Art of memory, act of survival, or vice versa

written by Yi Xiaocuo, Sep 14, 2019

“Anjur (fig fruit)—is one of my favorite fruits! It always reminds me of my home and my beloved father! I ate my first fig fruit from my family’s orchard many many decades ago… now it all becomes memory!”

Aziz Isa Elkun traveled through Central Asia and shared a piece of his delicious findings on social media. The taste of anjur opened up a portal to his past, however, this past sweetness was immediately cancelled by the brutal present. Just several hundred kilometers away across China’s border, his family’s whereabouts is unknown, and China has denied his visa application. Standing on the top of the Altay mountain range in Bayan-Ölgii one day I too looked beyond the Sino-Mongolian border longingly, painfully aware of the consequences if I landed on the wrong side.

The trauma here is double-layered, similar to what anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod writes in Rites of Return: Diaspora Poetics and the Politics of Memory; she returned to half-ruins in Palestine, “the catastrophe is not just something of the past, it continues into the present…” For Aziz, the unreachable home has crumbled and only through fragmented memories can he tie events, people, and sensory experiences all together.

To many direct and indirect victims of family separation caused by the ‘re-education camps’ in Xinjiang, it is unknown what their loved ones are going through, whether they are hungry, tired, sick, or if they are mentally holding up through the ordeal. Even when watching leaked TikTok or drone videos, they search for their families in the sea of blurry faces and figures. Too often diasporas bury that pain deep down inside and try to live a normal life but then it resurfaces again and again in the most unexpected moments: festivals, birthdays, seeing other families having a picnic in the park, old photos, WeChat moments, folk songs, strangers who looked like our family members a little bit, even a plate of figs…

It is through these ordinary, small things that many Uyghur and Kazakh friends in exile express their sense of belonging and engage in self-healing these days. Some have translated this suffering into art by recapturing family memories and stories. It is exactly as Adrienne Rich has pointed out, writing is a “re-vision” to counter violence in cultural history. Moreover, it is an act of survival.

See more here. Shared with author’s permission.

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