To remember is to generate
My first diary had a lock on it. I’d write to my future self, expecting that I’d go back one day and read everything. I never did—until I did, years later, after unearthing the key on my high school desk. As I worked through that first volume and subsequent ones, those with and without locks, I crosshatched deep grooves over almost everything or painted Wite-Out over the ink. I hated watching myself become what I became.
It was “impossible to return to the state of mind in which those sentences originated,” as Lyn Hejinian writes in My Life. Her uncanny description of the discomfort that drove me to paint over the past is also what drove her, in this book, to circle around it. For each year of her life, Hejinian wrote a passage that is as many sentences long as she was years old when she wrote it; she wrote one edition of the book when she was thirty-seven and another at forty-five, adding eight sentences to each section and eight new sections. (She also later wrote an addendum, My Life in the Nineties.) Each section is headed by an epigraph that later appears elsewhere, slightly changed. She dabbles in return, interspersing the past with the present, the import and context of each echo shifting, the space around it no longer empty but full of the text that associatively—and retroactively—generated it.
The result is a text that refuses to be the autobiography its title suggests. It is a text that celebrates the fragments that generate the idea of the whole but not the whole itself, a text that insists upon how a life is generated, and regenerated, through memory and language. To accomplish this, Hejinian alternates her tenses in a trotting parataxis. “My mother stood at the window watching the only lights that were visible, circling over the darkened city in search of the hidden airport,” goes one sentence. The next: “Unhappily, time seems more normative than place.” A few later: “Why would anyone find astrology interesting when it is possible to learn about astronomy.” Notice that period, the denial of an open-ended ending. This is the kind of certainty that drives Hejinian’s project, one that draws on wondering but insists on closure, only to revise the thought later. The past generates the present and vice versa, memories catalyzing aphorisms and aphorisms catalyzing memories.
“Are we likely to find ourselves later pondering such suchness amid all the bourgeois memorabilia,” Hejinian writes. Then she shifts tenses: “Wherever I might find them, however unsuitable, I made them useful by a simple shift.” Another shift: “The obvious analogy is with music. Did you mean gutter or guitar.” Her constant movement between the past and the present destabilizes; it confuses and then winks in self-reference. It also clarifies Hejinian’s project of letting logic guide the progression rather than the facts themselves, which are secondary. She agrees, formally, to an overarching chronology but then interrupts it in the present tense, as if to say: These memories have generated in me something now that is self-referential yet also compelling for others. Even the language becomes a generation. Each speaker generates the next; each perspective informs those around it so we can see how they came to be. Hejinian generates these perspectives not according to some timeline but, rather, according to the context of the thoughts she’s already put on the page. The effect is one of cumulative becoming.
That was the trouble for me in my early diaries—that those speakers had generated me. I hated, in looking at my old words, seeing the seeds of my present-tense personality. But instead of denying causality, I might instead have complicated it. Instead of scratching thin lines over everything, I might have tried what Hejinian did and returned to those sentences to alter them, subtly. Which is lying more: erasing everything that happened or phrasing it from a present that the past narrator never could have predicted? And if feelings are still evoked, does it even matter whether the lie—the erasing, the rephrasing—persists? That is, if I can get the same point across and evoke the same particular feeling in the reader, does it matter whether the vehicle is the story as originally written or as it became in revision?
“What follows a strict chronology has no memory,” Hejinian writes in between memories. The chronology of My Life may be formally strict, but within each section it’s almost nonexistent. Maybe it’s a diary written ex post facto, a diary whose writer knows how it all turns out yet can’t help being astonished at what comes next. In re-reading my own diaries, I didn’t feel that astonishment, because I didn’t see the possibility of letting the past generate a new present, of letting the present generate a new past. I didn’t see that the very act of revision—of manipulating what comes between the memories—could be part of my story.
Would that I had understood these new rules of reading: “Not fragments but metonymy. Duration. Language makes tracks.” And later: “If there is a story at all, accounted for, a settled thing to have experienced, it’s nothing of the kind.” The sentences aren’t fragments so much as stand-ins for Hejinian’s life as a whole, a life that moves forward through memory and its linked revision. “The game of solitaire, of patience, is disappointing when it ‘comes out’ the first time,” she writes. “It is impossible to return to the state of mind in which these sentences originated. So I borrowed my father’s typewriter.” If you’re not careful, you might read that last sentence as a direct result of the sentence before it. But the past is slippery, the text unstable. As soon as there’s something to hold on to, it’s gone.
