Wednesday, December 29, 2021

The 2021 Christmas Octave: SARAH KHATRY, The Shadow World


We had so many great cover essays for this year's Advent Calendar that we're extending it this time around to include the Octave of Christmas (Christmas Day through New Year's Day). We'll also continue publishing cover essays into the next year, so if you've got an idea, pitch us (email Will or Ander, or ping us on twitter). Happy Holidays! —Will and Ander



After “Domanju,” by Brandon Shimoda


I was six years old when the twin towers fell. On the west coast, New York was more concept than living city, rendered in grainy footage on our living room TV during the morning news hour while I was supposed to be preparing for school. My mother tells me she entered the room to find me before the TV’s screen, rapt and frozen. My expression was her first indication something unusual was going on.
     When we filed in for class, our tender, grandmotherly teacher addressed the events with a baldness I think I now would find startling. On the whiteboard, in a few simple lines, she drew the towers: two long and open-ended rectangles, blue marker in my memory. She drew a single plane: a narrow oval, tapered into points at each longitudinal end for nose and tail, with a pair of triangular wings shooting out of the middle. And then she drew an arrow. Plane to towers. 
     A flourish persists that I’m not sure was real. Past the arrow’s tip, I remember her eraser sweeping down over the towers, wiping them into blankness. White oblivion. 
     She narrated over the images, but it’s only the whiteboard I remember, and the story it told. In the weeks that followed, as my small hand set forward to practice shaping the letters of the alphabet, it would not stop shaking.
     Twenty years later, our reactions in real time unspool below in nested comment threads, ongoing livestreams, and feeds of tragedy. But what happens after? How do the functions of cultural memory and memorialization operate now? 
     In Brandon Shimoda’s “Domanju,” the most effective tribute to Hiroshima is the simplest: a great mound housing the ashes of 70,000, of whom all but 815 reside unnamed. But where Hiroshima and its horrors marked the end of a war, September 11 spurred multiple conflicts, and the decades since have seen the rise of other forms of publicized violence—mass shootings, the documented brutality of police on Black and brown people, and now literal plague—all aswirl in our cultural consciousness. The last twenty years are so much bigger than me. I want to write only as myself, with the grounding specificity that makes Shimoda’s essay so effective—so follow me home, follow me into my body. 

My body as record, while all others erode and corrupt. The body remembers:
     In a small town where I used to live, a pair of high school seniors died in a car crash, their collision with a tree rending the car into separate pieces, front and back. Overnight, a memorial sprouted near the site. Something like flowers and a teddy bear and handwritten testimonials of love, fragile and delicate in permanent marker. All given over immediately to the decay of October rain. As a child, the realization that even the memorial was melting, and would be dirtied and muddied and eventually blown away by wind, struck me. Like all that love didn’t even matter. 
     Nine years later, coincidence brought me to Paris the night orchestrated attacks created and sustained an atmosphere of terror. The morning after, I stood before a reminiscent memorial, candles and signs and objects of love overflowing the metal barriers erected near the Bataclan theater. Every now and again a body (still living or dead, impossible to tell) wheeled out of the theater and through the double doors of a white van. There was a soft drizzle. The candle flames wobbled. Grief flowed through the crowd tangibly, flowed through the confusion of my body: a joint fugue in which the self could disappear, be swallowed in a wave, dissolved into the rain. What was the point in this shared witnessing? I don’t know, except we all felt the need to come and stand.
     The same year, as a sophomore in college, I assisted my professor in reporting a story about a man shot and killed by the LAPD. I did remote research. I made phone calls. I requested documentation. I made myself look second-by-second, frame-by-frame, through the short video of the killing (an execution, a murder, we would learn, muzzle pressed to his chest) caught by a bystander. I thought I should look if I was going to do this work. I let each pixelated, obscured shot, tangles of bodies and movement, become etched in my mind. I took notes with timestamps. I was somehow violating him. But this video was the only thing at the time that had any power to make things ‘right.’ Its existence had nudged open the door of public consciousness.
     The horror of the act (the horror that here we are again) is compounded by the horror that we’re all watching it—for the whole of a life to be defined by its terminating and unjust brutalization, a name and memory overridden in full not by what you’ve done but what’s been done to you. 

