Forum is an ongoing discussion site focussed on one particular question per issue proposed by revolving guest editor/s who will conceive of the question and invite specific respondees as well as selecting from reader responses. Other readers are invited to reply with their written views of the announced FORUM question; those views will be considered for publication in this section and may be e-mailed to the FORUM editor. FORUM remarks will, in most cases, be excerpted if included and will be chosen with an eye for introducing new points-of-view that have not yet been expressed.
FORUM for Issue 9: Please refer to masthead for details.
“‘Memoire/Anti-Memoire’: New York City Women Writers Recall September 11, 2001”
edited and introducted by Laura Hinton
“All has shifted from the experience to the industry of contemplating it.” Lines like poetry come into my head half out of some forgotten dream. It is early in the morning, this day, late in June. Last night, I went to a book party celebrating the Etruscan Press anthology, September 11: American Writers Respond. One of the tens of contributors, I listened to editor William Heyen’s moving speech. I signed the printed page for well-wishers eating cheese and paté, posed with writers for a photograph. Leaving before the last hangers-on went for beer, I entered the evening blackness; a cloud rumbled and ruptured above me in the sky. The sky I couldn’t see, in mid-town Manhattan, quickly drenched my clothes. I stood for half an hour under a leaky construction awning on Fifth Avenue, as if I could save my summer sandals. The storm did not pass. Braving the torrent in a sprint for Grand Central Station, I was wet and miserable in my irony.
I recall again September 11, 2001, the day that began, legendarily, that terrible blue, a day as dry and seamless as a New York City day can be. As I write, we near the approach of the anniversary of September 11th. In the inexplicability of landscapes, it is our industry that makes survivors writers and writers survive. We have indeed shifted from the experience — because that’s what survivors, and writers, do.
This section of How2 tells a story unfolding in the year since September 11th. Here, New York City women writers speak about “the horror,” to borrow from Joseph Conrad, that ripped through our skyline, and settled like an unwanted guest. Writing from a romanticization but also a critique of the colonial “guest,” Conrad both fetishized and called into question a “horror” within this colonizing “self.” The contributors to this section embrace a similar modernist irony. They do so by adopting, and also jettisoning, this version of “self,” and the memoire as a form.
The words I wrote down that morning in June expressed my growing sense of guilt and frustration about our “self”-expressions since September 11th. These words were not a criticism. They were the beginnings of an acceptance that, in fact, “poetry is not a luxury,” as Audre Lorde once wrote, that our writings are as important and serious as the nine-month task of “rescue workers” in lower Manhattan. Our blessed state of discourse is laborious and difficult; and it produces not a clarity but a confusion — one ironically that enunciates its own healing process. When we think about the memoire, in particular — from a post-modern theoretical perspective — we think about it as falsely clarifying, with colonial objectives, a form that would render easy the cultural monological “self.” Indeed, the memoire traditionally has attempted to memorialise — to use a fashionable term — our sentimental faith in language’s zip-lock lucidity. For experimental writers, the memoire rightly could be seen as the effort to falsely construct one’s “self” as protected container, as if one could separate “self” from history and social event. In the case of September 11th, this raises grave issues. As Ann Lauterbach poignantly states in “What Is a Day?,” printed here: “To narrate oneself into a catastrophe with vast and unknowable global consequences seems trivial, or vain . . .”
The title phrase of this section, “Memoire/Anti-Memoire,” reflects these questions about using the memoire form as a response to September 11th. The phrase contains its dualism, as an insistence that we do narrate our memories, our individual experiences, of September 11th, even if we do so ironically, and, perhaps, differently. This phrase is borrowed from a recent issue of Chain, whose contributors reconsider the possibilities of the memoire from an experimental-writer’s positioning. Its collection of writings suggests that the language of memoire need not attempt to reseal memories as if in a leak-proof box. So, too, the women’s memoirs that follow use and reuse the memoire form to explore tragedy, both personal and social, not through a sentimental re-visioning of events but a re-invention of what and how we articulate them. Our memoirs collectively suggest that writing does not simply “re-collect” past events and refurbish them with a bright new literary engine. Rather, writing exists itself as its own event — as writing.
In her study The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry examined the writings of political torture victims and argued for the necessity of expressing physical pain for political purposes. She also wrote of the impossibility of expressing pain through the medium of language. That necessity, and that inexpressability, I would argue, applies to those trauma victims who observe, so close at hand, human pain and tragedy on a mass scale. As co-victims of mass terror, New Yorkers last September experienced a pain that takes on its own physicality and tragic psychic dimension.
The memoirs that express this experience of pain begin with Suheir Hammad’s “First Words Since.” This powerful memoire-poem, written by the young Palestianian-American poet living in New York, details the suffering of having no words to describe what she has seen by the end of the first week following September 11th, what she has felt and feared. In the duality of a gratitude for life and a fear of political reprisals, Hammad begs that the attackers might not look “like my brothers.” It also praises the world of New York City’s streets: the Korean “kimchi and bibim bob” that kept her out late the night before September 11th, away from downtown the next morning; a stranger, a woman, who asked her if she wanted “a hug”; the friends and acquaintances who asked, without compunction, if she “knew the hijackers” because she is Arab.
