For as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with the question of time. When I was a young adult, sixteen or seventeen, I can’t recall exactly, my fixation on time grew to such dramatic proportions that the only exit route I had left was blanket denial of its existence. I was living in Irvine, California, then and, for very grave reasons I will get to, I was reading the existentialists, their writings on suicide and nothingness—Sartre and Dostoevsky and Nietzsche—without understanding a lick of what they were saying. But I read on, convinced that understanding was not the point. I was confident that the was being transformed through my immersion in their words. I can see now with the backward glance adulthood offers that I was right to keep reading even if their sentences remained somewhat opaque and illegible to me. What I learned by enduring the feebly lit forests of language is that if we persevere in our search for truth or for a sense of justice—or, in my case, for an axis around which to organize an itinerant life—literature will show up in our lives as if alerted to metamorphose our consciousness. Sentences, whether beautifully crafted or brutal and assaultive in their revelatory ambitions, have the power to elevate us out of bitterness, shield us from the icy burn of numbness. What is clear to me now, on the cusp of forty, is that literature saved me from forever folding the little immigrant’s kiosk that was my life, so utterly exhausted was I from the repeat injury of watching those whom I most intimately love collapse under the weight of their own psyches.
Literature offered me a dwelling place to sort out my troubled intimacies. I was living with my mother when I first developed a reading practice. It was just the two of us, and she had stopped speaking. She had been that way since my brother, two years older than me, had been assaulted and nearly died two years earlier, when we lived, briefly, in Reno, Nevada. We had moved to Reno from Tehran in the mid-nineties. Our mother was a Sai Baba follower at the time, and she had met an Iranian family who shared her beliefs at the Sai Baba Ashram in India. With the exception of their yearly trips to India, the family my mother had befriended lived in Reno, and they’d invited us to set down roots near them so that we could be in community together. They were one of two Iranian families we knew and the only people we socialized with when we weren’t in school. We often meditated together and ate vegetarian food and drove to Lake Tahoe for a swim or gathered for large family meals at their home, which was so huge I couldn’t understand how they found one another in it. The scale of the houses, grocery stores, and schools, the “personal space” people kept between them when they spoke to one another, the vast empty spaces between houses—it all seemed strange to us. My brother and I were accustomed to Tehran’s intimacy; its crowds and its rambunctious warmth, its narrow backstreets lined with poplars, the bazaar-e-Tajrish with its arched passageways and pressed bodies where we bought groceries, the unspoken shared feeling among most citizens that we were living under siege. In Reno, we were entirely out of step with our surroundings, a feeling perpetuated by the confused gaze of others as they took in our bodies, our presence, our manner of speech. We’d arrived in Reno dressed in clothes we’d purchased in Turkey en route to America; we hadn’t spoken English since we were children, when our father still lived with us, and had grown accents in the interim. Farsi’s rhythms coated our English and our mannerisms had become distinctly Iranian. My brother got the worst of it. I had a certain self-possessed take-me-as-I-am-or-don’t attitude that I had cultivated as a girl who had come of age in Iran; I’d learned to keep the fight in me close to the surface because that’s what is needed for Iranian girls to survive the Islamic Republic’s annihilating patriarchy. But my brother had not had to cultivate survival skills. He was reserved, soft-spoken, not entirely self-assured, large-hearted, prideful, studious, and deferential toward his teachers and elders. His expression of masculinity did not sit well with the boys in his school, nor could they make sense of his ethnicity, the fact that he was white passing but not quite white enough or white in the “right” ways. He had attracted the hateful attention of one particular boy who was a few years older than him, a junior or senior in high school. I never saw this boy’s face, the face of the boy who would rechart the path of our lives with his fist, but I saw my brother’s pale, wide-eyed look when he got off the school bus every day; this boy, whose speech was infused with violent hatred, had declared that the bus was a no-immigrant zone. I remember it was a regular fall day. My brother stepped off the school bus and began walking back to our apartment. I was in middle school and my bus lagged behind his by ten minutes. In that gap, this boy, my brother’s attacker, had gotten off at our stop and followed my brother quietly for a few steps. Then he’d reached for my brother with both hands and yanked him down to the ground from behind by pulling on his backpack, which was loaded with books. He positioned himself on top of my brother and punched him in the face, beating his head against the asphalt, over and over again, until my brother lost consciousness and his features disappeared beneath a film of blood. When my bus pulled