What postmemory makes possible: A conversation with poets Brandon Shimoda and Victoria Chang

Written by Emma Cleary, Creative Writing

As part of our Visiting Writer series, we were honoured to host a poetry panel with Brandon Shimoda and Victoria Chang, hosted by Lecturer Sheryda Warrener.

Brandon Shimoda is a yonsei poet/writer and the author of The Grave on the Wall (2019), which received the PEN Open Book Award. He is currently writing a book of nonfiction on the afterlife of Japanese American incarceration.

Victoria Chang’s latest works include her book of poetry The Trees Witness Everything (2022), her nonfiction book Dear Memory (2021), and her multi-award-winning book of poems OBIT (2020).

This hour-long conversation took place in February, and cohered around the concept of postmemory, which involves negotiating the ethics of writing about memories that don’t involve you, but which you are nonetheless intensely connected (ancestral or communal trauma, for example). Sheryda, Brandon, and Victoria also discussed the impulse to combine text and image in lyric forms, and correspondence and collaboration as writing practice.

We’ve gathered some excerpts from the poetry panel to share with you on the page.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Sheryda Warrener: You’re both attending to the concept of postmemory in your work. Marianne Hirsch defines the concept of postmemory as being connected to the past, “not by recall, but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation.”  A lot of students are grappling with the same question—with the ethics of memory, of ancestry, of writing and telling stories that we weren’t present for, that are silent around us. I would love for both of you to speak to this concept of postmemory and what it’s made possible for you in your writing.

Brandon Shimoda: The part of the question you’ve asked that I’m startled by and love is what postmemory makes possible. To think of postmemory as a relationship that could be characterized as a gift. Because the thing I write about most is Japanese American incarceration. I write through the experience of my grandfather, as well as my uncle and my aunt, some of my cousins.

My book, The Grave on the Wall, is my attempt to spend time with my dead grandfather, my attempt to keep him alive. And in the process of spending time with my grandfather, other ancestors began to arrive. When I was developing that relationship through writing, at first it felt very grave and heavy, the opposite of a gift. It was more of a dark heirloom than something my grandfather was bestowing on me in an inheritance that I could contribute to.

But thinking about it in the frame of what’s possible, having that relationship, even if it is a relationship based in trauma, is a way to be social with the dead, with my dead, in the midst of what I often feel is an overwhelming loneliness. That that loneliness has a kind of openness that makes socializing with different people in my past possible­­—that’s really incredible.

Victoria Chang: I came to learning about postmemory after I had finished writing my book, Dear Memory. There’s this great anthology called Memory and Migration edited by Julia Creet and Andreas Kitsmann, and it enabled me to write a last letter in my book, to the reader:

The concept of postmemory seems to encapsulate both this book [Dear Memory] and my own life experiences. In the same anthology, the visual artist Yvonne Singer, whose parents had left Hungary for Canada during World War II, so aptly wrote: “I was between worlds, alienated from the Canadian world of my peers and excluded from the history and culture of my parents, who placed a veil of secrecy on the past.”

[My] mother had no words. All we had was silence. How does one interact with silence? How does one not die of silence? Maybe my thinking has been wrong all along. Maybe silence is not something to interact with, to be filled in, but rather to let wash over you, to exist within. Maybe silence is its own form of language. Maybe silence is also a life lived. Maybe the unspoken can lead to the widest imagination. Maybe it’s the most open text, the loudest form of speaking we have.

 Maybe if I listen closely enough, the stone is a thought, the bell makes a sound without ringing, and I can hear children grow. Maybe our histories can never be fully known. Maybe curiosity is its own language.

It’s a hard hump to get over, to think about that kind of longing and that kind of loss and those large gaps as opportunity. Maybe that’s not the right word—as imagination, or possibility. It took me a while to think through that; it was a lovely discovery to read that anthology. That’s what I love about reading and creative practice, being in conversation and correspondence, socializing with not only our dead relatives, but also all the people who have written and thought about these things before me and alongside me. I don’t feel so alone.

Brandon: I was having a conversation with my sister the other day about why I read so much. She asked me a really strange question out of the blue: Do you think you read a lot because you were traumatized? She was referencing when I was very young, and I would hide in my room and read all the time, maybe out of a sense of loneliness or sadness. So that I could repopulate the loneliness, not get rid of the loneliness, but populate it with other people. Whenever I was angry or upset, or I was uncomfortable, I would go into a book. I was able to preserve within that space my loneliness, and make it kind of electrifying.

Victoria: I love that you turned to reading and that you can have those conversations with your sister. Because oftentimes if we have siblings, we’re living these parallel, ghostly lives together, and not really ever intersecting in any meaningful way with siblings in the same household with similar traumas. But somehow each person experiences the traumas really differently.

I was thinking when you were talking that I would have loved to be friends with you when I was little! I was also thinking of how our emotions are so asynchronous. I’ve talked about this in the context of grief, and I think that’s what makes it hard, because here we are connecting over this subject matter and our experiences. But when I actually feel those things, I can never find anybody—that’s that sort of existential loneliness that permeates my poetry and my writing. Reading is cool in that way, because it’s always there, and you can pick it up when you want to, and as you please. In that way it’s like music.

Brandon: I was thinking about the epistolary form in Dear Memory as a desire to have a relationship with your parents belatedly or posthumously, to know them. When it gets to the point [in the book] where you bring in your children, I have this feeling like, maybe it doesn’t matter how close we are to anybody, we can never know them. We always have to have a relationship to them that’s epistolary. In order to really connect with people that we feel this intimacy with, we have to leave the room, and then address them through a closed door, as a letter often feels like it’s doing, you know?

Victoria: It’s that gap that makes what we do so interesting. It’s that gap that makes being human so interesting and yet so difficult. Because we’re longing to fill that gap, or at least to minimize it. Yet we can never do it. What is writing and imagination, or trying to get words on the page, or visual art, or anything that anyone might do, but trying to make sense of what’s nonsensical, or can never be understood or never could be said, the unsayable?

If everything was knowable or stable, we wouldn’t try, or we’d try once and then be done, and that would be it. Maybe it’s a gift to have some way to process all those feelings. It is a fascinating place to be.

Sheryda: What’s really pulling things together for me as I’m listening to you is the word correspondence, and the social aspect of making things. I love the capaciousness of that word. You’ve given us the gift of broadening what we do as writers. Thank you.