Take, for instance, the epigraph that begins the second passage of the book: “As for we who ‘love to be astonished.’” Already there’s something strange going on with those quote marks; we never learn where the quote came from. It never refers, at least not explicitly, to what’s around it. But on the other hand, it refers to everything around it, for the simple reason that we’ve seen it before. It’s recognizable. It forms part of a chorus. My Life is an autobiography defined by such quiet adjustments, by acts of generation and regeneration, not by what is actually generated; by the celebration of remembering, not the celebration of what is remembered—even though, as Hejinian puts it, “there is no greater temptation that that of reminiscence.” What matters is not the single person Hejinian eventually becomes, but the multiple characters language allows her to inhabit along the way.
Rachel Z. Arndt
The millennial mayor in the Magic City
The word millennial entered the public sphere, much like some millennials themselves, in 1987. It’s harder to know when the public turned on it, but the science points to around November 2016, when, according to Google Trends, the word peaked as a search term on the internet.
In Birmingham, Alabama, however, millennial actually had its heyday about a year earlier, when a huge influx of cash began to spur downtown redevelopment, and local media had to find a way to describe what was happening. Having sat dormant for decades, downtown Birmingham was springing to life seemingly overnight. There were major historic renovations, shiny mixed-use developments, award-winning parks and restaurants, and a new baseball stadium. From 2015 to 2016, the number of apartments in downtown Birmingham nearly tripled. It was a new city, built from bones long forgotten.
As reporters tried to make sense of this growth, marketing-speak began creeping into local media. A columnist described “edgy apartments aimed at millennials,” while a writer from the Birmingham Business Journal noted that millennials were perceiving a “new Birmingham” and that they “liked what they were seeing.” A real estate developer in the Birmingham News said he was creating a downtown to attract “brain trust millennials” and explained that his wish was for the city to be seen as cool.
The city, to borrow from the demographic it so desperately courted, was thirsty. But then something interesting happened: as Birmingham exhausted itself trying to attract millennials, it elected one. At thirty-seven, Randall Woodfin is Birmingham’s youngest mayor since 1893, and a full millennial younger than his predecessor, the sexagenarian William Bell. People in Birmingham have been trying for years to convince the rest of the country that their city can look forward as easily as it looks backward, but only now does that feel possible. Woodfin is a cultural departure from the last forty years of Birmingham mayors in almost every way. For one—and I’m leading with this because it means something—he is remarkably on trend.
There’s always been an obvious squeaky wheel amid the flurry of investment in Birmingham: it’s never been totally clear that young people actually want to live and raise their kids there. Birmingham has been losing residents for the past half century: in 1950, it was the thirty-fourth largest city in the US; today it isn’t even in the top hundred. It has some of the highest crime and one of the most flawed public transit systems in the country, and its schools are among the worst in Alabama. According to one study from 2017, Birmingham had 0 percent job growth from 2000 to 2016.
Construction alone won’t reverse those trends, and it hasn’t: the city’s population hasn’t grown since the last census. But Birmingham may not necessarily care. Without quality of life, building up is kind of the only strategy it has. Why else would you want to live here if you were, say, a young member of the brain trust? A twenty-eight-year-old home flipper baldly summed it up in a Birmingham News article in 2014, during the thrust of the new construction: “Many [millennials] are not ready to have children, so the school system is not as much of a factor as other things like being a part of a reenergized or emerging neighborhood.”
In this sense, Woodfin may be the best thing that could have happened to the city. Suddenly, it had a leader who was getting love from Bernie Sanders and Keith Ellison—someone who could pull off a blazer-tee combo, namedrop Mannie Fresh in an interview, then jump on a Reddit thread to defend term-limit policy. In other words, it had someone who embodied all the things developers in Birmingham had bet a billion dollars on: that a young person with the brain and drive to go anywhere would want to live there.