up, I saw my brother lying face up on the sidewalk; my mother was on the ground folded over him, screaming for help, weeping hysterically. I remember getting up from the black leather seat of the bus and standing frozen in the aisle as I looked out of the window. I remember saying, “That’s my brother!” but I don’t remember if I said it out loud or said it loudly in my head. I remember my legs were shaking, I remember the sound my feet made as I descended the three steps of the bus. I couldn’t see my brother’s face but I could see his soft, longish hair and his sweater, dark green with a paisley Iranian pattern woven into it. My next memory is of him lying face up on our living-room sofa with his face wrapped in surgical gauze because his nose had to be reconstructed. When he recovered, he left to go live with our father in the United Arab Emirates. I remember his departure. He did not want to live in America. He said that over and over before he left. A part of my mother departed with him. She became reticent, troubled, silent. I remember watching her pack our belongings, all of which fit in the back of our car, and I remember sitting in the front passenger seat in a frozen rictus as she drove us without stopping from Reno to Los Angeles. My mother did not say a word the entire drive, and I did not dare ask any questions. I didn’t know where we were going. I kept looking in the backseat for my brother, but he was gone. And so was my mother. Time continued to progress. We moved at high speed on a straight, asphalted road. We arrived at our destination: her sister’s apartment in Los Angeles. We moved in with my aunt. We ate pancakes at IHOP. We searched for a new apartment, a new school for me to attend. The days passed. But time had acquired a surreal elliptical quality; it had become ample enough to contain the constant presence of my brother’s absence and this new, defeated iteration of my mother.
Over time, as I searched in books for the language of mourning, I came to understand my mother’s withdrawal by way of re-storying and renaming. My mother is experiencing an “emotional drought,” I would say to myself, or we have entered a “spiral of silence.” Time, she mutely taught me, can also stand still; halt it at your own risk.
What I learned from my brother during those first years following our time in Reno is that time can shapeshift in order to accommodate our subjective experiences, that one instance in the great sea of time can grow tendrils that echo the horrors of their source. That the energy of violence is not easily paused, let alone ceased altogether. Even though he visited us twice a year, in the aftermath of the attack in Reno, my brother had disappeared. The brother I knew, I mean, the brother I grew up with. As he approached the end of high school, he grew increasingly agitated. He once punched a hole in the wall of the shower; his fist went through the plaster and emerged with fractured knuckles and peeled skin. I wondered if it was the punch he hadn’t been able to deliver in his own defense belatedly manifesting itself. He had become angry, he lived on edge. His natural reserve had transformed into restless bitterness. Time began to pass in taut anticipation of another crisis. By the time I was a senior in high school, my brother had moved back in with us. It was then that he began to experience bouts of mental and emotional agony that we later came to understand as the first indicators of psychosis. He had been unleashed by his attacker into the nether regions of the mind where his own thinking, his own consciousness, conspired to eliminate him.
“Do you know what that feels like?” he asked me once.
“No,” I said, “but, I believe you. Isn’t that enough?”
It wasn’t. In many ways, our relationship ended then. In other words, we ran out of time as though we had been given an allotted amount of it, during which we could understand one another and share experiences and frames of reality. But there was an expiration date to us as a brotherhood, and that expiration date came down on us like a guillotine from nowhere. So it turned out that time had many branches, not unlike a tree, and some of those branches could die and fall off, and the tree, or time, could carry on without that piece of its own story.
I came into young adulthood while both my mother and my brother each had one foot in the grave. They had gravitated toward the abyss not by one thing or another but by the complex interaction between their own personalities and the forces of history: the unfathomable disappearances of home and motherland and language and beloveds that the Iranian Revolution had unleashed in our family, and the reckless punches of the young teenage boy in Reno who could not stand my brother’s fresh immigrant face.
My personality was drastically unlike my mother’s and brother’s. This difference generated options that were cruel in their simplicity: join them in a kind of living death or find a way to say a loud resounding yes to life. Spiritually speaking, the latter was the most challenging of the two alternatives. I chose it because it was the more difficult option and, believe it or not, because its outcome was less predictable. I had never seen someone thrive in close proximity. I had never seen someone choose to live. I did not know what that would look like, and even though I chose to say yes based on an instinct of survival or an unperturbed curiosity, I am still learning to live inside that yes and to choose it every day.
