November 16, 2021

Time Belongs To No One

A lot of my writing revolves around time—time, this inescapable thing that generations of humans have grown accustomed to understanding in the form of numbers. But you can also see them in the wrinkles of a face, the colors of the sky and the slang words that come and go from your screen—all of which, coincidentally, can be counted. Sometimes time makes itself big—like a threatened animal—while more often than not, it shrinks to the point that it becomes small enough to slip between your fingers like the finest grains of sand. When I was a child, I imagined time as an anaconda: long, heavy, and completely capable of swallowing me whole. This is how the school holidays always made me feel: of being eaten alive. I pictured my small body pressing against the innards of time. The end of summer meant that time was ready to take a huge shit; and back to school I went, a place where time was even bigger and scarier and never belonged to me—though of course it never did and never will belong to me, or anyone else—not even the most consistent watch wearer.

 

Being punctual is associated with discipline. Punishment is in store for those who fail to meet the hands of the clock. Look at us; we're all trapped.

 

"Thank you for your time," we say out of politeness and gratitude. But like other cliched expressions, they don't mean much when you really think about it. Time belongs to no one, which is why the concept of "working hours" upsets everyone except bosses. The rich think they can buy time by putting slabs of anti-aging cream onto their faces. Or by injecting all kinds of vitamins into their veins to cheat their fate. Or by devouring the lives of workers. Time is money and money is the time that all the working people on this planet have to part with in order to keep on living, in order to have money so that they truly live, to love and to be with the ones they love, to truly embrace time. 

 

Time can't be owned, but it is worth fighting for.

 

Was it Mark Fisher who once compared writing with time travel? Writing is not knowing what your thoughts will end up looking like in advance and yet also already knowing it. It's like a mysterious technology that beams us into the past and the unknown future as it also forces us to hold our ground in the here and now, all at the same time. Writing = Letting time take over. Considering the writing process through this lens, it does indeed feel a lot like sci-fi despite its disregard for advanced tools. 

 

An acute sensitivity to reality gave birth to sci-fi; in other words, the seeds of what the imagination is capable of conjuring have already been sown.

 

But just because sci-fi is an obvious intersection between writing and time, it doesn't mean it is the only effective one. Over the years, it has occurred to me that poetry simultaneously gives in to time and resists it. A line break disrupts time as much as it shapes meaning. There are many poems about time, just as there are many poems that pull you back and forth through time—and consequently through space and subjectivities. In rare occasions, poetry lets you catch a glimpse of our desires. And desire, of course, permanently resides in the future—one that we may or may not ever arrive at.

 

A poet can be a nostalgic, a realist, a futurist, or a nihilist. Whichever one you are, you bend time. Perhaps the empty spaces between lines are not reserved for meaning that has silently been inserted, but rather for the time it takes for the experience to reach the reader. Maybe it's more important for the poet to accept the fact that while the poem is free, they, on the other hand, are still locked within time.

 

It has been a while since my last serious attempt at writing poetry. The answer I'd normally give to well-meaning friends and peers who'd sometimes ask me about my next book: I'm working on it. It's been about six years and "I'm working on it" has, by this point, become a joke. But what if it's a prayer? Funnily enough, it only recently occurred to me that I've never actually stopped working on my next project. After all, writing entails a lot of things and the writing itself—the putting pen to paper—is, I'd like to argue, not the most important part of it. Observing, remembering, reading... all are necessary. 

 

No work of art can be created in a vacuum. Inspiration is a scam. Learning and reflecting requires time, patience, determination, and humility.

 

I find it useful to look back. The word I can use to best describe my childhood is "fragmented." While I have loving parents, my upbringing was not untainted by tragedy and loneliness. Needless to say, this is in no way unique to my life. Having to be uprooted several times at a young age certainly did not make things easier, despite all the positive experiences that came along with it. The dull ache of being stuck in a limbo still lingers long after I finally had the chance to establish (what I think of as) my own roots. My memories are like phantoms; I can sense their proximity, but I repeatedly fail to confirm their existence, their realness. 

