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 Silvina 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.