A Debt Remembered

“Without memory, there is no debt.  Put another way: without story, there is no debt.”[1]Margaret Atwood, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press, 2008) p. 2.
That’s how Margaret Atwood put it in her book, Payback (2008), in which she foregos the structures of finance in order to explore the more hidden narratives of debt as cultural construct.  According to Atwood, many of our moralizing concepts around debt have been imagined through various religious and literary narratives about its sins and redemptions. Debt is understood as a human construct, dramatized through story, and for Atwood, it “mirrors and magnifies both voracious human desire and ferocious human fear.[2]Ibid., p. 81.
Atwood’s approach to debt, as human construct and experience, offers a meaningful way into thinking about the complicated crossings of desire and fear in our everyday encounters with debt.  For Atwood, to approach an historical understanding of debt means that we need to engage with the evolving story of debt.  For me, this means that we should also begin to consider the ways in which people negotiate and tell this story in the continuum of their daily lives.
In light of Atwood’s reading of debt as story, I would like to share one of my own.  Only, unlike the canonical narratives that Atwood takes up, this is a story that must be told in fragments as it is built out of traumatized and incomplete memories, which were never my own to begin with. As such, my story might be read as the story of a story, making it all the more relevant, in the end, to my larger questions about debt, memory, and their compounded impacts on how social connections are constructed, across time and space. For, at the heart of my story are questions about how people live with debt in different ways and how attending to debt, as story and as memory, might help us understand particular conditions of global culture and finance in our ordinary, everyday lives.
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I turn now to my story about my father and about a particular debt he has been unable to forget. For most of my life, he’s been obsessed with the memory of a debt to a man — a memory made more unreliable with the passing of time, and made even more uncertain through the decades-long blockade in the U.S. against an embargoed Vietnam. This man, I have been told in various snippets throughout the years, was a major reason we made it out — even if ‘making it out’ meant reluctantly leaving against all hope, through desperately dangerous measures, during the darkest hours of a September night in 1979. Through the years, I have never gotten many details with which I might flesh this man out — no formal name, no physical features, no personal histories, other than the fact that he was an influential man in the South Vietnamese military. With time, the enforced distance and systemic silence gradually worked to turn this man into deity, and my father’s debt to him into religion, especially after learning that, unbeknownst to my father, this man had died during the embargo years.
This is the part of the story that has stayed with me–the part where my father loses momentum and lets the story trail off into a vague ending where we leave in the middle of the night and lose touch with the man forever.  It is the part of the story that has given me the vague contours of my present inquiry into the meanings of debt in everyday life, because this is where the tension between memory and debt emerges and asks us to think about what it means to feel that you owe someone something you could never really repay.  Here, it is not a matter of financial accounting.  Rather, it is a matter of human accounts of the conditions and disjunctures that animate our everyday experiences of debt, and that demand different languages and approaches for unpacking some of the more hidden but perhaps some of the most essential meanings of debt, if we are to attend to the complex ways of living with debt.
If Atwood’s way into debt was through story, then I want to consider how stories like my father’s actually help us construct a different sense of debt–one that is less about finance and more about feeling.   Atwood’s way into thinking about debt helps us attend to the human desires and fears that are always intrinsically tangled up with global movements of people, culture, and capital and might ultimately help us grapple with a different side of what has been called “affective economics.”  Rather than focusing on the emotional implications of individual consumer decisions, a critical approach to affective economics might also make room for meaningful engagement with the social connections and tensions that form within global structures of culture and finance, and that help us consider the material and cultural debts upon which these structures are built.
If we follow Atwood’s logic that “without memory, there is no debt,” if we can recognize the constitutive relationship between memory and debt, then what might this relationship mean for people like my father — people who must grapple with the slipping away of endangered memory fraught with the politics and traumas of diaspora?  Debt, in this case, is not only constructed through memory, but memory is most definitively contingent upon notions of debt. In other words, debt might be understood as a narrative means through which forcibly displaced people might imagine notions of connection with lost places and people. For some, Atwood’s theory might be inverted — “Without debt, there is no memory.” The perpetually irreconcilable debt becomes a space of migrant longing — an enduring, though fraught, emotional linkage to what has been lost. These emotional linkages are then repeatedly reconstructed and fortified through the re-membering and re-telling of such narratives of debt.
Debt, in my father’s story, began as gold bullion exchanged secretly between hands, but the emotional weight of this debt grew in immeasurable ways over the imposed time and distance that indelibly separated him from his country and him from his friend.  The debt was real; the borrowed gold — a weighted measure of the material costs of unauthorized migration.  But the extended memory of the debt, rendered perpetually unpayable with his friend’s death, would extend the meanings of debt into the emotional registers of traumatic displacement, for my father.   Material debt became the memory of debt, which worked to reify the difficult conditions of the debt’s very beginnings.  The conditions of a displaced life shifted the conditions of social connection, and the particular language of debt became something of a narrative connection to part of what had been lost.
My story of my father’s story complicates our questions around debt, but also the relationship between memory and debt.  It asks how we might attend to the emotional experiences of debt, and how these complex approaches to debt might help us think about the felt experiences of a displaced life.  I have been preoccupied with notions of debt and indebtedness in contemporary migrant life, but I also begin to ask, how such emotional registers of debt also weave their way through other human experiences of the structures and technologies of a globalized world.
In the end, material debt could never be reduced to the story of a story.  But the story gives us a way into the emotional life of debt and helps us think about the social meanings of the everyday, lived dimensions of debt.


1 Margaret Atwood, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press, 2008) p. 2.
2 Ibid., p. 81.

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