 

I am always haunted by them. 

 

I always let them.

 

In the corner of my eye, I see the ghosts of what was and what could have been. Where am I now? What time is it? The question isn't whether or not the past will be returned to me; it's whether or not I'll be able to return to the present so that I'll finally allow myself to move an inch closer to what's to come.

 

Years ago, I came across Silvana Ocampo's poem "The Towns." I instantly recognized and sympathized with her nostalgia. The poem begins as follows:

 

I am inhabited by many towns. Like dreams they are
within my province, in me; they are memories of bread 

from bakeries or light from a grocery store,

or evenings in the square as I watched the train arrive.

 

I had had no previous knowledge of Ocampo's work, or the fact that she was born into extreme wealth at the dawn of the 20th century—meaning that her nostalgia was rooted in conditions that were temporally and materially far removed from my own lived experience. Our lives couldn't be any more different and yet I understood the feeling of "being inhabited by many towns. Like dreams they are / within my province, in me." This goes beyond the slightly distanced phenomenon of hauntings. She's talking about possession. To be inhabited by the memory of having lived somewhere else is to be possessed by the spirit of that place—that place that is not here, not now. It becomes even more frightening once you consider that the past can never be accurately reconstructed. Time distorts what you remember, so by extension your memory is guaranteed to deceive you. Still, you desperately try to bridge that gap.

 

I sense that someday I will die in every town,

 

at the same time of evening, without discriminating

that I may love them all, ubiquitous, with many hearts.

 

By the end of the poem, Ocampo realizes that going back is not an option. So to soothe the pain of remembering, of being made to remember by the possessing spirits of all those towns where she used to live, she hopes to at least be granted a reunion with her lost love objects in death. 

 

According to my mother's family lore, not long after she was born, my late grandfather threw the placenta into the sea in hopes that his daughter would grow up to be a perantau. There are various translations of the word, common ones being "nomad" or "one who settles elsewhere." My mother was born in a coastal town in Sumatra and has since lived in several towns and cities within Indonesia and abroad. 

 

"So what is nostalgia?" asks Grafton Tanner in The Hours Have Lost Their Clock: The Politics of Nostalgia. To which he answers, "It's an emotion of intense longing for things lost."

 

Some people might experience it more often and more strongly than others, but it's hard to believe that anyone is immune to it. Life is peppered with loss, and it is never easy to let go. He goes on to write: "Ultimately, nostalgia is one way we can fight against finality and come to terms with the devastating knowledge that some things disappear."

 

The people, places, and things that are dear to us will not be around forever. Nostalgia can therefore be a helpful—albeit temporary—coping mechanism. But as Tanner lays out in his book, there are things that the future shouldn't have space for. Not all forms of nostalgia can help us move forward—especially when streaming platforms and politicians often take advantage of this powerful sentiment.

 

This is why learning from the past, from history, is so crucial. Examining our emotions and their significant role in understanding our place in time can increase our chances of survival—and I mean that quite literally, considering the undeniable climate crisis in our midst.

 

To demand for a better future is to fight the grotesque ideologies that keep being reanimated by conservative nostalgics.

 

Now is not the time to give up. There is still so much to do. For the time-being, this text is what I’m able to offer.

April 12, 2019

Confronting the Family*

To plant a flag
To name a mountain
To name a child with a number
To give a woman your name
—Arto Lindsay, “Titled”




1
The Family Is a Logo

There is perhaps one thing more detestable than a typical reckless driver in this city’s rush hour traffic: the “happy family” rear window sticker. If you have never seen one, you have probably never left your house because these stickers are everywhere. Mom, Dad, First Child, Second Child, Baby, Cat. Those with an ambition to present themselves as more than just another generic middle class family even add each member’s nickname. A white apple or a sign of allegiance to a particular religion or community is no longer prestigious. The family is today’s trendiest brand, made visible by the logo of the happy family.

