This month, I’ve spent a lot of time with The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On, Franny Choi’s forthcoming collection. I’ve also been reading a substantial amount of Chicanx literature and theory around the concepts of migration, generational trauma and erasure. One thing that keeps rattling in my head is the connection between the poetics of alternate histories and fractured or incomplete memory. Perhaps a better word for it is retrofitted memory, which Maylei Blackwell describes as “a form of counter memory that uses fragments of older histories that have been disjunctured by colonial practices of organizing historical knowledge or by masculinist renderings of history that disappear women’s political involvement in order to create space for women in historical traditions that erase them.”
While Blackwell is concerned specifically with the erasure of Chicana involvement in Chicano political movements, her description of retrofitted memory is useful in considering poetry which imagines alternate timelines or histories, especially those motivated by trauma or loss. Incorporating poems that make use of this particular poetics into the curriculum can help to empower students by situating them at the center of their own histories, inviting them to consider, as the poet does, what might have been. Franny Choi’s “Wildlife” and “Demilitarized Zone” both offer excellent frameworks to facilitate lessons that center retrofitted memory and alternate history as a cathartic process.
One key benefit of these two poems is that they approach catharsis from drastically different spaces. “Wildlife” is an ecopoetic response to the damaging impact of wildfire, while “Demilitarized Zone” blends retrofitted memory with alternate history to reconstruct a familial lineage. Pairing these poems helps to illustrate the broad application of alternate history as a trauma response, and it opens students to consider the specific traumas they carry without forcing them to engage with intensely personal experiences. The need to facilitate a space where students can explore the function of memory and alternate history as a point of catharsis without triggering them is essential, as the goal is to show how praxis can help students to reclaim power over themselves and their experiences.
Choi includes an epigraph from Amy Goodman of Democracy Now which helps to frame “Wildlife” and give context to the alternate history presented in the poem. She quotes a brief stumble from Goodman, who says “In the Canadian province of Alberta, a massive wildlife—uh, wildfire—exploded to ten times its previous size Thursday.” This slip acts a catalyst for Choi’s alternate history, where everything destroyed by the wildfire is, instead, birthed by an explosion. Whereas wildfires are most often triggered by humans, either directly or due to environmental destruction, this blast is “triggered by a passenger pigeon’s ghostly/coo, swifting over the oil fields…”
From the outset, Choi grants agency to the creatures destroyed by the fire. The pigeon is, in effect, the first of several animals to reanimate the forest, though it is far from the last. Earthworms gossip about rumblings beneath the earth; a single caribou “who’d gotten separated from the herd and gutted by flies” cracks through the earth before using his hooves to call forth the dead, including pine martens and black-footed ferrets. The collectivity with which Choi imbues the animals emphasizes the interconnectedness of nature and ecosystems, powerfully illustrating the ripple effect of environmental destruction. As the poem continues, the images become more fantastical until whales “distill back into their old forms form the clouds overhead, until/the sky [is] clogged with blubbery gods…”
As animals reclaim the land and sky, Choi writes, “the earth remembered, rejoiced/with its remembering…” This is not the first instance of memory, however, as reanimated warblers giggle “we’re back” while the trees and plants stretch themselves back open. Choi’s decision to invoke memory explicitly invites the reader to consider the role of memory in reclaiming one’s history. Empowering oneself does not require that we forget the past; instead, we retrofit fractured or colonized memories with alternate histories, thereby regaining some control of who we are and where we’ve come from.
Choi is more explicit about the juxtaposition of memory and alternate history in this poem, where the speaker visits the Pyeongyang region to develop a more complete genealogy of her family. Readers follow the extensive and detailed journey, which begins at “the demilitarized airport” where the speaker presents her “demilitarized ticket to the demilitarized agent at the gate.” The heavy repetition of “demilitarized” early in the poem suggests to readers that these experiences should, in fact, be read as heavily militarized, thus establishing the journey as an alternate history. This is reinforced as the speaker boards the wrong train and pleads “with the conductor who does not have a gun.” Even before the speaker arrives in the North Korean capital, it is clear that readers are meant to read the poem as an inverse of reality.
Once in Pyeongyang, the speaker notes that “The Taedong River is not full of bodies…the taxi stand is not pockmarked with mines.” Retrofitting memory by reimagining Korea as a peaceful region and de-historicizing the physical markers of war serves to eliminate the evidence of war from both memory and the physical body. In this way, the speaker releases the generational trauma of living as a refugee in exile, making space to build out her fractured memories of family with stories that are not marred by decades of martial law. She visits a clerk, who helps her locate “the last generation recorded before the world ended and [their] line split south.” Together, the speaker and the clerk work to “demilitarize [her] family.” This signals that, for Choi, a key function of retrofitted memory is an insistence on embodying and internalizing alternate histories that are not governed by oppressors.
Once students have a clear understanding of what retrofitted memory is and how Choi utilizes alternate histories, they are primed to build their own alternate histories. To get them started, you might have students list 5-10 experiences or events that they would like to re-live. Next, have them list 5-10 experiences or events that they wish they had never lived. As a final step in the brainstorming process, either engage the class in dialogue or have students independently reflect on what separates the experiences in their first list from those in their second. Stress the importance of zeroing in on the specific similarities and differences between memories we cherish and memories we are burdened by.
As students move into the creation stage, encourage them to use either “Wildlife” or “Demilitarized Zone” as a framework to build their own alternate history. Remind them that one aspect of retrofitted memory is the conscious choice to fill in gaps in fractured memory, or to recover memories that have been colonized by dominant figures/ideologies. They can use “Wildlife” to un-live an experience, working background from the moment of absolute trauma and reimagining the outward ripple if the situation were reversed. “Demilitarized Zone” provides a template for writing an alternate memory that is the direct opposite of the lived experience. Every fact and detail should be inverted, so that what we read is the correlative mirror of the writer’s experience. Remember to close out with a reflective element where students think through their process and how it has impacted them.
This assignment can be easily adapted to other content areas. History students, for example, can demonstrate their understanding of events by writing the inverse or creating an alternate history in which key events either never occur or happen very differently. Economics students might engage with major events in the economy, demonstrating their mastery of cause-effect relationships through alternate histories that change key details of economic recession or reform. Applications are broad and have the potential for high student engagement, both because creating histories for themselves empowers them and because there are fewer risks in creating an alternate history than trying to capture all the minutiae of an experience or event accurately