What does the archive of my private history have to do with my understanding as a writer of the relationship between time and literature?
As American writers, we are taught to say that literature is about the passage of time. As though time were a singular entity that moves neatly in one direction, extending from the past into the future as it weaves through the present. This conception of time echoes the myth of progress. One of the greatest gifts of my life, vertiginous as it’s been, is that I have never been susceptible to the myth of progress. Every nation, regardless of where it sits on the political spectrum, operates through the dissemination of propaganda; the banner of the American Dream, for instance, is a simplified rendition of the hypnotic seduction and symbolic value of the myth of equality. That myth is the expression of a purposeful and urgent aspiration we must continue to strive toward without losing sight of the fact that it has been systematically deployed to mask the ongoing uneven distribution of the very freedoms it claims to uphold. As a culture, it would behoove us to bring this understanding of our national narratives to bear on the aesthetic biases the dominant culture is inclined toward when it comes to literature.
Such biases unknowingly or recklessly perpetuate a literary paradigm that celebrates linearity, clarity of outcome, philosophical certainty, and unchecked individualism born of a fundamental American (and perhaps also western neuro-normative) belief in the myth of progress and the solidity of the self. A linear conception of time is an efficient temporal imaginary, one that implies the unfettered agency of humans over the time-space continuum. Like worthy citizens, characters must generate events, overcome obstacles, and any conflict they encounter has to propel the reader forward at a taut pace. Interiority exists, but it does so at the service of an uninterrupted plot. The “American Dream” is the fantasy of an oversized individual who generates happiness and profitability against all odds. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is another banner designed to heroize an uncompromising individualism, a self that can make things happen, that can impose its will on reality and mold it into an idiosyncratic and victorious vision.
But what happens when we disinvest from the structures of white superiority? What happens if we live in a failing democracy? Or under military dictatorship or the rule of an oppressive theocracy? What happens when our survival hinges on our silence? What happens when the cultural site from which we write privileges collective identity over individual personhood, or inhabits a multidirectional and fluid temporality, or does not distinguish as rigidly between the realm of the living and that of the dead? What happens when our sentences are taking readers somewhere less familiar?
As it turns out, I had to pull myself up by my bootstraps during the first decade of our lives in America; our challenges as a family increased in the heat of the years that followed 9/11, when deportation letters where being systematically sent to Middle Eastern immigrants and hate crimes against Muslims were on the rise. In the early 2000s, my brother’s psychosis continued to progress, but he was twenty-one at the time and according to the law, he had the freedom to destroy his life. We could not do anything to stop him. We could not persuade him to voluntarily sign up for inpatient or outpatient treatment—he had gone beyond the limits of reason—nor could we file for guardianship because his condition did not meet the threshold for proving incompetence. His unraveling emergencies came barreling down on our lives like a series of avalanches. Then, in the midst of all of that, my mother received a deportation letter. Though I was a citizen, I was too young to be her sponsor. My brother was the only one who could sign the documents, but he was high as a kite and was living adjacent to reality. And he felt a great deal of resistance toward America. He kept saying, “Good, we will all leave at once!” The consequences of his actions were entirely lost on him. He had grown violent, unpredictable. If he lashed out or did something to harm himself or us, we had to hunker down and bear it. We could not call the police; we did not even trust the structures that exist for citizen protection, and now my mother’s time in America was expiring. Eventually, my mother won her case to receive a Green Card. At the eleventh hour. But the rhythm of her days with my brother continued to be jagged and threatening. I left for college with my heart in my guts, unsure of what I would find when I returned home on the weekends or during my breaks. I was on my own. I had to learn to swim to the surface of my life in that atmosphere of chaos. I had to pull myself up by my bootstraps. But no matter how hard I pulled, it wouldn’t have made a difference without those mentors—the living writers I studied with in college—who saw to it that I found my way. It took collective effort for me to learn to give voice to my life, to face the fear that if I speak and become visible through my speech-act, I might die physically, existentially, spiritually. I was shored up. That’s a fact.
