Writing and Society Research Group University of Western Sydney
My grandfather was an anti-Nazi German who escaped to England, only to be deported to Australia during WWII. My grandmother was a much-travelled translator with a rich political and linguistic background. When I decided to write a novel about their lives I inherited memoirs, letters, photographs and a number of family anecdotes. The traces fired from the past, though vivid, leave dark spaces between which my grandparents can be re-imagined, rather than recalled.
With reference to Marianne Hirsch’s work on the aesthetics of ‘postmemory’, with its threads of ‘ambivalence and desire, mourning and recollection, presence and absence,’ I wish to explore some questions central to the process of writing my novel. What happens to us when we encounter the remnants of our dead? What is the afterlife of images and texts? How does memory, or this removed form of memory, operate imaginatively? Of what use to a writer is the particular haunting that this process engenders?
Heinz and Fay, my grandparents, lived lives that have taken on a dramatic quality in family lore, spotlit by their positions on the stage of twentieth-century history. Fay Jackson was a Russian Jew who spent her early childhood in the West End of London. A forceful, enterprising spirit into old age, she left home as a very young woman and travelled around Europe in the 1930s, teaching herself languages. In Brussels in 1933 she met my grandfather, Heinz Schlösser, on the run from the Nazis who had murdered his trade unionist father in a wave of violence against the Left. They ran a youth hostel in England until in 1940, until, with invasion from Germany seemingly imminent, the British government arrested thousands of German and Austrian refugees and sent them to camps in Australia.
My father knew little, but the snippets he passed on carried a powerful narrative force: ‘Your grandmother ran away from home at seventeen,’ I was told. ‘Your grandfather had a son in the Hitler Youth Army,’ ‘Your grandfather was in an Australian concentration camp during the War…’ Eventually, after rereading a cache of letters Fay wrote to friends in Australia from England in the late 1940s, her voice—upper middle class, brittle and strident, betraying little of her humble origins—returned to me a decade after her death, I decided to write a novel about their lives. When I began to talk to my father and uncle about this I found that there was much more documentation on their lives than I had imagined. Two years into the research and writing of this book I have recognised in myself a particular kind of response to the documents and images: to what they hide and reveal and to a sense of creative transformation that they seem to engender.
Marianne Hirsch’s work on what she terms ‘postmemory’ situates such responses to the fragments of our ancestors’ lives. She uses the term largely in reference to the once-removed though powerful form of memory carried by the children of Holocaust survivors. In a discussion of the images of Jewish life from before the war that are irrevocably tainted by the destruction that followed their creation, she writes:
Children of survivors live at a further temporal and spatial remove from that decimated world. The distance separating them from the locus of origin is the radical break of unknowable and incomprehensible persecution; for those born after, it is a break impossible to bridge. Still, the power of mourning and memory, and the depth of the rift dividing their parents’ lives, impart to them something that is akin to memory. Searching for a term that would convey its temporal and qualitative difference from survivor memory, I have chosen to call this secondary, or second-generation, memory ‘postmemory’ (1996, 662).
Throughout this article I will draw on the resonant features of this formulation while drawing some distinctions between my own position and that she describes. Hirsch is speaking of the children of Holocaust survivors, though she makes the point that the term ‘may usefully describe the second-generation memory of other cultural or collective traumatic events and experiences’ (1996, 662). I have not grown up in the shadow of wartime history. Importantly, another generation separates me from the experience. I am the descendant of a survivor of the trauma of Nazi atrocity but not of the death camps. Our family memory must be distinguished from the culturally specific collective memory of the Holocaust. When my great grandfather Johann was murdered by SA and SS in 1933, and his son Heinz was forced to flee, it was part of a national move against the Left. Three other men were murdered with Johann in the cellar of their union offices on the same day, and all over Germany trade unionists were beaten and imprisoned. Thousands of political enemies of the Reich ended up in the death camps. Family history intersects with cultural and political history, and yet what I am encountering in this material is not the Holocaust, and feels more individual and private than the term ‘collective memory’ would seem to imply. I am not certain it can even be understood as a collective memory, or at least the cultural forms of it have not proliferated in anything like the ways they have for Holocaust-generated cultural forms. Language is an issue here, as these very specific German histories are not part of a general diasporic experience, expressed in English. Further, my grandmother, Fay, though a Russian Jew, grew up in England. She travelled in continental Europe, including Germany, in the 1930s, but she was not so far as I know ever in any immediate danger from the Nazis.
