Five Literary Quotes Connecting Memory & Sense

When we stumble upon something that triggers a memory, neuronal circuits fire away to decipher what exactly the association is and to pull up the stored recollection. Smell, taste, touch, hearing, and sight all serve as sensory connections to the world around us so that we can form and recall memories. What better way to luxuriate and ponder this phenomenon than the written word? Below is a list of literary quotes that either directly discuss memory or portray a character trying to recall a memory. Either way, they encourage the reader to recall something themselves due to the provocative nature of the sense evoked. Dive in to exercise your neural pathways! 

1. Smell as recollection: 

“The house smelled like fireplace kindling and hot water in old brass pipes—like metal melting into wood and becoming something all its own. It smelled like his childhood. Like chaos and terror and oatmeal cookies and lamb stew and nighttime in front of that drafty front window.”  

Melodie Ramone, Lights of Polaris

This quote by Ramone evokes how strongly a smell can transport us years in the past, to memories long buried and forgotten. While everyone’s childhood has its own unique set of smells, the experience captured here reminds the reader of the powerful impact senses have on memory and how to use them in writing to capture that.  

2. Taste as transportation to the past: 

“I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place [ . . . ] Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs.” 

Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way

Proust captures the intense sensation of when a simple taste throws us backward in time. We struggle to recollect the memory, continuing to nibble and drink to coerce the answers out of our minds. Everyone has experienced the visceral connection between taste and memory that uses sensory input to assert order over the endless logs of recollections stored in our brains. 

3. Touch to recall:  

“Touch has a memory. O say, love say, / What can I do to kill it and be free in my old liberty?”  

John Keats, “What can I do to drive away”

Here, Keats bemoans how unwelcome sensory input immerses us in painful memories of lost experiences. A simple touch, from brushing against a soft blanket to the perceived texture of a handshake, can ignite a thousand recollections at times when all we wish is to forget. 

4. Hearing a voice and remembering whose it is: 

“The weeping fit would pass, and I would drag myself back to the mirror expecting to see a child version of myself. ‘Who are you?’ I’d ask. I could hear the words; it sounded like me, but it wasn’t me. I’d watch my lips moving and say it again, ‘Who are you?’”  

Alice Jamieson, Today I’m Alice: None Personalities, One Tortured Mind 

When we contemplate sound triggering memory, we often recall snippets of experiences that happened to us or around us—the sound of breaking glass, the whistle of a tea kettle, the guffaws of another person. We rarely consider the musical albums of our singular existence, like the sound of our whistling or our laughter. So, what happens when we forget a sound that is integral to our identity, something that is important to how we perceive and associate with ourselves in an auditory manner? This quote explores the consequences of this frightening question by diving into the author’s own experiences with dissociating her own voice with her identity.  

5. Seeing a familiar sight from childhood: 

“Yet no painter could have re-created what she saw more convincingly. Every detail was as she remembered. At the bottom of the stone-cobbled path was a pond with rose-flushed lilies, and a marble bench under the cherry tree.”  

Elizabeth Lim, Reflection 

We can also be mentally transported to the past by coming across a familiar sight. The narrator of Lim’s Reflection returns home after time away, and the vivid sights remaining from her childhood inspire awe and nostalgia in her as the past and present blend together in a display that makes the reader envision scenes of beloved places from their own histories.  

There you have it! Interested in delving deeper into the nature of this tenuous human property? Pick up a copy of F(r)iction #17, Memory

Envisioning Trans Bodies in Fantasy

When I went shopping with a friend last year to find new picture books for their preschool classroom, I was happy to see a few books on the shelves aiming to introduce children to the concept of gender identity. There were books about breaking gender norms in categories like clothing and hobbies, and they even discussed topics like changing your name and how to talk to your parents. These stories encouraged children to explore their identity and be welcoming of people with genders that are new to them. As a nonbinary college student, I would have loved to have stories like this available to me when I was growing up. I never felt a strong affinity with the gender assigned to me from birth, and it wasn’t until much later in life that I was able to ask myself bigger questions about what gender means to me. Coming from a small town in rural Minnesota, this was a lonely process, and it wasn’t until I moved to a larger city that I was able to find a growing and welcoming trans community and family.

Though increasing the visibility of trans and gender non-conforming characters in children’s literature is a positive and necessary development, LGBTQ+ characters tend to be subjected to harsher treatment in other forms of popular media. Queer characters often get violently killed or die tragically, depicting the decades-old “bury your gays” trope. Lexa’s abrupt death in The 100 shortly after developing a more serious relationship with Clarke is a prime example of how this trope has dominated representations of LGBTQ+ characters. Even in imagined narratives, these characters are confined to stories of suffering and tragedy, which reduces them to plot points for cisgender and heterosexual characters. What kinds of messages does this send to people that may be exploring their gender identity and sexuality?

We need to start envisioning stories for trans and gender non-conforming people outside of the dominant narrative of suffering. Today, we see a steady rise in diverse representations of trans people in media: Netflix’s original series Sex Education recently cast nonbinary recording artist, poet, and actor Dua Saleh to play a student in their upcoming season. Examples like this allow us to begin imagining realities of empowerment in trans stories.

Fantasy can also enable the creation of identity completely outside the conventions of society. For example, in my Dungeons & Dragons group, my friends and I have created characters to represent possibilities we see for ourselves in imagined worlds. Our characters represent a diversity of identity in high fantasy: a rogue prince who bathed in phoenix fire to return as a princess, a genderfluid bard skilled in musical seduction and me, a nonbinary paladin protector praying to genderless gods. In fantasy, we have explicit permission to explore magical possibilities for our characters without being limited by societal convention. There is more to trans stories than tragedy and struggle. There can also be epic imaginings of trans joy and adventure in which no one owes anyone an explanation or defence of their gender. 

Neon Yang skillfully incorporated this idea in their silkpunk novels The Red Threads of Fortune and The Black Tides of Heaven. In this world, children aren’t referred to as a specific gender until they decide otherwise. “They” is a normalized pronoun, and some people choose to never define their gender. Through magic, people are also able to change how they present their bodies. The two main characters of the novel, twins Mokoya and Akeha, search for autonomy and independence under an oppressive ruler. The novel tackles themes of state violence and rebellion in which the twins find themselves on either side of a growing revolution.

Effective trans narratives also don’t need to take place in an entirely reimagined universe. Rich Larson’s Annex envisions a post-apocalyptic city where adults have been abducted and controlled by invaders. Children and teens sixteen and under are rounded up into warehouses, and those who escape capture need to think about how they will survive the inevitable next attack. One of the protagonists, Violet, makes the most of this grim situation and raids pharmacies to find hormones for herself. With her unsupportive parents out of the picture, she is able to grow into her own identity and how she sees herself, even on the brink of possible world domination.

I love the expanding gender representations in media today that are starting to break down the dominant idea of a gender binary. These stories are necessary in the fight against trans violence. I hope for a future where there are even more books highlighting the diversity of trans experiences and the different intersections that can exist in fantasy. Telling these stories can create a future of trans liberation from narratives of misery to those of empowerment and joy.