By Nora A. Taylor
Summer 2021 Issue
For the past couple of years, I have been studying the work of the Vietnamese-Danish artist Danh Vo. Among the works that caught my attention was a performative piece that involved his father, who grew up in a Catholic family in Vietnam, and was particularly skilled in penmanship. As a gay man, Vo had a difficult relationship with his father and found that giving him a task would create a connection between them. The task consisted of re-transcribing by hand, in cursive script, a letter that had originally been written by a young Jesuit missionary named Jean-Théophane Vénard to his own father prior to Vénard’s execution. A letter that was once written by a son to his father was now re-written by a father for his son.
I thought about this recently in connection to my own father and our epistolary relationship. For the past six years, since my mother passed away, he has been demanding the return of letters that he had written to her. My siblings and I only discovered after her passing that she had not only kept the letters, but copied them with a typewriter and placed them into a folder in chronological order. This act of re-mediation, from handwritten to typewritten seemed poignant.
I could picture my mother at a desk, pressing her fingers hard onto the keyboard, re-writing each of my father’s words loudly with a vengeance. This act was different from what I imagined would be a gentler and softer gesture used by Phung Vo, Danh Vo’s father. Granted, the letters my mother typed were from her friend, then lover, then fiancé, then husband, then ex-husband, and the content of the letters was likely vastly and dramatically different from the content of those of the clergyman. My father must have expressed more intimate feelings toward my mother in his. They might have confessed wrongdoings and begged for forgiveness. Many of them were also written with love. What interested me most about Phung Vo’s letter writing, though, was his participation in his son’s art practice through his calligraphy. The letter’s content didn’t matter. It was about sharing something with his son. The father didn’t understand what he was writing, since he didn’t read French, but he understood that the gesture of writing made his son happy and gave him the opportunity to share his own talent with his artist son. Not being able to understand even what his son’s practice was about, he knew that he had a talent for letter writing and was proud to offer it to his son. Still, in writing the letter, he embodied the author of the letter, re-enacting the moment when the original letter was written.
My mother’s act of typing my father’s letters was also a reenactment but in a different way. Rather than embodying my father, she was reliving his words, reliving the moment when he wrote them, yes, but also when she received them. She was recalling the emotions that she felt when she had read them the first time. I haven’t read those letters, because they disappeared after we initially found them. I only read the first and the last one and then put the folder aside for later, but I haven’t seen it since. The letters ranged from 1954 to 1984. Thirty years of love and anger. Thirty years of words from my father, and none from my mother. She received the letters, her replies, though, are absent. He spoke and she listened. I know she wrote back.
Archives are filled with such letters. Countless literature buffs, historians and librarians have consumed such letters. Letters from famous people are sold at auction. Indeed, even Danh Vo has purchased letters that were typed on White House stationary and signed by Henry Kissinger. A film based on Lee Israel’s autobiography about forging letters from celebrated authors was released in 2018. Letters are the closest thing to a person’s thoughts and voice. They have aura because they are the closest thing to a relic from a person’s mind. Written in the first person, narrated by the self, they are windows into a person’s soul. In the digital age, when most people communicate via email, the significance of the word letter has changed. We can write letters on a computer now and send them electronically. A letter that has been written on paper is now seen as an anachronism, an artifact of the past.
When paper letters were the only means of transmission, they were direct channels of communication from one person’s thoughts and feelings to another. When the telegram was invented, letters were not as expedient and were used for slower, lengthier and more economical means of sending one’s thoughts. Telegrams were used for short news and urgent announcements. Later, the fax machine enabled a written or type-written letter to be received instantaneously. I remember having to explain in great detail how a fax worked to my incredulous mother. “It is like a photocopy,” I would say, “only it gets sent via wire.” She didn’t understand how that was possible. Faxes were examples of remediation, one could say, only a machine did the transmitting and printing. But, one could still pen a letter, it just came out on a different kind of paper. Emails take a step further. You can still type a letter but you cannot use a pen on paper. There are styli now that might allow you to actually script a note on an electronic pad, but you still can’t use paper.
The letters that my father wrote my mother were originally on paper. I can’t say which of them were originally hand written and which were drafted on a typewriter, but all were given a new form and typed by my mother on the same kind of paper and placed in plastic sleeves in a binder. My father’s letters were not the first that my mother had transcribed. She spent years translating and typing her parents’ letters to family in Geneva for a book about her own father. She probably obtained the idea from her grandfather who, after his son’s death, had painstakingly typed on onionskin sheets of paper backed with carbon, to make duplicates and then bound them into books. Those books of letters were among the only records of her parents’ thoughts and feelings. She treasured them, read them over and over again, probably hearing their voices in her head. In time, those voices became her voices. Those letters channeled communication not between her parents and their parents, but between her and her parents. Through the process of remediation, and her reading of the letters, they came to embody her own absent parents.