And yet Hirsch’s writing on this subject offers a fertile beginning from which to explore the process of researching my own family history, and points me towards an understanding of the uncanny nature of the encounter with this material and the act of writing about it. The unavoidable confrontation with death, the disturbance of the familiar that marks this process leads me to think of writing of this kind as a haunting. Hirsch emphasises the imaginative role (1996, 659) in the memory of the generations that come after, who did not see it with their own eyes, who must trawl through fragments looking for the story. I find that Hirsch’s notion of the imaginative function of postmemory is inextricably linked in my own processes with the unsettling nature of my encounters with the material. Via some questions, I would like to explore this connection between haunting and imagination. What happens to us when we encounter the remnants of our dead? What is the afterlife of images? How does memory, or this removed form of memory, operate imaginatively? Of what use to a writer is the particular haunting that this process engenders?
‘Your grandmother ran away from home at the age of seventeen’
It was a desk, a desk in the abode of two journalists, and to be a journalist, to be a poet, to be a writer, that was something that was already firmly in the mind not only of myself but of my two brothers. Primarily because it had been the cry of my father, ‘If I had had the education that you children have, I would have been a writer’ and I think that that was the most profound influence in all our lives and remained so (Castles, 1980s).
This is an extract from the fragmentary, unpublished memoirs of my grandmother. I first came across this passage in Oxford, photocopying my uncle’s papers. I held the fragile piece of paper in my hand that my grandmother had fed through her old black typewriter. The skin on the back of my neck prickled. This was what she said to me, more or less, repeatedly, throughout my childhood: ‘You shall be a writer.’ And here was the evidence of an older inheritance in my hand, the trace of it, made with her ink, typed by her arthritic old fingers with their savagely bitten fingernails.
On another page which covers the same period in her memoirs, the desk, which she had now been given by the journalists, appears again:
I bought the Ham and High…and there I found a room advertised and one Sunday morning I packed all my personal belongings in a suitcase, said a sad goodbye to my little black desk, tiptoed through the front door and left the house of my parents in South Hill park and in fact except for visiting my father once in the old Hampstead General Hospital when he was ill with pneumonia I did not see my parents for years and my father not at all (Castles, 1980s).
The compression of this paragraph astonished me. I saw her vividly: a young woman, leaving her home, thinking of the desk she must relinquish. It seems in this fragment to carry an equivalent emotional weight to the figure of her father, who she will see only once again and who passed onto her this desire to write that gives the desk its power as fetish. She wrote this in old age. What has been lost or misremembered? How has the emphasis changed in the sixty years between the action and the writing? Was the desk really harder to leave than her father? This short paragraph encompasses me in a bubble of loss—loss of detail and memory, but also loss of her father and a happy, intellectually and politically stimulating childhood in her parents’ home.
‘Your grandfather had a son in the Hitler Youth Army’
When I was photocopying the papers in Oxford, my uncle could not find his folder of photographs that went with them. A month or two after I had returned to Sydney he sent me several emails with attachments of the scanned photographs. Some had handwritten captions, often followed by question marks, clues to their genesis. The following pictures had none.
In the first photograph Heinz faces the camera, and at the same time peers into the future at me, the viewer. The boy on his shoulders also looks at the photographer. Who is the photographer? My grandmother? The camera angle seems low, and she was short, but there is also a figure behind Heinz and much lower which could just as well be her. And what has just happened? The boy’s cape suggests a game, just finished, or in train. One foot is bare, one is wearing a sock and shoe. Heinz holds a cigarette casually between his fingers. Heinz and the boy look serious, involved perhaps in some play of the imagination, though the figures behind them seem amused. What story has been interrupted?
