From the Archives: Narrative as Memory, as Soul

From the Archives: Narrative as Memory, as Soul


“The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.” 

– T.S. Eliot


The first time I read Woman at Point Zero by Egyptian author and physician Nawal El-Saadawi, I was moved by the eloquence of her storytelling, by how she reflected on her professional and personal experiences through her radical characterization and narration of events. Through her novel, or rather work of creative nonfiction, El-Saadawi tells the story of Firdaus, a woman she met at Al Qanatir Prison in Cairo in 1973, who was sentenced to death for murdering a pimp. The novel functions as commentary on the patriarchal enforcement of shame and guilt, with a particular attendance to how it manifests legally and socio-economically. What struck me most about the narrative was El-Saadawi’s ability to relay the lived experience of a woman whose reality could not be farther than hers, or from mine. I first came across this book during my sophomore year at NYU when it was assigned as part of the syllabus for a Middle Eastern Feminist Literature class. I remember grappling with questions about my cultural identity and feeling disconnected from Jordan, where I was born and raised. The book acted as a gateway to reconnecting with my personal memory, allowing me to reflect on how my own experiences fit into a broader understanding of women’s lived realities in my region. Connecting so deeply to the work, to El-Saadawi, to Firdaus, and to a story that took place more than two decades before I was born, was also a reckoning with memory as a broader theme. It raised questions about the means and impacts through which narrative forms can reproduce or reconstruct memory.

Visiting the archive of Confluence is a testament to the richness and inseparability of an artist’s choice of medium and audiences’ engagement with a piece. Artists, musicians, theater-makers, and writers—whom I will refer to collectively as narrative-makers—represent memory, whether personal, cultural, or historical, using different mediums and through a multiplicity of genres. Each piece we engage with is inscribed with the narrative-maker’s memory, even in fiction. I like to think of the medium through which memory is embodied as the narrative-maker’s soul. By soul, I mean the creative drive—which seems almost instinctual—driving the narrative-maker to preserve their memory or perception of reality.  While we typically associate archives with academic institutions or museums, considering creative work as an archive opens gateways to unexplored topics and territories. It offers a radical perspective on how the narration of events and stories has evolved over time, encompassing techniques and styles. Moreover, it delves deeper into the individual narrators, who quite literally lay their souls bare for us to access.

Once memory is archived, the narrative itself becomes soulful. The soul of the narrative lies outside its creator, embodied in media, writing, and the reception of each piece. By reading different forms—each bearing distinct content or emotion—we can glimpse how writers and artists make sense of their own as well as their perception of others’ realities. Through narrative, we can interpret something so primal in essence from the author’s urgency of creation. 

Some works, extending from their representation of personal memory to geopolitical memory, are essential for their creators to understand the connection of self and geopolitics, as well as for readers to position themselves in relation to the author and the text. This understanding is crucial for understanding how we situate ourselves in this world, especially when there is so much pain around us. 

It is essential for us to narrativize and record perspectives from the past to make sense of the present. The creation of memory archives is imperative because feelings associated with the past, whether personal or collective, are universally experienced, regardless of the content of the piece. By preserving an experience of subjectivity, the past, present, and future intersect, bridging perceived gaps between them. We become deeply absorbed, willingly suspending our disbelief in a piece that addresses temporality through both its content, representing various times, and its form, evolving as a manifestation of evolving temporality. Additionally, incorporating a piece of work from a different geography and time-period can further highlight this universality, serving as a source of catharsis even in a present moment elsewhere. The fact that a piece can be so cathartic regardless of time, space, and place, means that there is something shared about the human experience. Some might say that it’s mortality—but the archive, in the form of narrative, is immortal, and proves life continues beyond physicality. In exploring how representations of memory turn into memory archives, memory archives themselves become bearers of the soul of the narrative, if such a soul exists.

Understanding the process of memory through what we know about brain physiology is key to making meaning of how we interact with different narratives. As American writer Tom Wolfe pointed out, human memory seems to be comprised of sets of meaningful data, called memory sets, which combine a complete image and an emotion. A single image in a song, story, or film can evoke complex feelings. This can be seen in the work of some of the most gifted writers: “those who manipulate the memory sets of the reader in such a rich fashion that they create within the mind of the reader an entire world that resonates with the reader’s own real emotions.” While the events are taking place on the page, the emotions are genuine, marking the unique feeling one has when they are taken by a book. Expanding on the concept of “resonance” here, it is not necessarily confined to archival aspects; it extends to the emotional ties forged between the reader and the narrative, transcending temporality, place, and space.

