a direct oppression of the self. As a result, speaking Korean becomes an act of private, political resistance that allows her mother to assert her identity amidst political oppr ession, albeit secretly. Identity is wrapped up with language, and within the exile community, it is difficult to claim ones identity because of the linguistic fragmentation caused by the tension between ones native language and the dominant language. Born and raised in the Korean exile community, Chas mother is not simply Korean, but a second generation Korean exile. Consequently, she is even more dist anced from a Korean national identity. Already physically exiled from Korea, she is exiled a second time as a result of her inability to express herself in her native tongue in public. The Korean language is her strongest claim to that identity, and even that is threatened by the same political force that caused her parents exile. The syntax of Calliope Epic Poetry, like in most of the book, is disjointed and full of fragments that often repeat themse lves with slight alterations, as though each sentence is a new beginning. For example, Cha changes You speak in the dark. In the
34 secret to you speak in a whisper. In the dar k, in secret a couple of sentences later. The movement here is not just repe tition, but self-corr ected reiteration. Cha c onstantly tries to get closer to the signified, but the imprecise signifiers get in her way. She reformulates her ideas in different variations in order to get closer to the meaning, but ultimately, her attempts show that she simply cannot access it. In the case of Dicte this reflects the Chas mothers difficulty with both native and foreign language. The language is fragmented because the subjects experience is fragmented by the Japanese occupation. Chas mother must compartmentalize her sp eech and thought into the public and private realms because of the politic al weight each language carr ies, and this subsequently fractures her identity. Cha describes her mothers return to Korea after having been naturalized as an American citizen. Her compli cated national identitynow a mix of Korean, Japanese, Manchurian, and American influencesis met with skepticism by the customs officials. Raised in the exile community, Chas mother grew up considering Korea to be her homeland, but her proficiency in the Korean language is insufficient qualification for cultural acceptance: You return and you are not one of them, th ey treat you with indifference. All the time you understand what they are saying. But the papers give you away. Every ten feet. They ask you identity. They co mment upon your inability or ability to speak. Whether you are telling the truth or not about your nationality. They say you look other than you say. As if you didnt know who you were. You say who you are but you begin to doubt. (Cha 56-7)
35 The interrogation by the officials is so adam ant that she begins to doubt her own identity. She is judged by her linguistic capability or lack thereof, and in this moment her strongest tie to Korea begins to break down. She finds herself inca pable of speech: You open your mouth half way. Near tears, nearly saying, I know you I know you, I have waited to see you for this long. They check each article, question you on foreign ar ticles, then dismiss you (Cha 58). The emotional potency of these sentences, first c onveyed through its content (near tears), is fu rther emphasized through the repe tition of the phrase I know you, uninterrupted by a comma. She wants desperately to defend her identity and her belonging, but signifi cantly, she does not say this. She nearly defends herself, but cannot speak the words. Whereas in the past she ha d been forbidden to speak her native tongue, she is now physically unable to do so. The effects of the cultural oppression she experienced in her youth linger on through her complicated identity. The association Cha makes between her moth ers native language and her identity makes clear why her private engagement with the Korean language while she lives in Manchuria can be understood as an act of political resistance. Private speech allows her to express in the language that is most intimat e to her, and in that sense she is able to privately exercise her subjectivity in a way that is not permitted in public space. Calliope Epic Poetry is based on her jour nals and Cha identifies writing to be an important outlet for her mothers resistance. Despite that it is unclear to what extent Cha reworks the journals for Dicte these sections of the text allude to how her mothers secret resistance persists beyond its inception: You write. You write you speak voices hidd en masked you plant words to the moon you send word through the wind. Throug h the passing of seasons. By sky
36 and by water the words are given birth given discretion. From one mouth to another, from one reading to the next the words are realized in their full meaning [B]irds are mouth pieces wear the ghost veil for the seed of message. Correspondence. To scatter the words. (Cha 48) Chas mother writes and speaks in secret, burying her language in the ground. Her words are fertile seeds that sprout, reproduce, and disseminate her inner thoughts. Language is powerful here, and her mothers writing, whic h is both personal and political, is also potent. The transmission of ideas by m outh through speech and by text through writing can make the meaning of the words real. The metaphorical birds, scattering the seeds/words, wear the ghost veil, operatin g invisibly to transmit her message. The mention of the seasons illustrates the passage of time, and Chas use of the plant reproduction cycle alludes to the generativ e and regenerative powers of writing. Cha mentions the seasons in order to stress that these messages, these stories move across time, in this case from mother to daughter. The word correspondence is an early i ndication of the reci procal relationship Cha establishes between herself and her mother later in the chapter. Somewhat suddenly, Cha appears as the I-narrator of the text for one brief paragraph in the chapter, and in doing so she sets up several structural and thematic parallels between her own act of writing and her mothers. Though the rest of the chapter is also in present tense, this paragraph brings the reader to the moment of Chas writinginto the immediate present. Instead of writing from the present about th e past, Cha momentarily breaks away and writes from the present about the present:
37 I write. I write you. Daily. From here. If I am not writing, I am thinking about writing. I am composing. Recording moveme nts. You are here I raise the voice. Particles bits of sound and noise gathered pick up lint, dust. They might scatter and become invisible. Speech morsels. Broken chips of stones. Not hollow not empty. They think that you are one and th e same direction addressed. The vast ambient sound hiss between the invisible li ne distance that th is line connects the void and space surrounding ente ring and exiting. (Cha 56) She begins by discussing her own writing exactly as she discusses her mothers: You write./ I write. She emphasizes that she is writing from here, from the present, and that it is an act of simultaneously composi ng and recording the past. Cha not only records her mothers story, but actively acknowledges her role in constructing it. Her mother is a part of the story, but it is Ch a who transmits her voice. Where she says, Particles bits of sound and noise gathered picked up lint, dus t, she conveys that she is collecting tiny pieces that might otherwise be forgotten, othe rwise left to scatter into the oblivion of historys shadow. She stresses that her mothers words are not hollow or empty, but like seeds they are fertile and alive with potential. It is clear that Cha values her mothers writing as a mode of subtle resistance to political oppression. Import antly, in this single paragraph Cha manages not just to convey that value, but also to insert herself literally into the middl e of her mothers story (this paragraph is in the middle of the chapter). Sh e enters as the I-character and in doing so crosses the vast ambient sound hiss between the invisible line di stance between her mothers experience and her own. She identifie s her own writing as the line that connects them across time, and by creating parallel stru ctures in the discussi on of their respective