In the next photograph the woman in the background is now part of the tableau and there is my grandmother in front of her. Who was the photographer here? The old man in the background of the first photograph? They seem to have been taken on the same day. The same clothes make an appearance although my grandfather has combed his curls and put on a jacket and the boy no longer has the cape. The two women and the boy smile, as though in response to something the photographer says, but Heinz is looking elsewhere, scowls mildly into the middle distance, separate from the mood of the others, even if it is temporary, a play for the photographer. Whatever it is, he is not part of it at this moment.
I rang my father, who had also received the email with the photographs. ‘Is this the boy?’ I asked him. ‘The one who was killed, fighting for Germany?’ He had always been a mythical figure, not someone of whom we might have photographic evidence, sitting in an attic.
He didn’t know. We examined noses, chins, drew conclusions. We know that these photographs were taken in England, probably close to the youth hostel my grandparents ran in Winchester, as the building is in the background of another of the same sequence. After studying the pictures we have concluded that the boy was indeed Heinz’s son, the other woman his former wife, the boy’s mother. They are visiting from Germany in the late 1930s. Who then is the old man? A bystander? Or the woman’s father perhaps, acting as chaperone in this unusual situation, in which a German woman visits her exiled ex-husband and his new partner. If we are right, and this is his ex-wife and son, it seems probable that Heinz never saw either of them again. He certainly did not mention them to his later sons, my father and uncle; though Fay did, almost as soon as Heinz was dead.
We have since found other documents that thicken the narrative behind these photographs. There is the record of a birth about ten years before these photographs were taken. The boy’s name was Johann, after Heinz’s father who was to be murdered by Nazis. There is a record of the boy’s death too; he was killed fighting for Germany at the age of seventeen, in the final push of World War Two. Knowing this I look again at the smiling boy, sitting on his father’s shoulders. Context brings home the fact that this is the ghost of a boy who did not live another decade and who died amid horror.
‘Your grandfather was in an Australian concentration camp during the War’
The original of this document is in a thick folder in the National Archives in Canberra. When I sat down with the file the archive reading room was alive with silent and immediate engagement with the past. A man turned a yellowed crumbling page with thumb and forefinger at a table nearby. Another stood over a digital camera, hovering above a document on the table, touching nothing. I opened the folder and began to leaf through it: it was largely a file of correspondence between Fay and the Australian authorities, repeatedly telling Heinz’s story, begging to have him released. A few pages in I found this document. It appears to be a release sheet from internment. I was struck by several things at once. He has a number around his neck. He looks so old, though this was taken only four years or so after the other photographs, in which he appears as a serious man but one who retains the handsomeness of his youth. Here I see nothing but grim endurance, no grace or lightness. And there are his thumbprints, huge. I put my own on them immediately. On the ink traces of his skin. The indexical link with my father’s father. There is the white joint crease in the whorls. And the overwhelming sense, when confronted with documentary evidence of a story that one only ever caught glimpses of in family stories: so these things happened. In spite of everything, it seemed, I had not fully believed it. I had not known it as part of the deep history we carry within our bodies.
In the introduction to a collection of Mass Observation diaries, the British project of recording the people’s response to war and deprivation, the editor Sandra Koa Wing refers to ‘archive shiver’, the particular thrill of holding an original document. This feeling has power; it comes from the sense of indexicality, fetishism, of contact with the original object with its at least apparent documentary authenticity. The discovery of new knowledge that comes with reading the archives is exciting, but the full impact of the encounter is in the document’s status as original, as proof, taken quietly from the house of the dead to make something new.
