On Forgetting and Trauma

[Trigger Warning: Violence and Sexual Assault]

For those of you who have been reading my blog for nearly four years, you may know that its content is mostly lighthearted and optimistic (with very few exceptions). Today though I felt the need to write about my research. Some of you may not know that my literary and theoretical specialization is on memory and trauma studies.

My dissertation is a cross-examination of Videla and Pinochet’s dictatorship and the concentration camp experience in Western and Eastern Europe. The main question, however, that has always been of interest to me is how/what we remember and how/what we forget. Trauma affects memory far more than we like to think. Does that mean that what survivors and victims forget should be deemed more important than what they remember?

“In order to remember one must have forgotten; the forgotten is always an integral part of memory,” cultural theorist, Gunnthorunn Gudmundsdóttir, emphasizes in her last book, Representations of Forgetting in Life, Writing and Fiction. Gudmunsdóttir is speaking from the perspective of the repetitive nature of memory. Memory is indeed shaped by forgetting. Our memory creates a series of gaps for a reason. The hippocampus, which is the center of emotion, memory and the autonomic nervous system of our brain, allows us to remember based on emotions. What trauma victims forget is not the wound inflicted, but the details surrounding it.

From all the testimonies I’ve read, one thing has always struck me, victims shape their stories around a significant episode in their lives. For the Argentine women who were viciously raped by officers, it was the names these officers called them whilst being raped. For the Holocaust survivors, it was the witty story they said to the Nazi SS guard before entering the camps or the smell of burnt flesh as they spent hours working outside. Each event was shaped by a sensorial and emotional experience.

Holocaust survivors have forgotten the fact that there was a music band in Auschwitz.

Holocaust survivors have forgotten the specific details of conversations they had between prisoners or guards.

Argentine and Chilean survivors have forgotten the details of the games they played in detention centers in order to pass time.

None of these victims forget the truth, the real truth: the fact that inhumane and atrocious acts were committed against them.

Non-victims though want to forget.

Amnesia and Amnesty are closely intertwined etymologically from the Ancient Greek,  ἀμνηστία and ἀμνησία (a-mneme= to not remember). While a political power gives amnesty to perpetrators, they encourage the collective forgetting of crimes against humanity. They encourage us that because victims did not “fully remember”, we can completely forget.

In today’s world where some of us choose to not listen to the testimonies of victims, we must not fall into a collective amnesia where we forget the crimes committed against survivors. We must believe survivors. We must believe their words, their experiences, and their honest attempts at recollecting such traumatic events.

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How to Read Borges

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I remember the first time I came across a Jorge Luis Borges short story. I was fifteen years old and, for many years, I had refused to read literature in Spanish. Growing up bilingual (and having more access to the Spanish language), I thought that my American Lit courses in high school were far more interesting than my Spanish Lit classes, but there was something about Borges that just made me fall in love with the Spanish language. He assembled stories in such a specific way that I couldn’t help myself from becoming mesmerized by his writing.

The short story was far shorter than any other short story I had ever read. “Borges y yo” featured a conversation between the narrative Borges and the real Borges. This encounter between the two selves of Borges opened my eyes to the richness and beauty of modern literature.

Fast-forward a decade and so much has changed! I have a PhD minor in Latin American literature, have taught Borges to undergrads a number of times, presented academic papers on his short stories, and have reread his works hundreds of times, including the story, “Borges y yo”, that introduced me to his literary repertoire.

However, I don’t think I’ve ever figured out a way to read Borgesian literature. His literature is so strange, confusing, and jarring at times, yet its allure will always capture my attention. I want to explore the ways in which we can approach his short stories, for better or for worse:

  1. Obsessions: Borges is obsessed with the same number of artifacts that make an appearance in his literary works over and over again: Mirrors, Reflections, Tigers, Secret Societies, Libraries, Mazes, Labyrinths, Encyclopedias, and so on. As a scholar, I have fallen in love with these same artifacts and will forever be indebted to Borges. When you start to read Borges, you need to understand that the philosophical reflections on these objects have to do with Borges’s own perception of the world.
  2. Detective Stories: I was inspired to write this post due to the fact that I’m teaching a Global Detectives course this semester. Borges was obsessed with detective stories. From Edgar Allan Poe’s Inspector Dupin to GK Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries, he identified the fact that the world is a philosophical mystery. However, his criticism is that, unlike Dupin and Poirot, there is no real solution to the mystery. In fact, perhaps the mystery is better left unsolved.
  3. Combination of Literary Forms: Borges writes in such a specific way. His writing style obviously ranges from his beginnings as an avant garde poet to a successful fiction writer. His short stories may read like academic essays, his academic essays can be read as fiction and his prose style is definitely poetic. As soon as you identify these common threads, you have a distinct connection to his writing style.
  4. Philosophy: Borges was an avid reader and he seemed to favor German and American philosophy. With allusions to Martin Heidegger and John Dunne, Borges delved into ideas of time, dreams, and being throughout his literary works.

This isn’t meant to be an in-depth guide for Borges, but rather a way to identify what makes his fiction so peculiar. How does he manage to evoke such complex feelings? What is the recipe for his literature? What changes do we perceive in his speculative fiction that don’t show up in our world?

These all may be rhetorical questions, but after many years of studying Borges, I still don’t have a one-sentence answer to any of them. Borges, as an author, exploits the Spanish language in such a concise complex way…and, perhaps, that’s the shortest answer I could ever give you.

 

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

As one of many millenials, I grew up with Harry Potter. It was the first book I picked out for myself in a bookstore. It was an old-looking, worn translation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal). As an eager seven year old, I was happy to hear that there was a magical world out there that I was ready to discover. I became obsessed with the books. I asked for boxed sets for Christmas next to a bunch of young adult books. I was happy and it was my entryway to “harder” literature. Soon thereafter, I was reading Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Shakespeare plays, and Golden Age Spanish novels as a young teenage girl. However, Hogwarts always had a place in my heart.  I went to midnight releases (much to my parents’ dismay) at Borders, I watched the movies and I reread the books over and over again. It was magical.

When I first heard about the Harry Potter play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I was a little confused. I thought JK Rowling had stated that she would no longer enter this fantastic world of wizardry that she herself had created. Nonetheless, I was excited. It was Harry Potter, after all…my own personal magical door to literature.

I personally did not attend the Midnight Release. Perhaps a former, younger version of myself might have enjoyed it, but I did not feel up for it. Still, my boyfriend was gifted a copy and I started reading next to him.

It is a shame to say that this book read like fan fiction…and not even good fan fiction. In fact, very bad fan fiction. I understand that the Harry Potter series and Cursed Child were written in two different mediums (fiction and theater, respectively), but still. Cursed Child still belongs in the Harry Potter universe and it makes no sense.

*Spoilers Ahead*

Here’s a list of complaints/observations:

  1. Hermione turns into a bitter woman because she didn’t end up with Ron Weasley.

Seriously? Seriously? Hermione: the SPEW advocate, the strong female role in the entire series let her whole life be controlled about whether or not she ended up with a Weasley? I call bullshit. #Feminism

2. Rose’s life matters, but Ron’s and Parvati’s kid doesn’t?

Flawed Logic.

3. Voldemort had sex with Bellatrix?

I’m sorry, but how can a man who split his soul into seven freaking pieces be able to, you know, provide his essence?? Delphi was made basically from one human wizard and one weird freaky nonhuman subspecies. This does not and will never make sense to me.

4. The future depends on the life of Cedric Diggory

…really? The most boring dude in the history of the world? It all depended on that one event at the Triwizard Tournament? I’m sorry. I don’t buy it.

5. How does this fit into the HP Universe?

I truly don’t know. I want to try and make sense of it in order to appreciate it better, but I didn’t need more. Harry Potter was a beautiful part of my life, but I would rather read ten different books about other things that happened in the world. I don’t need Harry’s scar to hurt again and I don’t need another skewed, backwards tale.

