visualizing the work of memory
Recently I found a digital album of childhood photos I'd compiled for a high school project, then became obsessed with matching them with photos of myself as a young adult. This spurred a reflection on why I was doing this, let alone obsessively, and what it has to do with my career ambitions.
Last month at a webinar hosted by UC Berkeley, Filipino-American novelist Gina Apostol discussed how the attempt to preserve memory transforms it. Below are some of my notes:
As artists, we have to be constantly aware of that move, that transformation, of what happens to memory when we write it. We have to be conscious of the mediation art produces from memory. In our own homes, we see how we carry memory with us. So when we move it into art, what happens to it? Apostol sees memory always as a form of distortion. The minute you move it into words, you're transforming an experience. Once experience is moved into speech, something is lost in that recall. Words have limited capacity to reproduce sensation.
And yet for writers, words are all we have. Apostol's sense of the limitations of language allows her to appreciate more deeply the power of it — precisely because there’s so much in absence, in gaps, that make the art — the stuff that can’t be said is also there.
What does this have to do with me obsessively matching photos from my past?
I realized working with photos was a visible manifestation of what I do constantly as a writer: examining my past — what previous versions of me have known, felt, thought— and making sense of them through the lens of what I know, feel, and think today.
Searching for echoes, patterns, and resonance across my past and present, imagining patterns into the future — this is what I do constantly with language, so it makes sense that I would find it fascinating, addicting even, to use photos to keep building these bridges across time.
The unspoken contexts of these photos include being a daughter of Filipino immigrants, growing up in a stable household, and the invisible labor and sacrifices of my parents to ensure my three older siblings and I had a healthy, happy, stable childhood.
Other contexts include moving across the country to attend a prestigious college, exploring a music career, shaving my head, and exploring tattooing as a form of expression.
Written as someone with the privilege of a healthy childhood, I think it's a useful exercise to be well-acquainted with as many of the past versions of ourselves as possible.
Below, one last set. As you can see, I fell freely through this rabbit hole and spent hours down memory lane. The experience reminded me of how we each carry inside so many versions of ourselves. How only some of those versions make their way to the surface, and are perceived by those around us. How other versions find expression only in a sentence, a song, a certain shade of laughter.