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'Dear Memory' digs into the shame accompanying immigrant silence

Cover art for Dear Memory by Victoria Chang

Updated October 12, 2021 at 9:58 AM ET

In her new book, Chinese American poet Victoria Chang writes, "Shame never has a loud clang. The worst part of shame is how silent it is."

After her mother passed away in 2015, Chang found boxes full of family documents, letters and birth certificates in a storage facility.

"And a flood of questions came through my body but I had no one to ask them to," Chang says. "So I decided to write a letter to my mother, and that was sort of the first letter that I had written for the book with no intention of writing more."

But, as writers do, Chang kept on writing these letters — to her parents, her grandparents, her daughters, her teachers — until they turned into a book. And with the letters came questions, many of which had no answers. So she dug into what she remembered. And the result is Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief.


Interview Highlights

On understanding memory

Memory is such a strange thing, and the present is kind of a pointed tip. It doesn't really last long. And memory [is voracious] to grab that present. Dragging a memory up is hard. Memory arrives when we least expect it and then it changes and morphs. It's such a fascinating process for everyone to reflect on what [they] remember, and why [they] remember it.

On shame that accompanies immigrant memory, and the context behind the following excerpt:

"Dear Daughter,

What I didn't tell you is that I sat in the front row of the reading, ready to smile and to give a good introduction like a good host. What I didn't tell you is that when the reader had a white character call an Asian American one a squinty-eyed, feckless c**t. I remembered all the times when others took their fingers and pulled their eyes wide into a horizon. All the times people yelled Chink! to my family or me. The times someone wrote Chink on our driveway in chalk.

What I didn't tell you is that the reader intimidated me with his confidence that my mother never taught me how to speak to white people, to loud white people. Shake the hands of confident white people. Speak in front of white people. At a lectern. With a white piece of paper with black tape on it."

These micro and macro aggressions happen all the time. And this was just one instance where I was at a writer's conference and I was in the front row and I was the host, so it was particularly challenging. I didn't understand why that was even in the story. It was hard because I had to go up there and thank the reader and clap for him. And right before that event, another host, a white woman, had come up to me and lectured me for not introducing myself to that particular guest, who was a friend of hers. And so it kind of felt doubly a moment of really asking myself, when do I speak up, when do I stay silent? And [I realized] most of the time I stay silent.

On resenting her parents for passing their silence onto her

They experienced these things all the time, and I witnessed them. That's the hard thing as a child of people who may be immigrants or even people who are just different in some way. To see them being publicly shamed in some ways, many times in your life, is actually a really destabilizing feeling. And then to see most of the silence in how they respond [where they] just ignore it, just move on. Because what's the alternative? So now looking back on it, it's partly cultural, I imagine. Maybe some language based things, but also probably as now I'm a parent — safety for your own children. It's like, when do you speak up? When do you let it go?

On teaching her daughters to avoid silence

I have biracial children who, you know, look very Asian, so I'm constantly thinking about what I could do as a parent to help prepare them for the different things that are going to happen to them. And that's from misogyny or sexism to the racism that they'll experience or have already experienced. How do we navigate through that? Well, maybe not utilizing silence as our main communication tool.

I try to be really open and name things, so I always talk to them about how if we can't really address anything, then we can't really feel better, or maybe even learn from the experience. And so they probably say that all the time, "There's nothing to be embarrassed about. There's no shame in anything, really." So I find myself maybe reacting to the way that I was raised, and changing how I was raised, and then raising my own children differently because I think it's mentally healthier to communicate.

This story was edited for radio by Reena Advani and Jeevika Verma and was adapted for the web by Jeevika Verma, Reena Advani and Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.