The choice of medium has a unique impact on how we respond to or engage with a piece, because authors’ choice of medium is well-suited to their unique interactions with memory. While audiovisual pieces engage more distinctly with multi-sensory experience, text has the power to elucidate one’s imagination more deeply because it does not attempt to represent meaning but rather intuit it. We connect to different mediums in different ways, perhaps because as audience members, we gravitate to truthful representations of how we process reality. If we absorb works the same way we process our emotions and thoughts, we view the work we’re engaging with the same way we view ourselves. Each individual experiences grief and love differently; hence one must experience each narrative differently, regardless of the medium. The choice of medium is, however, a testament to the diversity of the human experience beyond temporality and banality. It also presents itself as a guide, helping us tap into our own memory and subjective processing of text and image in real life, further diversifying our experience with text or image through a narrative-piece. If memory archives become bearers of the soul of the narrative, then engaging with different media is vital to tapping into our own complexity as human beings. 

While some of the works chosen below are focused on the personal, it is essential to reflect on the ideas’ extension to the geopolitical, because we are products of our histories, cultures, and collective pain or action. In Performance as History, Diana Taylor addresses the need for historians and scholars “to consider that the archival object may very well be the product, rather than source, of historical inquiry.”1 Documents, artifacts and remains that become part of the archive have undergone a strategic process of classification and selection in order to be rendered as “archival ‘sources.’” Whether or not a narrative is intentionally about geopolitics, Taylor’s ideas would mean that our work is inevitably informed by constructions of history that lay outside of our agency. In turn, the weight of the past quite literally situates us as narrative-makers within larger contexts, whether or not we mean for this to happen. However, the soul of the narrative, in being outside its creator, to some extent, is a subversion of this interpretation of memory. In this sense, the narrative will inherently have a soul of its own, undefined by history as the underpinning of memory, or as an institution or discipline. 

bell hooks says that “We know ourselves through the art and act of remembering. Memories offer us a world where there is no death, where we are sustained by rituals of regard and recollection.”2 The past should be paid tribute to as a resource that can serve as a premise for us to reimagine our commitment to the present, “to making a world where all people can live fully and well; where everyone can belong.”3 We must remember in order to resist the rigid classification and categorization of our own memories so that the archive can become an experience of engagement rather than a static entity in itself. In turn, we can begin to radicalize and resist discrete categories and taxonomic approaches to media and archives; those that do not represent the experience of subjectivity. Continuing to create and engage with different narrative forms keeps the soul of narratives alive, paying tribute to their complexity and nuance.





Uncle Drink

A rendering of family and personal memory using creative writing and visual elements, in the form of slides.


I Will Fix The Crack on My Next Attempt

A creative non-fiction piece subverting the temporality of relationships and how we live in the past, present and future in our own minds, governed by our nostalgia. 


Kick, Push

“There’s a line in “Kick, Push” that represents this tension to me perfectly when the protagonist meets his girlfriend: “He said, ‘I would marry you / But I’m engaged to these aerials and varials.’” There was a lot of love between Zain and me, but he wasn’t going to leave his hustle for me.”

An adolescent love story. How songs carry meaning even after things end. 


Hugging Lessons

The writer uses lists, among other techniques, to take the reader into their mind, to process their memories and feelings with them. 


Abby / Diary

A multimedia diptych and subversion of the defining characteristics of the narrator’s diary, including relationship, subjectivity, temporality, and privacy. 




Beyond the Boundary Between Literature and Visual Art


An analysis of the effects of visual elements in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s book Dictee, a rendering of nine stories of several women who faced silencing during the Japanese oppression of Korea, and Greek muses. By telling these stories, Cha dictates and records the memories of the oppression for the silenced Koreans.


The Altar of Resources

“Our cultural resources for identity construction idealize whiteness as a destination to be longed for by marginalized bodies. Yet, I long for safety and futurity. The glitched landscapes of digital space offer this potential.”

An interdisciplinary piece using video art, poetry, and creative non-fiction, delving into racialized and gendered constructions of self.


What Does Violence Look Like?

“the photograph has the deeper bite [compared to film]. Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image. In an era of information overload, the photograph provides a quick way of apprehending something and a compact form for memorizing it.”

An analysis of conflict photography in the context of the Colombian civil conflict (mid-1960s-2016). 


What We Will Remember

The characters in this novel cannot avoid disaster, and neither can we.”

A speculative virtual reality museum exhibit and response to the novel The Man with the Compound Eyes, by author Wu Ming-Yi. Illuminates the nuances of massive redevelopment schemes post-disasters, where cultural heritage is utilized in a strategy for economic development. 


porcelain girl

Explores the tension between the simultaneous vilification and orientalism that the Western world harbors against China. A narrative representing the effects of other narratives inscribed the narrator’s experience and that of the larger diaspora, the Confucian fatherland, and the fragility of a torn identity.

  1. Taylor, Diana. “Performance And-As History,” The Drama Review, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Spring, 2006), 69.
  2. hooks, bell. Belonging. Routledge Press, 1990, 5.
  3. Ibid.
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