In “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Audre Lorde writes, “I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.” In my case, I was trying to protect others with my silence. My loved ones first and foremost. But I was also trying to protect others from the strange particularities of my life, and to protect myself from the spectrum of emotions my life story elicits. But, perhaps most importantly, most profoundly, I did not know what language to set forth in, what grammar my telling should inhabit, what verb tense I should employ. I did not know from whence to begin. It hadn’t occurred to me that I could begin in the language of my silence. That my silence was the very oubliette of exile.
In one of my favorite books of exile, Memory for Forgetfulness, a journalist asks the Palestinian poet and author Mahmoud Darwish, “What are you writing in this war, Poet?” and Darwish replies, “I am writing my silence.” Darwish also tells us in In the Presence of Absence that “a second life, promised by language, continues.” In the hands of writers of exile, time is halted, bent, eliminated, subverted, perverted, allegorical, labyrinthine, or iterative. Their lack of linearity purposefully conveys silence and absence, thus illuminating character interiority, the myriad ways in which the geographies of their characters’ minds are affected by the forbidding pressures of personal and political history. I am talking about James Baldwin, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Yiyun Li, and Leslie Marmon Silko, among others. I am talking about authors who write characters whose emotional and imaginative landscapes and temporal sensibilities do not necessarily affirm those very social constructs of time and subjectivity that, within the contemporary American context, tend to privilege efficiency, consolidated individualism, and clarity of outcome.
I cannot count the number of times I was told early on, or have heard other minoritized writers who are just starting out tell me that their work was rejected because “nothing is happening in this story.” In other words, that their stories are deficient on the level of plot. There are not enough events or hurdles being generated for the character to overcome; or, there are sufficient obstacles, but the characters are not assertive or resourceful enough to overcome them. There is a certain “white flight” nested within the notion that a story is inadequate because “nothing is happening in it.” Is nothing happening, or is the ear of this or that reader not trained to the same frequency as the ear of the writer behind the work? After all, certain plots have been subject to historical erasure and are suppressed again when they are resuscitated in literature. Baldwin, whom we revere, was subjected to such imaginative abuses.
Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, Baldwin’s most autobiographical novel, celebrated now as a major work of American literature, was harshly criticized in its own time. In the novel, Leo Proudhammer, a theater actor who embodies Baldwin both physically and existentially, suffers a heart attack, and as he hovers between life and death, we are plunged into a retrospective examination of his desires and his loneliness as a bisexual Black artist whose life and psyche are vulnerable to the exigencies of public life. It is a novel that moves in flashbacks, and one that employs structural and syntactical repetition; the narrator’s gaze is both introspective and retrospective.
This privileging of interiority over plot is a direct manifestation of the narrator’s urgent need to lay claim to his humanity, to his right for self-definition that social constructs of Black masculinity violently erase. Baldwin’s belief in the dignity of Leo Proudhammer’s voice, combined with the thin veil of separation between author and narrator, emboldened critics to attack Baldwin the man through Proudhammer the narrator. On June 2, 1968, Wilfrid Sheed reviewed the novel for the Chicago Tribune under the headline “Novel-Time for Mr. Baldwin”:
But something seems to go wrong when he moves downtown. Baldwin’s tone changes, he becomes shrill. . . . Is it, then, that Baldwin, like so many writers, can only dial from the one booth? Is he disdainful of non-Harlem material, or does it make him nervous, or what? It is not simply that his white people look alike, like Chinese waiters—good writing can be done from a fanatic’s point of view. He seems to lose his own identity, the authority leaves his voice, the mind-clearing arrogance fails him. He does not even write well about himself (I mean Proudhammer) in this setting.
