The art of remembering memories

Whenever today’s date occurs, which marks the end of one of the most brutal civil wars of the Cold War, I often try my best to avoid the vocal noises of overbearing triumphism from one side, and stubborn denialism from the other side. They are both hallmarked by chauvinistic dishonesty, bigotry, and disregard for the human cost it took to gain what they both achieved in the end.

Whenever today’s date occurs, I often ask myself two questions: How can I best neglect the noise while retaining and taking care of my own distinctive memories or thoughts about the past? And how can I best be proud of my ethnic and cultural heritage during days that conflicting politics and history are seemingly in the way? It is the trap of being proud of my origins and the encroachment of the footprints of the ideologies behind governments, or historical determinism more generally, that I never wish to surrender myself to.

Some people might interpret my rather “middle ground position” as a weak and indecisive one, incapable of making any magnificent or “revolutionary” impacts to life and society. But I am simply describing my inner competing sentiments, which are for most of the time thankfully intervened by my own sense of morality: I do not have the audacity to celebrate a peace that took the lives of millions of civilians, not just during the war, but also in the ensuing post-war years through mass imprisonments, Khmer Rouge genocide, and mass deaths filling the seabeds of the Gulf of Thailand, Malacca Strait and the South China Sea. I also do not have the audacity to fill my mind with hatred for this day, as the events that unfolded 45 years ago on this day were bound to happen.

The plentiful undemocratic decision-makings by herself had only paved the way for an ultimate anti-democratic outcome, being the colossal demise of a young republican state. Partly due to the intensity of the war and loss of control of its own foreign policy to the Americans, it failed to offer a non-communist alternative of state-building that would accommodate the anti-colonial sentiments of large fractions of the population back then, ultimately succumbing to the forces of historical determinism when it comes to the question of what makes a state truly independent. Compare today’s students with those during the fallen republic’s enduring years, or beyond national borders with those from the May 4th Movement in mainland China (mostly led by Peking University students), and you can quickly identify the gradual extinction of a free-spirited student and literary culture that goes against any notion of today’s students being inherently conformist to “Confucian” values.

From my observations, perhaps only politicians and ideologues have the capacity to glorify human tragedies for the sake of great power politics above anything else, as well as suppressing memories of ordinary people that do not fit with their political agendas behind the continuous re-framing and re-constructing of national history. I am left with a lifetime task to balance these sentiments together, through remembrance of my own distinct memories and thoughts.

I believe that my questions have already been asked by millions of other people who are either direct or remote relics of past wars and conflicts, including myself. That’s why I found the translated quote below by the Chinese novelist, Yan Lianke (阎连科), from a recent lecture to literature students in Hong Kong very helpful in terms of exploring various ways to remember and live by in life, where I will continuously come across peoples from both sides of the war, from the noisy to the dignified ones. Even though the quote is from a lecture about life and society after Covid-19, the ongoing pandemic is still as any other past and present-day wars and conflicts that ought to leave lasting scars, memories and lessons for peoples around the world. We just need to continue navigating through the landscape of reconciliation that society offers, while at the same time imagine for ourselves beyond the norms of society, in order to heal from the past in our most human and distinct senses as possible.

What Happens After Coronavirus? On Community Memory and Repeating Our Own Mistakes

“In the predictable near future, as the nation celebrates its victory against this national battle that is the (Covid-19) with music and song, I hope that we will not become empty and hollow writers who echo along, but people who are simply living authentically with our own memories. When the grand performance comes, I hope that we will not be one of the actors or narrators on stage, or one of those who applaud for the sake of being part of the performance—I hope that we will be the reserved and forlorn ones who stand at the furthest corner of the stage, looking on silently with tears in our eyes. If our talent, courage, and mental strength is unable to turn us into a writer like Fang Fang, then may we not be among the people and voices who doubt and ridicule Fang Fang. Amid the eventual return to a state of calm and prosperity while surrounded by waves of song, if we can’t loudly question the source and spread of (Covid-19), then may we softly mutter and hum, for that is also a display of our conscience and courage. Writing poems after the Auschwitz concentration camp period was indeed barbaric, but it is even more barbaric if we simply choose to forget it in words, in conversations and in memories—it is indeed much more barbaric and horrifying.

If we can’t speak out loudly, then let us be whisperers. If we can’t be whisperers, then let us be silent people who have memories. Having experienced the start, onslaught, and spread of (Covid-19), let us be the people who silently step aside when the crowd unites to sing a victory song after the battle is won—the people who have graves in their hearts, with memories etched in them; the people who remember and can someday pass on these memories to our future generations.”

Yan Lianke, 21/02/2020
Chuyện chưa kể về tấm ảnh “Hai người lính” | Báo Dân trí
From the left to right: A North Vietnamese soldier and South Vietnamese soldier during a cross-border prison release (1972-73).

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