The next page in the document file was this ‘claim for compensation’, a list of the items stolen from Heinz by British soldiers on HMT Dunera, the transport that took him from England to Australia with over 2000 other Germans and Austrians, most of them Jewish. It itemises the few belongings he was able to pack when he was arrested. It lists the dates and places he innocently bought the watch, Parker ‘Vacumatic’ fountain pens, leather cigarette case and sundry books, believing they were his now, that there was security in these objects, having fled Germany seven years previously with nothing, his books burned by Nazis. He knows as he makes his claim what these items cost; there is a list of prices. There are stories in the places of purchase: Bournemouth, Winchester, London, that only he or my grandmother could have known. Apart from the stolen items, for which he claimed twenty-two pounds, ten shillings and nine pence, there are his personal details. ‘Nationality: Stateless (formerly German). Name of internment camp in England where first interned: Southampton. Name of internment camp in England where interned immediately before being brought to Australia: Central Camp, Douglas, I.O.M. (Isle of Man).’ The sense of loss accumulates dizzyingly. This document, appearing immediately after the picture of a suddenly old man with a number hanging around his neck, brings me towards a point of saturation.
In the hushed reading room, the past erupting into my present in the form of the release form, the claim for compensation, the letters begging for his release, and when I read the memoirs, view the photographs, hear the voices, see the smiles of the dead, the eyes, the hands, right there, in front of me, there is suddenly so much feeling while in other parts of this research I can grasp nothing, find no connection, only the dense type of ‘history’ that cannot be pulled apart. Hirsch writes of the children of traumatic exile as being overloaded with ‘too many stories, too much affect, even as at other times [they are] unable to fill in the gaps and absences’ (1996, 664). This overload is for me a starting point, and Hirsch suggests implicitly by applying the notion of postmemory to the aesthetics of various forms of memorial, that this is not unusual, that there is something productive about this point of surfeit.
The day I found the file on my grandparents in the National Archives, I was visiting my parents in Canberra with my small daughters, one of whom had not yet reached a year old. I had to process my emotions quickly, I was aware constantly of needing to return to my children before they reduced my father’s house to rubble, and also that they were in a strange place, and my presence was required soon. This feeling was no doubt exacerbated by the sensitivities of once again being the mother of an infant. My hypersensitive consciousness of the needs of my children imbued my responses to the archives with a slightly fevered aspect. Every accumulated detail of this story gained an extra stab of significance because of the contingency of my existence and therefore the lives of my children, who at this moment, I felt, needed me to come home. And there is a sense of urgency too that comes with being a link in the familial chain that stretches not only backwards but forwards. The archive is a symbol of our place in a family. We are all that connects the past and the future. Our bodies are aging. We are neglected archives, our memories hidden in a dusty box, our bodies the forensic evidence of all that went before us. There is an urge to give up what is inside to the future before it disintegrates. This is an intrinsic quality to the writing of memoir, the genre that lies at the core of my fictional project. Amos Oz, speaking in interview about the writing of his memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, says;
…as I was digging back in time—going into the intimate world of my parents and my grandparents and even my great-grandparents—I was sensing that I was actually carrying a letter from my parents to my children, who did not really know my parents, from my grandparents to my grandchildren. And perhaps—I don’t know—from my ancestors to those not yet born (Koval: 2005, 170).
The role of messenger across time increases the weight of the load, ups the stakes. There is an imperative that comes with being ‘the writer in the family’. It is like inheriting something precious, delicate and easy to ruin. The passing on of this gift in tact is fraught. But though the affect generated begins at the point of overload, it is the start of a process, in which the feeling settles, recedes enough to become part of my sense of family history, informs what I need to know about this story in order to make a form of it in writing. Memorial requires some measure of steadiness. To make something, I must be moved to make it, but also capable of organisation, thought, shaping of material. Mourning is a beginning. Postmemory, that is ‘secondary’ or ‘second generation memory’ Hirsch tells us, ‘mourns a loss that cannot be repaired’. I recognise this in my response to the archives. I would add that this mourning is imbued with another note: gratitude for their survival, the existence of my children. Also though, postmemory is:
a powerful form of memory precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through an imaginative investment and creation (1986, 659).
To see this form of memory as mediation through ‘an imaginative investment and creation’ explains for me to some extent the source of energy in this material, its generative force, the charge. I do not only feel an irreparable loss when I hold these objects. The material crackles with possibility. It is in the live connection it creates with the past, with a grandfather I never met. It is in the tangible link with a history I had not begun to assimilate into my own memory. The fragments throw up questions: how close were my grandfather and his German son? What did it mean to lose him to the war while in exile in Australia? Did Fay regret leaving her parents? What sort of woman manages to follow her lover to Australia when the whole world is at war? What does it mean to be interned in a camp for enemy aliens when you have lost your father and homeland to the Nazis? These fragments ask the questions, press their urgency across time. They can only be answered tentatively, through imaginative means. Hirsch is alluding to a double bound: that we make when we imagine our ancestors’ worlds and in addition that we make when we set ourselves the work of turning it into something new.
