Post- Magazine

on fragmentation and my disappearance [A&C]

a meditation on The Memory Police and cultural amnesia

Please hand-write a one page essay about yourself. Due tomorrow.

Lying on my belly in my closet, I lazily scribbled several ideas onto the paper. Hi, my name is Leanna. I’m thirteen years old. I definitely know more capitals of the world than you. Also I have a cat. I am Chinese-American? Here you go, teacher, I have no idea what it means to be or exist or gather memories into the shape of a human.

In fact, do not make me say one fun fact about myself or two truths and a lie. I literally don’t know.


It is with my very elementary notions of identity that I stumbled upon a particular novel over the summer—The Memory Police, written in Japanese by Yōko Ogawa in 1994 and later translated into English. I consumed this book in the way my aforementioned cat demolishes a bag of Costco tortillas: secretly, in the corner of my home.

The Memory Police imagines a mysterious island, in which ordinary objects like ribbon, music boxes, and perfume vanish from people’s minds. Accompanying this phenomenon is the titular Memory Police, who enforces these disappearances by capturing select individuals who quietly remember these items. The main character is a struggling novelist, and when her editor is endangered, she decides to hide him under the floorboards of her house. As the disappearances become more severe, the duo grapple with the grief of societal and individual amnesia. The Memory Police is simultaneously a commentary on personal loss and a political depiction of a population that forgets its own history with grave consequences.

Yōko Ogawa beckons readers to contemplate what they themselves have forgotten, and I think I know my answer. 


I’m sure other Chinese Americans also underwent some degree of cultural alienation in the US. It’s a point that has been reiterated countless times in Asian American literature—the tendency towards assimilation that occurs when someone, like myself, grows up in places like scarlet-stained Texas. But when I attempt to peel off the coat of Western culture, expecting to see rows and rows of ancestors inviting me home, I find that I don’t even know where to look. 

I am envious of those who can take a 23andMe test and learn their precise ethnic composition instead of “Broadly East Asian,” of those who know they are distantly related to King Henry VIII or [insert literally any other European]. At the very most, I know snippets about my great-grandmother from my mother’s anecdotes. What else is there? Was there a woman in the Tang Dynasty who had my face and loved cats as well? How much of my family history has been lost to time? Or maybe it was the Cultural Revolution? 

I mourn the disappearance of my ancestors, and I don’t even know who I’m sad for.


But I know one full story about my family. 

A small, shaky wagon cuts across the province of Manchuria, carrying a mother, a father, and a trio of infants. The arc of the babies’ cries shoot up and across the plain. Japanese invasion was imminent, and most people believed that the inland was safer. Fingers clench the cart, hearts set themselves towards Xi’an.


The father squints his eyes at the eastern horizon. A troupe of ants advances in the distance. They take the shape of soldiers. Fingers cover the infants’ mouths. He closes his eyes, levels his breathing. Kisses his babies one last time.

He brandishes a knife, jumps out the cart, and pushes his loved ones away. The woman looks back, eyes set with determination, yet too occupied with hushing the children. The cart gains momentum, and he stares at his family for a very, very long time, then charges at the band of soldiers. His sacrifice bought them time.

And that’s how our family ended up in Xi’an, my mom deftly folded the last piece of laundry and left the room. 


There reaches a point in The Memory Police where knowledge of body parts begin to vanish.

It starts with a leg—people rise from their beds and feel a weird sensation on their hip. The protagonist trips and falls, the object welded to her body throwing her off-kilter. The island walks with a limp.

People no longer conceptualize a “left leg.” The new disappearance initially sparks distress and confusion among the residents, but then, the other leg dissipates from existence. Then arms. Then the rest of the body, and the protagonist is merely a voice.


What becomes of the identity of a cultural isolate?

I know maybe 50 percent of the holidays and 25 percent of the language. The customs, traditions, and ways of living in Chinese culture are fragmented in my memory. The hyphen in “Chinese-American” is a divide, an expansive rift that blocks the parts of me that have disappeared. Whatever is passed down to my descendants will be small scraps and pretenses; as a grandmother, googling a meal I forgot to ask my mom about wouldn’t feel the same. 

I probe my leg with a finger, and there’s no sensation.


The disappearances trickle into other parts of my life.

The Mandarin trapped in my throat snatches the English before it can escape from my mouth, and my lips move in desperation to convey a coherent thought. I squeak in the middle of English classes, and my classmates hear small rumblings and half-formed analyses.

Then, I forget all of the world capitals I so diligently memorized as a point of pride, all of my accumulated knowledge, what I looked like and what I loved when I was six—I can’t even conceptualize my favorite ice cream flavor, and when I sit in a circle at the start of a seminar or club meeting, I don’t know how to introduce myself because of the incompleteness of my existence. I’m afraid that if you peel away my identity there will be nothing; humans are only layers and no core.

Or maybe I’m overthinking everything. And should simply accept that I will never fully comprehend my culture. And by extension, myself.

Should I let go of the disappearances, dissolve until I’m merely a voice? Glide through the floorboards into the secret corridor like a ghost and continue to expire?


Before the protagonist loses her left hand, she finishes her novel. It’s an exhausting process that enlists every fragment that is left of herself—books are now gone, and she can hardly write a coherent sentence, much less the final act. In her incompleteness, she performed her last sliver of resistance before fading away.

On the night I finished The Memory Police, I vividly dreamt that I was in outer space. I swam forward and floated towards a multicolored light source—reds, purples, and yellows swirled in my vision. Somehow, I was able to sit by this pool of colors. An object bobbed up and down in the waves, so I reached out to grab it, inspect it, and trace its contours. Dig my fingers into its nooks and crannies and feel its dimensions. I take it out of the pool and repeat this process with all the others. A pile of unrecognizable names, histories, and trinkets grows around me, and maybe this assortment is things that I once knew or lost. Scrunchies. Language. Ancestors.

Perhaps there is an unreachable place where disappeared memories end up. It could be buried deep in my brain or in some metaphysical plane. This reassures me.

I don’t have to be complete to tell my story, to face the soldiers attacking from the east. A tale in fragments can endure eons; I am a scattered clay piece of an ancient epic. My ancestors are spread elsewhere, but I know the story of my mother, my brother, and especially me—even in its broken pieces.

And, like the writer in the novel, I’ll tell it all.

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