38 writing activities, Cha positions her own writing as a personal political act like her mothers. In this way, Cha uses her mothers personal history as a way to insert herself into the larger history that affects them both: the larger history of the Japanese oppression of Korean culture. Counter-History Cha sets up the tension between official history and personal experience even earlier in the text. The chapte r Clio History begins with a picture of Yu Guan Soon, a young Korean revolutionary hero ine who helped organize one of the earliest Korean demonstrations against the Japanese occ upation in 1919. Cha offers some information about Guan Soon in a manner that typifies th e patriotic or, in this case, the socialist biography of a celebrated hero or heroine, an d her writing quickly turns to mock this model. She writes: Guan Soon is the only daughter born of four children to her patriot father and mother. From an early age her actions ar e marked exceptional. History records the biography of her short and intensely-lived existence. Actions prescribed separate her path from the others. The identity of such a path is exchangeable with any other heroine in history. (Cha 30) The language Cha uses to describe Guan S oons familial origins and the emphasis on her parents patriotism implies that she was destin ed from birth to become a national heroine. The language conveys that her actions were marked exceptional from an early age, and this clich reinforces the notion that Guan Soons revolutionary actions were innate and latent even from her childhood. This construc tion reframes all of Guan Soons actions through the lens of her revolutionary activ ities as a young woman, and so the childhood
39 image Cha creates of her is colored with th e influence of retrospective knowledge. Chas use of this clich is a criti que of the conventional biographi c mode of writing, particularly as it pertains to socialist patriotic biogr aphy. Cha reappropriates these tropes into her biography of Guan Soon to redirect the reader s attention to her ow n activity of writing biography and away from the biographical figure herself. E ssentially, the construction is what matters, and the person who is the object of that construction is interchangeable. Cha introduces the concept of History as an agent that records Guan Soons biography and singles her out as an exceptional national heroin e, but Historys recording is impersonal and entirely nonspecific to Guan Soon herself. This criticism is apparent where Cha writes, Actions prescribed separate her path from the others. The identity of such a path is exchangeable with any othe r heroine in history (Cha 30). Here, Cha explicitly states that the cons truction of Guan Soons charac ter within the conventions of the sterile mode of socialist patriotic bi ography merely reinforces the image of the heroine type that this kind of writing create s in the first place. The word prescribed is loaded with the implication that Guan Soons actions originate outside of herself, and in a certain way, they do. Though Guan Soon was an agent of her own revolutionary actions in their original execution, th e reconstruction of them by History uses the prescribed formula of socialist biography and ultimately ma kes her fall flat as an individual. As a result, History makes Guan Soon into more of a character or a type than an actual person. Toward the end of Clio History, Cha s criticism of the impersonal nature of socialist biographical writing expands to include historical writing more generally. Here, the text moves into an abstract discussion of the difficulty of describing the political circumstance to an outsider who did not witn ess or experience the original events. She
40 implies that access to information about internat ional events is mediated by news sources, written histories, and other t ypes of news media, and she ch allenges the belief that one can know about these events simply from read ing an article in a newspaper or a history book. She writes: To the other nations who are not witne sses, who are not subject to the same oppressions, they cannot know. Unfathom able the words, the terminology: enemy, atrocities, conquest, betrayal, invasi on, destruction. They exist only in the larger perception of Historys recording, that affirmed, admittedly and unmistakably, one enemy nation has disreg arded humanity of another. (Cha 32) Cha suggests that to bear w itness is to know, and this knowing is not possible for people who have not witnessed an event firs thand. Peoples access to distant events is mediated by the language of written historie s, and consequently, their knowledge only exists through the abstract perception those histories create. Cha capitalizes history to make it into the proper noun History and sugg est that official history is a dominant authority. It is History that affirms that one enemy nation has disregarded anothers humanity, and because History is unmistakable it is authoritative in this assertion. Importantly, Cha herself does not claim to have witnessed her mothers youth in Manchuria nor Guan Soons political uprising firsthand. She cannot claim this. Even her access to these events is mediated, and sh e acknowledges this by using frustrated language and repetitive syntax to focus th e readers attention on the difficulty of reconstructing lived expe rience using text. She bears witness to the stories, not to the events to which the stories refer. By shifti ng the focus from the content to the form, Cha
41 admits that her own access is mediated and situ ates it as an inevitable aspect of writing about the past. Written histories claim to offer access to these events, but their language is impotent. The fact that the words are unfathomable emphasizes that peoples desensitization to the language of war furthe r limits their potential to understand it, which is problematic, as language is the primary vehicle for sh aring news and information. Though she initially writes that the words are unfathomable, Cha quickly edits her word choice and instead refers to them as ter minology, suggesting that they are simply a group of arbitrary signs for events that are ultimately inaccessible to people who did not experience them. The self-correct ion she enacts here contrast s the authoritative tone of History by enacting a type of wr iting that is malleable rather than paralyzed in time. In this way, Cha puts the personal back into th e narrative that Histor y has depersonalized through supposedly objective language. Her use of the word terminology can be understood to imply the sterility of this la nguage, and this demonstrates the ambiguity words take on when severed from the events they attempt to describe. The Documentary Mode of Knowledge One of the ways that Dicte prompts more critical re adings of both personal and historical narratives is by challenging the impersonal mode of wr iting that History performs. A book may say that a certain town was bombed by a certain group of people, but the impact of those facts is not substant ial enough to create an adequate impression of what it was like to have lived that experience. Cha conten ds that popular knowledge of events in foreign places is about (one more ) distant land, like (any other) distant land, without any discernable features in the narrative, (all the same) distant like any other