For me, this dual leap of imagination is necessary in order to overtake the anxiety and belatedness that comes with being of a later generation, born into relative security and prosperity. The role of imagination in this ‘memory work’ (as Annette Kuhn calls her project in her memoir, Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination), fuels the conversion of family memory into a piece of fiction, into something that moves beyond haunted reminiscence, something that can be claimed as belonging to the new generation, rather than appropriated from the old.
Somewhere between the beginnings, the questions, the twin probing of memory and imagination, and the production of a finished novel, there arrive haunted assimilations of family memory: dreams in which my grandparents want to speak to me, or to each other, and are separated. I wake with the eerily cleft feeling that they are in the world and that they are gone forever. Most startling is an experience that comes to me while on a walk. Walking seems to allow information, apparently disparate thoughts, yearnings, to find pathways to one another, to become part somehow of the same mental project, in this case, the novel, or the active dreaming that precedes the novel, that feeds the fits and starts of writing that can themselves be threaded together. I am nearing the end of my walk, having pushed myself up to the top of the headland, blood pumping, and am at the edge of the ocean, feet wet, sand cool, when I feel suddenly that if I look up he will be there, walking quietly beside me, tall and slow and solid, the grandfather I have never met. I am aware of the thickness of his chest, and a quiet, restful form of melancholy that he carries with him. It is not a meeting; he has always known me, and it is not strange for us to be walking together along the beach. The moment is brief but is much more immediate than how I would usually characterise imagination or memory. For those few seconds he is there, if I only looked up. I am in another projection of time where such things are simply the way life has turned out. When it has ended I feel bereft, and wish that it had lasted longer, or perhaps in a deeper sense, hidden to myself in this moment, that it were real.
Back inside, returning to the fragments, I feel at once mournful and brimming with the potential of what these artefacts mean. The pieces of paper, when you have the original in your hand, when they have been touched by your ancestors, are alive. They vibrate with meaning. And the photographs offer a glimpse through a window on the other side of which history appears to have collapsed, or at least become a form of memory, something I can almost touch.
The unsettling nature of retrieval of the past, the disturbing collisions of absence and presence, suffuse the writing of W.G. Sebald. A passage in The Emigrants expresses the compulsion and hauntedness of grasping towards our ghosts via the family album:
Again and again, from front to back and from back to front, I leafed through the album that afternoon, and since then I have returned to it time and again, because, looking at the pictures in it, it truly seemed to me, and still does, as if the dead were coming back, or as if we were on the point of joining them (1996, 45-6).
This expresses for me the elusive, haunted nature of being eternally on the brink. We are only ever ‘on the point of joining them,’ and yet we keep looking at the photographs, as though we can get closer. And though a part of our selves might desire it, the idea of ‘the dead coming back’ is profoundly disturbing. We might miss them, or miss ever having had them, but the dead do not belong among the living. The suggestion that they are about to be so is deeply unsettling. Sebald suggests though in his non fiction (The Natural History of Destruction) that there is something distasteful about an avoidance of this kind of haunting, in the case of, as he calls it, post-war Germany’s ‘almost perfectly functioning mechanism of repression’ when history urgently calls for a disturbance in cultural expression (2004, 11-12).
I cannot comment on Germany’s repression of its past other than to respond to Sebald’s formulation of an appropriate aesthetic engagement with history. His novels counter the charge he brings to German culture. The Emigrants and Austerlitz in particular enact compulsively the haunted process of retrieval of certain members of the postwar generation. Though the character of Austerlitz in particular seems fatally undone by his retrieval of wartime memory, unable ever to live a life free of his compulsive reminiscing, the power of Sebald’s art, in particular the minute specificity of what is remembered and its uncanny presence in his characters’ lives, the tangible, physical sense that the past is never over, expresses forcefully that to be haunted is not necessarily to be paralysed or overwhelmed.
