Reading Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s novel Blu’s Hanging during lockdown, Julia Brown considers the significance of silence during a pandemic.
I remember walking through my Queens, NY neighborhood during the early summer months of the COVID-19 shut down, and marveling at the relative silence. The Clearview Expressway had quieted to a whisper from its typical cacophony of engines and horns; the flights in and out of La Guardia less frequently interrupted the birdsong with their deafening roars; even the rumble of the Long Island Railroad trains along the track that had so long blended into the background of my daily routines were noticeably scarcer. Just a few miles away, Times Square had been all but emptied of its humming throng of tourists and New Yorkers alike. A few months later, as the voice of the city had begun to return, I read Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Blu’s Hanging for the first time and encountered another powerful silence.
Yamanaka’s controversial novel, first published in 1997, tells the story of Ivah, Maisie, and Blu as they navigate mourning and living after the loss of their mother. Narrated by Ivah, Blu’s Hanging begins audibly with “Poppy play[ing] ‘Moon River’ over and over on the piano” but is punctuated as much by silence as it is by song (3). Silence finds its most visible form in Maisie, Ivah’s younger sister who barely speaks after the death of their mother, but its presence is felt throughout Ivah’s narrative. As Ivah bears witness to the reader, we are to “listen to and hear the silence, speaking mutely both in silence and in speech, both from behind and from within the speech” (Laub 58). By listening to the silences in Blu’s Hanging, perhaps we can become more attuned to hear and understand our own.
Silence, mourning, and trauma are often inextricably linked. Walter Benjamin writes “In all mourning there is the deepest inclination to speechlessness, which is infinitely more than inability or disinclination to communicate. That which mourns feels itself thoroughly known by the unknowable” (347). It is not that the mourner does not want to speak, but rather that silence has a stronger pull. Dori Laub’s trauma patient feels silence similarly, “on some level prefer[ing] silence so as to protect themselves from the fear of being listened to—and of listening to themselves. That while silence is defeat, it serves them both as a sanctuary and as a place of bondage. Silence is for them a fated exile, yet also a home, a destination, and a binding oath. To not return from this silence is a rule rather than exception” (Laub 58). Silence is defined through duality, always dialectically opposed to sound, simultaneously safe and dangerous, familiar and strange.
Maisie’s silence is that of the mourner known by the unknowable loss of her mother, of the trauma survivor; “Since Mama died, Maisie said about five things: I scared. / Sleep with me. / More. / There she is. / Mama.” (14). We learn that Maisie “only started talking at four and a half years of age. Then a few months later, Mama died, which is when Maisie stopped saying anything” (47). Silence for Maisie is simultaneously exile and home. She takes refuge from her grief in her silence, afraid of what she might say if she were to speak, as if the words might make their mother’s death more real, or more permanent.
Maisie’s silence transforms from a place of refuge to the cause of her trauma during her first year in school. “She cannot talk, so she cannot ask like this haole wants the kindergartners to ask, ‘Teacher, may I please use the lavatory’” (48). Instead, Maisie wets herself in class daily, and because of the frequency, runs out of spare panties and the boys in the school yard try to look up her skirt. When prompted to speak of her violation, Maisie is pained and frightened; she is traumatized because of her silence but cannot break out of it for fear of hearing her trauma spoken.
It is not until Maisie is transferred to Miss Ito’s special ed class, that her silence begins to break. On Maisie’s birthday, the siblings spend the night at Miss Ito’s cottage and Maisie is prompted to read aloud the directions for making her birthday cake. At first, Blu and Ivah are afraid for Maisie, thinking speech will cause her pain, but Maisie breaks her silence and speaks the first step. After hearing her speak, Blu begs Maisie to say his name, but she won’t say it. Ivah notes, “For the girl without words, there is laughter for what is light, gesture for want, and tears for all that is dark. There is not much more. Names are nothing but extravagance” (131). Here, it becomes clear that Ivah has been listening to Maisie’s silence all along and has become attuned to what the silence means. Some things don’t need to be spoken to be understood.
