The Power of Memory to Reclaim What was Lost

By Benay Blend

In the article “Invention, Memory, and Place,” the late Edward Said reflects on the question of collective memory: what is remembered, how, and in what form? Both Susan Abulhawa’s Against the Loveless World (2020) and Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground (2020) illustrate the ways that memories—individual and collective—are conceptualized to deal with trauma and assert resistance. In particular, both authors look at remembrance as a tool that refugees might use as a guard against erasure and extinction.

“Things that were stolen once can be stolen back” (16), Elliot asserts, and in this way, her memoir looks at how memory can be a creator of new meanings, an active process that places her in control. As she asserted in an interview, “We have to figure out how to navigate our truths around what they want from us.”

For Palestinians, memory also affirms identity. Like Elliott, a caretaker of Mohawk history, Abulhawa’s tale centers on the freedom fighter, Nahr who recounts her story but in this case from the confines of Israeli jail. There she “want[s] to tell it as storytellers do,” weaving together “images, smells, and sounds” that give her history meaning.

In Nakba: Palestine, 1948 and the Claims of Memory, Ahmad Sa’di and Lila Abu-Lughod write that Palestinian memory is at its core political in that it always struggles “against a much-contested present” (3). Despite displacement, Palestinians and Native people continue to remember their history and understand their place in the world based on their own realities.

As Indigenous people who live under the weight of colonialism, Alicia Elliott, through life-writing, and Abulhawa, through fiction, use words as a means to write their way through pain. “Depression could slip in entirely unnoticed,” claims Elliott, “and dress itself up as normalcy” (4), which she believes is the way that colonization has affected her people since contact.

“Numbness is often how people describe their experience of depression” (9), she continues, and the cure for that is to reinforce self-worth through reclaiming culture and language. “Intergenerational trauma, racism, sexism, colonialism, homophobia, transphobia” (11)—all of the problems that came after contact are experienced as “literally” a mind “stretched or sprawled on the ground” (12).

“Both depression and colonialism have stolen my language” (14) Elliott explains. “Because culture lives and breathes” (11) inside a people’s words, eradicating a particular vernacular has far-reaching effects on mental health. Nevertheless, she struggles against colonialism the same way that she fights depression, by championing the value of her culture along with personal self-worth.

“Every breath I choose to take is a tiny revolution,” writes Elliott, “a rebellion against the forces that tell me I should stop” (14). In this way she becomes part of a centuries-old legacy of resistance, a movement that connects her struggle to the land and to other Indigenous peoples around the world.

Abulhawa’s Nahr is also practiced in reclaiming space. In her case, she takes over the colonizer’s court by singing in Arabic to drown out the Hebrew that she does not understand. Her journey has been an exile’s path, never staying in one place too long. It is only when she returns to Palestine that she feels at home, sure of her own identity.

Finally, when she marries Bilal, her first husband Mhammad’s brother, her mother embroiders a traditional thobe for her to wear, an act of resistance in itself. “I thought a lot about this and decided to use the basic patterns of a Jerusalem thobe,” explains her mother, “because we’re being erased from her story and her stone” (289).

A caretaker of culture and history, Nahr’s mother resists erasure in much the same way as Elliott, by passing on collective memory and tradition. Her lessons stand Nahr in good stead after she is arrested. Restricted to the Cube, a state-of-the-art solitary cell, Nahr feels robbed of all emotion. Cut off completely from the outside world, the Cube is “devoid of time” (4), replaced instead by a “yawning stretch of something unnamed, without present, future, or past” (4) which she fills with an “imagined or remembered life” (4).

Like Elicia Elliott, Nahr resists depression by taking back her life. In an interview, Abulhawa says that some of her early memories are of “dislocated people” trying to find meaning in their traditions—“food, large gatherings of family and friends, storytelling”—all of the ways of coping that she writes into the characters in her books.

“A composite of real and imagined women,” Nahr is an amalgam, explains Abulhawa, of “refugees, sex workers, patriarchy, war, imperialism, colonialism,” and like the real-life Alicia Elliott, a product of “love and armed resistance.”

“I think that when a writer doesn’t have a good understanding of who they are and what their beliefs are,” Elliott asserts, “they are going to necessarily lack the conviction in their writing to go daring places, and ask daring questions.” How we make and maintain space is a question that both women have tried to answer in their writing.

– Benay Blend earned her doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. Her scholarly works include Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Eds. (2017), “’Neither Homeland Nor Exile are Words’: ‘Situated Knowledge’ in the Works of Palestinian and Native American Writers”. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.