For Austerlitz, with the recovery of the memory of who he is, who his parents were, in the immediacy of his inundating memory, all is not lost. Every object reminds him. Or rather, nothing is lost, and everything is lost, and he can never detour from the road into his past. Austerlitz’s fate expresses the cataclysm to the constitution of the self that can come with the retrieval of family memory. But though Austerlitz is stuck, Sebald is not. His work is a deeply affecting engagement with the often brutal power of memory. There is a moral quality to it: though it explores the absences of memory, the terrifying holes, it does not forget. It brings us constantly into confrontation with the ghosts he believes must haunt us.
For writers and artists to produce, the compulsive return cannot be paralysing, even if it is for their characters. Perhaps this is more possible for the generations that come after, in part explaining the proliferation of Holocaust writing in our age. The haunting we inherit must take us somewhere new. Perhaps we need detachment, separation from the actual events, to create the space necessary. Speaking only for my own processes, at a safe divide from events that is sometimes disturbingly ruptured by images and archives, though I find much in the material that is heartbreaking, my heart is not broken. I am able to function; I am able to write. Haunting is a beginning, an engine for the imagination.
Hirsch privileges the writing of Barthes on photography in her work, and I too find his notions of the punctum and studium apposite. The punctum, ‘that prick and shock of recognition’ (1984) often arrives via a detail that we notice later, after our first perusal of the photograph. If I return to the photograph of my grandfather with his German son on his shoulders, these terms are fruitful. When I decided to incorporate the photograph into this discussion, I looked again at the details and was suddenly arrested by the hands of the son and father. Heinz holds his son’s fingers lightly, so that he does not fall, or because he wants to touch his skin. That touch is before me but gone, even then, barely to be repeated. Though this is the point that wounds, the social and historical context is valuable to the novelist; the background is what makes up the texture, the sense of life that a novel draws upon. The touch of their hands is informed crucially by the context of loss. And so the studium, which Barthes devalues in favour of the detail that carries across time to shock is not devalued to one whose business is to recreate the lives whose loss is made real to us via the punctum.
To return though to the value of the punctum in my own encounters with the images, I recognise the power of this little shock to haunt, to bring about a psychic transformation. Barthes writes:
Perhaps we have an invincible resistance to believing in the past, in History, except in the form of myth. The Photograph, for the first time, puts an end to this resistance’ (Barthes, 1983, p87).
There is a suggestion here that the photograph is documentary evidence of the truth of the past. Though I approach my family photographs with the knowledge that they are a fragment, culturally produced, proving little except that for a moment those people stood together in a particular moment in what was a pose for the photographer’s purposes, I recognise Barthes’ response. There is a ghostly flash in which my body absorbs the memory as my own, giving flesh to family stories that I had no way to step inside, reconstituting my sense of family and of myself. I may be a subject, made up of memories and culture and discourse, as is history, but the input has changed; there is a disturbance that generates energy.
Last year I visited Heinz’s hometown of Duisburg in the former industrial heartland of the Ruhr. I interviewed my grandfather’s cousin who still lives in the area. He drove me back to my hotel after dinner. The streets were dark and empty and the town seemed a sad place, entrenched with dreariness and ugly buildings. My relative told me as we drew up to the hotel that in 1945 he walked along this street as a little boy with his aunt, Auguste, my great grandmother, and they had to step around the rubble. Every building was destroyed. This obliteration of German towns has wiped out not only the architecture of my grandfather’s hometown but the military archives of his early life and involvement in the First World War. And so a crucially important piece of his history is missing. Even if it were possible to do such a thing, I cannot tell the historical ‘truth’ made from a perfect collage of archives, the gaps carefully filled in with diligent unearthing of the right piece of paper. Before me is rubble. Underneath it are pieces of china, burnt letters, a dull ring. These artefacts are hot, glowing, live. Between them, in the quiet dust, lies the story, which I must find myself. The archives and family stories lead me to a place beyond themselves, where there is no evidence and no solid ground.
