"A reality not of paper, but one that lives within us and determines each instant of our countless daily deaths, and that nourishes a source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty, of which this roving and nostalgic Colombian is but one cipher more, singled out by fortune. Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude."
Gabriel Garcial Marquez
in his Nobel Prize Lecture

To Render Our Lives Believable

A Humanities 10 Project by Carissa Chen

 An Introduction: To See Both Together – A Preface for this Project

 

Chapter 1: The Banana Massacre and My Grandfather

   - Analytical Preface

   - 'On Every Holy Side'

   - A Memory

 

Chapter 2: The Plague of Insomnia and My Mother

   - Analytical Preface

   - 'There's An Art to Everything' 

   - A Personal Reflection

 

Chapter 3: The Golden Fishes and My Voice

   - Analytical Preface

   - 'In Time'

 

 

 

 

History is ever present within us. "The past is never dead. It is not even the past." (William Faulkner) When trauma and injustice are parts of an inherited past, our personal stories can take an air of the fantastical, of magical realism.

 

Trauma cripples perception of logic and order; mundane, daily lives may carry the tremendous weight of the fantastical. In the immediate face of injustice, the incredible becomes the mundane and the stories are of desensitization: Jose Arcadio Segundo’s responds to the Banana Massacre by losing himself and disappearing within texts, alone. Child soldiers report dissociation, in face of such tremendous acts of cruelty, and imagination replaces reality as a defence mechanism. Such trauma integrates the surreal into the real.

 

In retrospective, as the inheritor of such stories of trauma through family lines and narratives, I see its reflection. In my life, the mundane – a racist note in my textbook, the loneliness of a Chinese-American restaurant in Boston’s Chinatown – take on a fantastical quality because I see these daily interactions within a larger metanarrative, both personal history and political.

 

In my life, I have inherited these stories of trauma and have witnessed it blur the past and present. Like the Buendias, trauma has been reborn intergenerationally much like a palimpsest in my family. The wounds and memories of a previous generation, erased but still imprinted, are memorialized with new layers and it is as if, like the Buendias, we cycle through: my grandfather fleeing his home, my mother doing the same in a different country. My Chinese name as my grandfather’s and the similar erasure of both.

 

While this experience of rememory exists within the personal, they are within the context of greater power dynamics and historical forces: Colonization, genocide. Domestic violence and the oppression of women, the Chinese-Exclusion Act. Diasporas, escape. I have never experienced my life as a singular unfolding but the story of my lineage and family. I have always experienced my life, or at least the narratives I weave through it, within the context of larger metanarratives. The personal and the political are like two mirrors reflecting against each other, facing one another into infinite distances, deafening in their mutual infinites.

 

Imagine that you do not have the language to express your own memories, to make a narrative from your life. Imagine that the political structures, power dynamics, hegemony of a single voice or history is overbearing, deafening such that you are attempting to repaint your earth with a single paintbrush no larger than your eye. Imagine that you are standing between these two mirrors – one personal, and one political – and your face is accurate and honest in the personal but distorted in the political; as these two images bounce against each other in their reflection and merge into the imagined infinite distance, the distorted and the honest are forced into one – at both you, yet unrecognizable. I believe this dissonance is where the solitude lies.

 

In the process of writing magical realism or creating surrealistic self-portraits or films, I grapple within this space, attempt to regain autonomy over my voice and image. I do believe that families condemned to one hundred years of solitude may have a second opportunity on earth. The compelling power of this language and art is its possibility to inspire love, the birthpoint for curiosity. It offers the possibility for someone to reconcile these two images – that a political idea and memory may be a person, and a person, a historical event. That it is possible to see both together.

 

This project, as such, is a response to One Hundred Years of Solitude. It is a story of how intergenerational memory of trauma leads to language and images of magical realism experienced in honest, daily life; how this is a personal response to larger political narratives dictated by power; how this is a solitude created or at times eased by language and art. This project is composed of three chapters, each with their own accompanying analytical preface.

