In a 1937 letter, the Italian poet Antonia Pozzi wrote to her writer friend,"Quanto più impersonale sarai, tanto più universale," or, "The more impersonal you'll be, the more universal." I'm a sucker for paradox. I'm also a sucker for passages in autobiography where the writer, famous or unknown, rock star or daughter of a farmer, transcends specific autobiographical details and reaches a kind of eternal plane, where the words might've been considered and written at any time in human history. I love these two graphs from Roxane Gay's Hunger in which she's recalling poring over albums of family photographs dating to her childhood and adolescence, that eternal act. Though Gay's looking for something specific, if intangible—the dividing line between herself before and after trauma—her longing for her origins and for whatever it is that might fill in the memory blanks is universal.
As an adult, I have gone through these albums many times. I have been trying to remember. At first, I looked for pictures to show a child of my own, "This is where you come from," so when I have that child, she might know her family knows how to love, however imperfectly, so she knows her mother has always been loved and so she may know that she, in turn, will always be loved. It is important to show a child love in many forms, and this is the one good thing I have to offer, no matter how this child comes into my life. I also study the pictures, the people in them; I recall the names and places, the moments that matter, so many of which elude me. I try to piece together the memories I have so carefully erased. I try to make sense of how I went from the child in these perfect photographed moments to who I am today.
I know, precisely, and yet I do not know. I know, but I think what I really want is to understand the why of the distance between then and now. The why is complicated and slippery. I want to be able to hold the why in my hands, to dissect it or tear it apart or burn it and read the ashes even though I am afraid of what I will do with what I see there. I don’t know if such understanding is possible, but when I am alone, I sit and slowly page through these albums obsessively. I want to see what is there and what is missing and what happened even if the why still eludes me.
The presence of the photographs dates this passage, obviously. Gay is situated in a specific time in human history where the reckoning of images, both of others and of oneself, has really complicated memory and the stories we tell ourselves of our pasts. But unyielding to a time- or date-stamp is Gay's admission that she knows and yet doesn't know, a knotty epiphany that anyone who's glanced back at the complex of family history understands all too well.