Baldwin imagined the artist as a disturber of the peace, morally bound to speak the truth. Perhaps it is because of this conviction that the history of the American reception of Baldwin’s work from the mid-sixties and into the early seventies tells us more about the fears and conventions that constrain the American national imagination than it does about the power of Baldwin’s vision. Throughout our literary history, narratives that refuse to corroborate the story of America as the land of the free have often been eschewed, censored, or systematically criticized (as Baldwin’s novels were) for being “one-dimensional,” “polemic,” and “lacking in incident.” Highly structured, plot-driven literature in which time moves forward at a gallop uninterrupted by the speculative violence of history, in which the characters’ notion of self-identity and agency remains intact, can give us enormous pleasure, even a sense of safety and reprieve. But Baldwin was doing something else entirely, something far more radical, and to measure his work through the lens of classical white, western temporality or duration or, in more pedestrian terms, a tautly paced forward-moving plot that facilitates the reader’s experience of becoming lost in the work, is a failure of aesthetics and politics in equal measure. What it demonstrates is a one-size-fits-all mentality, an impatience to recognize that a novel’s shape emerges from its content and from the ways in which history sits in the bodies of its characters. Leo Proudhammer tells us exactly what price we pay for this kind of aesthetic monotheism when he says:
I was human, too. And my race was revealed as my pain—my pain—and my rage could have no reason, nor submit to my domination, until my pain was assessed; until my pain became invested with a coherence and an authority which only I, alone, could provide. And this possibility, the possibility of creating my language out of my pain, of using my pain to create myself, while cruelly locked in the depths of me, like the beginning of life and the beginning of death, yet seemed, for an instant, to be on the very tip of my tongue. My pain was the horse that I must learn to ride. I flicked my cigarette out of the window and watched it drop and die. I thought of throwing myself after it. I was no rider and pain was no horse.
We, as readers, have to come to terms with our subjectivity—it is not just the task of the writer to appropriately translate their vision and experience of reality to a general audience. Reading inclusively is one way to confront our biases and prejudices; as a practice, it can help us to understand the real dangers of leaving our national narratives, our limiting concepts of citizen worthiness, unexamined.
Over the years, my reading practice and my early lived experiences in America have led me to view the United States not as a singular, fixed nation but rather as a landscape of migrancy made up of intersecting waves of collective exile. I view America as a space of transit within a global system and our literature as inherently transnational. Despite the biases that dominate our culture, our aesthetics of temporality are not strictly linear. It is important, then, to wonder how our national imaginaries might shift if we were to read books in which the plot moves forward as often as we celebrate books in which the plot moves our attention backward across the arc of time? Books that are elliptical, circular in their temporal syntax and structure, multi-temporal and polyphonic? Books in which time is halted so that space can be made to revise the historical archive and insert into the record of our foundational story the voices of those whose identities and full humanity have been denied the mic? I am not advocating for this because it is the right thing to do (it is!), but because it is the more interesting, enriching, complex, and complete representation of who we are as Americans at home and in the world: a nation of exiles.
While I was at university, studying with Eileen Myles and Renee Gladman, learning to read John Keene and Amiri Baraka and Joan Didion, my brother sat in a prison cell in Texas. In the aftermath of his attack and his first major psychotic episode, he turned his pain against us, turning into a multiarmed cyborg who wanted to slice our heads off, until he landed himself in prison. Frustrated with my mother’s attempts to contain him and her desperate pleas for him to get help, he took off. There was a period of time when we did not know where he was. He called once from a New Mexico number, another time from Arizona. He was self-medicating with drugs. He eventually reemerged in Texas, where our father had moved after the Emirates. He stood on our father’s doorstep and demanded the keys to his car. When my father refused to hand them over, my brother delivered one decisive blow with his fist that split my father’s forehead open. The punches he could not deliver in self-defense in Reno landed on us for years; we all took turns being on the receiving end. My mother and I refused to report him to the police. We felt we had to protect him, to keep him safe, and the police were the farthest thing from safety we could imagine. But my father, who had spent his life at sea as a merchant mariner, who had trained in the queen’s uniform for years as a teenager, picked up the phone and reported the incident. It was his way to discipline my brother, to straighten him out. He needs structure, he needs rules and order; that’s what my father, who had been raised in poverty on the East Side of London and who had been straightened out by the discipline of the Royal Navy training he’d received, thought would happen. But my brother had acquired a record and he was delivered a sentence. Jail only made his illness worse. During the months that followed, my brother called me from jail two or three times, not more. He refused to speak to our mother, and her silence redoubled with the force of his restraint. And to me he only ever said two things. Every call, the same two things. The first, that someone had stolen his hard-boiled egg at lunch. He spoke of the egg with the reverence one might reserve for the original egg of the universe. I understood that he was telling me that his life had ended and that he did not know how he might begin it again or set forth from the space of his cell. That he had died and returned from his death and that this pattern of death and rebirth would shape his life over and again.
The other thing he said was, “Sister, I can tell that you are not well.” He was, when not reaching for drugs to self-medicate, as phenomenally sensitive, radically loving, and intuitive as he’d been before the attack in Reno.