 

Each of the these chapters originates from a line within One Hundred Years of Solitude and recounts stories from the one hundred years, 1914 to 2014, in which my family forgot and rewrote its history: The first chapter attempts to reassemble my grandfather’s story as the only survivor of his hometown destroyed in World War II. It responds to José Arcadio Buendía’s experience of the Banana Massacre. The second chapter is the story of my mother, the distortion of narrative in the Cultural Revolution, and her flight from her hometown to America, years later, in response to family violence. It is written in response to Colonel Aureliano Buendia post-power, melting and recasting millions of gold fishes. The final chapter is through my own voice and it weaves together these stories. It is written in response to the plague of insomnia in Macondo.

i.

THe Banana Massacre and my grandfather

Analytical Preface

In One Hundred Years of Solitude, José Arcadio Segundo’s experience as the sole survivor of the Banana Massacre highlights the role of language in response to atrocity. After the corpses from the massacre are shipped to the sea in train crates, José Arcadio Segundo is shocked to discover that those around him deny his words and his memories. The government shares a declaration which rewrites the story, claiming that all the strikers have peacefully returned to their homes. Family members deny the destruction. Language and fabricated stories erase the memory of those killed in the massacre, adding another layer of

injustice to the Banana Massacre.

 

In response, José Arcadio Segundo spends the rest of his live trying to convince others that the Banana Massacre truly took place. Upon realizing that the war has passed and no one will believe him, José Arcadio Segundo remembers Colonel Aureliano Buendia’s fascinating stories of war and his “countless examples,”but instead of believing him, José feels betrayed and called Colonel a faker: “He could not understand why he had need so many words to explain what he felt in war because one was enough: fear.”

 

This quotation suggests the intricacy in which language interacts with personal trauma and memory for José Arcadio Segundo. While the false history proclaimed by the government causes  José Arcadio Segundo to literally disappear, he finds solace in reading and language. Within it, he can reconstruct his memory of the events and claim it as a truth – his truth. Yet, José Arcadio Segundo’s criticism of Colonel Aureliano Buendia’s stories also suggests the boundaries of storytelling within war, between personal and political. José feels betrayed by these stories because they were built to entertain – to provide “countless examples” of fascinating stories instead of retell the honest experience of a man against a sea of rifles.

 

The ambiguous use of the pronoun He is repeated through José Arcadio Segundo’s quotation, as if merging Colonel Aureliano Buendia with other narratives, the great volume of other stories describing men returning from war. This further draws parallels between Colonel Aureliano Buendia and the government – while one manipulates stories of warfare for entertainment and glory, the other does so for control, but both do not remain faithful to the true experience. It is not the magnitude of the words or how “many” were needed to explain – it can be simplified to one universal experience of fear.

 

This chapter respond to these ideas through film, poetry, and prose.

 

The poem, On Every Holy Side, is written through the imagined perspective of my grandfather and the stories he would pass down to me in first-person. Through the use of repetition of phrases like “namelessly” and “the earth is round,” I hope to create the sense of time as cyclical – that these words are used over and over at different moments of the story to tie these moments together. This repetition is also used to emphasize the experience of loneliness and the inability to articulate emotion – it mimics the way that, when we are uncertain in dialogue, we’ll use the same phrases over and over again, struggling against the language, in hopes of conveying an emotion or idea that seems impossible to express.

 

The poem incorporates lines from One Hundred Years of Solitude and three other poems – ‘Son of Myself’ by John Canaday, ‘New Heaven and Earth’ by D.H. Lawrence, and ‘Barn Point’ by Talin Tahajian. ‘On Every Holy Side’ grapples literally with land and time, experience and isolation on the earth. It draws multiple lines from One Hundred Years of Solitude to reference the absurdity of his experience, the surrealism in his loneliness. John Canaday’s poem, inspired by Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself,’ is written about his first-person experience of cultural displacement in Jordan just after the first Gulf War. I chose to incorporate a line from this poem because of its reference to self-narrative: in the space of suffering, he struggles to reevaluate himself and create a cohesive song for who he is. ‘New Heaven and New Earth’ is a war poem by D.H. Lawrence inspired by World War I. In it, his use of repetition in different contexts merges lust with rage and fear and all the emotions that war conjures up within him. The final poem incorporated, ‘Barn Point’ is by my friend Talin Tahajian and it describes her attempt to use language remember her grandmother. While the other two poems tie into themes I hope to express in it, the incorporation of ‘Barn Point’ is self-reflexive – it highlights the fact that I am writing this in the experience of memory, of imagining my grandfather’s words and experiences.

