aletheia, unforgetting,
which the Greeks also equated with uncovering truth.

~ Robert Lovato, Unforgetting

I was at the Ottawa Writer’s Festival in late October and as I was preparing for it, I realized that for all that my book contains the word “unforgetting” I haven’t actually been very good at articulating what it means. I know how it makes me feel and I know that at it’s most basic it describes uncovering the truths that have been deliberately forgotten. But even so, I didn’t think that I was articulating it well and I didn’t want to look like a goof at this event, so I hit google for some ideas. Which is how I found the book Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs and Revolution in the Americas by Roberto Lovato.  I decided to download it and listen to it on my 6 hour drive, and since I had just finished Tsering Yangzom Lama’s gorgeous fiction We Measure The Earth With Our Bodies, those two books collided in beautiful ways.  I hadn’t realized that Tsering would be at the Writer’s Festival as well, although our paths did not cross and I was not able to listen to the panel she participated on. But it was nice to think about us being at the same event.

Both of these books are about loss and migration and the ways in which imperial power fragments families along with the ways that we try to stitch these fragments back together.  They contain reminders of the ways that we can be coerced or manipulated or trapped into working against our own people, made to see them the way that the powerful see them: as obstacles at best and at worst, threats. All of these things circle around forgetting.

We forget for all kinds of reasons.  Serious emotional or physical trauma actually induces short term memory loss; somebody who has experienced a traumatic event may literally have no memory of it. They know that it happened because they can see the aftermath of it, but they rely entirely on outside sources to tell them what happened. Trauma can also create a willful forgetting. It just hurts to much to remember, like my maternal grandparents who for decades would not talk about their past during Stalin. Or like paternal relatives who refuse to talk about residential schools. Both books are filled with that kind of forgetting, but it is the forgetting of the state that I want to think about. The gaslighting of those who do remember, and both books are filled with that too.

There is a particularly poignant moment in We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies where Dolma, the daughter of Tibetan refugees now living in Toronto, is at an academic party and she realizes how they see her.

Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when publishedTheirs isn’t the gaze of a mentor upon a student, but a fixed assymetry. They look at me as though I am a child whom they can tolerate at the table as long as I know my place. For years, I’ve sensed this violent but hidden truth - that beyond the welcome smiles of this country lies a vast and impenetrable wall: a national self-regard that insists on a mythic goodness. This is a nation that gives and gives to the less fortunate and asks nothing in return. Nothing, that is, but our grateful acquiescence to their silent expectations.

It’s an astute observation: that assymetric relationship, the expected acquience. These things are rooted in an imposed, willful forgetting. Because what is that belief in mythic goodness if not a collective forgetting that Canadians and USians have all agreed to, and which we participate in if we know what’s good for us. Pushing back on that myth is almost as exhausting as the constant surprise of those who are just finding out what those who are violently pushed to the margins have always known. That violence is why we are at the margins.

But like children on a playground, it’s the one who pushes back who gets caught and punished. The ones who provoked the violent response are rarely chastised, particularly if the ones who provoked the response have permission to be violent in the first place.

Lovato’s book takes us through that violence page by page: the violence of Los Angeles’ Rampart division and CRASH units who fomented conflict and manipulated communities  in and out of prison until they formed gangs like MS-13 whose violence started in LA and was then exported to El Salvador through deportations, the violence of the US military who trained El Salvadorans along with others in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the School of the Americas in Georgia, and other places and then sent them to El Salvador where they enacted that violence on their own countrymen.  All of this violence that pushes desperate and deliberately exploited and under-resourced people further and further to the margins, deepening existing differences until they become uncrossable divisions embedded in racial categories.  He recalls his driver in El Salvador, a former member of a brutal special ops unit, saying of his training in the US that “they pulverize you until you submit.”

The US (and Canada) were born in that violence and yet somehow Canadians and USians feel disconnected from it, they have forgotten the violence by which they got all this. I recently heard a land acknowledgement say that the wealth of this community was in part the result of the friendship and generosity of Indigenous people and excuse me? The friendship and generosity? It was stolen. Taken and maintained through violence which is papered over by phrases like this.

Later, Dolma confronts an academic at the after party. She has seen a Tibetan artifact recently acquired by a wealthy family and recognized it as the nameless god and understood that it was something that should not have been sold. She questions the academic about his responsibility in the removal of artifacts, in how Tibet is studied and discussed, the power that he has to shape discourse. In frustration she says

Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when publishedAll my life I’ve wanted to study my people. Our history, ideas, and literature. But I’ve never known how to make it happen. How can I study Tibet without access to it? So I’m left with one narrow corridor: I must find a way to do it in the West, within your world.

How do we do that in a world that has willfully forgotten how we got here? What skewed versions of our own history are being fed back to us, demanded of us in classes in history and literature where our grades depend on our acquiecense to the myths cherished by these smiling academics.  For many of us these paths are the only ones open to us as we try to uncover our own histories.

And this kind of forgetting has another consequence: unresolvable grief. There are mass graves in El Salvador, the result of decades of conflict, and these are beginning to be excavated. The bodies reconstructed and identified so that they can be returned to their families. I listened to this thinking about the searches at residential schools and all the children who didn’t come home, whose parents didn’t know what happened to their child.   Lovato writes:

Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when publishedThe power to reconstruct the bones of a person and return them to the family haunted by the disappearance of their loved one enables a critical step toward healing. It’s the knowing—that their loved one is dead, and how he or she died—that allows these families to conduct burial rites and mourn. Without this unforgetting, they can have no closure and are held in a terrible limbo. The same applies to reconstructing the bones of our personal and national memories, including the memory of what it is to be American, the identity that has caused so much devastation to those of us who identify as Salvadoran. Being “American” has taught me that the difficult future before us demands we set aside the myths and infantile stories we tell ourselves in this country; being Salvadoreño has taught me about the still-urgent need to create the epic, revolutionary sensibility we will need to survive the epic history that awaits us in the best of circumstances.

There are two things happening in this paragraph I want to think about as I draw to a close. First is the importance of unforgetting in how it relates to grief. Because how do we grieve these losses we are told are not losses. These things which are either not admitted at all, or if they are admitted are our own fault. They are the result of our own violence, our own backwardness, our own stupidity, or any number of reasons that absolve the oppressor of the responsibility for anything but charity. Unforgetting is the uncovering of truth that allows us to grieve and move forward.

Second, unforgetting allows us to construct who we are, to set aside the mythic goodness that turns oppressors into benefactors who benefit from carefully contrived histories. We decide what it means to be El Salvadoran, Tibetan, Ojibwe.  These identities that are erased and and consumed as the oppressor renames us with their own identity. We find a path into our own history that doesn’t rely on the conveniently flawed memories of those who control that narrow corridor. We understand ourselves as distinct from those who colonized us, who enacted violences which they have subsequently forgotten in favour of national myths.

In Lovato’s words, through unforgetting we “re-member the dismembered” and stitch together the fragments of our stories. We find our own ways home, to ourselves, and to each other. We uncover the truth and pull back the veil of forgetting.

Unforgetting ourselves

uncovering truth