memory works – remembering well

Red Poppies and the whole industry around remembering those who have lost their lives defending so-called peace got me thinking again about memory-remembering-memorializing and much more. I felt drawn to Milan Kundera’s work with its central thesis of ‘the power of forgetting’. Kundera’s timeless theme grew out of his experience of the annexation of his former homeland Czechoslovakia by the Soviets (1948) and the intentional process of historical erasure imposed by the communist regime on his people.

Today this process of historical erasure may be happening from India to the US to the UK/Europe to the Caribbean-literally in every corner of the world. We are all caught up in it. Kundera’s insight could not be timelier. He wrote: “The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long that nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.”  [Kundera, Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979)]. How true! Historical amnesia remains a critical threat, even as we unearth lost minority voices and stories. That threat (of historical amnesia) according to Noam Chomsky, “is a dangerous phenomenon not only because it undermines moral and intellectual integrity but also because it lays the groundwork for crimes that still lie ahead.” [Who Rules the World, 2016] Trump will disappear, but we should not forget that good-hearted citizens of the USA may not be asking what kind of system produces a man like this:, instead they are fixed on defending the system from such a person. In the meantime, American hegemony and interference continue.

Recalling and remembering is not value-free, by whoever is involved in doing it or setting the agenda of the remembering. What do we recall? What do we remember? How do we remember? Will remembering release or will it be restrictive? Whose narratives are given agency in our memorializing?  What are in our archives (including the cultural ones we carry around) in our remembering? What is our duty to and for memory that tell whole stories?  How does remembering give agency to the multiplicity of experiences we embody? Where the agenda of empire causes a ‘lack of bread’ for many, power imbalances, and penury, will our ‘remembering’ reinscribe boundaries that advance cultural, economic, and spiritual superiority of one group or tradition? In the act of remembering should we forget the power inequalities around the table (the explicit and implicit boundaries we work with)? Who are the ones doing the remembering and what is their agenda? Something is always left out as something else is being remembered.

Let me draw from two Caribbean artists who are talking back to or signifying on the ways we remember. There is Annalee Davis and especially her exhibition and work around “(Bush)Tea Services at the empire Remains Shop, London (2016). Imagine setting a popup tea shop that delves in the implications of selling back the remains of the British empire as a way of reframing memories/narratives of a brutal colonial history and legacies, drawing on Caribbean bush tea? This exactly what this white Barbadian visual artist and cultural advocate did in her effort to get us to remember differently as she draws on the intersectionality of art, economy, history, agriculture. One is also reminded of Stuart Hall’s observation: “I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea”! Joshua Lue Chee Kong is a Trinidadian of Chinese ancestry who draws  on creolization, for his works,  to interrogate what it means to be  a multiple ‘belonger’ and as one who embodies fluid identities (Trinidadian-Chinese-Hakka) and which “flows within the hyphens between cultures, through the construction of my memories, fantasy, narrative and myth of family dinners, childhood memories behind the shop counter and the voices of my ancestors”.

I highlight these two artists because they represent and embody narratives of the Caribbean that you would not necessarily hear when the Caribbean is being discussed and theorised (unless specifically categorised). With few exceptions, the dominant Caribbean discourses tend to marginalise or deploy a strange silence over minority ethnic voices such as these. This remains a loss given that the beauty, strength, and treasure of the region is its plurality and the consequent hybrid fluidity. As a Caribbean diasporan of Indian-Indentured ancestry, I continue to be a mystery and out-of-place voice not only for India, Britain, and Asian-British, among others. The most troubling bit is that I also remain a mystery to the dominant Caribbean presence in Britain most of whom would instinctively locate me as Asian (Indian). I am struck by the fact that Black History month (October 2020) in the UK highlighted numerous voices that would seem to suggest the era of ‘political Blackness’, which include a solidarity of and across ‘minority ethnic voices’, may be dead. In this regard, Whiteness and the White Status Quo may have won in their divide and rule tactic. Our remembering continues to be a burdened one and perhaps (to extend the insight of Kundera) there is much work to be done to avoid our future collapsing under the burden of selective memory/remembering and to become unwitting and co-opted tools of Empire.

Caribleaper November 15, 2020

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