42 (Cha 33). Just as Yu Guan Soons biography has been cons tructed within the socialist patriotic heroine archetype, foreign events ar e made abstract and indistinguishable by the language used to describe them. Cha writes that content delivered via the written word functions to appeal to the masses to conge al the information to make bland, mundane (Cha 33). Again, she emphasizes the sterility of this language and shows that words such as atrocity and destruction lose th eir meaning as a result of overuse. Cha makes references to physicality and to flesh and bone to poin t to the fact that text is a medium that risks disembodiment. Of ficial narratives tend to hide the author behind authoritative and allege dly objective language. Chas language is fluid, and rather than make adamant claims, she constructs her argument by adding modifying clauses to her statements and allowing the reader to see the progression of these ideas. She explains that words are, Not physical enough. Not to the very flesh and bone, to the core, to the mark, to the point where it is necessary to inte rvene, even if to invent anew, expressions, for this experience, for this outcome, that does not cease to continue (Cha 32). Here, Cha critiques the language of official history by demonstrating how the same problem affects her own attempts to explain through writing. She tries to make her explanation concise, but her struggle to get at the signified is visibly compromised by the status of language as a representative medium. She allows readers to see this process, first, in order to show the difficulty she herself has in accessing and expressing meaning, and secondly, to convey the subsequent difficulty the read er will have in accessing that same meaning. The fact that difficulty of access is shared by the writer and the reader is critical to an understanding of the effects of Chas avant-garde techniques in Dicte One of the
43 major perils that she sets up is the false be lief that nonfiction texts will allow readers to know and this is particularly problematic for postcolonial texts because it risks oversimplifying the experiences of a cultura l other. Scholar Anne Anlin Cheng coins the term documentary desire to describe th e hope that a text can function as an easy window into another time, place, or culture; that we can know through text. However, by emphasizing the imprecision of language, the ques tionable reliability of the text, and the subjectivity of the writing, Cha engages the re ader in a way that prevents the passive consumption of the book. As Cheng aptly pu ts it, Chas appro ach challenges the conceptualization of the use of private and communal records that is reinforced by the documentary mode of knowledge (Cheng 131). Cha takes advantage of the tendency to operate in the documentary mode of knowledge by appropriating certain genre conventions and subverting them as soon as th e reader thinks he or she has come to something familiar and accessible. This approach consciously and consistently dissatisfies the documentary desire, and as a result, Dicte resists oversimplification and negates the possibility of providing the read er access to an authentic experience. One way that Cha exploits the documentary mode of knowledge is by incorporating a variety of photos, poetry, un captioned portraits, astronomy and anatomy charts, maps, historical documents, and othe r media to invoke the alleged authority of historical documents and other vi sual records. At first, her in clusion of this material could be understood as a way to assert the authority of her own wri ting. Visual aids in memoirs, such as portraits for example, tend have the function of making the people in the book more real and validating th eir existence with physical evidence; they embody the text. The privileged status of visual material over verbal material is aptly analogized in Chas
44 description of her mothers encounter with cu stoms officials in Calliope Epic Poetry. Cha describes this phenomenon by equating au thority and power with physical objects, and explains that the uniformed customs offici als have the right to question her mothers identity because their authority [is] sewn into the stitches of their costume (Cha 57). Here, the tangible uniform symbolizes the more abstract concept of authority, and when they doubt her identity, their eyes gather towards the ap propriate proof. Towards the face then again to the papers (Cha 57). Th e papers, or documents, assert a similar authority to that of the officials uniforms and are eventually accepted as substantial proof of her identity. Documents carry the same authority when her mother becomes an American citizen: I have the document s. Documents, proof, evidence, photograph, signature (Cha 56). The documents permit her en try into this new culture, and as in the previous example, tangible objects are used to validate the otherwise abstract concepts of authority and citizenship. However, though th e documents initially allow her mother access into the U.S., they eventually mark her as an outsider upon her return to Korea when the papers show that she is an American citizen and the customs officials interrogate her about her iden tity. The documents, like language, are ultimately equally arbitrary and insufficient signifiers. The Fragmented Image More generally, Chas use of extra-textual media in Dicte forms part of her critique of the documentary mode of knowle dge. While the documents could at first be understood to back up Chas authority, her bl atant selectivity and seemingly haphazard placement of the material throughout the book ca ution readers against investing too much trust in this technique. The majority of th is media lacks explanatory captions and is
45 placed in the text seemingly at random, w ith no explicit correspondence to points in the narrative. The absence of explanatory inform ation (subscripts, figure links, etc.) to accompany these elements severs them from their origins, leaving the reader with no knowledge of their original historical and cu ltural contexts. They become fragments of their sources, and Dicte becomes the only context available to the reader to frame his or her understanding of the information. This technique illustrates the dangers of interpreting texts at f ace value and suggests that Cha, as author of the text, has the power to shape her audiences understanding of her subject. Her use of the fragment reflects the process of selectivity th at went into producing Dicte and this reminds readers that the textlike any textis constructed by someone with subjective agency. Moreover, she points out that a picture or a quotation can take on a number of meanings that can differ from what it signifie d in its original context. By choosing to share one detail, the author inevitably reject s another. When these elements are severed from their origins, the book becomes their ne w context and the reader is forced to interpret them based only on the in formation the author provides. This practice is effectively illustrated by Vietnamese filmmaker Trinh T. Minhhas treatment of the fragmented image in her film Surname Viet, Given Name Nam (1989). Blending an avant-garde cinematic styl e with an anthropolog ical interest in depicting the lives of Vietnamese women, th e film could be described as a surrealist ethnography (Ruohonen 64). At several points in the film, Trinh includes black and white photos of women as the voiceover speaks ge nerally about the daily struggles of Vietnamese women during the wa r. There is no explicit co nnection between the content of the voiceover and the content of the images. In fact, the audience never finds out who
46 the women in the photos are and under what ci rcumstances they were taken. However, by nature of their simple juxtaposition, the images and the narration force the viewer to make a connection between them. Trinh, like Theresa Cha, forces her audience to make meaning from the content she has gathere d. She works with the assumption that the audience is trained to do so, and she exploi ts this tendency in order to challenge the viewers easy trust in documentary film. Following the title page, the film opens with a series of slowed down black and white videos of Vietnamese women with soun ds of slowly beating drums that recall war songs. The women are walking and wearing hats that appear to be part of a traditional costume. A series of images begins. First, a close-up of five wome n standing side by side, their heads occupying most of the wide rectangular photo against the bl ack background. After a few seconds, the frame of the photo expands to reveal the content of its bottom half that had been cropped out moments beforethe women are marching with rifles over their shoulders. Next is a photo that cen ters on three womens faces. The women are wearing hats and white scarves around their necks, and the photo occupies about an eighth of the screen. The frame of this photo quickly expands as well to show that the women are carrying flags and wearing uniforms in some sort of a political march. The revelation that there is more to the images than was originally on screen suggests the power a filmmaker has to put forth and hold back information from the audience. The cropped photos had stripped the images of thei r political content, and the expansion of their frames suddenly instills them with politically charged meaning. These are not simply portraits of women, but fragmentary do cumentation of larger historical events. Without the sudden expansion, the viewer would not know that the photos had been