Ivah’s father mourns as much in silence as in song. While his voice drifts through the novel, solemnly singing “Moon River,” old dreammaker, you heartbreaker, wherever you’re going, I’m going your way, there is a silence behind the song—a silent past, a silent mourning, and a silent blame. One night, however, Poppy breaks his silence telling his daughter, “I neva going say this again, Ivah. I going draw back the veil one time and one time only for you—and maybe later on, you be big enough to tell Blu and then Maisie” (140). We learn that Poppy and Mama both contracted leprosy as children, and were sent away to live in leper colonies, never spoken of by their families because of the shame and stigma surrounding the disease. Poppy’s family wrote him, while Mama’s family pretended that she did not exist; her existence as a child was defined by the silence of her family. After moving away from the colony with Poppy and having children, Mama didn’t want her life defined by the stigma of leprosy and so to silence her illness she took large, continual doses of the drug that eventually caused her death. After Ivah listens to his story, Poppy silently, without shedding a tear, finishes his dinner and returns to bed, not to speak more than a sentence at a time throughout the rest of the novel, only to go on singing. In silence, Poppy mourns both loss of his wife, and the silencing that caused her death.
Ivah is often pained by the silence of her sister and her father but holds a different relationship with silence, though one that is no less complex in its duality. Ivah recognizes both the pain and the power of silence. As the narrator of the novel, it is Ivah’s voice through which we are able to interpret pain in the silences of Poppy and Maisie. When Blu tells Ivah that he “crave[s] for friends,” Ivah silently urges, “Don’t tell anybody, Blu. Nobody” (12). She knows that if Blu breaks his silence and tells someone what he craves, it will give them power over him. In Ivah’s eyes, it is only in silence that Blu can maintain control over himself. By the end of the novel, Ivah begins to recognize that there can also be power in speaking traumas. After Blu is raped, Ivah states “We gotta tell Big Sis. She going know what for do” (253). In breaking the bondage of silence by telling their trusted older cousin, Blu won’t lose power, but instead will gain it over his assaulter who “act all hot shit when he see [Blu, Ivah, and Maisie] in town” (253). Ivah sees that only once the silence is broken will Blu be able to take his power back and begin to heal from his trauma. Ivah writes her own story and that of her family in the novel. It is an act of silent speech, recognizing the power in and maintaining the safety of the opposing poles by falling somewhere in between.
While Dori Laub discusses silence as a coping mechanism of the trauma survivor, during the time of COVID-19, silence has a different relationship to survival. As we enter what is possibly a second wave of the pandemic, an article in The Atlantic titled “Mask Up or Shut Up” draws attention to the power of speech, or rather lack thereof, stating, “silence is golden as an antiviral strategy because of how this disease spreads” (Thompson). The aerosol-borne coronavirus spreads on the tiny droplets that escape our bodies when we speak, and more escape when we speak loudly. The less we speak to others, the less likely it is that the virus will spread. The individual is encouraged to “spare [their] voice; save a life” (Thompson); officials, on the other hand, are being criticized for being too silent regarding the pandemic, and for silencing health officials. Silence means survival, but so does breaking it.
“The listener can no longer ignore the question of facing death; of facing time and its passage; of the meaning and purpose of living; of the limits of one’s omnipotence; of losing the ones that are close to us; the great question of our ultimate aloneness; our otherness from any other; our responsibility to and for our destiny; the question of loving and its limits.” (Laub 72)
More than 216,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus. In COVID-19, we are simultaneously Laub’s listener and witness bearer. When faced with so much loss, quarantine distance, and limitations, how do we mourn? How do we hear the mourning of others? We are encouraging individuals not to speak, recognizing a safety in silence; simultaneously recognizing, in officials, the power breaking silence can hold. We must learn to listen to the silence and understand what it means in ourselves and in those around us. We must learn to navigate the power of silence and of its breaking. We are all Ivah, and perhaps like Ivah, writing our stories will afford us the sanctuaries of both speech and silence. Perhaps it is only then that we will begin to heal.
Julia Brown is pursuing her PhD in English literature at Stony Brook University with a research focus on the intersection of literature and medicine/health. Julia is an editor of Survive and Thrive: A Journal for Medical Humanities and Narrative as Medicine and has served as the Assistant Director of the Teaching and Learning Center and an Open Educational Resource Fellow at City College of New York.
Benjamin, Walter. “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man.” Reflections. Translated by Edmond Jephcott, edited by Peter Demetz, Mariner Books, 2019, pp. 331-349.
Laub, Dori. “Bearing Witness, or the Vicissitudes of Listening.” Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Routledge, 1992, pp. 57-74.
Thompson, Derek. “Mask Up and Shut Up.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 31 Aug. 2020, www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/08/wear-your-mask-and-stop-talking/615796/.
Yamanaka, Lois-Ann. Blu’s Hanging. Perrenial, 2002.