Mimi Kawahara



I remember that "the initial shiver of inspiration" for Lolita came to Nabokov from a newspaper article announcing that scientists had coaxed an ape into drawing a picture. The animal drew the bars of its cage.

I remember my mother remarking that I had arrived "damaged," my head flattened from too many hours in a crib at the orphanage.

I remember the Gnostic belief that the ideal state precedes existence—that to be born is to enter time and commence the process of decay, aging, and death.

I remember my mother beating my brother with a brown leather belt in the basement. Though I never witnessed the event, I heard it, and saw the belt, lying coiled and still like a slumbering snake, in the back of the closet that also housed my toys.

I remember the floppy heft of the Yellow Pages and the feathery lightness of each page, as I looked up the Pearl Buck Foundation, in hopes of finding my biological mother.

I remember that dandelion comes from the French "dent de lion," the coarsely toothed leaves said to resemble lion's teeth, bringing to mind nightmares of my mother biting my arm, my blood splattering her face, her teeth clenching in retaliation.

I remember standing at a panoramic cliff edge on a family holiday in Chamonix, seized by the urge to push my mother into the abyss.

I remember my high school boyfriend's indignation that Teddy Kennedy asked a staffer to get my phone number.

I remember my college roommate criticizing her mother for cackling like a fool at her father's puns. I couldn't recall my mother laughing at or with anyone. Like Nabokov's governess, misery was her native element.

I remember saving up jokes to tell my father, his laughter easy to hear even now, many years after his death.

I remember sex with powerful older men that felt consensual at the time.

I remember my mother incensed by the affair she alleged I was having with my father, demanding to know every detail, dismissing my denials as lies.

I remember waiting for The Village Voice to appear on Wednesdays in those red plastic street-corner boxes. 
I remember when tweets emanated from treetops, and trolls minded their business under bridges.

I remember reading that Norris Church Mailer believed Norman had been faithful to her in their early years, wondering how many other women knew different, glad my nineteen-year-old self had had the sense to resist his advances, if not before he got close enough to declare that my breath smelled like orange juice.

I remember relishing male attention, failing to appreciate the difference between being noticed and being seen.



I remember that during his trial Eichmann was enclosed in a glass cage.

I remember that the word "swastika" derives from the Sanskrit word "svastika," which means "to be good." The symbol appeared on Asian shrines and temples long before Alois Schickelgruber changed his name to Hitler. The Buddhist swastika has a plus sign in the middle, while the Nazi perversion has an X.

I remember developing sympathy for my mother after becoming a mother myself.

I remember glimpsing ground zero of my mother's grief in the coldness of my grandmother's gray-blue eyes.

I remember Lola dozing off at my breast in bed, never left in a crib.

I remember thousands of children in "tender-age shelters" and "migrant camps."

I remember introducing Lola to solid food the same week I began spoon-feeding my mother, undone by Parkinson's.

I remember that there are two kinds of people: those who know they're dying, and those who don't.

I remember reading to my mother when she could no longer hold a book steady. From Lydia's library, she chose Kundera's Immortality. She tired quickly, so our progress was slow; one day she asked when we should return the book. I told her Lydia had said we should keep it until we had finished. She replied, "You mean until I'm finished," her first and final approximation of a joke.

I remember pushing Lola to sleep in her stroller before pushing my mother's wheelchair to the garden for some afternoon sun, the last time she went outside.

I remember hearing my mother's harshness in my reproaches of Lola.

I remember my mother's tenderness at the end, telling a nurse that I was her "daughter of the heart." 

I remember my father, unable to get out of bed after his 93rd birthday, saying he had had a good life, and the end had to come sometime.

I remember feeling glad his end came before November 9, 2016. 

I remember Alexander Fleming's discovery that human tears have an antibacterial effect. The New York Times reported, "Tennyson, it appears, made a mistake in calling tears 'idle.'"



I remember mass incarceration and the new Jim Crow, children drawing their mothers behind bars and mothers mourning children, their silhouettes outlined in chalk on asphalt.

I remember my last conversation with both my parents, my father talking about the milkman of his childhood in Brooklyn, and my asking mother if she'd had a milkman in Mobile. My father answered, "She had Betsy the cow." He and I laughed. She nodded, her gnarled fingers trembling in her lap, her frown frozen in place. Humor was lost on her; like someone perceiving a succession of musical notes without hearing the melody, she understood the words but couldn't discern the comedy. Then again, maybe milking Betsy before dawn wasn't funny.

I remember that a young Christian Wiman snuck into his parents' room in the middle of the night and peeled open their eyelids to see what they were dreaming.

I remember, upon meeting my birth mother, being taken aback by our resemblance—and my instant understanding that my mother "of the heart" was fertilizing Mount Tamalpais. This woman to whom I owed my life was charismatic, countercultural, quick-witted—and a stranger.

I remember Lola latching eagerly onto my nipple, her first pull hurting a little. While her mouth suckled, her arms stuck up like goalposts, aloft with the ardor of her appetite. As she drank, they drooped gradually, until they were at rest, my breast drained, and my baby asleep.

I remember that Tsutomu Yamaguchi, one of 165 survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had a plan to end nuclear war: the only people allowed to govern countries with nuclear weapons should be mothers of breastfeeding babies. 

I remember Lola's metamorphosis: breasts of her own, boys galore, legs so long that the eyes that had gazed up at me with devotion now glanced down in defiance. Repudiating me with maximal flamboyance, she modeled herself on Kylie Kardashian.

I remember that wisdom is a defense against grief, poetry a seasoned refinement of sobbing.

I remember Eric Garner unable to breathe and Erica Garner dead of a heart attack at 27.

I remember when flowers began to lose their scent.

I remember bottles of Canadian air, labeled "Rocky Mountain Breeze," for sale in Beijing for 150 yuan (approximately $23), promising 150 breaths (about seven minutes).

I remember the thing with feathers on life support. I nursed her in my scallop-shell of quiet, until she rose and sang of freedom.







This work was made possible by Joe Brainard, who inspired Georges Perec, longtime member of Oulipo ( [Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle or Potential Literature Workshop]), whose "Je me souviens" inspired me. For more about Oulipo, see Daniel Levin Baker's Many Subtle Channels. I've long been enchanted by language games, their limitless potential and their limits, which is only an apparent paradox, as the combinatorial lexical possibilities are for all practical purposes infinite, but the most intimate aspects of our experience remain ineffable, that is, beyond words. Yet we capture what we can.