The Site of Memory

The Site of Memory

"What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction" by Toni Morrison

“What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction” by Toni Morrison

“…[T]he act of imagination is bound up with memory. You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory—what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our ‘flooding’.”

In Toni Morrison’s essay “The Site of Memory,” she says that she is trying to tell the truth, or rather that her responsibility is not to lie. She also distinguishes truth from fact. The need to expose a truth about the interior life of a person may not be based in facts—facts have no emotional memory. In truth, facts can lie. There exists a sort of liminal space between fiction and non-fiction that speaks to this idea of truth telling sans “facts.”

I feel that this is the place in which my current work lives. In my efforts to describe the nature of my recent performance project, I was at a loss for how to articulate that it was not fiction, because it was based on the lives of my maternal ancestors. Yet, it was not non-fiction, because, though I had some “facts”—some memory recollections of those who knew them and some personal memories—I also needed to fill in the blanks with creative writing in order to tell their stories. “Creative nonfiction” didn’t seem to be a complete descriptor to me, either.

Toni Morrison calls it literary archeology—“on the basis of some information and a little bit of guesswork, you journey to a site to see what remains were left behind and to reconstruct the world that these remains imply.” The way that she steps onto this path is through the image. As a visual artist, the image has always been the lens through which I have interpreted and portrayed my personal interior life and the world around me.

I mentioned in a previous blog post, about an air that is captured in a photograph. It is this air, which is captured in the image, that led me deeper into the stories held by these women (my ancestors), made me wish to imagine their lives, their interior lives, and made me want to tell their “truth.”

Of course, they do not speak my words, but I hope they speak through my words. I hope my words lend truth to who they were. I hope my words are a type of literary archeology of the interior lives of these women who I find remarkable. I find them remarkable for their steadfastness and their indomitable spirits—or for their absolute and resolute love and their ability to put that love in action despite the conditions of the world in which they found themselves. I hope my words remember them.