From the decimated landscapes of the Nevada nuclear testing sites to the quiet mapping of grief on notecards, from Turkish-German pop cultural negotiations of identity to photo-portraits of Armenians who survived the genocide, from women and horses in captivity to Columbian water arts, and from ancient stories of moral injury to mining in Minnesota, this year’s annual Holocaust, Genocide, Memory Studies (HGMS) graduate student conference was perhaps the most wide-ranging yet.
When the precarity of the world feels ever more present—between pandemics, climate catastrophes, tornados, the war in Ukraine, and the instability of the political arena in so many places, it’s particularly salubrious to see a brilliant group of young scholars from all over the world come together to talk memory. Because so many former HGMS students have gone on to tenure-track jobs, postdocs, or other careers, and in part because, this semester, I’m teaching the professionalization class, I decided to invite HGMS alumna to be keynotes. The first keynote talk, by Jessica Young, Assistant Professor of Global English and Faculty Steward of the Dr. Helen N. Fagin Collection in Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights at New College of Florida discussed challenges to the academy in our current moment and the role of memory studies in studying the challenges and teaching during moments of great political upheaval. Having organized a graduate student conference in 2014 (which was the seed of our current annual series), she noted that her return as a keynote lecture was especially important to see how the institutions we build to support scholars in the field can survive and thrive, becoming their own institutional forms of (academic) generational memory transmission.
The second keynote was a conversation between the photographer Ara Oshagan and HGMS alumna Helen Makhdoumian, a Promise Armenian Institute Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles. They discussed a gorgeous, moving series of photographs of Armenian survivors of the genocide or other portraits of Armenians artfully designed to evoke and question the very nature of displacement and diaspora in the aftermath of violence. You can see some of these stunning images here. The iwitness project, which Ara worked on with Levon Parian, was the first series capturing and compiling together images of survivors of the Armenian genocide. Ara discussed how important concepts from the scholarly landscape, including postmemory and Helen’s innovative idea of nested memory, were for him in understanding the long process of memory more than one hundred years after the Armenian Genocide. Artists impact scholars; scholars impact artists. Helen noted that, in the long “afterlives of memory…those narratives are revisited, are nested in diasporic belonging when it’s a question of narrating from exile.” She went on to note, in the context of the large diasporic Armenian communities, “so much of our kinship-making” revolves around stories beyond the Armenian genocide; there were multiple forced migrations and other upheavals to create a web of exilic and transnational belonging. As part of the iwitness series, Ara and Parian constructed huge photographic sculptures of the faces of survivors and displayed them in downtown Los
Angeles. In some cases, multiple generations of their descendants converged at the photographs to commemorate their survivor-ancestors, furnishing the chilling sensation that, had that person not survived, this vibrant multi-generational group would not be there; an absence that would be replicated in the approximately 1.5 million victims of the genocide.
Later in the day, Megi Mecolli, from English, picked up on this thread of storytelling in the face of trauma and discussed the importance of stories told by Albanians, some of whom had survived torture, some of whom were her family members. These stories, Megi claimed, demonstrated how ordinary people became revolutionary through storytelling, often through narratives “meticulously crafted” to avoid censorship by the secret police as examples of crystallized moments where “truth is veiled as metaphor.”
Tai Wakabayashi, a Landscape Architecture Ph.D. student and one of the co-organizers of the conference, discussed the Nevada Test Site and uncovered the ways it represents a “landscape of entrapment.” Tai examined some of the stunning photographs by Peter Goin and found that the object of memory of the landscape becomes, entrapped, thus moving beyond the flat ontology of “entanglement.” By exploring the landscape as an archive, Tai’s project unpacks how we can see the endless effect of these nuclear tests: “The landscape,” he argues, “houses every instance of the environmental damages that can only be measured through an ecological scale and also contains the radioactive entities that supposedly last for at least a millennium until decontamination will complete.” It’s an utterly chilling look at how human intervention remains stuck in a desert landscape which we might want to see as “barren” but which scholars like Macarena Gómez-Barris urge to us to see as brimming with life.
In another paper about the impacts on and distortions of the natural world, Sergio Mora Moreno examined an artistic project that imagined the river as having a point of view from which to regard the strange workings of humans. In the conversation with moderator and conference co-organizer Emerson Pehl, the discussion turned to the potentiality for indigenous communities to fight corporations. In Sergio’s work, he examines indigenous ways of knowing, of interacting with landscapes and waterscapes, and to use these ways of knowing to fight imperial narratives that incorporate specific ways of imagining the past.
