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Memory and writing at MFA Alumni reading

Courtesy of Christine Hyung-Oak Lee
Courtesy of Christine Hyung-Oak Lee

Themes of memory, trauma and recovery were expressed in the work of two Mills College MFA alumnae in the last Contemporary Writers Series of the spring semester.

Students, faculty and community members packed the Mills Hall living room on April 11 to hear alumnae Christine Hyung-Oak Lee (Prose MFA ’08) and Samantha Giles (Poetry MFA ’08) read from their recent work.

Hyung-Oak Lee’s memoir, “Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember: The Stroke That Changed My Life,” was published in February.

Hyung-Oak Lee suffered a stroke in 2006, causing her to lose short-term memories and critically altering her ability to recall the nuance of long-term memories. She relied on her Moleskin journals to reconstruct her sense of self. English professor Elmaz Abinader introduced her.

“One of the things people tell writers is to write what you know. When you’ve had a stroke, this becomes more of a journey,” Abinader said.

Abinader said that Hyung-Oak Lee’s writing process is a lesson in how to create voice and return to emotional memories.

“Emotional truth matters more in memoir,” Abinader said, adding that after the stroke, Hyung-Oak Lee’s strongest memories were the ones that carried deep emotional resonance, such as experiences of rape and abuse.

Abinader jokingly said that she wished she could credit herself for nurturing Hyung-Oak Lee’s writing ability; she was one of Hyung-Oak Lee’s dearest mentors during her time at Mills and also worked with Hyung-Oak Lee at Voices of Our Nations Arts, an intensive writing program for writers of color that was founded by Abinader, Victor Diaz, Diem Jones and Junot Diaz.

But, Abinader noted, Hyung-Oak Lee wrote the memoir after the stroke, meaning she relied on her own intuitive creativity rather than on her educational training as a writer.

As she took to the podium, Hyung-Oak Lee thanked the audience and said that Abinader could indeed take credit for her helping craft her abilities as a writer.

After the stroke, Hyung-Oak Lee said that she struggled with caring for her newborn daughter and experienced postpartum depression, in addition to discovering that her husband was having an affair.

Her goal, she said, was to only do two things that year: “Keep my baby alive and write.”

Professor Juliana Spahr introduced Samantha Giles and said that Giles’ book of poetry, “Hurdis Addo,” engages with the 148 murders that happened in Oakland in 2006. Giles wrote a poem for each person that was killed.

“I literally…would not be a writer if it weren’t for Mills,” Giles said.

Giles read parts of her story, “Total Recall,” which describes a woman who struggles with her father’s insistence that her memories of him sexually abusing her throughout her childhood are false.

“I never really know what a work is doing until I read it aloud,” Giles said, expressing gratitude for the chance to read from a story that is still in progress.

As Giles read aloud, her voice became choked with emotion and she paused frequently to drink from a small plastic cup of water, her hands slightly shaking.

Hyung-Oak Lee’s and Giles’ work both grapple with the presence of emotional memory, and the writing becomes a landscape for complex notions of truth.