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Monday, March 07, 2016

Literature Matters-II: Memory and Sound

Chong (l), Kamboureli (c), Thein (r)
The second annual Avie Bennett Chair in Canadian Literature lecture series (Literature Matters) featured Denise Chong and Madeleine Thien, and Professor Smaro Kamboureli, the inaugural Avie Bennett Chair in Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto, moderated the conversation between two women of letters.

Denise Chong, acclaimed for her family memoir The Concubine’s Children, spoke about ‘Literature and Rendering Memory’.

Narrating snippets of conversations and reactions she had gathered while researching her creative nonfiction works Stories of Fate and Circumstances (which is a sort of sequel to The Concubine’s Children), Egg on Mao: The Story of an Ordinary Man Who Defaced an Icon and Unmasked a Dictatorship, and The Girl in the Picture: The Kim Phuc Story.

Egg on Mao is the story of Lu Decheng, a Chinese bus mechanic, now living in Calgary, who protested against the totalitarian Chinese regime by defacing a portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong during the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, and The Girl in the Picture is a memoir of the Kim Phuc, the girl burnt by napalm attack in Trang Bang, Vietnam, and made famous by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut.

In a brief but engaging talk, Chong said the main task of the writer is to mine what resides in memory, and turn knowing into telling. As a writer, she said her job is to discern what is not being told.

She said the word ‘Matters’ in the title of the lecture series ‘Literature Matters’ should be used both as a noun and as a verb.

Chong added that memory matters because it is proof that we matter. As a writer, she said, she makes the choice to pry. She also spoke about appropriation of memory, a concept propounded initially by Oliver Sachs in his essay Speak, Memory (published in 2013 in the New York Review of Books).

In the process of appropriation of memory, there is often an absence of mechanism in the brain to distinguish between truth and falsehood. Chong said in creative nonfiction, there is randomness in collecting and processing facts. She described the relationship between a writer and a reader thus:  “I enrich you with who I am and you enrich me with who you are. I give you my story, and you make it yours.”

Madeleine Thien, acclaimed novelist and winner of the Frankfurt Book Fair’s LiBeraturpreis for her novel Dogs at the Perimeter, made a presentation titled ‘The Field of Sound: JS Bach, China and the Possibilities of Personhood’. A substantial part of her presentation is her research for her forthcoming third novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing about musicians studying Western classical music at the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s.

Thien said in non-western traditions, the connotations of silence is not just an absence of sound. It is often the manifestation of falsehood that societies force individuals to utter, which drives them to silence. She illustrated her argument with short biographies of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), the Russian composer persecuted by the totalitarian Soviet regime, and He Luting (1903-1999), the Chinese composer persecuted during the Chinese Cultural Revolution – a period when it was ‘very hard to be a person’.

Thein then described the oppressive Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, during which time, the Khmer Rouge resorted to destroying the listener to destroy sound. Her presentation was interspersed with musical interludes that accentuated her point of view.

A brief discussion between Chong, Thien and Kamboureli followed Thien’s presentation, and the program concluded with a Q&A with the audience. 

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