“Chinese Whispers” by Elizabeth Pisani (Granta, #105)

Granta’s current issue focuses on “the complex business of salvage and try to bring into the light what we discover when we come face to face with loss.” (quoted from Alex Clark’s editorial letter).

One of most compelling pieces is written by journalist Elizabeth Pisani. Elizabeth was in Tienanmen Square twenty years ago, and now twenty years later, she’s comparing her memory of the event with what she originally wrote about it in 1989. The essay works as straight reporting and analysis of a seminal historical event, but also as meditation on journalism, and memory itself.

After comparing what was written in ’89 to a coworkers account (one that initially doesn’t jive with hers) and her current memories of her days in Beijing, she writes:

“Memory is abstract, personal, unknowable. It can encompass the random and inexplicable, just as dream sequences can. But once memories are written down, or otherwise committed to the record, they assume a life of their own. They become less malleable and must assume a more coherent shape. We take fragments of memory and weave them together into patterns as best we can. We darn or embroider any holes with threads of things that happened in our readings, in our conversations with other who really were there, in our dreams. Those then become part of the fabric of our storytelling, so that soon enough it is impossible to say what was remembered and what was embroidered. They become our memories, in the way that soldier’s blackened body hanging from a tank has become part of my memory.”

Granta online has posted Elizabeth’s 1989 account, A Summer’s Evening in Beijing, written shortly after she left Beijing.

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