Nearly a year ago, my friend and colleague Dara Goldman, who was then the director of the Program in Jewish Culture & Society, tragically died of an aortic aneurysm. In August, my step-father passed away of old age at 98. In January, my friend and colleague, Bruce Rosenstock, also a Professor of Jewish Studies, and on the Jewish Studies Executive Committee with me for the past twenty years, died of esophagus cancer. It’s a lot of loss and grief all at once. It’s not surprising, then, that the first paper on the morning, panel, “Diagramming Grief,” by Ishita Dharap, doctoral student in the Art Education program at UIUC and an Education Coordinator at the Krannert Art Museum, was incredibly moving. Ishita’s work eschewed any easy analysis of grief and diagrammed it—literally with notecards and on screen—in ways that highlighted grief’s complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty. She was especially interested in exploring grieving from afar. Given the global pandemic and the multinational students we are so lucky to have here, grieving from afar is likely to be very familiar to many who were in the room.
Students present hailed from India, Singapore, Japan, Colombia, Germany, China, the U.S. (including Indigenous students from diverse tribes), and many other places on the globe. Ishita showed us how being far and being close are both comforting and challenging—holding multiple options in one space is OK. She noted that “grief and grieving feel open-ended…it feels like there are no answers” and expanded this to underscore how “sense-making after loss is continuous…it gets made in and unmade in a loop” and she used the apt word “abyss” to describe the size and shape of grief.
Ishita’s talk and the one that followed, by Azlan Smith, opened up scholarship to new ways of thinking and performing. Azlan effectively asked what it would feel like to write the way we all want to write? To get away from the “pretense of the last word” or the negative effects of the “take down.” Because of these sometimes unhelpful aspects of academia, it’s not always “possible to say why you are here.” Azlan then invited us all to think together—in conversation with a physical or virtual neighbor—about an object that could encapsulate or represent why we are here. In answer to this question someone posted in the chat: “To suffer, to learn and then unlearn to unravel while becoming naught.” Every time Azlan performs or gives a talk I learn something new about the connectivity and tactility of learning itself. Azlan said they felt that the annual HGMS graduate student conference, for which they and a group of stellar actors performed the keynote last year (2022), available here, “in particular feels like a safe space; and that is rare in academia.” As part of their project of reorienting writing studies to open up possibilities for new ways of engaging, Azlan imagines “scholarship as also this place where I go out and find things that are delightful, that I want to share,” and they asked us to wonder and invent new possibilities.
Azlan began by noting that, “The only reason I’m able to take up these questions in these ways is that this conference in particular feels like a very safe place. I want to mark that, as unfortunately this welcoming safety is more the exception than the norm in my experience of grad school. And I think that safety exists through the hard work of many wonderful people. Dr Kaplan, who’s absolutely amazing, as well as other important mentors — Dr. Lucero is here — and courageous, open-hearted graduate students. Emerson, who just introduced me, Ishita who just presented, David who’s going to speak next, and also Kaleb, Ragini, Tai, Sergio, and Fin online, so many wonderful people in this room that make this a safe place to talk deeply, lovingly, playfully about difficult ideas and opening possibilities.”
There were so many other fabulous papers and presentations by students at UIUC and UCLA in diverse fields studying different, often difficult histories and memories. Each year I find the work of these students utterly inspiring. Please join us next year for the sixth annual HGMS conference which will be kicked off by a keynote Greenfield-Lynch lecture by Ben Lerner at 5pm on April 4th followed by the conference from 9-5 on April 5th, 2024.
This conference has always been co-organized with HGMS graduate students, and I’d like to thank enormously this year’s group for their stellar work to make this a fabulous event. Thank you to Dilara Çalışkan, Ragini Chakrabarty, Matthew Fam, Sambhabi Ghosh, Emerson Pehl, Tai Wakabayashi. For help organizing the practical details, enormous thanks to Leslie Davison and Lydia Allen. For allowing HGMS to use its beautiful conference space, thanks to HRI director
Antoinette Burton. For invaluable sponsorship of the program, thank you to SLCL, and the EU Center and Global Studies for support through a grant from the US Department of Education’s Title VI program.
Brett Ashley Kaplan, HGMS Director