47 cropped. This technique destabilizes the view ers trust in the im age and sparks the question: what else might be hidden beyond the frames of these photos, or beyond the frame of the film itself? It is significant that the hidden content is the political content because it heightens the risk of selectivity that comes with au thoring and editing a film or text. Cha employs an almost identical technique in Dicte On the very last page of the book, after the notes and facing the back cover, there is a captionless photo of nine women posing side by side in two rows w ith their arms around each others shoulders (Cha 182). The black and white photo is gr ainy and overexposed, making it difficult to see the details of the womens faces. The only clear details are that they all wear their hair tied back and they all appear to be wear ing the same outfit. At the end of the top row is Yu Guan Soon, and the only reason the reader might know this is because this is the exact photo from which Cha cropped Guan Soons portrait for th e beginning of Clio History (Cha 24). The portrait at the beginni ng of that semi-biographical chapter singles her out from the group in a way that recalls Historys treatment of her. The other eight women in the photo are unnamed and consequently fade into historical anonymity while Guan Soon persists as a cele brated patriotic heroine. Because the other women are unnamed, they are interchangeable, and the text suggests that were it not for Historys treatment of Guan Soon as an exceptional figure, she could just as easily fade away into the past as well. By including the group phot o, Cha recontextualizes Guan Soon within the larger revolutionary movement and demonstr ates that the socialist patriotic biography ignores the complexity of the br oader circumstance. However, th is is not to belittle Guan Soons individual accomplishments. Rather, Chas inclusion of both the individual
48 portrait and the group portrait from which it wa s extracted serves to show the multiplicity of meanings that one can gather from the sa me piece of information presented in different contexts. Cha does not elevate one over the othe r, but uses the contradiction of including them together to demonstrate the heteroge neity of experience that cannot be easily captured by text. Competing Narrative Authority In the same way that Chas pastiche pr esents a variety of media without a clear linear narrative, Surname Viet employs several competing modes of narrative that increasingly undermine each others authority. The audio track presents the viewer with songs, folklore, interviews, and multiple voic eovers with different narrators. No one mode of narration dominates over the others, and they frequently overlap and compromise the viewers ability to attend fully to any one of them. In one of the films early interviews a woman recounts painful memories about her and her husbands political struggles su rrounding the fall of Saigon in 1975. About halfway into the interview, a Vietnamese song fades in and subtitles appear on the screen to translate the lyrics. The song and the subt itles come in as the woman speaks, and the viewer is forced to decide whether to listen to the interview or read the subtitles to the song. Toward the end of the interview, a voiceover interrupts and as soon as the voiceover stops, another subtitled song comes in, and all the while the interviewee is still speaking. The lack of a clear dominant mode of narration forces the vi ewer to participate by deciding which elements he or she will privilege. The next interview further divides the vi ewers attention by providing subtitles that occupy the whole screen as the woman speaks in English. Large selections of the
49 interview are subtitled, but th ey often leave out phrases an d are out of synch with the dialogue. In one instance, the text fades off of the screen when the woman is only halfway through speaking the selection, and the viewer has to decide either to read ahead and ignore the dialogue, or i gnore the text and simply list en to the testimony. It is practically impossible for the viewer to atte nd to both at once, yet choosing to perceive only one is equally difficult because the film does not give any cues to indicate which would be the best option. Essentially, the film asks the viewer to e ngage in an act of selectivity just as the filmmaker must. Presented with various source s of information that exist simultaneously, the viewer, like the filmmaker, must make a se ries of editorial decisions that privilege one narrative over another, despite the fact that no one option is inherently better or more correct than the others. The film medium is particularly effective for enacting this process because its temporal quality makes it im possible for the viewer to attend to the simultaneous visual information in its totality. Surname Viet does not allow viewers to be passive, but instead provokes them to take agencyand responsibilityfor their interpretation of the film. Surname Viet and Dicte work to prompt more critical interpretations of documentary and minority literature, but to what end? Of course, it is necessary to engage critically with text and film, but why do thes e artists make their audiences work so hard to get at the meaning, and why do they underm ine their own authority in the process? The answer is essentially this: these works recreate the critical process in which those affected by political oppression must operate themselves The subjects of these works lived under immense political oppression, and they acco mplished the most quotidian activities
50 through the tension of a persistent resistance that was often subtle, and sometimes revolutionary. Oppression put s the oppressed in a state of fear and caution, and Dicte obliges the reader to experience the disloca tion that demands skepticism toward those in power and toward the (fictive) world creat ed by them. The people in these stories subsisted because they critically analyzed what was forced upon them by the oppressive states and used their knowledge to resist to tal domination of the self. In order to honor these efforts and avoid the perpetuation of complacency, the reader must be required to do the same. In keeping with the contention that someone must invent an ew, expressions for this [or any] experience (Cha 32) Cha ac tively invents new ways to express her own experiences and the experiences of others. Like Ignatieff and Dovl atov do with their family chronicles, she essentially develops a counter-narrati ve to dominant history, albeit a more radical one. She proposes that the mediated nature of writing is an obstacle to authenticity, but her goal is not nihilistic. Sh e does not suggest that nonfiction writing is a self-defeating attempt at accessing the pa st, nor does she criti que the pursuit of knowledge through text as a fruitl ess endeavor. Rather, despite the fact that authenticity is questionable in all writ ingand this includes both hist orical writing and her own Cha proposes that it is not the past event that the reader has to interpret, but the mediated representation of that event (Cheng 122). She invites, if not requires, the reader to consider new ways of understanding our access to the past.
