Dangerous Archaeology: A Daughter’s Search for her Mother (and Others) – excerpts of which appear in Hayden’s Ferry Review Issue #50 – is my excavation of history and memory, my sifting through the fragments (letters, diaries, photographs, artifacts, and ephemera) of my mother’s unusual and complicated childhood in rural South India as the daughter and granddaughter of foreign missionaries. Originally much longer, these fragments, like the women I imagine, have taken on a life of their own – and also serve as a reminder, perhaps, that memoir can spring from the lyric impulse of the poet.
Excavating the past has meant asking difficult questions. What were the psychic costs of “goodness” for these missionary women – and still today for many women who struggle to be good professionals, good caretakers, good partners? Were these women stuck in a script they did not write and did not know how to revise? What happens when a restless woman is confined? What happens when an unconventional woman is forced to play a conventional role? What happens when grief is forced underground? How has my own life story been both shaped and contested by these women’s lives? What are the risks of telling the truth?
The challenge for me has been to dig my way to some kind of understanding, some kind of truth. Truth, as many writers have noted, is something quite distinct from fact and so we storytellers must become archaeologists, reading the earth before us. And that work can be dangerous because what we discover is often what we least expect to find.
Any writer would have felt blessed by the riches I had stumbled upon in our attic: an old steamer trunk filled with jewels from a foreign land. And yet, for a very long time, I struggled to find a form for this work. I imagined readers of earlier incarnations shaking their heads, as if to say, Martha, poor Martha – so confused. Finally, exhausted, what I needed came to me in a dream: all those photographs and artifacts and ephemera must become an integral part of my writing, not merely its inspiration. Lawrence Sutin’s A Postcard Memoir (a playful confusion of image and life) came to mind. Then, later, Anne Carson’s Nox, a lyrical elegy to her brother in the form of an accordion art book, and Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, a novel about the dissolution of a relationship in the form of an auction catalog.
Shortly after my dream, I was fortunate to find a collaborator in photographer Autumn E. Monsees (a recent graduate at the college where I teach), whose aesthetics I had admired. Working with her photographs of artifacts, along with other images, opened up my work in surprising ways and added a visceral, intuitive layer that was missing before. Some images worked well with pieces already close to completion and served as guides to their revision, revealing new themes. Other images took me in new directions and surprised me with their urgency. Yet other images begged me to go searching, to follow the thinnest of threads to some unexpected destination.
An old Telugu proverb serves as epigraph to this unfinished manuscript: By digging and digging the truth is discovered. And so my task has been first to dig and dig and then to dig some more. As anyone who has tried to write about family and self with honesty knows, this is difficult work – how hard to cut through bedrock of uncertainty, sift through layers of fear. But I am a writer and this is what we writers do: we dig and we dig until we find our way to some blessed shard that helps us piece together our story.
So: I hope to bring these women – and myself – back to life, piece by piece.
Martha Andrews Donovan’s work has appeared in Green Mountains Review, Harvard Review, Marlboro Review, Pilgrimage, and elsewhere and has been anthologized in The Breath of Parted Lips: Voices From the Robert Frost Place, Vol. 2, The 2010 Poets’ Guide to New Hampshire: More Places, More Poets, and Shadow and Light: A Literary Anthology on Memory. Her chapbook Dress Her in Silk (Finishing Line Press 2009) was seed to Dangerous Archaeology: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother (and Others) – a memoir in fragments. She is Professor of Writing at New England College where she met Autumn E. Monsees, her photographer-collaborator. Read a poem from Dress Her in Silk here.