Jijingi & True Memory

Manual typewriter. Free image via Unsplash.

I will mispronounce a lot of names in this episode, so please forgive me.

Ted Chiang. When Exhalation came out in paperback, I immediately bought my copy. Yes I am a cheapskate, I waited for around a year after the hardcover was released. The collection is extremely satisfying. Each story asks 'what-if' and 'why' questions and pushes you to rethink your currently held — I wouldn't say belief system, but ideas or quote-unquote common-sensical ideas that you've been too comfortable with.

The story that speaks to me right now is titled The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling. It challenges the rightfulness of the written word. Of documents.

These official papers and records are like walls that you can't deny and dismantle easily, but in this story it's trying to argue that maybe we shouldn't give these papers too much merit.

It acknowledges the fact that documentation is born out of the unreliability of our memories. Of course publication has later on become a means to spread information, but that's less apparent here in the story. These two themes, writing and memory are intertwined.

The narrator is a journalist and a father. He is skeptical of this new technology called Remem, which is like a Google search engine of your personal memories. If we want to remember something, we just activate Remem and it will give us that precise memory in detail.

He uses two interweaving stories — and this is a narrative style that Chiang uses throughout the the collection. An aside, each, or at least most of the stories make a recommendation at the end, a sort of 'moral of the story'. Which some of you may not like. At first I was surprised, I didn't know how to feel, but later on I kinda got used to it.

Anyway, going back to the narrator, he is a father and he has a broken, damaged relationship with his daughter, Nicole. He has a recurring and vivid memory of what his daughter said in one of their fights. The dialogue, for context, the daughter was referring to her mother, the narrator's wife. Nicole said, "You're the reason she left. You drove her away! You can leave, too, for all I care. I sure as hell would be better off without you."

So the narrator has that memory of those words of his daughter stuck in his head.

At first he was against Remem, the memory technology. But since he was writing about it, he thought he might as well try using it. And he searched for that memory, that fight with the daughter. When Remem played it back for him, he was so surprised because those exact words were spoken, but not by his daughter; it was spoken by him.

To me it was one of the most dramatic and emotional twists in a story! And you can't deny that something like that truly happens. In our memory something is so clear but later on we realize, talking to other people and reading about it elsewhere or finding a reference elsewhere, it's not how we remember it after all.

I mentioned interweaving stories or interwoven stories. The other story is about Jijingi, a young man from Tivland. He was learning how to write and eventually he became a scribe. And he learned to write through a European named Moseby.

In Tivland's language, they have two words for the English word, 'true'. They have VOUGH, V-O-U-G-H, meaning what is right and precise, and MIMI, M-I-M-I, which is what principals, or I think the authorities, the chiefs, consider right in a dispute.

So in a dispute, the people involved, including the witnesses, they are sworn to say precisely what happened, so VOUGH. When everything is said and everything heard by the principal — we can also call that person the leader or the head of the community — so the principal will decide what action is MIMI for everyone.

In this story of Jijingi, Tivland is to be divided into groups. Sabe, its leader, should dicide who the Shangev clan would join. Jijingi is part of the Shangev clan and he attended the deliberation, the meeting of the elders. After that Jijingi shared what happened to Moseby, the European who taught him to write.

He said that the elders agreed that they should join the clan that they are most related to, which is the Kwande clan.

But other members of the Shangev clan don't live next to one another. There are those, for example, who live near Jechira, and they want to join the Jechira clan and not the Kwande clan. I hope you're following. Basically there's conflict among clan members on which one clan to join and make them all unified.

And then Jijingi narrated to Moseby that the elders also agreed that the Shangev all have one father, so they should all remain together.

Moseby then wonders if lineage is top priority, why are the Shangevs in Jechira arguing to join the Jerchira clan? Shouldn't it be automatic: if they agree that lineage is the deciding factor, then they should join the Kwande clan. Simple.

But then Jijingi says that these Shangevs believe that their father is Jechira. Again to clarify, the opposing clan members believe in two different fathers.

Now, Jijingi thought, and this will come as no surprise, he thought that the way to settle this is by finding a record that states who the real father is.

It turns out that it is indeed Jechira.

What happens after that? Jijingi showed the piece of evidence to the principal, Sabe.

Sabe's reaction was, he pointed out that those elders who lived during that time, that time when the record was made, those people are not here anymore, in the present. What matters are the current elders, in the here and now, who are making the decision.

Jijingi argued again about Shangev being the son of Jechira according to the records.

This is what Sabe said, and I quote, "Questions of kinship cannot be resolved by paper." Then he proceeded to point out that Jijingi has learned to read and write through the kindness of their kins. He said, "You look to paper to tell you what you should already know here." Here meaning his heart. "Have you studied paper so much that you've forgotten what it is to be Tiv?"

So Jijingi was starting to think like a European. The European's assessment was VOUGH — exact and precise but not enough to settle the question at hand.

That was Jijingi's epiphany.

And this epiphany is used by the journalist to express his own realizations on documentation and subjective experience. By the way I forgot to say in the beginning, the narrator of the two stories we just discussed is the journalist. So there's only one narrator in the short story.

This was the journalist's epiphany. I'll quote the passage. He said, "We don't normally think of it as such, but writing is a technology, which means that a literate person is someone whose thought processes are technologically mediated. We became cognitive cyborgs as soon as we became fluent readers, and the consequences were profound."

The consequence he speaks of is a weakness in self-understanding because of this reverence to the written word. Because we have built our identities on paper, it has, in a way stunted our growth or deformed us. Another point he makes is, again I quote, "Anthropologists will tell you that oral cultures understand the past differently; for them, their stories don't need to be accurate so much as they need to validate the community's understanding of itself. So it wouldn't be correct to say that their histories are unreliable; their histories do what they need to do."

I don't have my own epiphany. But I would like to end with the question of Remem. We have oral history. We have written history. We have our personal, private memories — maybe it's objective sometimes, maybe it's subjective sometimes. But what do you think of digitized personal memories? Will you get a memory prosthesis if given the chance?

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