Maybe more than anywhere else in the country, though, being young in Birmingham comes at the cost of historical distance. Woodfin’s predecessor, the sixty-nine-year-old Bell, was a teenager during the children’s crusade of 1963, when the city turned its fire hoses on its own kids and the civil rights movement crashed into homes through their television sets. Bell is old enough to remember when Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was dynamited and Nat King Cole was tackled onstage by the White Citizens Council.
You can’t govern Birmingham independent of that context, but prior to Woodfin that wasn’t a concern—every man who ran the city had been raised in it. There’s long been an argument in Birmingham that the city can’t escape its past, because it feels beholden to it. If Woodfin’s election signals a new opportunity for Birmingham, it also personifies a new tension: in a city being built for people who don’t live there, what’s being built for the people who actually do?
“Oftentimes we use the word millennial where we’re not really talking about everyone in that age demographic,” said The Washington Post’s Emily Badger in 2015. It’s code—urban-development shorthand for a particular type of person: white, college-educated, upwardly mobile. In a 2016 Fusion piece, the writer Andrew Boryga interviewed several low-income youth of color and found that many had never even heard the word millennial, much less related to what it has come to stand for.
Birmingham is a place with a serious debt to pay for its past, but, more important, it’s a mostly black city with major questions to answer about inequity, poverty, and crime. Every step the city takes will be on a path that has been paved through generations of convict leasing, segregation, and redlining. In the Venn diagram of what Birmingham has been and what it wants to be, however, Woodfin could be uniquely situated at the overlapping section. He grew up in the city, worked at its grocery stores, went to its schools, and lost a brother to gun violence on its streets. He can understand what a young person looks for in a neighborhood while also seeing the thread connecting that neighborhood’s history to the reasons its school is failing.
Where that history used to bound the city, Woodfin’s opportunity is to use it to shape a way forward. At the beginning of 2018, while citing Birmingham’s “incredible legacy of inclusion,” he appointed the city’s first LGBTQ liaison and launched a new Office of Social Justice and Racial Equity. As Birmingham slides into a future of microbrews and tech conferences, that balance of past and future will help defuse the great error of urban development, what Eula Biss called “the mistake of considering an inhabited place uninhabited.” The millennials are coming, yes, but they’ve also always been there.
The child worships the parent until a switch goes off—around thirteen, to judge by my scowl in family photos. School tends to feed the reversal, via books and friends and visits to homes on beaches. The expectation for each generation to surpass the last in opportunity affirms the child’s sense of the parent as child, one who hasn’t lived enough to know much of anything—this latter principle is compounded for children incubated in a higher-GDP setting than their parents. Take a child born in America to a parent from India, in, let’s say, the 1980s, when distance and poverty lacked the cachet they’ve gained in a time of Instagram models draped on camels or what have you. In such a case, the child’s inability to see the parent’s value approaches heights mapped by the Hindu myth of Prahlad, which is supposed to be about an evil parent and a saintly child but, by another read, makes the gap between generations feel like death, and links doing better than one’s parents with murder.
The tale famously introduces an incarnation of Vishnu who is unforgettable once you’ve seen his image: Narasimha, half man, half lion, arises to kill King Hiranyakashyapu, father of Prahlad. It’s most immediately an allegory on good and evil: Prahlad is good, Hiranyakashyapu is evil. The riddle of an evil father with a good son isn’t really treated as such, at least not in the comic book I recently purchased on a trip to India, an installment in the Amar Chitra Katha series, which shapes most modern Hindus’ religious scholarship. My brother and I read reams of ACK books on the floor of our upstairs hallway in Dallas, and I particularly loved Prahlad, whose pages introduced a half man, half lion into the suburbs.
It was my brother who brought the myth to my attention as an allegory for immigration. King Hiranyakashyapu is an asura, or demon, dark and scowling. Prahlad is pale, smiles a lot, and loves Hiranyakashyapu’s nemesis, Vishnu, leader of the devas, or gods. Thanks to a boon granted him by the god Brahma, the king is nearly invincible: he can’t be killed at night or during the day, indoors or out, by man or beast. Disturbed by his son’s Vishnu obsession, he decides to have him killed. But his every attempt fails, and Prahlad thanks Vishnu’s invisible protection. One day Dad kicks a pillar. “You say your god is everywhere?” he shouts at his son. “Is he in here?” Out of the stone walks a creature built to erase Hiranyakashyapu: nara for man, simha for lion. Narasimha arrives at dusk, picks up the king, beelines to a veranda.