Novelist Jamie Callan’s short theatrical monologue, “Locating the Pain,” was also written in the early days following September 11th. It expresses a different set of ironies, the kind that become riveted in the body when painful emotions cannot be expressed and resurface as physical suffering. Removed from the catastrophe in New York City while teaching a screen-writing class at Yale University, Callan tells of a journey to the dentist, in which the pain she could never locate becomes localized in her mouth, in which both a detached dentist and patient try to find “the pain.” This act is perceived as a darkly humorous attempt to control the discourse of disaster through the discourse of the medicalized body — and its own symptoms of emotional repression.
Linsey Abrams’ long poem, “The New Century,” suggests that to “locate the pain” is impossible, that the pain fans itself out and becomes a linguistic cornucopia of personal perception against the background of historic drama. Abrams’ “complaint” — a form of the memoire that goes back to the literature of Old English — re-embodies the fragmented sense that we all felt in the early aftermath of September 11th, that feeling of being both depressed and “on overwhelm.” As we waited for the next terrorist event, for the next wave of anthrax to be exposed on our subway line, for the next death, Abrams wrote this studied piece in manic artifice. Like Callan’s memoire, it ultimately reveals what became for New York City residents and workers our collective depression.
My own memoire, “The Hole I Cannot See: Smoke and Fragments in New York City,” is about that collective depression. It attempts to embody, too, our fragmented sense of living in the city last fall. I tried to mirror in the text those gaps I was experiencing between events and my capacity to observe them, between the information I received and did not. I wanted to trouble the conventions of my reportorial memoire by failing to place those conventions in a coherent whole, to plug the hole that I had not yet seen — left by the World Trade Center and the 3,000 people that perished, and by our own false sense of quotidian agency.
Ann Lauterbach’s “What is a Day?” further radicalizes the memoire as form. While she questions why one should “insert oneself into the cataclysm after the shipwreck of the singular,” she nevertheless writes that “One plus three thousand equals three thousand and one.” She suggests that the “singular,” indeed, is a mathematical exponent that raises casualties and stands alone in one’s difference to mass event. Lauterbach’s piece suggests through poetry and prose — the interpolation of vision, nightmare, and fact — that personal memoire, that the story of one’s day, need not be told from one perspective but from one’s own multiplicities of perspectives. “What is a Day?” shows the uses of the memoire when it is treated as both broken and lucid, as self-reflexive and externally reportorial — and that out of horrific tragedy something as daring as Blake’s tiger emerges steely-eyed and terrifyingly beautiful.
Daniella Gioseffi’s memoire, “Sept. 11th, Meagan’s Birthday,” takes on the political fallout that has ensued following September 11th. It narrates events which began as she watched from her rooftop in Brooklyn the United Airlines jet hit the second World Trade Center tower, and which end with a journey to New England and into progressive American history. Telling of her encounter with a perceptive young girl whose birthday falls, and will always fall, on September 11th, Gioseffi uses the conventions of memoire subversively, as political commentary, expressing political ideas and providing information that challenge their current state repression as replicated by the media.
Two final pieces wrestle with our on-going struggle to narrate personal experience after September 11th. Jane Augustine’s “History” tells the story of a friend’s death in the mountains of Colorado, where Augustine was vacationing this summer, a story permeated with fragments of memories of the deaths of September 11th. The fragmented images of self-in-memory create these two separate events that remain separate, but also converge in the experimental poetic sequence. Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s poem, “Safety,” reflects upon the banality we experience as we witness and identify with others’ suffering from a near distance — as if witnessing, identifying, would make them safe. Presented against images of the downtown Manhattan architectural spaces and emptiness, the problem of witnessing in “Safety” is that of an outsider’s perspective of the mass tragedy of September 11th. That tragedy is “memorialized by what I saw,” through a “singularity” that Berssenbrugge, like Lauterbach, questions, but also reflects back, because that is what separates the “safe” from the perished, the viewer from the viewed.
The women who have contributed these memoire pieces have dared to face their “singularity” in the fact of observing, at close hand, in one’s community, catastrophic event. We are in the process, the writing process, of moving beyond the shell of singular survival and into the shared history of a city and a society that has lost not only an icon but its fear to bear witness. These selective palimpsests, like my drenching cloud that June night, cover but do not alleviate the harshness of our personal-real.
Bio: Laura Hinton is an Associate Professor of English at the City College of New York. She is the author of The Perverse Gaze of Sympathy: Sadomasochistic Sentiments from Clarissa to Rescue 911 (Albany: SUNY Press, 1999), and co-editor (with Cynthia Hogue) of We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Women’s Writing and Performance Poetics (University of Alabama Press, 2002). She has published articles on film, feminist theory, the novel, and experimental women’s writing.