 

The film accompanying ‘On Every Holy Side’ attempts to draw into the language surreal images, overlaying in transparencies historical archive newspapers, films from planes in World War II, images from my grandparents in the hospital, documentaries on Chinatown from that era, Chinese propaganda songs. The film is integral to this chapter because it further emphasizes how this is a palimpsest – that I am writing and rewriting my grandfather’s story in hopes of keeping it alive, that it is tied within larger currents of political events. The personal literally is overlayed with the political in the film, much like the image of the two mirrors I described in the introduction. Both words and images are remembered post-trauma, at times dissociated from each other and this film attempts to combine them together to heighten the dissonance of piecing together broken memories.

 

The prose, ‘A Memory,’ is written from my perspective. It responds to José Arcadio Segundo’s experience by complicating it. While my grandfather was the only survivor of his hometown and my mother described his stories like myths to me as a child, my grandfather confessed that he too had killed a man. It was a moment of shock for me – my grandfather, a figure that my mother had elevated to a hero, could have felt guilt or perhaps pride or the mixture of both at an act he did in his youth. I wish to challenge José Arcadio Segundo’s description – war is not just fear, it is a total reimagining of the self.

 An Introduction: To See Both Together – A Preface for this Project

 

Chapter 1: The Banana Massacre and My Grandfather

   - Analytical Preface

   - 'On Every Holy Side'

   - A Memory

 

Chapter 2: The Golden Fishes and My Mother

   - Analytical Preface

   - 'There's An Art to Everything' 

   - A Personal Reflection

 

Chapter 3: Insomnia and Myself

   - Analytical Preface

   - 'In Time'

 

 

 

 

   It is true, I was that lonely knot of the earth –

the boy running with the bullets and a body bleeding moons,

war burnt my earth into one perfect line, one path and

I walked it namelessly, remembered bodies namelessly,

at times, it was something amazing – the body without

the mind, without language.

My heart was only my hunger and

my body was only my burning house with the people inside

 

shouting do not forget me. do not forget me.

I did not shout myself, I did not suffer.

 

It was summer and I watched an enemy soldier lay

down into a bed of leaves and curl his body around the gun.

I watched him fall asleep tenderly. It is true, I did not suffer.

I crossed into another world, shyly, boyish.

It is true, I could not

understand why I had needed so many words to explain what I felt

in war because one was enough: fear. It was in the earth. It was summer but the rain would not fall and the flowers would not grow.

It was summer but the earth would not give us a new heaven

me and the enemy boy asleep across the same path,

two bloody young men remained in that place in silence, a stone immobility.

 

 

All I knew was escape: to walk head up

in a land without homes, to walk a straight line

and to seek rivers with my head down. My only

sense of time came from the old drawing of my

parents on their wedding day and I remember

the solemnity of that one straight line.

In it, I had come to understand the earth is round, like an orange

and I told myself in this narrow path, it is true, the earth is round,

like an orange and this was how I passed my time.

One day a baby boy wrapped in

a light blue blanket had been left by the path.

It must have grown tired of wailing, resigned itself to

silence, open-eyed at that undisturbed blue sky,

a blue so enormous I must have spent months with it

in the wrath of my imagination. The landscape of golden

dirt tips into itself and becomes the horizon. It is almost

miraculous how little of it I could ever describe – life,

I understood, exists on every holy side.

 

 

 

with lines from

song of myself by john canaday

new heaven and earth by dh lawrence

barn point by talin tahajian

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The room was a husk. At the end of his life, the tumor in his lungs spread, atrophied the rest of his muscles so that his hands shook without control. When he could no longer speak, my grandfather began scribbling words on the white plastic table taped to his hospital bed. His fingers gripped the pen like water, his wrist slackened like a willow. He wrote with his eyes closed. When every inch of his hospital bed disappeared beneath illegible black scribbles, he wrote on a stack of napkins that stood like a tree by his bedside.I have often tried to read those napkins. At the time, they seemed so futile – what was the point if no one could read them?

