CHANTAL AKERMAN’S film News from Home was made at a time when the filmmaker was living in Manhattan, and her mother was writing to her from Brussels. The camera, operated by Babette Mangolte, travels over the streets and subway, capturing at once bleak and monumental views of what was, by the time I watched the film, a bygone era, a city frozen in amber. Akerman reads her mother’s letters in a voiceover:
- —Dearest child, I received your letter and I hope you’ll write often. In any case, I hope you’ll be home soon.
- —I know sunny weather depresses you, and you don’t even have any sandals.
- —My teeth are hurting, as usual. I’m having two pulled on the 22nd. It’s the only solution.
- —Sometimes I feel like I’m suffocating, but other days I enjoy it.
In an issue of Film Quarterly devoted to Akerman following her death in 2015, a year after her mother’s death, a scholar identifies the disjunctive relationship between sounds and images in News from Home as evidence that Akerman obsessed over the subject of her mother.
I had not noticed the sound was disjunctive, or I had not quite phrased it that way, which is to say I’d perceived no distance between the words, first written in the mother’s letters, then read in the daughter’s voice, and the images of daily life—the cobbled streets, the car squeezing its way through a tight space, the young people moving cardboard boxes in the distance. Maternal sentiment saturates the daughter’s worldview. What could be truer to life?
In graduate school, those who read early drafts of short stories I wrote about my mother’s life—thinly veiled biography or autobiography or ethnography—told me, on multiple occasions, that I wrote as if English were my second language. It wasn’t, and the comments perplexed me. It took years for me to realize that, in telling my mother’s stories, I was unwittingly replicating the cadences of her voice, veering off into the greenery of digression, shouting, muttering, whispering, in what had been her voice all along.
On Christmas, 2020, nearly a year since she began isolating amid the coronavirus pandemic, my own mother, who’d been, for decades, slowly but surely withdrawing from society—from everyone but me, it seemed—left me a series of unusual voice memos on WeChat:
- —What do you spend your days doing? What time is dinner? I’m worried about you.
- —My back is getting worse. I can’t sit down on the toilet, and if I sit, I can’t get up.
- —You’re the only one who worries me. Do you know why? Because you get yourself in trouble. That is your tendency. That is your nature. I know that because I am your mother.
- —I know everything about you. Because you came out of my body.
There is a shot in News from Home that fascinates me and that also fascinates the photographer Moyra Davey. For three long minutes, we’re riding the subway, at a time when the walls were aloe green. In an essay titled “Hemlock Forest” about her video project of the same title, Davey writes:
- The camera is uncannily still, taking in the movements of passengers, some curious, most indifferent, and one man dressed in lime green, apparently annoyed. […] I have an urge to recreate the scene by asking cinematographers to film a contemporary version of the shot. But I immediately begin to feel anxious and depressed about the idea. […] The idea of filming this quasi-illegal scene both makes me sick with nerves and—if I can pull it off—is a huge rush.
Whether Davey fails or succeeds in recreating Akerman’s shot is left to the viewer to judge—perhaps that is where the risk insinuates itself. Where Akerman and Davey’s studies of others are bound inextricably to their referents, I conjure my mother out of the obscurity of my own memory. My mother—my real mother—will fall away like the wax mold around a bronze sculpture. When I write about my mother, which I do more often than I admit, I am confronted by what the French filmmaker Louis Malle called image theft, a phrase I first came across in another of Moyra Davey’s essays, in which she writes about the decade—roughly between the mid-eighties and mid-nineties—in which she refused to photograph individuals. Malle was famous for his ethnographic documentary films, most notably Phantom India, which aired on BBC television in 1969. “On our arrival,” Malle narrates, as the camera approaches two women gleaning fodder in the suburbs of Delhi, “one of the women curses us and flees. Her curses are translated: she doesn’t want to be filmed. It’s evil, a spell we cast upon her. Being filmed will steal from her everything she is.” For Malle, image theft was a concept that could stand in for a feeling of unease. It represented the guilt of the ethnographer who had knowingly crossed into the Other’s personal space. I have to wonder if my interest in parsing out the nuances of my mother are ethnographic, even exploitative, in nature.