As he circumambulates the mound in “Domanju,” Shimoda surprises himself by perceiving, after multiple prior visits, a door. Shimoda writes: “The door, opaque yet severe, startled me. It bestowed an aspect of fantasy. It suggested a clandestine, unending world. An underground network, a labyrinth. Shadow Hiroshima. That behind the door stood either a single, self-contained object, like an inexplicable idol or letter, or a replication of the universe.” 
     The real purpose of the door he doesn’t surmise. It may well be utility, maintenance: a portal, not to alternate histories or lost worlds of the dead, but to anonymous HVAC units or an array of old clanking pipes. Still, I find Shimoda’s description irresistible, and wonder if it may suggest a wider truth: that within grief, and within the memory of tragedy, there may always be an unexpected door.
     Today, we all have entrance to the digital simulacra of memorial grounds after a major tragedy. Charnel houses of Instagram posts, excruciating explanations of horror beyond words, evocations of prayer that seem vacuous in sans serif font. These digital grounds are not stately and peaceful, but riotous, roiling, tossing like the ocean. Unlike physical grounds, they are always peppered with doors. Brilliantly advertised doors and windows (hyperlinked text, video thumbnails cropping up in the corner, responses recursed into responses on responses), but also trap doors and hidden doors (as in behind the right book tugged off the shelf, as in the twist of a particular tile in a wall causes you to hear a deep, mechanical click).
     Some of these doors lead to the illusion of proximity: gory photographs the media would never publish, or heart-wrenching accounts of bystanders, survivors, intimate relations, strangers suddenly known to you, Digital Wanderer, right there in a username or social media handle. Many of the doors offer a false sense of agency. They request either a token gesture or that you become a new prophet. Sometimes they even result in convictions. Sometimes they threaten to overthrow governments. Often, they are a placebo to still the pounding drum in your chest.
     You may also discover doors within doors within doors, which will require a lockpick, a clue, a secret password whispered to the dark eye of a keyhole. For those who follow the trail, the accumulation of doors has a persuasive effect. Radicalized standard-bearers can perceive further secrets, and secondary, or even tertiary meanings, to every act of speech papering the Internet. This is the blooming of conspiracy at work, the weaponization of its capability to deform any object it encounters to fit into its mosaic. (Reality is inverted. Grief alchemically transformed. Tragedy into farce. Pain or shame warp into hate. Even apathy can become something sharp and directed.)
     Perhaps I’m the one who’s tripped and fallen through a trap door into a shadow world. I’m exhausted. I feel like I’ve been in a cell these past two years, sucked into the glow of a screen, navigating the rhizomes of digital mourning.

I lost my grandmother in February, not to COVID but still locked far away from her family in her final weeks by quarantine. 
     In the days after her death, I listened over and over to her voicemails, still encoded within my phone’s physical memory. There was a certain intimacy in holding the phone close to my ear, hearing the familiar crackle of her voice. (Wishing me a belated birthday. Coaching me to leave the dough in a warm corner of my kitchen for it to rise properly. Asking what toppings I’d like on a pizza.) I cried and I listened to them, thinking: At least, I will never forget the sound of her voice. But someday those files will be lost in the cloud, or I’ll fry the device’s storage. And someday, I will forget. Of course, the body is the most temporary thing. What is archived and logged in its twists of gray matter will regularly betray me, until the day there is no me. 
     This is why lovers carve their initials under bridges. This is why teenagers tag overpasses and alleyways. This is, maybe, part of why any of us write and publish. But access to the person, to the vivid universe of their subjectivity, closes forever, as solidly as the far majority of those housed in Domanju’s mound are nameless, their lovers, their friends, their children potentially nameless alongside them, together all unreachable across time or history even as their ashes (or their images, their words, their voicemails) remain right there. Looming out of the earth.


Sarah Khatry is a writer, editor, and journalist living in Iowa City, where she is an Iowa Arts Fellow in the Nonfiction Writing Program. Her work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Himal Southasian, and 40 Towns, among others. Twitter: @khatrysarah

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