Field Notes
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Field notes from Colombia: Memory

The text on the bottom left reads: “Nobody Wins.” On the right: “Silence is forgetting, is death.”

For someone who aspires to mindful presence, I certainly spend a lot of time reflecting on the topic of memory. Earlier this week, I shared some of my reflections on arriving anew to a country you once called home. I wrote then:


In many ways, arriving anew in a country you once called home lends itself better to processes of memory than discovery. As I wrote in an email to Elijah yesterday, “can you still count firsts if it’s a ‘first time on this trip’ as opposed to a first ever?” There are endless layers of Colombia I have yet to uncover and even more that I have yet to fully understand, so the memory versus discovery conundrum is not for lack of novelty. Rather, it emerges out of a realization that a return to the field,particularly a return to a site you once called home, inspires — almost unwittingly — a comparison of memories. Does this feel the way it used to? Are these the colors I remember? Is this how thin the air in Bogotá always was?

This week has felt like a tug of war between reminiscence and discovery, nostalgia and novelty. It is not only individual memory that occupies my thoughts, but also the notion of collective memory. This personal-turned professional-turned academic interest started–long before I could understand the intricacies of transitional justice–with Milan Kundera. My first copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being was in Greek and it still sits on my shelves in Boston with one of Kundera’s most beautiful sentences highlighted: “The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful.”All my favorite writers, from Joan Didion to Gabriel Garcia Márquez, have been conscious of memory and woven its many folds into their narratives.

It is impossible to work in conflict management or to study mass atrocities without contemplating collective memory. How do individuals, social groups, communities, or countries at large choose to remember experiences of violence? Which narratives do they construct out of their chosen memories? As Richard Werbner writes in Memory and the Postcolony: African Anthropology and the Critique of Power, “… we put our emphasis on the discovery of how ongoing processes of memory work — these are the processes by which memory lives, gets realized or ruptured, is textualized, becomes buried, repressed or avoided, has its effects, and is itself more or less transformed.”
Earlier this year, I wrote a paper performing a gender analysis of memorialization in the wake of mass atrocities. In it, I asked: “Whose narratives of trauma are included in the broader discussion and whose are omitted? Which experiences shape the conversation and which are marginalized?” Some of the findings from the paper included that women’s experiences of conflict are often excluded in the memorialization process — or, to the extent that memorials do incorporate them, they do so in a way that exhibits a very narrow conception of gendered experiences of mass violence. While the gender lens is one I always carry with me, the questions themselves cast in a broader context have been on my mind as I walk through Bogotá again: Whose narratives of trauma are included and whose are omitted? From which memories are these narratives constructed? And what happens to the ones that are silent — or silenced?
These conversations about memory are more public than the last time I was here, or perhaps I am more attuned to them. Perhaps this is a sign that the conflict, as we knew it, is coming to a close or morphing into a different phase, one that requires the wrangling of memory. Or perhaps the conversations about memory are spilling out into the public realm, finding their way onto graffiti on walls and slogans on posters. Therein lies one of the greater tensions in thinking about memory — particularly others’ memories of a conflict you yourself did not experience: One part of memory may be public and collective, but inquiring about it feels like a minefield of intrusion because the process treads on the private and individual components of memory. So, for now, I am just watching the public conversation unfold, comparing my own (limited, privileged) memories, and observing the tension between individual and collective, public and private, elevated narratives and marginalized ones.
Some of my favorite thinkers on memory and transitional justice: 

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