Just before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, I was living there and, among other things, working on a project about Haitian art with a couple of friends who had left Haiti years ago. They spoke of their native land in terms that I could appreciate, but didn’t fully understand—it was a site of longing, of imperfect belonging, a place they yearned for but could experience most fully in their minds, in their memories, because since they had left it had changed, and since they had left, they had changed.
Then suddenly I was a migrant of sorts as well, traveling unexpectedly, completely unprepared. Evacuating hours before the hurricane hit the city, I didn’t know if I would ever be able to go back to a place I loved. And when I did, I found that even though the city was still there, the place I had left was gone forever.
So as I read Dr. López’s introduction to Photographic Memories, in which she shares some of her own personal experiences with migration, I felt the strong emotional pull of her account of what had drawn her to contemplate women’s experiences of Caribbean migration and the concept of exile.
In the book, Dr. López is compelled especially by the images that collect around experiences of migration—traces of sites collected and created during the process of moving bodily between known and unknown. And as she considers these images, she foregrounds the materiality of the book itself as object, as artifact. “[T]his work explores the complex interactions between image and language that play across the space of literature,” she writes. “I conclude that the photographs on the cover art and the images described in the texts aid the writer in capturing and contextualizing as with the lends of a camera, the living conditions of female migrants” (22). For example, she describes the photographs on the covers of two editions (Spanish and English) of Esmeralda Santiago’s text When I Was Puerto Rican as ‘nostalgic’ (114), “romanticized” (116), representing “a bygone era” (115) that was “just an illusion” (116). The cover of Santiago’s book literally illustrates the way in which she has looked back at “home” while engaging in the struggles associated with becoming a person for whom that term would never, on some level, be singular.
At the same time, Photographic Memories insists upon its own physicality. As we learn in the introduction, its cover depicts its source of inspiration—the author’s mother, who is thus the source not only of the book as a physical object but also of the author herself. The cover image, created by the author, reaches back both into the past of the ideas within its pages, and into the past of the body that created it.
As we look at Photographic Memories, the book regards us in return. The woman we see there considers us with an uncompromising gaze. Her own future is as yet unknown, unwritten. She’s looking at whoever was behind that camera decades ago, of course—but in this moment it’s our eyes that look back. Know me, she seems to say. Here. Now. The spaces around her are vertiginous. There’s a man on a staircase—going down, or perhaps up, into his own future. The twin towers hover at one edge— maybe a snapshot from a long-ago run of the Staten Island Ferry, aggressive counterpoint to the striped-awning brownstone. The contents of the documents undergirding these images are to be guessed at, assumed, but not read, precisely.
The history presented here in the form of a photograph is not narrative or chronological but juxtaposed, and we are forced to accept that we have only symbols. The meaning of life does not unfold logically, in chronological order, but—as Foucault suggests in The Archaeology of Knowledge—appears through attempts to explain proximity. We don’t have access to the meaning of our chronologies except through the backward glance, except as we are able to devise languages that represent temporal progression without, necessarily, “progress.”
As Dr. López points out in the case of Esmeralda Santiago and the other writers she examines, the lived reality of migration is not linear. There’s a constant circling back, reiteration: “For Caribbean writers ‘home,’ in both physical and psychological respects, becomes a site of recovery where connections and associations between past, present, and future events are possible in the quest to create subjectivities,” she writes (146). Maybe it’s more like geologic time—a matter of accretion, sedimentation, uplift.
As Dr. López investigates the images within novels about migration, her text presses upon us an awareness of language striving for materiality—an endless and futile goal that I think may be at the heart of the quest to write. Writers of fiction will never succeed in bringing the “truth” of experience fully to the reader. No matter how crystalline their prose, no matter how imagistic, their words will reach for the physical world endlessly. Writing about migration underscores this striving for something that may not exist, that may never have existed. The language of migration and exile circles around memory, and perhaps ends up creating a kind of raw wrenching of memory and of history in order to shape an identity to take into the future. As Dr. López writes of Santiago’s proud identification with “la mancha de plátano” of the jíbaros in When I Was Puerto Rican, “[I]t seems as if Santiago’s naiveté at a young age which, according to her, runs through adulthood, favors the adoption of an old-fashioned and untruthful stereotypical representation of the life of ease jíbaros led” (122). Such are images that stand in for dreams.
At the same time, perhaps the images referenced in this volume have something in common with photographs of war that Susan Sontag describes in Regarding the Pain of Others—as they present moments of suffering, of pathos, of struggle, we who look upon them become simply mute, impotent witnesses, absorbing into ourselves vivid accounts that we can neither touch, aid, nor speak to.
Yet foregrounding the connections between the intellectual and creative work and the substantive shape of the book itself, in its focus on photography as embedded, as enfolded within text, as Dr. López does here, points to a bridge between materiality and the abstract world of language. As Barthes writes, every photograph contains within it “the return of the dead” (9).
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. 1979. Translated by Richard Howard, Hill and Wang, 1981.
Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. 1969. Translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith, Pantheon, 1972.
López Mazzeo, Denise. Photographic Memories: Caribbean Women’s Writings of the Diaspora. Centro de Investigación y Creación, Universidad de Puerto Rico en
Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. Picador, 2003.
This review of Photographic Memories: Caribbean Women’s Writings of the Diaspora focuses on the significance of the author’s critique of the cover images of books she analyzes in the larger context of analyses of migration. It suggests that through her focus on photography, López ends up pointing to a possible means of bridging the gap between the material world and the abstract world of language. In keeping with López’s focus on the importance of images in written texts, this review analyzes the cover of Dr. López’s own work.
Book launch "Photographic Memories: Caribbean Women’s Writings of the Diaspora"