This week on the Sewanee Review Conglomerate, Pamela Royston Macfie examines her relationship with the memoir genre. Her essay “Unlettered” appears in our Fall 2022 issue, and her essay “Each Is Me” appears in our Fall 2020 issue. In this interview, Macfie considers her essay as an artifact of silence, the texture of memory, and the deliberate surrender memoir writing requires.
—Hayden Dunbar, Assistant Editor
HD: Your essay “Unlettered” is part of a larger memoir project, but you are also a Shakespeare scholar, having devoted your life to teaching and writing predominantly in the academic sphere. How has the transition between genres been for you? What in particular excites you about memoir? Do you notice any ways in which your work in each form overlaps?
PRM: Last year, I was writing both “Unlettered,” which addresses how silence speaks, and a piece of criticism exploring the death of Shakespeare’s Ophelia. The latter essay considered how the mud in which Ophelia comes to rest functions as a medium of ghostly exchange. Mud, I observed, obscures anything suspended within it; in this, it performs erasure. Yet mud is altered by the detritus—by the leaf, feather, or twig—it receives; in this, it conveys the signifying power of what has been cast away. Memory, I think, works similarly. It is both haunted and vibrant, layered in history and subject to metamorphosis, porous yet ineradicable. My articulation of “the poetics of mud” in a piece focused on Hamlet informs my understanding of memory and memoir alike. Memoir, like literary exegesis, is a form of close reading: the images it excavates from a personal history evoke universal meaning, especially when they advance a pattern of repetition and variation. Frequently, such images evoke metaphors that the study of literature applies to life. The figure of nostos or homecoming comes to mind; literary memoir journeys to the origin of its author’s sense of self.
Writing a memoir, however, differs from the practice of criticism. Though I admire the work of Maggie Nelson and Melissa Febos, who move seamlessly from intimate recollection to semiotic theory, I have been wary of theorizing my own narrative of the past. I wanted the details conjured in “Unlettered” to yield a sense of memory’s bewildering complexity, its capacity to stall in one moment and explode in another, even its necessity to be revised; most of all, I wanted my vignettes, which are not perfectly continuous, to evoke memory’s open-ended character. I did not want these episodes to appear as if they had been determined by a psychological or aesthetic paradigm that could make a unified sense of a haphazard childhood. I avoided invoking Freud, Barthes, or Derrida. Writing about my brother, I wondered if telling his story might be construed as an act of ventriloquism, but never used this word. I asked if my writing exorcized my juvenile fear of muteness as contagious but never mentioned Lacan’s notion of the infans (the one who does not speak). I wanted memory to slip the noose of theory. I tried to let the remembered images carry me, and my narrative, where they would. Such a surrender would be unthinkable in a piece of literary criticism, which requires sequential logic and proof. For me, the allure of memoir resides in the agency of letting go.
HD: “Unlettered” depicts many scenes from your early childhood: you include details like listening to “Fly Me to the Moon” in the car with your mother and brother the year before starting kindergarten, and recall with specificity experiences and conversations with David and your parents, and later with David and his caregivers, at various points in your life. What is your approach to accessing—and retaining the fidelity of—these memories?
PRM: Many people have asked how I can remember so many experiences, especially from my early childhood, with such detail. My response concerns my nearly material experience of memory. The experiences I recollect seem to have been pressed or written into me; their presence is as emphatic as a scar.
Surely the memories recounted in “Unlettered” gather truth from the fear of forgetting that has always been with me: the fear my brother would be consigned to oblivion. As an antidote to forgetting, I kept a diary as soon as I could write; my girlhood bookshelf held a row of marbled composition books, each with a title, an invented “Dewey decimal” number, and a year painted on its spine. In college, I revisited the memories preserved in these journals, endeavoring to understand the full narrative of which they were a part through a course of psychoanalysis. Looking back, I wonder if the trauma of my childhood conditioned me to seize (and also to hold onto) small details—a cast of light, a chartreuse dress, the oatmeal smell of a dog—as a way of avoiding the significance of the large events unfolding around me: David’s exile, my father’s breakdown, my parents’ long silence.
I recognize that many readers question the authenticity of early childhood memories. Freud famously distrusted such memories, even when they were his own. Perhaps we need to consider that authenticity in memoir is determined by something beyond the documented truth of specific events within a personal history. If memory, as the British philosopher Mary Warnock has argued, is an integral part of the human imagination, authenticity in memoir should reside in the writer’s staging of memory’s work itself. I am not licensing a memoir writer to traffic in exaggeration or lies or errant contradictions. I am asking readers to consider how aptly a memoir recreates the complexity of reckoning the past.
HD: Your essay juxtaposes various forms of silence in your family with your love for, and lifelong study of, language. There’s your brother David’s verbal silence, of course, but there are also silences that circumscribe your parents’ marriage and their ability to communicate with you. What has it been like to write into these silences that are at the heart of “Unlettered”?
PRM: Writing into silence stands as the crucial inspiration for “Unlettered.” I had to give my brother and his story a voice; to do so required me to sound what my parents could not express. I realize, as I say this, that the verb to sound defines two aspects of my project. To sound means (1) to create a reverberation that others can hear and (2) to measure depth, as in a body of water. Articulating my family’s unspoken sorrows, I measured those sorrows’ profundity.
The task wasn’t easy. Sometimes I felt as if I would drown as I followed the plumb line into the past. Sometimes the enormity of meaning seemed incalculable. One loss descended into another, and I balked at taking my reader further. There were days that I did not write. Even then, however, I was possessed by a confidence gleaned from mythology: Mnemosyne (Memory) is the Mother of the Muses. Language did not fail me. Neither did the art of omission. The decision to write this memoir as a series of fragments or vignettes invites the reader to live into the gaps, the silences, that defined my family.