51 Chapter 3: Testimony, Film, and Family His tory: A Multilingual Approach I noticed I have somehow mixed up two events but such suffusions of swimming colors are not to be disdai ned by the artist in recollection. Vladimir Nabokov The Cuban Revolution When Aida and Alfonso Catass fled Cuba in 1961, they could not have known that forty-eight years later they would find th emselves sitting in th eir Miami living room telling the story of their exile in front of a video camera manned by their half-American granddaughter. They thought their stay would be temporaryat the most, three or six months. The 1959 Cuban Revolution prompted many upper class citizens of Cuba to flee the country early on. My grandfathers family owned mining land and made their income by leasing to American mining companies, in cluding those managed by Andrew Carnegie and Sunoco. My grandparents initially supported Castro and had fait h that his reforms would end the crime and corruption that had be en typical of the old Batista regime. When Castro nationalized his prope rty, Alfonso found a job at the Cuban Aviation Company and Aida began work at the telephone compan y so that they could continue to support their two small sons. In 1960 they went to Spain to vacation for a month. That was the first time they heard the word communism associated with the Castro regime, and they began to believe it might have some reason. The Span ish newspapers all sa id that Castro was
52 communist, and the Spanish taxi drivers would ask how my grandparents were handling the transition into communism. The follo wing year, Castro na tionalized public institutions, including schools a nd hospitals. This was the final straw for my grandfather. For him, the closing down of the private school s in Cuba meant that he had no options for his childrenas he understood it, Castro ha d effectively revoked Alfonsos parental rights. He refused to submit his children to communist indoctr ination, and so, my grandparents decided that they had to leave Cuba. Origins of Project I have heard my grandparents storie s hundreds of times in steady waves of fragmentary memories that slide between us and fade away as time passes. Growing up in Miami, I regularly centered my school project s on topics related to Cuba, but so did everyone around me. Most of my classmates we re second generation exiles like me, and because of this, there was nothing out of the ordinary about my fam ily history. Most of our families came from the same placesm any had even known each other in Cuba and had similar stories of exile. The only way I ever felt different fr om my classmates was when I became uncomfortably aware of the fact that I was not fluent in Spanish. I never had to speak Spanish with my grandparents because they had both studied English in school in Cuba and had nearly thirty years of working e xperience in the U.S. by the time I was born. Additionally, my father, like his brothers and most of his cousins, married an American. My mothers parents were from the Midwest and raised her in California, and because she did not know Spanish, my father did not speak it to us in our house. My conversations with my grandparents were comple tely bilingual in that we addressed each
53 other in our respective na tive languages and comprehended everything without a problem. This was not an uncommon experience among people in my generation, and for the most part I looked at it as just another aspect of livi ng. My attention was focused not on the texture of my familial and cultural environments, but on my own interest in pursuing a career in writing. I started to study and practice film at an art magnet high school in Miami, thinking it would be the ne xt best thing to doing a writing program. I rarely looked to my family history or to my daily reality for material. I saw nothing out of the ordinary about my upbringing, and I rarely thought about the cu ltural and linguistic diversity in which I was so deeply embedded. But when I got to college, I became a mi nority. For the first time in my life, not everyones father was a Cuban exile. Suddenly, my experiences were not common, not ordinary, and I realized that the stories I had heard all my life were not just old folk ramblings. My grandparents had both had seri ous health scares in the years surrounding my college entry, and I slowly realized that those fragmented memories were tiny pearls about to slip off a thinning string. My grandpa rents are not writers, and they never kept journals. The only tangible documentation we had were boxes of old photos and hours of silent home videos on Super-8 film from Cuba and from the Miami years. It is more than many Cuban exiles have, but if you were to line up those photos chronologically, or compare the Cuba videos to the Miami vide os, you would still never know a thing about what the Catass family went throug h in order to cross that sea. No one had ever tried to make this undifferentiated mess of material cohere. We had at our fingertips hundreds of photos, hours of home videos, and two lifetimes worth of memories, and all that we needed was someone to organize it into a communicable
54 narrative. My first year of college had gi ven me enough distance from my upbringing and my community that I started to see not just the uniqueness of my grandparents stories, but also the intrigue it sparked in people w ho were not familiar with the topic of Cuban exile. With my high school interest in film lingering on, I decided that the best way to bring together all of my re sources would be to make a documentary. I would interview my grandparents on camera and use the old photos and videos to accompany their stories. I would later come to understand the project as a testimonial film. My grandmother jokingly accuses me of making this film for posterity, and shes right. She and my grandfather were a second se t of parents to me. They took care of me every day after school for fifteen years. My entire life I had been burdened by the private fear that they would die w ithout hearing me speak Spanish, and the sudden realization that I might also lose my chance to have their stories was more than I could bear. I decided that I needed to record their stories on film so that after they were gone I would still be able to have something of them with me. Now, in my fourth year of college, Ive completed a self-contained 18-minute version of this film, and a longer version is in the making. The short version, titled A Little Piece (Un Pedacito) will be the subject of discussion here. Motivations & Adding to the Dialogue Beyond my desire to preserve my grandpare nts stories for the family, I made the film in response to a general lack of video documentation of individual stories about Cuban exile. While there are many documentari es about the revolution and other major historical events, the Peter Pan flights for example, these films tend to incorporate individual experience in to the overarching narrative of th e event itself. They use personal
55 stories to give texture to hi storical narratives, but rarely position the personal narrative as the main focus. There have, however, been many memoirs written by Cuban exiles that take a subjective approach to a collective experience. Next Year in Cuba by Gustavo Prez Firmat, for example, roughly corresponds to my fathers experience of leaving Cuba as a small child and growing up in Miami. Unfortunately, such subjective approaches are less common in film. Cuban-American anthropologist Ruth Beha r takes a very personal approach to her exile experience in her film Adio Kerida: Goodbye Dear Love On the surface of things, Behar and I have similar interests. We both document personal narratives, and we acknowledge our own roles in the production process. Her film documents her own return to Cuba and shares her interviews with her parents about their lives in Cuba and subsequent exile. However, what troubles me about Adio Kerida is the degree to which the film becomes about Behars own identity crisis rather than the actual experience of reconstructing the past. While I certainly identify with Behars desire to e xplore heritage, her focus on the difficulty of establishing her own identity and the tone of despair that accompanies this distracts from what I consider to be the more interesting problems of mediation and the reconstruction of the past. I knew that I did not want my film to be about me discovering my identity, but abou t my grandparents get ting to share their stories. If I was going to lear n anything about my identity from this experience, it was going to be the byproduct, not th e purpose, of the project. Research & Influences Before I began the film, I knew that I wanted to address how hopes, regrets, nostalgia and similarly fluid concepts shape the perception of the exile experience. My
56 early investigation of memoir writing and te stimonial documentary quickly validated my concerns about getting the w hole story, or the true stor y, namely by confirming that these are impossible tasks. Janet Walkers essay Testimony in the Umbra of Trauma: Film and Video Portraits of Survival was in fluential in my decision to focus on the act of recollection rather than on the recalled events themselves. Walker situates her claims about documentary within the framework of trauma studies, and she uses accounts by Holocaust survivors and victims of abuse as her examples. While my approach deals less with the traumatic effects of exile, Walker doe s lend some useful ideas to my project. The essay discusses how experimental documentary can address the issue of reliability of memory by emphasizing it as an inherent aspect of the testimonial process rather than a problematic factor. She notes that traumatic events often catalyze disruptions in memory and have been understood to undermine th e legitimacy of retrospective accounts. However, she argues that rather than be used as grounds to dismiss the subjects reliability, these disruptions should be interpre ted as part of the subjects experience. If these inconsistencies in memory are embraced as an extension of the event itself, they can ultimately fuel a richer understandi ng of the impact of past experiences. Walkers essay prompted me to think a bout ways to revise the documentary genre to promote a more self-reflexive approach that would address issues of representation and mediation. When I began my plans for the film, I wanted to show that the exile experience is not a closed event, but an ongoing state of being. I wanted to break down the neat separation of past and present. I want ed to show that the exile experience was not just something my grandparents recall on film, but something that they construct as it occurs. Exile is ongoing, and I did not want to create any illusions of containment.