“I am fine,” I said. But he insisted that we were communicating telepathically.
“If we are, then wouldn’t I, as your interlocutor, know that?” I asked him. I was always trying to find the humor in things. I was always offending him or my mother.
“That’s not how it works,” he said. “And besides,” he added, by way of insult, “you are too shut off to notice the invisible systems that connect people to each other.”
After every phone call, I read sections from Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee. It became my bible of exile. I consulted her words like an oracle. Within them I saw both the death grip of silence and the crisis of perpetual and compulsory self-translation that migration asks of us. I was trying to translate myself and to find a way to translate what my brother was saying to me about us. Through this process, I began to see life as a nesting exilic structure, one exile nested inside another all the way to infinity, to nothingness, to something less than nothingness. My brother’s prison cell was one exile. America was another. The little room I shared in a house with five roommates, where I found myself sleepless with anxiety, yet another. So, every dawn, I lay in bed reading Cha’s words: “I want you to speak. I wanted him to speak. I shall want you to speak. Are you afraid he will speak? Were you afraid they would speak? It will be better for him to speak to us. Was it necessary for you to write? Wait till I write.” That final declaration, both a command to the self and a warning to the listener, quickened my heart.
In the context of colonialism and exile, one is made to understand that they need permission to speak and, when permission is given, that one should translate the self by rendering it less “opaque.” But each act of translation that privileges the impatience of the listener over the generous struggle of the speaker who reaches out is a dress rehearsal for metaphysical death. Could Cha have written in a linear fashion, with temporal certainty, when she had died many existential deaths spurred by her multiple migrations and America’s structures of translation that favor assimilation? Could she have eliminated self-doubt, waved the flag of philosophical certainty with the arrogance of a Medici? She was a genius, so I believe she could have done whatever she set her mind to, had she lived long enough. But whose identity would such a linear grammar appease? The point is that she made a deliberate choice to write a book that embodies the affective experience of exile. To manifest on paper the shattered self. The self who, through sheer artistry, transforms into a powerful ghost, a multi-tongued, peaceful warrior who frightens those who are more afraid of intimacy and mutual understanding than they are of war.
When my brother got out, he moved back in with our mother. He always came home to her pleading for help, and she sacrificed herself to engulf him in the urgent clarity of unconditional love. I, too, returned home after college. Despite all of the undercurrents of affection we shared, it was a terrifying period. A phase of tremendous escalating violence. When I look back on that period of my life, what I see is the close proximity of mortality: my own, his, my mother’s. Wait till I write! I kept telling myself. Wait till I write! A secret plan of vengeance that kept my heart beating. But breaking my silence, now, all these years later, still feels dangerous, overly revelatory, potentially annihilating. And yet . . . and yet . . . there are the writers who sustain me.
In Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, Yiyun Li begins her memoir in list form:
There is this emptiness in me. All the things in the world are not enough to drown out the voice of this emptiness that says: you are nothing.
This emptiness does not claim the past because it is always here. It does not have to claim the future as it blocks out the future. It is either a dictator or the closest friend I have ever had. Some days I battle it until we both fall down like injured animals. That is when I wonder: What if I become less than nothing when I get rid of this emptiness? What if this emptiness is what keeps me going?
What tremendous generosity of spirit Li’s sentence holds: emptiness, both healing and wounding, trains us to accept contradiction without reaching to resolve it. My own pursuit of emptiness led me to the remarkable feeling that time does not exist, that it is a human invention. I am speaking again now of my high school years, when I was reading the existentialists. During those years, when I could get away from the difficulties of home life, I spent every iota of my free time with my girlfriends, primarily M– and G–, who were twins whose parents had migrated from Honduras. These friends’ lives were as challenging as my own, but we knew how to laugh our hearts out and sustain one another while we worked, hand-in-hand, to break with our silences. Together we forged a different future. It was with them that I first learned to stare my silence in the face. Even if I did it in starts and stops, exposing my thoughts and then quickly suppressing them.