2
Affection and Exclusivity

A child is a gift from God, or so the saying goes. Having one is a blessing. Having three is a blessing multiplied by three. In a culture where brags often masquerade as humble gratitude, blessings of all kinds need to be announced. Yet this public display of familial intimacy ironically amplifies its exclusivity. This is my family. My family is special. These are our names. Know us. Remember us. But you cannot be a part of us. Where does the eagerness to unveil our families for the world to see come from? Do society’s high expectations of this perceived sacred institution oppress us so effectively that we try to convince ourselves we are perfectly happy with the family we “have”? 

3
Related to an Image

If we were to play along with the idea that a family is something that one is able to have in the same manner that one has a smartphone or a comb—in other words, something to own—then the family is no longer seen as a group of living, breathing human beings. The family becomes a thing. At best, it turns into a product to be advertised; at worst, it becomes another image to be desired yet impossible to truly obtain. Nowhere is this oddly inverted metamorphosis more visible than on social media. There is at least one parent who just cannot seem to stop sharing photos of his or her precious child. Some even go as far as to set up an account on behalf of the poor, oblivious infant who most likely does not even know her or his own name yet. “Show, don’t tell,” used to carry some weight. Now, it is eerily the only fitting slogan for our sleepless society.

4
Roles and Ownership

The family, at least as far as this society is concerned, has a large impact on the status and identity of both men and women. A man is not a man until he has a wife and preferably several miniature versions of himself. A woman is not a woman until she is able to bear miniature versions of her husband. Resistance is slow and suppressed. Even the strong-willed can crumble under pressure. The logo is under the spotlight once again. Uncontested. Celebrated. The father takes pleasure and pride in his role as the main breadwinner. The mother accepts that her husband and children are her only sources of pride. The children are possessions. We cannot escape the distorted image of the family that continues to appear among countless images of children in various stages of growth. It is owned but it is elsewhere, like a memory that can never be retrieved.
  
5
A Tragic Cycle

Unconditional love, one of the central components of the myth of the family, is crucial because the concept is alluring. It suggests that one is able to get away with anything while still being accepted, protected and loved by a group of people. It also implies that one is entitled to loyalty without making even the tiniest contribution to the group as a whole. Sentimentality and selfishness are a crude yet highly productive couple. The two end up producing much more than they have to, and we find most of that excess in the modern workplace. Employers exploit the family narrative by borrowing the values and roles of the family in order to control their employees without looking like they do, in fact, exert all the power. Employees are made to believe that they are truly at home, at work. Going on office trips, being on a first-name basis with superiors, engaging in silly office group chats are strategies to make the workplace feel less like one. The fact that one is a mere foot soldier magically disappears. Such is the tragic nature of the urban workplace. The ultimate tragedy occurs, however, when the employees get home and have to do it all over again. The family lives on.

6
What Is Wrong with the Right and Left

But why does it live on? In The Anti-social Family, Michèle Barrett and Mary McIntosh write: “We live in a society where the ‘average family’ is continually evoked. We are continually addressed as belonging to it, by the left and the labour movement as much as from any other source.” Their criticism is specifically aimed at men, who have been more dominant across the political spectrum. The male pride that stems from being responsible for (and therefore in charge of) the family reveals patriarchy’s ambidexterity. But to simply turn the tables would not solve the existing problem of the family. If women, gay men, or other (gender) minorities were to seize the throne of the traditional head of the family, we would only manage to change the features of the family image instead of changing the family itself. Getting a new face for an old problem will not eliminate the problem.
  
