About Nostalgia and the burden of memories: In conversation with author MG Vassanji
Dan Brown in his latest book, Origin, talked about a future where artificial intelligence (AI) merges with the human race and that is the next generation, the place 'evolution' will take us. The merging of AI and the human race is to make life easier. We are all glued to out phone screens already.
Author MG Vassanji's latest novel – Nostalgia – can be considered to be the perfect precursor in this scenario. Nostalgia is introduced as –
“In an indeterminate future in Toronto, people can now live lives of two or three ‘generations’; when the time feels right, a person can transition into the next generation. Current personal history becomes irretrievable, replaced by an ideal life story of choice: a neatly concocted fiction which aids in constant rejuvenation.”
The core concept is about replacing traumatic or bad memories of the past with better ones, custom-made to suit you. The aim is to heal and move ahead. But of course, this replacement cannot be without repercussions and is not fail-proof. Leaked Memory Syndrome or Nostalgia makes memories from the past worm through the replaced memories in flashes. And that is what kicks Vassanji's new story off.
Pretty obsessed with the concepts of AI merging with real-life in infinite capacities and the incredible, but scary, possibilities – thank you Black Mirror – we had a lot of questions for Vassanji. And this is what he had to say –
Jhinuk Sen (JS): When and how did you start writing? If you weren't an author, what would you have been?
MG Vassanji (MGV): Like most people, I started writing in school; except that I enjoyed it. At some point, when I was in Toronto I decided to write with purpose – to finish, publish, and write something else. I felt I had stories to tell, and if I didn't write them, they would be gone for good.
Writing – any art – is not a career choice. It's a calling or an obsession. You can produce art if you sweep the streets or if you operate on brains, anything.
JS: How did the idea of Nostalgia come to you?
MGV: When you go away to another country – I went to Boston for my university and Toronto for a job – sometimes you feel, at least I felt, burdened by the past. You wish, sometimes, you could erase it and start afresh. It was just a whimsy; normally I believe memory is important for us to know what we are and grow from it.
In any case, if you erase your memory, what could happen? You need a continuity, so you could replace it with a superficial, new one. A custom-made one for the new you. This makes some sense when past memories are extremely traumatic, or as people live longer and longer – say 150 years. What to do with all that baggage from the past? Or, cosmetically, you are bored or fed up with your life. You could invent a new you.
JS: Do you think memory, and nostalgia, is a problem for the human race?
MGV: Memory is what we have, makes us what we are. How can it be a problem?
JS: Black Mirror has an episode (The Entire History of Me) based on a time in the future where humans come equipped with a little device that allows them to look back at their memories. And the consequences are not pleasant. What would you think of a device like that? Should it be invented?
MGV: I don't know. All I know is that if something can be invented, it will be invented.
JS: Then there is also Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. Do you think human beings should be allowed to remove/alter memories?
MGV: It's already happening with traumatic memories. But so far there is no replacement, I think. You could have the feeling of trauma replaced by a pleasant sensation, I suppose, in some cases.
JS: The fact that memories are the only link to the past and explains why we are who we are – what is your opinion with respect to Nostalgia?
MGV: I think nostalgia as remembering pleasant aspects of the past is fun. It happens when friends get together, it enhances the bond. But obsession with the past should not impede your growth or learning. In my book, nostalgia is a syndrome, a medical condition.
In a world where many people have erased or clinically suppressed their past histories and replaced them with new identities, sometimes a bit of the suppressed past wiggles out like a worm into the consciousness, and like all such memories it begins to grow. That is the nostalgia of the book, and it threatens to wreck your consciousness. You need a memory doctor.
JS: Did you draw inspiration from any other works for Nostalgia?
MGV: No. This was an idea I had and I explored it. I thought, knowing the world we live in, that I could not be repeating what's already been done, because my world – in the book, as well as the actual one – is very much concerned with the politics or rich and poor.
In the book, only the rich parts of the world can afford the new technology or memory replacement and living longer. What happens to the poor parts of our globe, the “other”? We have refugees, terrorists, etc. And we build a wall to keep them out. That's also part of my novel.
JS: Who are your favourite authors?
MGV: I think you have favourite authors when you are a kid.
JS: What's next for MG Vassanji?
That's still a secret. But I am in Delhi finishing a novel.