The Lures of a Devouring Culture and a Question of Identity
It isn’t such a rare experience to find a story that actively dissects the self with surgeon-like precision. But when it happens, one can’t help but take a moment to reflect. Especially one that has crossed the borders of being just personal, rather, a story that interrogates so many conflicting feelings on identity and belonging. And even more so, a story that takes you almost physically to a place where you can confront those feelings again and again.
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine is a book that asks the question: what if you love that which exists to harm you? What if you’re yearning for acceptance where you’re seen as an Other? Indeed, the book opens with a dedication to “anyone who has ever fallen in love with a culture that was devouring their own.” For someone whose history mostly involved hundreds of years of colonisation and assimilation, the effects of which are still very evident today, I am familiar with how both gratifying and nauseating that is.
In the book, we follow Mahit Dzmare from Lsel Station, an ambassador hurriedly chosen to report to the imperial City of the Teixcalaanli Empire, the Jewel of the World. Before she left, Mahit was given two primary directives: to find out what happened to the previous ambassador, Yskandr Aghavn — from whom she inherited an imago machine where his memory-self has been integrated into her neurology, but is very outdated — and to ensure Lsel Station independence from the ever extending rays of a bright and vast empire.
As soon as she arrives, we’re immediately thrust in the middle of a complex game which involves navigating Teixclaanli court, dealing with a malfunctioning imago machine, and figuring out which of the players are friend or foe. It’s easy to forget that the whole book more or less happens within a week with how relentless the pacing is. However, much like your classic spies who have to adapt fast and think on their feet, take every piece of information close to heart and try your best not to be mesmerised by imperial intrigue.
Worldbuilding that seduces through poetry.
Everything about how the world-city functions seep with poetry. It is central to Teixcalaanli expression and a marker of skill in their civilised society.
A Teixcalaanlitzlim may make references to various epic poems and novels on historical heroes in something as simple as a jibe or a friendly conversation (the more obscure, the better). Infofiche sticks that house personal messages may only be decrypted through a cipher based on what the City has deemed the best encomiastic poem. Even Teixcalaanli names follow structure, being made up of numbers combined with any flora, inanimate object, or function — names like Three Seagrass, Twelve Azalea, Nineteen Adze, Six Direction, and One Lightning.
There is also poetry in how the imperial City is built. An ecumenopolis, a planet-size city with architecture that glows with all its glass and metal, and yet has integrated its natural surroundings with its urban design.
Rich and intricate details like these unfurl like a flower with each chapter. Teixcalaan, through its poetry, has created an image of grandeur and has cemented itself as a model of what civilisation should be, that it became instantly clear why Mahit wanted so much to be a part of its beauty.
However, it isn’t without its complications. For instance, the City is run by an artificial intelligence that helps monitor the movement of its citizens through a device called a cloudhook, as well as an algorithm that predicts what the City’s needs are going to be. But like any data-mining program and device made by people, it is a biased system, one that also polices the people it serves and which singles out non-citizens.
Additionally, poetry that is used time and again to transmit messages and for public announcements can also be used to incite riots, even as the same poem is used to calm them.
In this way, Martine is reminding us of what poetry is capable of in the world we live in, what visuals and feelings it can evoke when it’s reshaped to fit a different context. How we can use poetry to ameliorate, inspire, or threaten. Yes, it’s easy to get lost in the spectacle. And it’s also not difficult to see how frightening it can be.
The indubitable power of memory and narrative.
If poetry is central to the plot, memory and narrative are its driver.
Teixcalaanli literature is obsessed with narrative that has its roots through their practice of recording memory through poetry. Citizens would model themselves on heroes that have been made immortal through verse. Departed friends are remembered through epitaphs so personal and definitive of the person it’s about or the situations that have led to their death. Tours of the City are even conducted through the recitation of a poem titled Buildings in which improvisation is key to include even the renovations that have been made.
But this is precisely where the shape of the narrative is shown to be powerful. In more than one instance, Mahit, Three Seagrass, and Twelve Azalea were confronted by Teixcalaanli narrative enforcing ideas on how the world was and why the Empire is at its centre. They’ve discussed how propaganda is spun in addictive romance narratives, or to incite specific emotions in the use of a traditional arrangement of a song from glory days when speaking to the public. In fact, even Teixcalaanli court intrigue and drama follows a narrative, with its tenuous alliances and spycraft activity. Effectively, by reshaping the narrative, any Teixcalaanlitzlim can weaponise their poetry and use the memories therein to serve their benefit.
On the other hand, Lsel Station has what could be one of the most advanced technologies in the whole of the Empire. The imago-machine is a small device that records memories and is passed from generation to generation. It’s the Stationers’ way of preserving their heritage and key knowledge pivotal to survival in the vast black. The memory-self recorded in it has its own personality and so it will seem like the imago-inheritor is speaking to the person itself, but the goal is to integrate so that years of skill and experience become automatic behavioural responses.
However, if you’re a person who has brought harm to Lsel Station, then your imago is destroyed, no matter how wasteful Stationers think it is. Indeed, when Councilor of Heritage Amnardbat judged Yskandr to be a tool of the Empire that will harm Stationer culture, she scuffed up the out-of-date imago that was installed in Mahit’s brain stem, sabotaging the ambassador’s work. Here, memory that was meant to be preserved, honoured, and inherited was destroyed and made useless.
To be enamoured by a culture that threatens your own.
The book also illustrates the internal struggle of honouring your heritage while yearning to belong to another.
Mahit Dzmare has studied Teixcalaanli culture all her life in the hopes of becoming a citizen. Being an ambassador may have robbed her of that opportunity, but she couldn’t deny the satisfaction whenever anyone comments that her sensibilities and aptitude can match that of any Teixcalaanlitzlim.
And yet, she is still a barbarian, one who is not of Teixcalaan. So for every gratifying compliment, she also feels much disdain. Through Mahit, we see the painful realities of one who wants to belong in a place that keeps pushing her away. An empire that demands so much from others but gives so little of itself to them. Perhaps a story familiar to every immigrant who has had to deal with people who question their identity, to people who feel like they would never belong, even if they themselves grew up in the same environment and do the same things as them. And they would never stop knowing it.
Despite that, Mahit is proud of her Stationer roots, of their heritage and the unique instincts that you can only get living within deep space. Through the aid of Three Seagrass and Twelve Azalea, they risked everything to ensure Lsel Station would be protected from the threat of imperial annexation.
A Memory Called Empire is a story that interrogates issues on culture, imperialism, identity, and society with careful attention. It doesn’t hold back in presenting the internal, emotional struggles of people trapped within it compared to those who benefit from this reality. In the end, the book demands deep introspection and asks us to challenge our ideas of what is deemed acceptable in society, what influences it, and how we can overcome those that are actively harming people.