57 My brief study of journa list Elena Poniatowskas Heres to You Jesusa! helped me to articulate my desire to break down the neat separation of past and present. Poniatowska writes from the perspective of a poor Mexican woman who recounts her life experiences. Jesusa is both the protagonist and first-person narrator of her story, and scholar Beth Ellen Jrgensens critical writing on the book explains how the distinct temporal experiences of each accomplish different tasks. She explains, The aging narrator [Jesusa] speaks from a here and now which does not change in the course of the novel. Spatially confin ed to her tiny room lost in the slums surrounding Mexico City, the narrating I is also temporally trapped in a strangely instantaneous present moment. In cont rast to the narrator, the I of the protagonist exists in time, and her expe riences trace a vast personal and social trajectory: infancy, adolescence, and maturity are projected against the background of six decades of Mexican history. (Jrgensen 34) This solidified my understandi ng of how the moment of ex perience and the moment of recollection are distinct events that can be expressed simultaneously through writing, or in my case, through film. I rela ted this to my own project, and was able to see how the process of recollection was an instantaneous experience that was affected by the past. Though this was a somewhat basic discovery (t his narrator-protagonist split is typical of memoir), the critical study of how writers us ed this technique helped me figure out how to shift the attention to my grandparents process of recollecti on and away from the events themselves. The texts that formed the first two chapte rs of my thesis would become the most important points of reference for my film. Russian authors Sergei Dovlatov and Michael
58 Ignatieff wrote family chronicles that functioned as useful correlates to my interest in documenting family history and family narrative. Ignatieffs project was very similar to mine in that we both document our grandpa rents exile experien ces. I particularly identified with the self-reflexive moments in The Russian Album where he expresses how difficult it was for him reconstruct a past th at was outside of hi s own experience. His writing on how he incorporates photos a nd documents interested me, and I would eventually also attempt to preserve the styles of my grandparents stories in my project. Theresa Cha and Trinh T. Minh-has expe rimental work, however, resonated with my desire to explore and expose the process of storytelling. Whereas these processes are available for analysis in the Russian texts, Cha and Trinhs activ ely manipulate language so that the reader or viewers attention is consistently redire cted to the form rather than the content of the writing in order to challenge the conv entions of life writing and documentary. I found their avant-garde techniques effective, and wanted to find ways to make similar moves in my own work once the editing process began. Initial Concerns: Mediation & Negotiation When the project moved from the research stage to the practical stage, I had established a clear idea of how I wanted the filming process to go. From the start, I knew I would take a somewhat hands-off approach to the interviews. I made a list of about twenty-five questions and prompt s to give the dialogue a very loose structure. They were open-ended and tended to follow the format of What are your most vivid memories of Cuba? or, Describe your arrival. What was the atmosphere like? The questions were mostly based on things I already knew about th eir stories. Though this might suggest that they were somewhat leading, my list was mostly a back-up in case the dialogue we
59 generated did not cover certain points I thought would be useful for an unfamiliar audience. For the most part, I did not have to refer to it. Despite the clarity of my plan, I did have some concer ns. This needed to be a bilingual film. Though many of my relatives ar e bilingual in the traditional sense of the word, my family as a whole is bi-lingual in the sense that family functions are characterized by sudden switches between Engl ish and Spanish in order to accommodate for the members who are not fluent in Englis h and for those whose Spanish is shaky at best. The film had to be accessible to all of them. I knew that I wanted to let my grandparents share their stories in their nati ve tongue, and although I was confident in my comprehension, at that time I had less than two semesters practice with speech and grammar and was worried that I would not be able to tr anslate the interviews for subtitling by myself. By the time I began to film, I knew that the finished product would be a source of analysis for my senior thesis. The project seemed to have moved out of the private and personal realm and into a very public a nd academic one. I tore myself up over the imagined tension between my two vastly di fferent audiences. On the one hand was my family, familiar with the subjects and the subject matter of the film. They would have personal investment in my grandparents themse lves and in the content of their stories, and I assumed that the theoretical issues th at interested me would only be peripherally interesting to them. On the other hand was the academic audiencemy peers and professorswho had no personal connection to the subjects of the film, and possibly very little knowledge or preexisting interest regarding th e Cuban Revolution. How would
60 I negotiate between my familys interests a nd the demands of my academic community? I thought that I had to pick who to cater to. What troubled me even more was that I was faced with the task of editing someone elses story. How could I maintain my grandparents as the authors if I, as the editor, had the last word? There was no reas onable way to bypass the editing process, and I was intimidated by the power it afforded me. I admitted that I had my own artistic agenda. I knew that my family would be sati sfied by the content eith er way, but in part for myself and in part for the larger audi ence, I wanted to produce a film that was aesthetically and in tellectually stimulati ng. I did not want to make a boring documentary that would be overly concerned with facts a nd objectivity, and I was interested in trying out some of the experimental techniques I had studied in Dicte and Surname Viet, Given Name Nam. I wanted to take advantage of the medi um and all of the visual material I had at my disposal. I did not want just talking head s, but was afraid that the photos and videos would disrupt their stories. I had not mast ered the knowledge of the origins of the material, and therefore could not be totally sure if I was pairing the images correctly with the content of the interviews. I fe lt that I did not have the authority to take stylistic risks. I despaired over my desire to maintain my own artistic integrity while keeping my grandparents the authors of their own stories. Ultimately, I accepted and embraced my role as mediator. I could not make a film according to the imagined interests of multip le audiences, and I could not make my influence invisible. The academic realm could analyze the finish product, but it could not dictate its production. As I had realized, I never had the option to be objective. Experience had made its impressions, and th ere was no way to extract that from my
61 filming and editing. The very acts of setting up a video camera and conducting interviews inevitably meant that we were functioning unde r somewhat artificial circumstances, but it also meant that we all had to agree to the terms of this diffe rent type of communication. It created a space where we could adjust to those terms, and then flourish within them. I decided to make it my priority to ne gotiate between my grandparents testimony and my own aesthetic. I began to see my su bjectivity not as an obstacle, but as an advantage. Our interviews were the product and the docu mentation of years of our correspondence on the subject of their life experiences, a nd I was finally able to understand the film as a collaborative effo rt among three people with equal agency, investment, and authority. Their decision to ra ise their grandchildren with their stories and with an awareness of th eir place in the Cuban exile community authorized me. My grandparents had prepared me for the role I would take on as editor of their stories. The Avant-Garde & the Conventional This clarity, however, did confirm one thing: this was not going to be an experimental film. Dicte and Surname Viet satisfy the inquiries of particular intellectual or scholarly communities who are concerned with the theory behind these types of works. Each one intentionally perp etuates and contri butes to the discourses of those communities, and a more general audience would likely be alienated by their frustrated syntax and aversion to familiar genre conventions. This can be understood to result, in part, from the deliberate emphasis they place on form over content. A reader is not likely to turn to Dicte for an understanding of Korean po litical history, nor will the wartime struggles of Vietnamese women comprise the first comments a viewer makes about Surname Viet.