What, in my case, constitutes image theft? Perhaps the vulnerability of a candid subject might make a photographer hesitate—the subject in the bath, the subject hugging her knees to her chest—or is image theft any depiction of others, regardless of their circumstances? To be a daughter means to preserve her mother’s dignity at all cost, while to be a mother means to parade her daughter in front of polite company, to shame and scold and dig up her shortcomings for deliberation. Thick description, in ethnography, refers to the process of recording the biographical, historical, situational, relational, and interactional context of a subject. In other words, breaking through surface appearances. My written record of my mother oscillates between thick and thin description, between attempts to chip away at an unyielding façade and long stretches spent submerged in the context, unable to see the surface at all.
My mother is not a brave woman, nor will she tolerate discomfort. She dislikes perfume and creams. She owns no jewelry. She does not wander far from home because she is afraid of getting hungry with nowhere to eat or needing to use a public restroom. The only time she made an exception—and allowed herself to be jostled, wrung out with exhaustion for the sake of an experience—was when she and I traveled to Macau together to visit the Ruins of St. Paul’s, which I’d been researching at the time. When pressed, my mother will say she remembers riding the high-speed train. She claims to remember the sandwiches, but not how it felt to return home after nearly two decades.
- —When people leave a place, their thoughts remain frozen in time. They remain who they were when they left the place, while the place they left behind continues to mutate.
- —I’ve come to realize the truth about China. It’s something I’ve been thinking about since we visited.
- —The China that exists now is unrecognizable to me. Its culture is a poison. You may have noticed this already, or you will.
And so, the word “poison” entered my life. My mother’s voice grew more energetic with each WeChat message she left me on Christmas. She spoke of seeing photographs of synthetic chicken eggs, eggs made in a lab in China that look in every way like real eggs but are chemical concoctions. She told me not to believe what I heard on the news, that it was safe to say that anything good or optimistic one hears is a lie. She’d read a book recently, she said, about a thousand great inventions. In it, China wasn’t mentioned, not even once. No paper, no porcelain, no pyrotechnics. (“But I remember,” I wanted to say, “on our trip, when I left you in hotels at night to sit and write in bars, the men there spoke to me about poetry, politics, and medicine.”) Don’t believe the lies, my mother sighed.
I’ve read similar conspiracy theories online, tasting bitterness at the bottom of each rabbit hole. Community organizer and artist Kate Zen published a piece titled “Conversations with My Father” in The Margins, in which she aptly illustrates the concept of resentment politics, or what I see as the politics of throwing and bruising oneself against the shadow of an imagined Other, who is often in a weaker position. “You can’t trust anybody in China anymore,” Zen’s father tells her. “If an old woman falls over in the middle of the street, nobody will help her, because they are afraid that woman might try to rob them or scam them.”
In Chinese, the word hài means, roughly, “harm” or “to harm.” Its usage implies that one can harm another person without touching them, without speaking to them. It is slightly ambiguous how harm may be transmitted, whether through gossip, through a lawsuit, or through prayer. I cannot help but wonder if, in the same way that my mother worries that my research and writing about China will bring me harm, the way I dissect and reconstruct my mother from the bitter seed, the nonexistent truth, out to the impenetrable rind counts as an act of daughterly hài.
I once believed I’d uncovered something about my mother’s mind when I learned, from a sudden outburst, that she opposed the formation of labor unions and was suspicious of mass movements. Growing up, I had been impressed to watch my mother disavow, more and more openly, the repressive political regime under which she came of age. When asked, however, my mother would always default to saying the one shouldn’t speak about politics.