7
Towards New Ties

Despite the many weaknesses of the family, it is impossible to deny its ability to evoke powerful feelings of solidarity. This is certainly one element that can be used to create a more inclusive unit of society. Concepts of exclusive membership and blind loyalty only sustain the family’s suffocating patterns. Loyalty cannot be inherited. Nobody owes anybody love. We have to learn to see the “idealized family” for what it is: an illusion. If we do not start to challenge our own assumptions about the structure and function of the family, we will never grasp the many aspects of society it has successfully penetrated. Focusing on its physical features alone would only lead to the creation of variations of the current problem. Societies, like trends, are not immune to change. And since families make up societies, they too, can change and be changed. 



*The first version of this piece was published as Scribbles #2: Confronting the Family” under a pen name. Some alterations have been made.

December 25, 2018

Dear friends

I am sorry that I have to begin with a question: What is friendship?

When we have our hands tied with work, bills, money (or the lack thereof), broken hearts, abandoned creative aspirations, the daily commute, illness, or the illness of loved ones, friendship can so very quickly become pushed to the side, creating a sense of alienation where it is least expected. It is frightening how quickly all of those things can contribute to the dissolution of solidarity. 

I ask because I want to know what can be saved, or if “to save” is even the right verb to act out in this scenario. I ask not because I am afraid of losing my so-called chosen family, but exactly because friends are nothing like family. Friendship, or to speak in more general terms—camaraderie—requires a lot of work. The second that effort dissipates so does the friendship, the camaraderie. All it takes is a bridge and some fire. Let the idiom set itself alight.

We live in a despicable system that constantly strives to push us into loveless situations and interactions where the end goal is an existence so devoid of compassion and meaning that humans might as well be replaced by robots. The fact that we have to remind ourselves that we are, in fact, humans who want and need love to live is ludicrous. Our souls have been so crushed and our willpower so dilapidated that all we can do is hate. We hate those who are as destroyed as we are, and we resort to that because it is easier than hating ourselves—and yet, we still hate ourselves. No positive affirmation, gym membership, organic skincare or flight to some faraway country can ever alleviate that hatred. Why? Because nothing will ever be solved until we hate what we are supposed to hate, and that is, yes, you know exactly what it is. I don’t want to be too on the nose here.

Now, let’s think about how and how much each and every one of us has been complicit in the fragmentation of the very thing that is supposed to keep us, all of us, afloat in this endless ocean of exploitation and exhaustion. How many times have I forgotten that the enemy is not you, not my coworkers, not even the assholes that always find a way to cut in line at the convenience store? How many more times do I have to keep slapping myself across the face so I remember that it is not you, but the system and everyone who enables it that should be blamed, hated, resisted, and held accountable. 

I am sorry for letting my misdirected anger get the best of me. This is not the end.


Love,

Your friend

September 30, 2017

The Ninth Moon in a Sky of Red


These crazy days
replace
The good old days
that never existed

nostalgia is the boogeyman, the monster under the bed,
the faceless woman standing outside your window at midnight—
it’s what we see
when we’ve spent
hours
and
hours
staring into
Nothing

truth and memory
melt under the sun
that never seems to set
on this empire of demons

what is there to remember if your only memory
is one you’re forced to never forget
there’s no use in recalling what hasn’t left your mind
it’s like looking for a pair of glasses
that’s already propped up on your head

It makes you feel stupid.

And that’s exactly the point.

every year the same tale, the same slogan, the same warning
the same rhetoric, the same fiery voice, the same fire
banner after banner in every corner, on every street
spouting allegiance to the flag of blood and bones

sure, you can’t forget what you don’t know
but with that stupid smartphone and that internet connection
you have no fucking excuse

the ninth moon
is here to illuminate the red sky
a bull can’t ignore red
it can only charge

but this is not the end
history is no rock
that can’t be thrown at the brittle walls of
Today

demands to remember come in waves
violent waves thrashing against each other
Remember! they said, Remember! the others said
So which one should it be??? Which one is it???
you can’t remember what you don’t know

but you can ask, you can look
into that puddle of truth and memory
and tell me what you see
go on, take a look & be on the right side of
remembrance
you know what I mean?

These crazy days
                        replace
The crazy days
                        that brought us here.