The Neapolitan Novels

After finishing most Murakami books, I felt like I needed a change of pace and decided to delve into the NY Times bestseller list and, per usual, it sucks. I finally read the novel a billion people had recommended, Fates and Furies, and was severely disappointed by its writing, lack of originality, and plot. The writer herself went to school in Madison and I was very much looking forward to getting to know her work. Nonetheless, Fates and Furies left a bad taste in my mouth.

I had been hearing about Elena Ferrante for a while now and still had not read anything by her…then I requested My Brilliant Friend from the local public library. As you may have noticed, I am incredibly picky and, frankly,  rather snobbish about books. I usually favor classic books and pretty much dismiss contemporary options unless I’m impressed by an intrinsic narrative (aka Murakami).

However, this book is brilliant. Sure, it’s a translation (I have some reading knowledge of Italian, but that takes me forever), but it is so complex and honest. I cannot wait to start the next two books. Ferrante has an amazing writing style. Her story is poignant, classic, and timeless. I completely recommend her for a great read before the Summer ends!

Obsessed with Murakami

Last Spring Break, I read 8 novels: three of which were written by Haruki Murakami and two of them I fell in love with. I hope to continue my romance with Murakami this Summer as I explore new worlds, genuine stories, and uncanny narratives.

I had previously read Murakami, but just novellas (The Strange Library) and a short story (TV People). I liked him fine, but did not realize that there was still a whole new world left to explore.

Below are my short reviews or takes on the novels I have read by him lately.

1. After Dark

I started with After Dark and was initially very underwhelmed. It was a story about a girl who read books and drank coffee at Denny’s… of course, afterwards an unimaginable story breaks in, but the writing fell flat for me. The characters were unlikeable and the plot was not as interesting as I expected it to be.

2. The Colorless Life of Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

I fell head over heels with this brilliant novel. This book consumed me from beginning to end so much that I stayed up until 3:00 am once to continue reading it. Murakami wrote a genuine, intelligent story about a relatively young man and the way with which he needed to deal with his past in order to move on with his life. It was an incredible mystery and love story (and not a boy meets girl type of love story). The characters all had their moment to shine and connect with our colorless protagonist. This is definitely a Murakami must-read! 

3. Norwegian Wood

I was a little hesitant to read this novel because (a) I had just finished The Colorless Life of Tsukuri Tazaki and did not want to be disappointed,(b) it’s one of Murakami’s most read novels, and (c) I’m always wary to read something named after a Beatles song. Nonetheless, as soon as I started reading, it I was unable to stop myself. Murakami, yet again, writes an intelligent, beautiful story about genuine people and their lives. I understand why this novel is so popular! It is amazing!

4. A Wild Sheep Chase

I was curious about this one because Murakami seems to be obsessed with sheep! He writes about the Sheep Man in The Strange Library and there are definitely a ton of sheep here. However, I was quite disappointed by it. I did not really enjoy this detectiveesque tale. Still, it was an interesting book.

Extra Reviews:

5. The Strange Library

I read this one in a Media Fictions course last semester. We learned how writing is a form of media itself and how much the materiality of a book (i.e. the way it is presented to you) affected the way we read it. This version of The Strange Library was genuinely interesting. We have a four fold book and half of the story is told alongside strange images. It also looks like a library book that you’ve taken out, which makes it even more compelling. It was a very interesting experiment, but alas…I did not love the story. Sheep Alert: you will see the Sheep Man here.

6. “TV People”

Ah…the weird surreal story that led me to the Murakami pathway. I taught this story in a Literature course at the university. It’s basically a very short read with a lot of weird things happening at the same time only to come to a very foreign, drawn out conclusion. Still…you crave more after you have finished.

Verdict: While I do love Murakami, I think his best stories are about broken people in this world. I have a hard time understanding the surreal worlds that he submerges the readers in. I believe that he thrives when he writes what he knows and when he doesn’t we still have a fantastic story that is somehow missing something. I would just say keep on reading Murakami because you never know what you might stumble into. Because of that, my love affair with Murakami continues…

I have also just acquired 8 more of his books so I will let you know how I feel about them afterwards.

OH…and he loves cats!