Assimilation involves betrayal as well. The child absconds to the other side, the side whose school system the parent works hard to afford. The child talks at length about Brennan’s parents, Brennan’s house without carpet-deep smells or idol tchotchkes from weddings. Brennan’s parents kiss in public. (Years later the child learns that Brennan’s parents got a divorce, kept a drawer to hide tchotchkes from houseguests, suspect cancer from Febreze.) I don’t know whether Prahlad grows to regret his betrayal—I can’t know how it feels to watch a father figure tear out the guts of the real father, balanced on his lap like a child. But I do know what it feels like to see another race of parent as more valid.
Prahlad, I learned on this recent re-read, is abducted before we ever meet him. The god Indra kidnaps his mom while she’s pregnant, in hopes of killing the child, but then hears of a prophecy: if trained right, the boy could run with the devas. Indra seats the mother by a rishi, who drones on about the virtues of Vishnu, after which he returns the wife, with the husband none the wiser. Prahlad is born already a convert. (At school, he accidentally converts asura kids too.) In kindergarten I put so many vowels in the word bug that my mom saw a little Texan in the house. “Who is this child?” the demon king roars at the palace tutor, who, upon orders to work Vishnu out of Prahlad’s system, returns a child still full of alien-speak.
In the comic book, Prahlad is pale and smiling, while the king is dark with a scowl. As a kid in Texas, I knew I was supposed to admire the child and judge the parent, but part of me sided with the king. No matter how persuasive my accent, my skin stayed dark. My conspicuousness linked in my mind to a sense of unshakable badness—as when I was accused of letting all the fruit flies out of a classroom tank after hours, by a teacher who had never met me. I could relate to a man framed as bad by narrators who showed character via skin color. I also admired the king’s work ethic, which seemed related to his outsiderness. The story starts with Hiranyakashyapu in the woods, praying to secure invincibility. Vishnu killed his brother to fulfill a prophesy set before the king’s birth, of which he is unaware; he seeks to kill the god in return. He prays so motionlessly and for so long that moss grows on his body. Reverberations of his energy disrupt the planet. I see this cycle in real life, too—a need for revenge inspiring work so intense as to threaten others, who erect hurdles that in turn power more revenge. Patients weed out doctors based on their surnames. Muslim superstars get strip-searched. Indian clothes aren’t allowed in the club. A brown man who takes a job with hopes of turning American gets shot. Slights become origin stories, told in public and private as answers to the question Why do you work so hard? Parents trust futures based on numbers. MCAT scores demand library time—prayer in the woods by another name. The devas couldn’t miss reverberations; administrators can’t deny scores. Boons sought via either path face a chance of success.
Is anyone evil or good, Indian or American, or are one’s circumstances the variables? Because Prahlad makes so much sense. Of course, he’s Hiranyakashyapu’s son. He’s just as dogmatic: a little extremist, converting toddler friends, every bit the son of a man who grew moss from praying so hard. But his form was made in a kiln for devas. Trained at the Ivies without applying, he bears the calm of someone given keys at birth to inner chambers. His father, an earlier model—the interloping boon-hustler—kicks pillars.
On the trip to India when I bought Prahlad, I visited my grandmother’s house. No one lives in its main rooms anymore; the top floor has been converted into a home for a new family. A condo rises at the foot of what was once a sleepy street. “Construction will kill us,” a silver-haired neighbor, the only one we know who’s still alive, said with a smile. I walked into the dining room, where Narasimha once beamed out of an always-open god closet, eating the king’s insides as we ate anna saaru and palya and mosaru.
A friend from America, along for part of the trip, seemed to see me differently. “Most people have a room inside them no one knows,” he told me in the shop where I found Prahlad, himself now full of the food and talk and smells that took root in me when my home was my parents’. “Your room is so big.”
With time, the room seems to shrink. I feel at once king and son, controlled by allegiances set before birth. My brother tells me he knows only of stories in which the children of asuras become devas. Children of immigrants move one way as well: god closets turn into cabinets or, if the apartment or life is too chic, into a frame, a tattoo. Parents die with a country inside them. I wonder: Do I worship the beast that erases them? Am I American?