I suspect that my mother’s re-writing my father’s letters had a different purpose. Since she never told her children about them, it is not entirely clear why she kept the letters after reading them, nor why she chose to type them and preserve them in a binder. I have several theories. They were powerful letters and she needed to process them. They couldn’t be digested immediately. They were powerful not only because of the words that they contained but also because of the person who wrote them: my father. He had a lot of power over her and he had the power of words. He was a man of letters after all. He was an educated man with a PhD in English Literature, specializing in Old Norse poetry. He read a lot. He could recite lines of poetry and recall passages from Shakespeare to Joyce. His passions were varied and went from W.H. Auden to Rudolfo Anaya, from the Icelandic sagas to Native American literature. Born from the union of his single mother and an adulterous affair, he found father figures in many of the writers whose works he devoured. He sought kinship amidst this large literary family. I can sympathize. As an art historian, I too, have looked for affinity, inspiration, and intimacy among artists and scholars.
He also wrote many letters. Like many of his generation, letter writing was the primary means of communication with distant acquaintances, family and colleagues alike. And he was particularly fond and adept at writing letters. As the letters to my mother attest, he courted her through letters. He won her heart through letters. But, as the last letters also demonstrated, he broke her heart through letters as well. He devastated her through letters. As adeptly as he could avow his love to her, he could also destroy it through his words. In typing them, she needed to extricate those words from her heart and contain them, place them in a box. Typing them was an act of exorcism perhaps.
When I was younger, I received many letters from my father too, only they were not from him. They were from a character named Magic Oyster. I don’t recall who came up with this name or concept, but I remember receiving letters and postcards from him when my father was away. Magic Oyster was not a person in my mind, but some sort of alien being whom I had never met but knew who I was. I was aware that MO, as he sometimes signed his letters, was a “he,” and my father’s alter ego, but I played the game and never revealed that I knew it was him. He was my Santa Claus. I wanted to still believe he was real because I loved those letters. I loved MO’s existence. He was a secret pen pal, an imaginary friend. MO could have stood for Modus Operandi, an agenda, a plan, but MO felt like a door to a whole new world in the sense of “the world is your oyster,” a private place for contemplation, a retreat.
MO probably saved me from a nervous breakdown. I was a painfully shy child, insecure and terrified of failing at anything. MO traveled the world, sent postcards, remembered my birthday, gave me gifts and could read my thoughts. He was the father that gave me courage. He was sweet and kind and funny. He wrote limericks and made puns. If he was a father substitute, sadly, he somehow disappeared from my life, never to be replaced.
I have always been interested in stories about letters myself. Maybe because my mother was so fond of the letters that her parents wrote. Also a fan of crime fiction, I devoured Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Purloined Letter” about a letter stolen from a woman’s boudoir. The letter was said to contain compromising information and was substituted by the perpetrator for an insignificant letter. The police believe the thief to be the writer himself, a minister who had been blackmailing the woman to whom the letter was written, the owner of the letter. There are interesting parallels between Poe’s story and my parents’ correspondence. Poe’s story was the basis for George Perec’s “The Missing Letter,” “La Lettre Manquante,” only this time he made use of the word letter’s other definition, the character in the alphabet. Perec wrote a story that is missing the letter “e.” As the founder of the Oulipo school of writing, he was fond of structural linguistic puns, a device that originated at the University of Geneva’s department of Linguistics (where my father taught his entire career) with Ferdinand de Saussure who identified the difference between the signifier and the signified, the gap between a word’s meaning and its visual form.
These letters that my father wrote to my mother have also undergone a number of linguistic shifts. They started as a gift from a man’s heart to the woman he loved, a gesture and an act of transcribing feelings into words on paper. They became the possession of the woman to whom the letters were addressed. They had a physical and emotional form. The words translated into an expression of love that she received from this man. Indeed, they were evidence of the man’s love for her. She kept them to remind her of that love. I don’t know how many times she would have read and re-read them, but I assume that she typed them and placed them in the binder after they were divorced. They shifted in meaning then too, as relics of their marriage that had by then dissolved. When she died, the letters took on yet another significance. They became part of her belongings, a set of documents which her children had to make a decision to preserve or discard. By then, the letters had shifted from their content; transcribed feelings, to their materiality, their form, from signified to signifier.
What my mother kept were letters that in fact she herself had written, that is, that she typed. She purchased the paper. She typed the letters — the characters — on the page. In typing them, she took control and possession of those feelings, reclaiming them for herself. And that is why they remained among her belongings when she died. She wanted us to know that she had rewritten that history.
This is a case of crossed narratives, differences between signifier and signified, between words and papers, missing letters indeed.
Nora Annesley Taylor grew up in Geneva, Switzerland and is an art historian and professor at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago. She specializes in Modern and Contemporary Vietnamese Art. She has lately been researching artists and archives.