62 Part of my decision not to make an e xperimental film out of my grandparents stories required me to reconsider the way I think about the term convention. I had to understand convention not as borin g or rigid, but as a form th at consists of patterned regularities without radical devi ations. It is in this way that my grandparents operate within a convention. They have spent years of their lives tell ing the same stories to the same people under more or less the same circumstances. Their narrative modes are consistent and established. In all their years of storytelling, they have developed their own habitual styles as a resu lt of their correspondence with a particular and consistent audiencefriends and relatives. As I explai ned earlier, my grandparents are not writers; they are storytellers. They have ideological and emotional intent that drives their decisions to share their stories, but they do not share the formal aes thetic intent that motivates my involvement in the project. In the end, my aesthetic goal became to respect the conventions that they operate in and use my artistic influence to punctuate the style of their storytelling. Filming Process I began filming in October 2009. Over the course of two days, I interviewed my grandparents in their home in Miami. On the first day, I began by sitting them side by side in their living room, moving some chairs around so that their faces would pick up the light that was coming through the window. I se t up the camera in front of them and stood behind it so that they could comfortably ad dress me and appear to be addressing the camera, or the audience. Of the five interviews I ultimately conducted, this was by far the least successful. I had hoped that sitting them together would generate a dialogue, but sharing the cameras eye made my grandmother clam up as my grandfather rambled
63 somewhat philosophically. There were some moments where the interview picked up and they would comment on each others ideas, but for the most part it seemed that something about the circumstance made both of their personalities fall flat. They both seemed uncharacteristically serious, and this made for tense footage. This was the interview that I used the least in the film. I suggested we take a break, and I used the time to think about how to get them to open up more and feel more relaxed in front of the camera. I went to the office and pulled out a yellowing box marked RETRATOS (portr aits, or photographs) and brought it into the dining room where I set up the camera. I as ked my grandparents to sit at the table and encouraged them to look through the photos a nd describe them a little bit. The difference was night and day. With something to do w ith their hands and mo re concrete memory triggers, they both started to talk in much detail about the stor ies behind the various photos. My grandfather described his old summer house on the key and talked about life before World War II, and my grandmother described their honeymoon in Mexico and the soundscape of Santiago, Cuba wh ile they were staying with Alfonsos parents after they returned. Even though a good amount of this footag e did not make it into A Little Piece, the casual mood of this interv iew generated some very importa nt scenes for the film. The rest of the interviews went smoothly, a nd the comfort that this shared interview established helped them ease into the situ ation and prepared th em for the individual interviews that would follow. The filming pro cess, save for a brief one-hour follow-up in November 2010, was completed over the course of a weekend.
64 Editing: Establishing Conventions The real editing of the film began in Fall 2010. I had worked with the footage a fair amount in the year since I filmed, but my advancement was slow and the fragmentary bits I had played with were accidentally erased on the public computer I had been working on. It might have been to my advantage, because when fall rolled around I knew I had to get organized and get it done. The Visual Anthropology tutorial I was taking at the time was influential in the production of A Little Piece and many of my editorial decisions were informed by the dialogue I enga ged in with my professor and classmates. I decided to establish the conventions in the opening scene. The film begins with my grandfathers disembodied voice over a black screen saying, Do I remember Cuba? Constantly. Constantly. He starts to list the different elements he remembers, and in the moment which he says, The atmosphere, a black and white home video of a family party appears on the screen, and the soft piano sounds of the Buena Vista Social Club, the legendary Cuban music ensemble, fade in. My grandmothers voice chimes in saying, Of Cuba, Ill say that what I miss most are the mountains, and on th e screen the viewer sees mountains. When she mentions family and parties, the viewer sees the family party again. When she recalls riding bicycles, we se e the open road. All of the imagery in this scene corresponds rather directly to the content of the dialogue, and this sets the foundation that signals what the viewer might expect from the rest of the film. The tone of the first scene is one of pure nostalgia. Videos of old Cuba and my grandparents looking young and lively at th e beach fade over one another as my grandmother makes sweeping recollections about her most vivid memories of her old life. Grainy Super-8 film tends to have the uncanny effect of inspiring nostalgia in viewers
65 regardless of any connection they might have to the people in the vide os. I think that this has to do with the cultural as sociations we have with home vi deos, the idea that the act of watching them lets us revisit our own pasts. In a way, they operate in their own language (family parties, new cars, and vacations are common motifs), a nd this language is common enough to these types of videos that vi ewers will draw on th eir own associations while seeing the home videos of others. I wanted to situate the unfamiliar audience in my grandparents story by invoking that nostalgia, so that they could experi ence the film with a degree of comfort comparable to that of the familial audience. Deviating from Conventions: Self-Correction In addition to getting the viewers comf ortable with the language of the film, setting up the conventions was n ecessary in order to make th e later deviations apparent. The scene that details the day my grandparents left Cuba delica tely illustrates my negotiation between the experimental works that influenced my aesthetic and the style of my grandparents storytelling. My grandmother gave an incredible desc ription of the day they left Cuba. The shot was so perfect that I was able to let it run uncut for a full five minutes. I thought the long shot was important to this scene because it contained so much of what I wanted the film to be about. In a way, it was about being more honest. Letting my grandmother speak and work through her occasional mistak es was essential to conveying the process in its entirety. Not only w ould this scene give viewers the critical narrative of my grandparents departure, but it also exemplified my interest in nonlinear quality of recollection.
