How to live with the dead? A PhD student in literature shares her reflections on death, identity, geography and culture.
"In the current era of easier mobility and widespread migration, how do we stay connected to those who have died before us? Is it enough to carry them in our memory? Should we make room for them in our physical space or just in our imagined world?"
These are the questions that haunt Martyna Kander, a PhD student in research and creation in Université de Montréal's Department of French Literature.
Working under the supervision of professors Catherine Mavrikakis and Olga Nedvyga, Kander is focusing her research on the confluences of identity, belonging, diversity, memory and enracinerrance — a French portemanteau coined by Haitian writer Jean-Claude Charles that combines enracinement and errance (roots and errantry). This concept resonates with Kander, who was born in Poland, has Ukrainian and Lithuanian grandmothers, grew up in Italy, speaks French and now lives in Montreal.
Drawing on the cultural syncretism in her own life story, she is currently working on a novel that examines the geographical aspect of death.
"Burying the dead is a ritual as old as humanity itself, perhaps because we tend to assign the deceased to a fixed geographic location,” said the writer. "But what happens when we have connections to several countries and cultures? How can we keep those who have passed close to us?"
In her novel, Kander's protagonist—an Italian orphan who moves to Montreal—reflects on her past, the loved ones she's lost and the women from centuries past who helped shape her identity.
Hearing the undead
To find additional inspiration for her novel, Kander is also studying how death is represented by authors from Mexico, Haiti and other Caribbean countries.
"In Caribbean literature, it's common for deceased characters to participate in the story in a number of different ways. In fact, they're what you call the undead because they have a voice and behave just like the living."
For most authors, she explained, the undead remain "alive" for as long as their family members remember them. But for others, their undead characters will interact with the living even if they don't have a family connection or prior relationship with them, demonstrating that the deceased are able to exercise their will and act autonomously within the world of the dead.
Meeting female ancestors
In conducting research for her thesis, Kander has found that it's not uncommon for the protagonists in Caribbean literature to meet female ancestors who carry a comprehensive memory of slavery within them. "This foundational violence is still present today, though more covertly, in neocolonial mechanisms," she said.
The region's literature also makes frequent allusions to violence against women, which is embodied in the memory of the victims' female ancestors. "Femicide is a reminder that death can be an instrument of power and injustice – and in response, the dead women incite the living to take action and fight for change," said Kander who is keenly interested in the themes of death and feminism as a way to enrich her own novel.
"Death is a mystery that's impossible to unravel," she said. Conceiving of the dead as living beings is a creative response—and a necessary one—to prevent the deceased from fading away forever. According to science, nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed. But human intuition tells us that there's more to reality than what we can see or touch—and literature responds to this sentiment."