I gave an earlier draft of this piece as a paper at a conference. Before I did so I gave it to my father to read. He rang me when I was on my way, at the airport, to take issue with some factual and grammatical errors. In particular, he wanted to correct my mistaken assertion that my grandfather’s earlier son was a Nazi, when he had in fact fought in the Hitler Youth Army, which was presumably unavoidable. He reiterated for some minutes the difference until I had at last to board the plane. I know the difference, and corrected the paper, realising that I had been using the term ‘Nazi’ for something slightly more complicated to explain. And yet afterwards, thinking about this exchange at 35,000 feet, probably somewhere over my father’s head as we passed over Canberra, I was not sure that this was really what this conversation was about, or what it was entirely about. What was at stake here, in this correcting of my shorthand history? Perhaps it is what is always at stake in questions of representing history, but it seems especially so in this particular episode of history. There is dishonour in not telling the truth, wherever it can be verified and understood, and wherever it will be read as factual. There is dishonour to the millions of dead, and those who resisted corruption, in misrepresenting who was responsible. You do not bandy the term ‘Nazi’ about. You understand the difference between ‘Nazi’ and ‘German’, between being an enthusiastic party member and cannon fodder. The ethics of making fiction of this subject matter is complex and must constantly be negotiated.
I understood all this. I made my corrections. And yet I felt as I went over it again that there was something else at issue, something more specific to do with iterations of family memory. It did not feel like a correction of factual error. It felt like a slightly more fraught tussle over memory, even if only from my own point of view. It seemed a condensation of the inescapable feeling of the granddaughter who was not there, who did not know. The continual: ‘No! That is not how it was!’ that I hear from some disembodied voice as I wrestle with the material.
When I walked on the beach, and it seemed for a moment that my grandfather walked beside me, my brain without my urging connected up fragments of memory, of walks with my father as a child, with work in the archives, with writing about my grandfather’s life. Memory, reading, imagination fused and created this being for just a moment. It was something new, and it belonged to its own kind of knowledge. Gail Jones writes in a meditation on ‘the redemptive drive’ of writing of different forms of knowledge of the past:
…children’s imaginings have their own integrity—dream knowledge is not, after all, historical knowledge; it is its emotional and figurative residue…’ (Jones, 2006, 17)
She speaks here of her own mistaken childhood memory of a low tide walk to a wreck, whose details her father corrects. At first she feels ‘stupidly disconfirmed’ before establishing that there are different forms of knowledge, which operate according to different rules. Her distinction between different forms of knowledge speaks to my own wish to distinguish what I am doing from literal memory, and history. I wish to make a claim for the integrity of this form, working as it often does against the grain of history. Within Jones’s term ‘residue’ are notions of ‘after’, of an afterlife of materials that is key to my own haunted encounters with my inheritance. After the memories of those who experienced events first hand, in the postmemory of later generations, in the materials I have inherited, including the various, sometimes contested, forms of family memory, there is a ghostly afterlife. It is like an algae that emits a light, a material from which energy can be derived, a new fuel, for a new purpose.
Barthes, Roland (1984). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (London: Flamingo)
Castles, Fay (1980s). Through the Wrong End of the Telescope (Unpublished memoir)
Hirsch, Marianne (1997). Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press)
Hirsch, Marianne (1996). ‘Past Lives: Postmemories in Exile’, Poetics Today Winter 1996, 659-686.
Koval, Ramona (2005.) Tasting Life Twice: Conversations with Remarkable Writers (Sydney: ABC Books)
Kuhn, Annette (1999). Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination (London: Verso, 1999)
Jones, Gail (2006) “A Dreaming, A Sauntering: Re-imagining Critical Paradigms”, Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature. 2006, 11-24 (North America)
Sebald, W.G. (1996). The Emigrants (London: Harvill)
Sebald, W.G. (2001). Austerlitz (London: Penguin)
Wing, Sandra Koa, ed (2008). Our Longest Days: A People’s History of the Second World War(London: Profile Books)