On one occasion, standing in the dimly lit kitchen of their house off the 405 in Westminster, I decided to hold forth about my emergent philosophies on time. We were standing around a plate of tostadas that their grandmother customarily prepared for us after we’d worked our shifts at the mall. I remember I was wearing my Ruby’s Diner work uniform—a tiny 1950’s-style red-and-white striped dress, nylons with white socks pulled over them, and a pair of scuffed white Reeboks—when against my better judgment, I shared that I’d arrived at the conclusion that time is not only a faulty and synthetic human invention but also a technology that can be used to influence our perception of reality without ever making itself visible in concrete terms. As their faces nearly fell into their laps, I added that time was “the most perfect surveillance tool.”
“How so?” M– and G– asked. A subtle expression of horror reluctantly spread across the shared features of their faces. They were trying to halt its growth with their love, while I, in my stubborn teenage pursuit, forged ahead out of a mischievous desire to escalate the situation that bewilders me to this day.
“Because we live in time the way we live in language—unconsciously—and that makes us vulnerable to it being used against us,” I said. Those who know me know that I sometimes speak like this to my own great embarrassment.
“Right,” M–, the softer twin, said. She was warming up her engines when G–, who always came in hot, said over her, “You mean to thwart us?”
“I suppose,” I said and not wanting to get into it, I made up an excuse and left.
What we would be thwarted from I couldn’t precisely say. As I drove south on the 405, I glanced occasionally at the setting sun through my rearview mirror. I watched it lose its rotund shape by degrees until it diminished to the size of a ping-pong ball and dissolved into the darkness. The whole way home I thought about time in less absurdist terms. It was easy to be funny, hyperbolic even, when I was away from home; less so when I was driving toward its eerie pattern of turbulence followed by a devastating silence.
What I thought about during the long drives I made from school in Irvine to the various Ruby’s Diners where I picked up extra shifts, from the pier at Huntington Beach or the Mission Viejo mall, to M– and G–’s home in Westminster and then back again, was the geographical and climatological dimensions of time perception. I didn’t have those words yet—“geographical” and “climatological”—but I had ideas and I could sense their edges with passionate clarity.
I wished I had found Lorde’s words then, in those early days. Her warnings against silence. I would have saved so much time, but perhaps it does not matter. “What are the words you do not yet have?” she asks. “What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?”
Perhaps some things have a longer maturation period than we would like. Long after my high school and college days, when I left to pursue my MFA at Brown University, the question of time still nagged at me. I had begun to read in order to cope with and understand our family history, to integrate the multiple time zones and landscapes that had shaped our lives. Over the years, reading opened up in me a level of attention to my shifting experiences of time, the nuanced ways in which I recalled having registered its passage differently depending on where we were living or what language I was speaking in. I remembered that when we lived in Dubai, before it looked like Las Vegas, when the land was open and sandstorms came barreling down across the emptiness, time seemed to move horizontally in all four directions. When we were there, I lived in Farsi at home, in English at school, and in Arabic while in public. The grammar of each of these languages relative to time is unique. In colloquial Farsi, it is not common to use the future tense; when used, the present tense is connected to the subject expressing desire and placed in front of the infinitive of the verb. The future, therefore, emerges in the present; it exists as desire in the body of the speaker. When we do express an intention in the future tense, our interlocutor generally responds by saying Inshallah, which means God willing, or in secular terms, may your destiny make your desire manifest. There is a sense of contingency, uncertainty, an implicit acknowledgement of the relationship between language and mortality. Arabic, which I have lived inside of but do not speak, has “no tense as such, grammatical time is not, as in English, defined in relation to the moment of speech, a process that interjects an implied subject in every utterance,” writes Ibrahim Muhawi in his introduction to Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness.
In Tehran, my experience of time felt clogged. Time and space were layered with the memory of tragedy, and the presence of violence was always imminent. But my family loved to party, their parties were loud and boisterous, and the joviality of the illegal parties they threw punctured time’s density and sped it up or pushed us out of time into a divine realm of pure, rebellious ecstasy.
When we lived in the coastal village in Valencia, Spain, to which my parents had fled during the Iranian Revolution (one of the many orthogonal choices they made), time halted altogether in the wintertime. My mother and I would often return to that apartment during her periods of depression in the aftermath of Reno, during the first years of my brother’s absence. There, the only sound came from the measured beat of the ocean waves crashing on a deserted shore littered with logs and dead jellyfish. The passage of time was measured in waves; it existed as a strange loop, one wave after another. Then, later, in Irvine, the contrived and controlled urban grid where shopping centers appear at even intervals—Marshalls, Ralphs, Target—I felt like time did not exist because thinking was not possible there. The space was designed in such a way that one could never get lost. Drifting, waywardness, the possibility of becoming lost in thought, of meandering about in a state of bemused spectatorship simply did not exist. Imagine being a flaneur in Irvine, California?
