Voyager: Constellations of Memory by Nona Fernández; Greywolf Press; 136 pgs.; $15.00
Nona Fernández interrogates the embodiment of memory in her book-length essay, Voyager, examining how experience, history, and remembering can shape the identities of both individuals and nations. Appropriately structured in homage to the space probes that inspire the book’s title, Fernández composes a record of intricately plaited “constellations” of astronomy, astrology, history, memory, myth, and neuroscience. Through lyrical vignettes, speculative wondering, and careful documentation and retrospection, Voyager invites readers to partake in an intellectually-stimulating exploration—and sometimes metacognitive interlude—of remembering, as the author seeks to rectify false histories and underscore one’s obligation to document “ungovernable” memories as records of existence.
Fernández aligns the act of writing and wondering with that of “an exploratory probe, roaming the earth and deciphering its laws.” It is through this perspective that the book gains its momentum. Readers learn about a project that established a new constellation for 26 victims of the Caravan of Death, one star named for each victim. Upon a request from Amnesty International, Fernández assumes the role of honorary godmother for a single star and victim, Mario Argüelles Toro. Before she attends a ceremonial unveiling at the location of the executions, Atacama Desert, Chile, which also happens to be “the best place in the world for stargazing,” the author learns about her appointed “godson” through research and through meeting his widow, Violeta. Fernández listens to stories, studies photographs, and speculates on a life snuffed out too soon. Mario’s story informs readers of political unrest and violence experienced by Chileans in 1973, the year a successful coup transformed Chilean lives. Astrological legends further illustrate the relationship between Mario and Violetta. Through the tale of Pisces, a constellation of two fish bound together at the tails for eternity, Fernández asserts that Violeta’s memory preserves a different narrative of Mario, one that elucidates a nuanced, compassionate man. The threaded story invokes the ghosts neglected by memory and the voices that risk being forgotten or misremembered due to incomplete records or because they were labeled as “thinking differently.” The written record of Voyager rectifies the threat of forgotten memory, further reminding readers that, like the bound fish, we are all linked by our stories and by what we choose to learn from history and what we choose to commit to permanent record.
Just as legends of the sky were once designed for wayfinding, Fernández employs the very legends of the sky as a compass of her own. Her mother experiences fainting spells and gaps in memory. These unsettling occurrences haunt both Fernández and her mother, propelling the book into a journey through intertwined stories of history and myth. In linking each character’s birth to the tales of their zodiac constellations, the notion of embodiment takes on a new meaning. Memory no longer resides solely within the body and mind, but also within collective and stellar memory. In the complexly crafted section entitled “Aries,” the most pivotal section of the book, Fernández weaves the 1988 Chilean plebiscite and other moments of Chilean history together with detailed memories of her mother, grandmother, and son, an Aries, as he faces adversity while preparing to deliver a speech on the thirtieth anniversary of the plebiscite. Through storytelling, reimagining, and reflection on the legend of a ram’s permanent home in as constellation of stars in the night sky, Fernández emphasizes the corrosive danger when false histories of a nation become woven into the fabric of identity. Through the conflation of memory and “absurd fictions” believed to be history, Fernández further emphasizes the obligation of responsible documentation and diverse representation of the embodiment of memory. Unexpectedly resonate, the zodiac interludes offer readers space to contemplate. The “black holes of memory” experienced by her mother earlier extend to a metaphor for censorship and undocumented facets of history and national identity. Moments of relief from the central tensions of the book resist stagnancy through compelling storytelling before Fernández gracefully steers readers back into conflicts.
Because of the woven patterns of story, history, and myth, Voyager elicits rereading. While the short length and engaging prose make it easy to consume in one sitting, it is best to digest the book slowly, reckoning with its ability to reach beyond self-reflection and into the nebulous bodies of memory. A thoughtful, contemplative reading offers the opportunity to make sense of the complex, seemingly inexplicable records of identity and belonging. Fernández parses memory, reflecting upon how we internalize moments even when they may be amalgamations of real memory and imagination, likening deeply internalized memories to the physical body: “To disown it would be to disown my own hand, my ear, my navel.” Fernández’s book is about consciousness and reacting; about recognizing how memory is just as alive—if not more alive—than the reflection of a person in the mirror or a limb that propels us forward.
At the beginning of the book, Fernández shares a story that her mother once told her about the stars. The stars, her mother said, are “little people” in the illimitable sky, “sending messages with mirrors.” The story becomes a refrain throughout the book: “Here we are, don’t forget us.” Voyager is a movement through memory, a record so that readers might not forget. Sometimes, the book speculates about what might have been or what could be. Sometimes, it writhes with action and certainty. Other times, the book acts as a memoir of a woman’s journey through memory. The many characteristics of the book, Voyager confirms the necessity of witnessing, wondering, and recording.