From absences to senses

A few weeks ago I had a visit with my eighty-nine year old grandmother. An outing that has a 90% chance of biscuits and a 100% chance of tea. In recent years, she has taken a liking to looking at pictures on my iPhone – whenever I go to her apartment she will say excitedly, “Any new pictures on your iPad?” (iPad referring to any kind of smart phone – she often takes this as an opportunity to crack jokes about ‘eye-pads’). Most of the time I just have fairly generic pictures of landscapes, screenshots of funny images, or pictures of cats wandering around my backyard – nothing particularly interesting. But what my grandmother likes best are pictures of people – and unfortunately, a series of 5 or more minimally different pictures of the same cat outside my window leave much to be desired for my ‘audience’ (I guess the phrase “quality not quantity” would apply to me here).

On this particular day, my grandmother added a twist to our usual picture sharing regime. She hobbled across the room with her walker and handed me a rather small, faded, orange and yellow photo album, saying: “Today I have pictures for you to look at!”

I opened the cover and scanned the pictures inside – most of them black and white, some of them yellowed and wrinkled with age. Faces from long ago look out from the frame – I search for familiar features, gestures, anything to help me name my ancestors.

I look back towards my grandmother, who is now having a cup of tea with my father across the living room. I bring one of the pictures over to her and ask, “Is this you when you were a little girl?”

Before even looking at the picture, she says, “My dear, it can’t be me!”

My dad chimes in as well, “There aren’t any pictures of your grandmother as a kid – they just didn’t take any.”

Somewhat perplexed, I carried on perusing the photo album. But I could not help but think about our family’s ‘archives’: What happens when there are pieces missing? And in turn, what counts as ‘missing’?

This would be difficult to answer – and I can only speculate at this point. But this blog series has taken up similar questions of photographic representation and absence in archives. What role does privilege play in the photographic? What about power in the archives? How do we navigate our contemporary understandings of gender, race, and class when we approach historical documents?

In Woman, Native, Other (1989), Trinh T. Minh-ha opens up and challenges our standard notion of archives. She claims: “The world’s earliest archives or libraries were the memories of women” (121).

We tend to privilege the tangible, the material, as our source for History and ‘truth.’ But if we look further, there is so much more we can learn. What histories can we tell if we look beyond the written word, beyond the preserved photograph?

The world’s earliest archives or libraries were the memories of women. Patiently transmitted from mouth to ear, body to body, hand to hand. In the process of storytelling, speaking and listening refer to realities that do not involve just the imagination. The speech is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched. It destroyed, brings into life, nurtures (Trinh 121).

Perhaps this is why I did not completely feel my grandmother’s absence from the photo album. While I do wonder why she was so blatantly left out of these family pictures (was it gender related? A class issue? Or something completely innocent? A broken camera maybe?), I can’t help but think that she is not entirely ‘missing’ from these ‘archives’. When I see pictures of other family members, I think about the stories my grandmother has told about them over the years. I hear her thick accent reverberating in my ears. When I see pictures of the rugged landscape of her childhood home, I smell the salt fish laid out to dry in the summertime and I feel the dewy ocean breeze on my skin. I imagine what life was like for my grandmother as in that small, Newfoundland fishing community in the 1920s, the 1930s, and beyond.

Perhaps, searching for history takes more than looking to the past. Sometimes it takes listening, feeling, smelling, tasting … opening up our senses to a world of archives, or better yet, opening up our archives to a world of senses.

Sources:

Trinh T. Minh-ha. Woman, Native, Other. Indiana University, 1989.

 

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017.

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