Academic journal article MELUS

Narrative and Traumatic Memory in Denise Chavez's Face of an Angel

Academic journal article MELUS

Narrative and Traumatic Memory in Denise Chavez's Face of an Angel

Article excerpt

   Within stories of trauma there is an enigmatic testimony not only to
   the nature of violent events but to what, in trauma, resists simple
   comprehension.

   Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience

   Soveida ... is searching for what I consider an elusive state of
   grace. She wants to be a good woman and she must go through the
   trials and tribulations to find her deeper and higher or angel self.

   Denise Chavez, Interview

In Denise Chavez's Face of an Angel the narrator, Soveida Dosamantes, performs a ghosting of history through story and testimony and by positing the body as a site of trauma and wounding. What the characters know as the family's "official history" (55) becomes, through the narrative strategies adopted in the text, troubled by other layers of memory and history. Specifically, the standard patriarchal history, set down at the start of the text in the form of the Dosamantes family tree, is gradually countered by the voices of disempowered matriarchs, and then further unsettled, or "ghosted," by a layer of undialectical memory: a memory that cannot be easily narrativized but that lies beneath the historical counter-narrative. As Soveida uncovers her female ancestor's voices, with them strengthening her own, they come to represent a narrative history and memory that can be spoken, that defers stable and univocal meanings, and that breaks taboos and defies various silences surrounding suffering, pain, and abuse. However, this narrative memory, "other" to the patriarchal history it defies, has its own "other": its rage and its desire to heal the past uncover aspects of the text which cannot be straightforwardly narrated, and which the narrative itself cannot and will not contain. The traumatic memories that resist the text's narrative framework raise questions that are never answered, pose doubts about the reliability of Soveida's memory and thus her ability to narrate even a counter-history, and leave the reader with only clues to secrets which remain impenetrable. (1)

Traumatic memory thus works in the text as a trace, surfacing as a ghostly presence, troubling the mainstream family history, and signaling the unknowable. While the mainstream history maintains but hides its silences, and narrative memory voices them, the novel's traumatic memory reminds us of the things which cannot be voiced or known except in their status as missed or failed experiences. (2) In this way, any expression of actual experience in the novel renders not just what is present but, more importantly, what remains absent. Face of an Angel thus raises the following questions: what do experience and history look like when their traditional faces become disrupted and "ghosted"? What does it mean for us to read what is concretely and evidently there as a conspicuous signal for what is not there, and for which there is no discourse? To read Face of an Angel in this way means bearing witness to and reading the "wound" in the book rather than denying it, (3) coming to know what it means to not-know history and memory, and coming to understand the characters' desires to transcend bodily wounds and violation in light of the unspeakable abuse they have suffered.

On the page facing the Dosamantes family tree, which traces the male rather than female line of the family, the following statements appear, undercutting the single linearity of that history: "My grandmother's voice was rarely heard, it was a whisper, a moan. Who heard? My mother's voice cried out in rage and pain. Who heard? My voice is strong. It is breath. New Life. Song. Who hears?" In this passage, the grandmother's voice, although barely present, is nevertheless there, like a specter, embodying simultaneous absence and presence. Her voice conveys both the desire to speak out and the pain of doing so ("moan"). The repeated question, "who heard," which continues into the present ("who hears?"), introduces one of the text's central concerns: that there is a crucial need to have a witness to one's experience or story, and that the speaking self cannot always be certain of the witness's reliability as a listener or, subsequently, a storyteller. …

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