Between the Living and the Dead
Mourning, Place, and Possibility in the work of Eugene Lim
I have two favorite songs about Heaven, at least. Both are from the 1980’s. One is “Heaven is A Place on Earth” by Belinda Carlisle, because it is infectiously beautiful, even if it is a lie. Heaven is not on earth, and not a place, and also heaven is not, it doesn’t “is.” The other is “Heaven” by the Talking Heads. In it, David Byrne also tells the lie that Heaven is a place, but you know you were never meant to believe him. “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens” he sings, but for where is that true? For nowhere, all there is is happening, and all at once, there is no Heaven.
The Queens-based writer and librarian Eugene Lim also loves the song, “Heaven.” In his piece, “second person,” a beautiful and devastating memorial for his friend, Ning Li, he writes:
I tell Shannon I’ve made the Talking Heads “Heaven” my personal grief song and how I vow not to listen to anything else for a year. He tells me I’ll last three months. I only last a couple weeks. You’re so full of shit. Giggling where I lost all sense of time, all sense of self. Boyhood friends. There is a party, everyone is there. Everyone will leave at exactly the same time.
Reading Eugene Lim and thinking about mourning, about being both nowhere and right here, this place, so far from heaven, I imagine again another possible world, another set of possibilities against those foreclosed upon by the limitations violently enforced in this world. I think about another way of being together. And then I imagine we’re all there in this other world together, we made it. I mean we made it. I am so interested in Eugene Lim’s work because I understand creating the conditions of possibility for this other world to be part of what Lim is working on and towards as a storyteller.
Stories are a powerful way to imagine and build another world. In Lim’s 2017 novel Dear Cyborgs, characters read stories, tell each other stories, tell and retell themselves stories, trying to use them like keys to answer the question—what is impossible though? What else might there be? How can we get there?
In one of my favorite of the enfolded stories, Dave, an artist (slash superhero) tells the story of what he did with a set of colored pencils gifted to him by a friend and fellow artist who, years after giving the gift, commits suicide, after nearly losing the use of her hands from an aggressive form of arthritis. After her death, Dave uses the colored pencils to make abstract drawings, an attempt to imagine where she had gone, “the place she had become” (32). However a problem soon arises, for how can he show anyone the drawings while both paying the debt of accountability and memory owed to his friend (i.e. naming them after her) while still allowing enough opening for the viewers to do their own work to understand the drawings in whatever complex way they might need to. It was a trap. How to tell the truth in art (as with life) in a way that doesn’t efface or conceal but also doesn’t needlessly foreclose, that grows instead of shrinks or slips away? That connects? He burns the drawings. I feel this problem here, in my own writing, in my effort to find another possible way to live and be together, with both the living and the dead. How to remember in a way that is specific and true to the one you remember, but that isn’t insular, can be for everyone? That can continue to grow and change, to be so lively? I think for Dave the problem was that he thought if he shared what was too personal (his friend’s name), then the work would only mean something to him and his dead friend, it would only be legible to them, and inaccessible to anyone else. But the personal does not act as closure, it isn’t closed, it’s an opening, a passageway. In our grief we meet, even when we grieve for different losses.
Dear Cyborgs is a book that grows. It’s one of those books where the edges seem to stretch out so thin, when I read it, I start to see the narrator’s lost boyhood friend, Vu, or not so much him but his traces, clues to his fate, in my own life. The fiction of the book exceeds its limits, and I follow it around, for another possible world, looking for Vu.
Thinking of the place of Eugene Lim’s work, how it is this place and another, thinking of the no-place of heaven, thinking of where we might go, I am reminded of something the scholar and prison abolitionist Ruthie Gilmore writes in her essay, “Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence,” “Abolition geography starts from the homely premise that freedom is a place” (227). The question then being how to get there?
Talking about a protest recently attended at Zuccotti Park, the narrator of Dear Cyborgs says to his friends, and this is a bit of a long quote, but it’s so important:
“This is an idealism, a hope. As when someone is dead and you pray for them to be alive again. Which is an impossibility and yet one still has that dream. To escape the current state, which seems… a stable and perfect and permanent projection of our selfish natures… To escape this, well, to escape this is like willing the dead back to life. It’s an impossible wish, yet deeply human, a desire to transcend our limitations. That’s why it’s important. It expresses an impossible desire as if it were not impossible.” I stopped before saying the next bit because I was less sure of it. “And I guess the crux of the matter is whether this expression of the impossible can somehow lead to its possibility, that is, to it no longer being impossible.” (22)
This question—what would make the impossible possible—is at the heart of all my other questions. When something appears impossible—dismantling systems of oppression, building new worlds, living justly, speaking with ghosts—but at the same time is urgently necessary, what is left to do? What would make it possible? What if the expression of the impossible somehow began its transformation, made it not so impossible? The possibility fills me with longing.
Longing and hoping and mourning go together. We love things and people we can’t keep. We hope for and work towards worlds we maybe can’t reach. But does that invalidate the work and the love of it? I don’t think so. What else can we the living do but long and hope and “mourn and mourn and mourn” (163).
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Copyright © 2020 Laura Henriksen