Creating a Just Memory of the Pandemic

The importance of community art for processing our collective trauma

By Joanna Zabiega|April 1, 2021

This is the paradox of the past, of trauma, of loss, or war, a true war story where there is no ending but the unknown, no conversation except that which cannot be finished.
—Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies, p.304
We are quickly approaching the one-year mark of when the seriousness of the current pandemic became vividly clear. This crisismarked by misinformation, a lack of leadership and coordination on multiple levels, and over 500,000 lost lives in the U.S. alonereveals parts of the complicated story of our current collective situation. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, has much to offer us in this moment as we think of the incomprehensible number of lives lost already and how we might “remember the dead, who cannot speak for themselves” (4). His idea of a “just memory” offer us a way to start to make sense of where we are now in the pandemic and what work lies ahead for us to process and commemorate the messiness of our collective loss and grief.
Although the current administration shies away from the language of war on their website, other media outlets have picked up on this metaphor and identify Covid as an enemy that needs to be obliterated. This language is in line with previous so-called wars, such as the War on Drugs or the War on Poverty, the resolutions of which are not clear beyond their unintended devastating consequences. One might thus reasonably suspect that it is ethically dangerous to call our collective efforts against the pandemic a “war.”
There is no “enemy” here to be obliterated, and hence there are no “sides” in this pandemic. Yet unfortunately it is a crisis that has become politicized, pointing to the divided partisan climate we already find ourselves in. To avoid unproductive blame, we must adapt what Nguyen calls an ethics of recognition, where we recognize both our own goodness and our capacity to do harm—our inhumanity and our humanity. This in turn “leads to a more complex understanding of our identity, of what it means to be human and to be complicit in the deeds that our side, our kin, and even we ourselves commit” (Nguyen, 283). The politicization of this pandemic has been dangerous and has led to a rise in violence against Asian-Americans. This inhumanity (and the broader inhumanity of racism that scaffolds it) must be reckoned with.
As war is a traumatic period, so is the current “unprecedented” time we are living in. Our lives look very different than they did a year ago, and many have lost loved ones. The trauma has fallen especially hard on marginalized communities; the pandemic highlights inequities plaguing our society, as seen in the data on death disparities from the virus. As we have crossed over the unfortunate milestone of 500,000 deaths in this country, hard questions persist. How do we mourn and grieve our dead when the usual rituals are not accessible in the way they once were? How do we remember the dead, and how will we talk about this pandemic once it’s all over? It was only around this time last year that many people started learning about the 1918 Flu epidemic for the first time; significantly, there are no major memorials commemorating this tragedy. One must wonder, what did we lose by unjustly forgetting it?
There have been efforts to creatively remember lost ones, mostly through temporary memorials and ongoing art projects. One such national project is titled Songs of Remembrance, run through National Public Radio, where one can remember “some of those who lost their lives by listening to the music they loved and hearing their stories.” Engaging in listening provides an opportunity to tap into feeling and offers us a reflective space. This power of art is noted by Nguyen, who writes, “ sometimes art, simply by being art, by calling us into relationship with it, is the template for reflective, contemplative, meditative thinking and feeling that might allow us to become citizens of the imagination” (286). He points to the potential of art to initiate imagination as a means to offer us “some hope and salve to the harsh histories of …violence … that continue to affect us” (286), just as one’s religious tradition might offer respite and possibility as well.
Yet ongoing ephemeral art such as this, while much needed for the work of collective grieving, is not complete and not quite a solid memorial and reminder for the future. There is additional work to be done. Nguyen reminds us that we need “an art that enacts powerful memory, an art that speaks truth to power” (267). This powerful memory can acknowledge different narratives, leaving space for the messiness of the situation to be embraced and emotionally processed. For instance, A/P/A Voices: A Covid-19 Public Memory Project, launched by the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University, seeks to reflect on the pandemic’s impact on Asian/Pacific/American communities nationally and in New York, through a number of mediums including oral histories, as well as by gathering digital artifacts such as artwork and installations. This ongoing project not only creates meaning and memory of the Pandemic; it additionally reveals the dangers of the war metaphor.
Nguyen reminds us, “memories are not only collected or collective; they are also corporate and capitalist. Memories are signs and products of power, and in turn, they service power” (15). In this vein, it is important to note who is creating meaning (through art and beyond) of this tragedy, and how we may expand access to meaning-making in order to do this needed work. For as Nguyen writes, “Just memory is only possible when the weak, the poor, the marginalized, the different, and the demonized, or their advocates, can influence or even seize the industries of memory” (18). Thus we need a plethora of powerful art to counter dominating narratives and create a just memory.
In order to reflect on where we are and justly remember the wide-reaching crisis of this pandemic, we need a wide-reaching solution that recognizes when power is at play and that actively works to create powerful memories. This is where we need art and spiritual inspiration, in order to engage in the work of just memory—both in remembering the dead and imagining a better way forward. We cannot allow ourselves to go numb and forget, becoming a “society of the spectacle” where “all horror is revealed and nothing is done on the part of the average citizen to resist it” (14). Our dead deserve better than that, and we, the living, deserve better too.

Photo Credit: Nick Fewings, via Unsplash

Sightings is edited by Daniel Owings, a PhD Candidate in Theology at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Marty Center or its editor.


Joanna Zabiega

Author, Joanna Zabiega (AB '13), is a first-year Master of Divinity student. Their research interests focus on the ways spiritual practices and traditions facilitate change both on a personal and collective level. Before joining the Swift Hall community, they spent five years teaching yoga around Chicago.