But I believed that I needed only to chip away at my mother’s calcified façade in order to uncover a wet and buried truth. I expected her story to be like so many Red Guard memoirs, one that followed a trajectory in which her naive fanaticism for the utopian vision promised by Chinese socialism first soured into disillusionment, and then sublimated into a rational and even keeled view of the world and its history. But somewhere in the middle of that progression—that healing process, I’d like to think—America happened to her.
It turns out that my mother’s anti-China sentiments were not unique insights but rather truisms she repeats to herself and no doubt parrots from a conservative English-language news source that, ironically, has been filtered and translated through Chinese social media apps like WeChat, which she and I use to communicate. I was shocked when I traced her conspiratorial claims, by way of a few simple search terms, back to their banal American sources, as I’d always believed that my mother’s bitterness was in essence different from the bitterness that Americans feel. But according to researcher Chi Zhang’s oft-cited 2018 report on the spread of misinformation among Chinese immigrants on WeChat, “The divisive and strident political messages in the past election cycle have found their way into the immigrant Chinese news sphere and gained an independent existence.” Partisan news accounts on this messaging app have succeeded, the report shows, in leveraging feelings of isolation and paranoia among older Chinese immigrants to exploit their attention and loyalty. I fear that this in turn rewards individuals like my mother with figureheads who will confirm even their most eccentric biases.
There had been a man on the steps of St. Paul’s wearing a yellow tracksuit and hat, holding a placard with Chinese characters on it, who’d tried to push a flier into my hand. The words on his flier were not ones I could read at the time. My mother had gripped my arm and pulled me away toward Senado Square.
Back then in Macau, walking through the pigeons with their collars of midnight green, feeling my mother’s grip, I didn’t quite know what to do with her bitterness. It was like holding a cherry pit in my mouth with nowhere to spit it. We’d been walking around jet-lagged under the evening’s red sky, having sipped amaretto, which she loves, in a coffee shop in the old city—I’d felt as if we were in a dream, untethered from our real lives—when we met the demonstrator in the crowd. Afterwards, my mother seemed like a different person, a person who in fact knew something—not nothing at all—about current events, who knew that the yellow tracksuit belonged to a worldwide meditation group that has accused the Chinese government of suppressing their religious expression. I didn’t tell her, but they were a group with whom I’d once sympathized. I’d checked out books from my university library about their leader, a man who claimed he could walk through walls, books I’d read while tipsy in the basement at parties I didn’t want to attend, books I’d finished and forgotten just as easily.
Although I believe that my mother resents anyone who speaks out against the status quo (because she is envious of their ability to do so), I wonder how difficult it would be for the man in yellow, or someone like him, to convince her that she could walk through walls. Like many, I worry about the spread of disinformation, and I worry about my mother’s ability to discern truth from lie. Sometimes, at my most fatalistic, I say I don’t care what my mother thinks, so long as she doesn’t think it so vehemently. When it comes to the past, however, it seems my mother is no longer able to look from afar. It seems she wants to tackle it headfirst, to smash it with the full force of her body, and she practices doing so against me, her eternal interlocutor.
-  Chantal Akerman, News from Home (1977).
-  Mateus Araujo, “Chantal Akerman, Between the Mother and the World,” in Film Quarterly 70.1 (2016): 32-38.
-  Moyra Davey, “Hemlock Forest,” in Index Cards, edited by Nicolas Linnert (New York: New Directions Publishing, 2020), 149.
-  Kate Zen, “Conversations with My Father,” in The Margins (web), 24 March 2021, date of access: 13 June 2021.
-  Chi Zhang, “WeChatting American Politics: Misinformation, Polarization, and Immigrant Chinese Media,” a report published by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School, 19 April 2018, date of access: 13 June 2021.
-  Ibid.
JENNY WU is an art historian and fiction writer. Her stories, art criticism, and literary criticism can be found in BOMB, LA Review of Books, and Denver Quarterly. A recipient of the 2021-23 Tulsa Artist Fellowship, she lives and works in Tulsa, OK.