Cultural Memory and/as Collaboration: Saskia McCracken

A Review of Second Memory by Pratyusha and Alycia Pirmohamed

Saskia McCracken is a writer and editorial advisor at Osmosis Press. She is completing her doctoral research, on Virginia Woolf’s Darwinian animal tropes, at the University of Glasgow. She is interested in environmental and generically unstable writing. Saskia’s debut pamphlet, Imperative Utopia, is published by -algia press and she is currently working on a poetry collection about botanist and photography innovator Anna Atkins. Her work has appeared in Amberflora, Datableed, Zarf, Spam, and others, and she is a member of 12 collective.

Pratyusha and Alycia Pirmohamed, Second Memory (Cornwall: Guillemot Press, 2021)

In Second Memory, their stunning collaborative prose poetry pamphlet, Pratyusha and Alycia Pirmohamed write of trauma and memory as a collective ‘mind-body’ experience:

[…] Not that there 
is no capacity for unfurling: we are memory 
under memory, frozen in some sedimentary
layer, overflowing the rest. But that unfurling 
requires a care, a corridor entered with slow 

This care is required because their memory is haunted by ghosts of ancestors, lost language, the trauma of British colonialism and Partition, their ‘Western bod[ies]’ as women descended from migrants. They are ‘asked for an outpouring of trauma’ – by whom? The reader? Our reading and asking requires care – and refuse. Instead they treat their ‘other bodies with kindness,’ ‘love with clarity,’ and (I adore this image) summon their ‘ancestors washed in dark green, [their] ancestors as elephants, emerging from forests.’ 

Collaboration is crucial to their kind and loving unfurling of cultural memory. The poets are friends and began, following Pratyusha’s invitation to collaborate, by sharing thoughts and excerpts from their current projects. At this point, before they even started writing together, there were already intersecting themes and ‘similar tones.’ Then they began writing and responding to each other’s work, not in a chronological correspondence, but looping back to earlier iterations of prose poems, clearing pathways, retracing their steps, building outwards in ripples so that some lines in the published text refer to and respond to lines that appear later in the pamphlet. 

This process shaped the fluid architecture of the book. For example, when they read their work aloud at the publication launch, they don’t follow the sequence of the printed text – the order of the prose poems changes. This is a work structured like memory, not as a linear series of impressions, but as overlapping sensations, thoughts, skin memory (to borrow Sara Ahmed’s term). Bodies, particularly, are sites of memory, of lineage, ‘lime green ghosts,’ ‘the mouths of other women who once looked like me.’

The collaborative process, they explain, ‘makes you feel like you’re writing in a community’ and ‘brings about a different kind of writing.’ This writing is highly intertextual, building that community in conversation not only with ancestral ghosts but with thinkers past and present. The pamphlet has rich layers of quotations from theorists ranging from Roland Barthes to Donna Haraway and poets including Sandra Cisneros, Marina Tsetaeva and Diana Koi Nguyen. As Barthes put it in ‘The Death of the Author,’ ‘the text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.’ In one piece, for example, they invoke the Hindu goddess Mātaṅgī, contemporary poet and critical theorist Nisha Ramayya, and Spanish modernist poet Federico García Lorca. The result is a delicious palimpsest with strata that are geographically, temporally, and intertextually diverse:

[…] She moves with 
unrestrained joy; as Ramayya writes, she 
‘reels through the jungle, singing loudly, 
doing as she pleases’…Her skin of jungle casts
green shadows on the ceiling, drives Lorca 
mad to sing about green moons.

But perhaps the text that Second Memory speaks to most closely is Threads by Bhanu Kapil, Sandeep Parmar, and Nisha Ramayya. In Threads, which Pratyusha and Pirmohamed call a ‘diasporic epistle,’ the collaborators discuss a shared ‘cultural memory, the wandering and painted memory that is nevertheless washed off.’ This cultural memory can be accessed through what Parmar calls a ‘fourth space,’ which, Ramayya adds, ‘enables [the co-authors’] relationship apart from the places they share; in the fourth space they bring together voices, memories, questions, and styles – a collaboration that enables them to move away from each other and return to themselves.’ Pratyusha and Pirmohamed’s collaborative practice operates in this fourth space, which is key to unfurling cultural memory with care and slow luminosity.

This idea of these women returning to themselves leads me to one last observation. The pamphlet, unusually (perhaps uniquely), is a hardback and features gorgeous endpapers by Anupa Gardner. These depict a naked woman (or women, as the image recurs) vanishing into thick foliage in deep blues and greens. I can’t help but think that she, they, will emerge from forests as elephants. 

You can find out more about Pratyusha’s work here – I recommend the stunning (and beautifully illustrated) bulbul calling (Bitter Melon 苦瓜 Press 2020) – and Alycia Pirmohamed’s work here, including the excellent Hinge (ignition press 2020). You can buy Second Memory from Guillemot Press here.

The phrase ‘clearing pathways, retracing their steps’ refers to Parmar’s  line: ‘I clear a path to retrace my steps.’ (Threads clinic press 2018).

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