66 In order to emphasize this point to view ers, I chose to accent my grandmothers self-correction in the editing of the scene. She starts by explaining how they left Cuba. She had quit her job at the telephone company and my grandfather was off of work from the Cuban Aviation Company on the pretense of a vacation. They had tickets, but at that time it was nearly impossible to secure seat re servations on a plane. She explains that while the kids had valid visas, her visa and my grandfat hers had expired at the beginning of the year, and they could not renew them because the American Embassy in Cuba had shut down. During this explanation, black a nd white footage of airplanes in a taxiway fades in. Next is a color shot of a wing from the inside of the plane window followed by a close up of the terminal window, again from th e inside of a plane. While the old footage plays, my grandmother explains that they de cided that they would have to send the kids ahead to Miami, and they themselves would try to leave later thr ough Jamaica. The next shot closes in on three adults in a line as one of them lifts up a child. My grandmother cuts herself off, saying, We took the kids to the airportno, and at this moment the airport footage cuts abruptly ba ck to the interview, and the viewer can see her look off as she rethinks the chronology. My grandmothers self-correction reminds me of some of the techniques Theresa Cha uses in Dicte Chas writing is full of the same untidy adjustments to language that override each other and progress discordantly with linear time. Cha enacts in her writing what necessarily characterizes my grandmothers testimonythe active process of recollection. Whereas my grandmothers self-c orrection is typical of oral history, Cha decides to enact this process rather than leav e readers with a clean narrative. I chose to
67 keep my grandmothers memory flaw in the film because it conveys this same interest in process. Moreover, I wanted to allude to the im agination; the way images move through the imagination and drop out where other thoughts interfere. I thought th at to create this experience for the viewer would have the same effect as the home videos in the opening scene; they would call on a familiar experience, a familiar mental process that would help them identify with my grandparents stor y. This experience, I hoped, would remind viewers of the messiness of thought and memory. The identification would not necessarily be with th e content of my grandparents stor ies, but with the form and the process of their recollection. Language of Testimony & Translation Translation has been a major part of th is project. In the last three years Ive improved my Spanish to the point of being able to confidently translate all of the interviews with my grandparents. My transla tion work allowed me to engage with their testimony as a text, and this engagement has helped me see what raw testimonial language permits and heavily edited texts conceal. Like the written genres of autobiogra phy or memoir, oral testimony also has its own language. On film, it permits a fluidity of ideas through active, unedited speech that is not typical of written narratives. The language of Dicte frequently attempts to approximate the fluidity of speech we see in oral testimony, and though it is useful for Chas theoretical concerns, it must be acknowledged as a de liberate stylistic decision rather than a characteristic that is inherent to her form. Interestingly, the features that make Dicte a frustrating read are the same ones that make oral testimony seem so
68 natural. Testimonial language is inevitably filled with inconsistencies and moments of mistake or self-correction. My grandmothers self-correction, for example, is highly common in oral testimony and is actua lly very typical of everyday speech. My grandmothers testimony carries a ce rtain degree of controlled urgency. Her stories are highly descriptive, tending to focus on the concrete sequential details of events with a sharp attention to cause and effect. My grandfathers testimony is noticeably more philosophical and ideological, more poli tically oriented and marked by emphatic repetition. Their styles complement each othe r very well, and what we dont hear from one, we hear from the other. It seems at times that my grandmothers speech dominates the narrative, but this is the result of their different storytelling styles. Her speech is characteristically more detailed, and of gr eater duration as a result. My grandfathers comments are more pointed and general, and therefore his speech occupies less time in the film. She shares the particularities of th eir experiences, while he abstracts the details she offers into more universal terms. The act of recollection entails a certain de gree of traveling back to the event, and in some ways, the experience is denser in recollection as a result of all the time and experience that has accumulated since the original event. In their testimony, my grandparents language moves almost undetect ably between past and present tense as they sit in their living room reconstructing their lives for me. Where the emotional content is high, their syntax te nds to break, and they often unconsciously slip in English words that are a testament first to the time they have passed in the United States, and secondly, to the granddaughter who for so long only spoke to them in English.
69 Stepping back for a moment, I now see it all as an exploration of language. Everything I did for this thesis project was motivated by the curiosity and fear that language has always instilled in me. I was at one time concerned that my imperfect Spanish limited my ability to claim and shar e that part of my heritage, but now I understand my status on the bor der of the English-speaking American community and the Spanish-speaking Cuban community not as a li mitation, but as a seri es of opportunities to engage with a variety of experiences that I could not access if I chose to stay on one side of the line. The film that I in itially conceived of as a bili ngual task turned out to be a multilingual compilation of every mode of expr ession I have learned to engage in. Over the course of the project, I have read, wr itten, and spoken in English and Spanish, but there are other languages here too. I have spoken in the language of academia, the language of testimony, and the la nguage of film. In addition to helping me improve my Spanish, my translation work exposed me to the subtleties of the language my grandparents use; not just to their native tongue, but to the syntax of their storytelling that, until I saw it written on a page, I could not detect. This film allowed me to share language with my grandparents. They offered me their stories through the Spanish language, and I offered them the chance to sh are them with others through my filmic language. This correspondence wo uld never have been possi ble were it not for the unusual circumstances I have navigated through out my life. Bilingualis m, heritage, film, and writing are etched upon me, driving me towa rd the frightening and inspiring site that is language.
70 WORKS CITED Behar, Ruth and Elizabeth Pea, dir. Adio Kerida: Goodbye Dear Love. Women Make Movies, 2002. VHS. Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. Dicte Berkeley, California: Univer sity of California Press, 2001. Print. Cheng, Anne Anlin. "Memory and Anti-Docu mentary Desire in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dicte." Melus 23.4 (1998): 119-133. Print. Dovlatov, Sergei. Ours: A Russian Family Album Trans. Anne Frydman. New York, New York: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1983 (Translation, 1989). Print. Gallagher, Catherine, and Stephen Greenblatt Practicing New Historicism Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. Print. Ignatieff, Michael. The Russian Album New York, New York, U.S.A.: Viking, 1987. Print. Jrgensen, Beth E. The Writing of Elena Poniatowska: Engaging Dialogues Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994. Print. Trinh T. Min-ha, dir. Surname Viet, Given Name Nam. Women Make Movies, 2005. DVD Paperno, Irina. Stories of the Soviet Experien ce: Memoirs, Diaries, Dreams. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009. Print. Prez Firmat, Gustavo. Next Year in Cuba: A Cubano's Coming-of-Age in America New York: Anchor Books, 1995. Print. Poniatowska, Elena, and Deanna Heikkinen. Here's to You, Jesusa!. New York: Penguin Books, 2002. Print.
71 Ruohonen, Ilkka. "Surrealist Sensibility in Ethnographic Documentaries." Visual Anthropology Review 23.1 (2007): 64-68. Print. Walker, Janet. "Testimony in the Umbra of Trauma: Film and Video Portraits of Survival." Studies in Document ary Film 1 (2007): 91-104. Print. Yu, Timothy Ph D. Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry since 1965 Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2009. Print.