 

“You must remember,” my grandfather confessed “that it was not war. Wives died for their husbands. Fathers did not save their daughters. The sky turned red for twenty-one days. Fire rained from the two mountains beside each side of our city. War is too clean of a word. My world was rage, pure rage.”

 

He did not break my gaze. I could not look away.

 

“The Japanese soldiers feasted in our sorrow. My father did nothing. They forced him to stand naked in front of his sons in the middle of the market. I could not look at my own skin for weeks.”

 

He takes my hand and rubs it.

 

“There were rocks by the river where the men from my home and the soldiers would go to smoke together. I was thirteen when I went there for the first time with my brother, your gu-fu. He gave me a cig and, as I began to light it, the Japanese man who stripped my father walked to the river alone, just a few meters away. We did not think. I held the man’s arms back as gu-fu hoisted a rock over the Japanese man’s head and let it drop hard. We ran for miles.”

 

“It is the proudest moment of my life.”

 

I nod and look down. I hold his hand and rub my fingers against his old veins, jutting out between the soft skin. My grandfather is looking at me from his hospital bed and I know I must speak.

 

“I did not know this,” I try to say, smiling gently, uncertain.

 

We know his time is ending. Something in the manner he spoke with revealed to me that he had kept this secret for years. My grandmother did not know and neither did my mother or her siblings. I am shaking but I try my best to hold still.

 

My grandfather is still looking at me. His eyes are soft. There is a tube extending from his lips and wrapped into the machine beside us, gently beeping, and the room is white, very white, warm and washed of color. My grandfather looks like an angel between the white bedsheets. He is still looking at me.

 

ii.

THe Plague of Insomnia and my mother

Analytical Preface

*In One Hundred Years of Solitude, a plague of insomnia devastates Macondo, infecting one member of the family after the other. This insomnia is particularly disturbing because it causes a complete loss of memory: “When the sick person became used to his state of vigil, the recollection of his childhood began to be erased from his memory, then the name and notion of things, and finally the identity of people and even the awareness of his own being until he sank into a kind of idiocy that had no past.”

 

While the insomnia is devastating for each individual, it becomes particularly exacerbated when experienced collectively. As each of the family members begin to lose their notions of life and memory, the description of how they carry on in daily life– mindlessly – mirrors the response to trauma. Perhaps most fascinating is the response of the town to initial onset of insomnia – it is liberating. They are happy that they do not need to sleep for they can get more work done.

 

The parallels between these events and the experiences of my mother in the Cultural Revolution astounded me. The process of erasure by the government – rewriting the entire language, destroying previous books and art, recreating a new history and future – was initially welcomed. It was as if the entire nation had had its “childhood … erased from memory.” They were to be a more utilitarian and productive society, one that increased labor and brought the rightful glory to the people. Yet, the process of destruction, the process of forgetting created a sense of “idiocy” and mindlessness – ordinary civilians took part in the hysteria as members of the red guard, pillaging and destroying at any possible accusation. The price of forgetting was chaos.

 

Perhaps even more fascinating was the response of Jose Arcadio Buendia to the onset of insomnia. He attempts desperately to salvage memories by writing – he labels everything in his home. Yet, Jose Arcadio Buendia recognizes the attempt as temporary: “Little by little, studying the infinite possibilities of a loss of memory, he realized that the day might come when things would be recognized by their inscriptions but that no one would remember their use.” It is this dissonance between language – inscriptions – instead of use and memory that created a sense of chaos within my mother’s city during the Cultural Revolution. Everything was renamed in what felt like a new language and concepts, not stories and individuals, replaced history in Mao’s Red Book.

 

This experience of language – where words and inscriptions are removed from their context – ultimately parallel my mother’s own immigration. Having studied English, she could understand words without their connotations. Her own newly adopted English name – called a ‘paper name’ historically – rewrote an aspect of her own experience. Language, as analyzed through these overlapping narratives within my mother’s life and the town of Macondo, has its limitations.

