Since my university days as a Psychology major, I’ve been drawn to the power of our memory. One of my deepest fears is to lose my memory. This, for me, would mean the loss of my identity. My memories – be them good or bad, old or new, accurate or otherwise – make up my past and shape who I am today, and will become tomorrow and beyond.
Granta Issue 111: Going Back revolves around memories – of one’s hometown, a former home, an ex-lover or friend, an idea once closely held. Some of the works are fictional while others are autobiographical. In this issue, there are several gems that I could go back time and again to read and not get tired of.
The Book of The Dead by Janine di Giovanni is, for me, the most striking piece in this excellent collection. Having covered the Siege of Sarajevo from the ground in the early 1990s, The Book of The Dead narrates her return to the city in 2010. The heart-rending memoir goes back and forth between her memories of the people she met when she was reporting on the crisis and her encounters with some of these individuals in the aftermath of the devastating war.
One of them is an elderly gentleman named Alija who used to run a morgue in the city. He diligently wrote down the names of the dead who came through the doors of his morgue during the war in little notebooks. By the end of the war, he had filled 24 books of the dead, amongst which one entry bore the name of his eldest son. In her last meeting with Alija, he asked her “not to forgot. Never to forget. if people forget, then it will happen again.”
The epistolary short story by Claire Paya Watkins, The Last Thing We Need, is made up of letters from a Thomas Grey to a stranger, Duane Moser, whose belongings he had stumbled upon in a desert. Latching onto the medical prescriptions and a ziplock bag of letters signed M that he found in the abandoned vintage Chevelle, Grey writes relentlessly to Moser, gradually offloading his memories of a terrifying incident that involved another Chevy.
In One Hundred Fears of Solitude, Hal Crowther makes a case for silence and solitude. A cautionary reminder to today’s connected generation about technology and social media’s negative impact on creativity as private headspace become increasingly rare.
“Not long ago, it was generally accepted that humanity’s most creative achievements, from art and poetry to major scientific discoveries, were the precious fruits of solitude. But in a single heartbeat on history’s timeline, this sacred, fecund privacy has become the unpardonable social sin for the generation on which future creativity depends.” – Hal Crowther
I wish I could have seen Ian Teh’s photo essay Traces: China 1999-2010 about the gargantuan Three Gorges Dam project and its impact on the communities along the Yangtze River in larger format. His images illustrate vividly “the dream of a nation, and its cost”.
Richard Russo’s High and Dry depicts the decline and death of a Gloversville, a town in the foothills of Adirondacks where his grandfathers had settled and slogged away making leather gloves. In this poignant memoir, Russo recalls his childhood growing up in a place that was once full of life and his eventual escape from his hometown, as well as the gradual demise of his grandfather due to emphysema that was linked to a lifetime of being exposed to toxic hide dust.