This chapter examines this idea through the poem ‘There is an Art to Everything’ and a short personal reflection.

 

‘There’s an Art to Everything’ blurs my mother’s memories together, overlapping her sense of displacement with the destruction and rebuilding of her city Nanjing and her eventual immigration to the United States. It is written through her voice and I imagine the lines through her perspective. The repetition of the song – do you love me? do you love me? – in different contexts highlights the inability of language to stand without context. Each time, it is used in different senses. The repetition here emphasizes the circular sense of experience – that these emotions are re-lived in different moments of life and experiences. These moments parallel the theme of three generations of women – my grandmother, my mother, and myself – suffering from a similar sense of displacement and forgetting.

 

The poem incorporates liens from three poems, ‘Civilization’  by Carl Phillips, ‘Elegy; by Brandon Som, and ‘Untitled’ by Kelechi Nwankwoala. Each carries their connection, past and present, personal and reflexive to the experience of forgetting or the rewriting of a narrative.

 

The short personal reflection aims to highlight the aspect of language as a means of pushback, a means of remembrance. It reflects on my mother’s stories of the Cultural Revolution and how they impacted my own belief of the power of language to distort or to rectify. By bridging my mother’s stories with the problems I face in the present and in my life, I hope to share how the forgetting experienced in the Cultural Revolution is an ongoing, universal experience. We are always forgetting. I felt that most palpably in response to recent politics and this short reflection aims to bridge my mother’s voice with my own.

*Note: This poem is an edited version of a previous piece and the video is in collaboration with short film clips and photographs from my friends Adriana De La Torre and Kyra Mo

 

 

after Carl Phillips/ after Kelechi Nwankwoala/ after Brandon Som/

 

    There’s an art to everything: How

           my spine carries the way

    my mother kneeled head-first

in the Nanjing dirt. My name

is the song my mother sang to me

     when she was dying of thirst –

do you love me?

                   do you love me?

       We carried everything

  on our backs and asked

    our bodies to sing.

   

               I believe all the stories

     of who I am: a boat to

       New York burning into the asphalt

    horizon, my mother afraid

 of the most beautiful

part of her body. A centuries-old

bell in Trinity Church rings and sings

      the same song I

   did when I first saw my

hometown books burnt –

do you love me

               do you love me?

 

At that time, Nanjing

 my home, was a city without

    a memory, a body without a heart.

      The fire destroyed our names

and new buildings from the government

    were raised beneath the shadows of gold

      tombs, forgotten memories, destroyed

earth.

The new nation was so recent

   that many things lacked

          names in our new language and in order

to indicate them, it was necessary to point.

     In our new language, in our new world,

I would come to meet an artisan without memories,

        whose only dream was to die of fatigue

in the oblivion and misery of his little gold fishes

and he sang

do you love me?

do you love me?  

  He gave me my English name, my paper name,

the one I adopted when I left for New York.   

     I know my daughter

does not hear her paper name,

        a soft displacement

  in her voice, sing.

There are some who do not realize

  the women in my family

are all Orpheus. But I have heard

             us in this debt

of language, in the aviary

 of our scarred bodys.

 

Personal Reflection

My mom grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution. Her experiences taught me the terrifying power of the pen and words. Every morning, she would walk to school and recite the same songs from Mao ZeDong’s communist red book. The walls of her school were filled with propaganda – the east is red, the east is red. She once saw her teacher shot by red guards just for reading a book about democracy.


 

I thought about my mom’s childhood the night after the election, sprawled out on my bed and staring, immobile, at the white flakes of paint on my ceiling. I thought about language on the internet and doublespeak in 1984, and just the word white. When I was fourteen, my friend and I were involved in a serious car crash. All I remember were the hours spent sprawled in the hospital bed, staring at that ceiling, that same obnoxious white as my flaking dorm room walls. I stared at the emptiness of that white until I realized what I regretted most were not things I had said, but what I hadn’t. 

iii.

THe Golden Fish and my Voice

The Things that are Forgotten 

i.

My mother used to tell me: picture twenty-thousand pearls stripped from the string, spilling: an ocean of full moons. When she was young, mothers left infant girls by the side of the Yangtze river. I imagine  their eyes, their mothers -we had no choice. They were girls, we couldn’t afford

      them. –

 

My mother pries the lychee skin open, my American radio  buzzing words that don’t fit in her mouth. My mom always

spoke broken English,   her tongue hung.

She would tell me stories of the war in Nanjing with

bruised blue arms and soft slab mud  to swallow sick soldiers whole

and we peeled the dumpling skins and kneaded the skin peels together,

   mending, mending, molding.

 

ii.

Someone  once scribbled go back to your  country

into the margins of my math notebook in the most beautiful

molding blue ink. I see that perfect blue ink

when I close my eyes and   picture our neighborhood

swimming pool.  Ten years have passed

since we first moved from China and I have  forgotten how to write the language. For a day, I can no longer write my own name, my Chinese name – the name of a tree with long roots, a name passed down through generations that my grandfather once shared and the ancestors before him. I am ashamed – it was as if I have erased my story willingly.

 

iii.

 

Ten years have passed and I have finished my first year of college.

At night, my friends and I take a bus to the ocean and we stand alone in front of it.

Standing in front of the black ocean, thinking about how the idea of the far future scared me, I was reminded of my grandfather’s napkins - the illegible ones he wrote on and drew on before his death.

 

When I was a young girl, my grandfather had taught me how to write my name in calligraphy. He was the one who taught me to hold a brush. “Like a backbone,” he explained in Chinese, holding my elbow firmly against the table and the brush strictly vertical. “Gentle, only with fingers. Hold your wrist.” The second way was “like a wand or a spear.” You held it palm up, every brushstroke requiring the full movement of arm and body. When I was little, I always preferred the second method, slathering large expanses of blue and yellow over my bedroom walls and our driveway, much to my mother’s horror.

 

 

My grandfather recognized how much I loved to create. And on the evenings when our breakfast pork bao zhi were steamed and the blue countertop tiles cleaned, when my exhausted mother would collapse on the couch, when my brother would lock his bedroom door to clutch his Nintendo DS, my grandfather would take a seat at the hong mu calligraphy table in his study and turn on Beethoven’s symphonies. He let me stand by his side. Sometimes, my grandfather told me stories of his childhood, stories of the war. While his black brushstrokes would mold mountains and Chinese characters, his words and his stories would mold me. “The soft-slab mud swallowed feet whole,” he traced a thick curve, a black mountain.

 

 

War broke when he was young. They weren’t rich - his father was a carpenter, and sometimes lunch was an apple, a bowl of rice.His town was set on fire and he was the only survivor. He wandered alone on a single straight path for a time he cannot remember. Eventually, he joined a special division - “lost kids” who didn’t fight but followed the Chinese soldiers around. What I remember best from his stories are the books he kept on the road. I can still imagine him telling me that for him, books weren’t pretty. In a war like that, between hills and trenches of enemy soldiers firing down and his best friend shot in front of him, books were his salvation. He told me that, through words, he got to taste a little bit of the mundane life - tilling the fields with my parents, skidding rocks off the rivers. “That’s all I ever wanted,” he’d say as he finished the scroll “It’s too late. I’ll- I’ll tell you more some other day.”

 

 

He never did tell me more, and as I stood by myself years later in front of that overwhelming, black ocean at night, thinking about everything he would never be able to tell me – the words on the napkins, the stories from his childhood – I found myself slowly coming to terms with his passing. Although I would forget his words, I knew I would never forget the way he made me feel.

 

Before we drove back home from the ocean that night, I picked up a stick on the shore and, holding it the way my grandfather taught me how to hold a brush, began to carve my two names - Carissa – meaning beloved in Greek – and my Chinese name, 陈佳容 – into the sand. The waves lapped over my name, slowly eroding the definition of each letter. As we left, I knew I would never forget the way the ocean, my name and its story, my grandfather and my family made me feel. 

“What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” 
Gabriel Garcial Marquez
for my incredible family, with all my love
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