The architecture of a place affects our perception of time, our cognition, our emotionality and consciousness; it has the capacity to shape the mind. The four mute walls of my brother’s prison cell were designed to reshape his, to punish him into classical temporality, into obedient citizenship, as though that were a characteristic he could be beaten into through the shortsighted whip of the state. As though he were not suffering from mental illness and did not need to be in a hospital under the scrutinizing care of qualified psychiatrists. Instead, he was criminalized. And that criminalization caused him to lean more deeply into the abyss.
There’s a line in Toni Morrison’s Beloved that I have committed to memory: “I was talking about time. . . . Even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.” The picture of what I did and knew and saw is fragmented across continents, countries. Some of this knowledge remains lodged in Iran, my motherland, where I no longer have visitation rights, and this severance has caused me to experience an agony so profound, I have spent my life in search of language to describe it, to salvage it from the annihilating force of a vanishing history. Sometimes, I write lists of things I have done and seen and known because I am afraid I will forget them; sometimes, I recall them in order to forget.
I return again to that question Yiyun Li asks, “What if this emptiness is what keeps me going?” and think how, later on, in her novel Where Reasons End, this core emptiness is transformed through language into the fertile ground of possibility.
In Where Reasons End, a mother and her son, Nikolai, whom she lost to suicide, enter into conversation in a dimension that is the very embodiment of nothingness, a place where time either does not exist or where it exists in every tense at once. The novel’s form is one of call and response:
And fancy seeing you here, Nikolai said.
One of us made this happen, I said.
I blame you.
I laughed. Ever so like you, I said. I then explained the liberty I had taken to get myself here. For one thing, I had made time irrelevant.
In order to unite with her son, the narrator of Li’s autobiographical novel exits concrete time, earthly time, and enters a realm where rational time is eliminated altogether. “Timeless is this world we are making, tenseless its language,” she writes. What Li acknowledges in this timeless non-place is the immense privilege conversation with one’s beloved offers us and the excruciating yearning we feel when death severs our communication and leaves the music of our call unfinished by the beloved’s response. The mother in Where Reasons End must carry on speaking alone-as-two in an imagined spatiality. Mother and son enter together into a space where, as Darwish assures us, “a second life, promised by language, continues.” In this place, their love for one another, as well as their inabilities to always understand or be understood by one another, rages on, a quiet tempest. The very structure of Where Reasons End emerges from this radical large-heartedness of the mother and recalls for me one of the most terrific and terrible lines in Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness: “Because you woke me up when you stirred in my belly. I knew then I was your coffin.”
In life, there are things we are not intended to understand. There are things we cannot grasp through reason. This is the lesson my brother’s struggles in life taught me. Being his sister has been one of the greatest mysteries of my life in large part because he was the embodiment of paradox. Each part of his life, of his person, tells a different story. I have had to learn to let these parts exist together in contradiction, to let go of the impulse to want to resolve the dissonances. Over the last ten years, my brother grew into a humility so profound it left him defenseless. He sought treatment. He apologized to us profusely; he acknowledged his wrongs and asked for forgiveness. He rectified his behavior. He returned to the loving, affectionate person I’d known in my youth. He said to me that the thing that bothered him the most about his illness is that he could not protect me or be the older brother he wished he could be, someone I could lean on and look up to. But I did look up to him. I admired his grace, his capacity for insight in spite of his troubled mind. We began to exist together as a family again even though we were in a constant state of failed translation. As the years went by, the medications dulled his senses. He felt controlled by them. He periodically flushed his pills down the toilet. He grew increasingly frightened of the world. He became hermit-like. He either spoke quickly to deliver to us messages from the divine or to warn us of some imminent danger, or he retreated into a silence worse than death, thick and dense and bitter and cruel. His silence, too, we tried and failed to understand. We understood that it was not ours to understand. All we had to do was let him know he was not alone, that we would not forsake him. All we had to do was learn to hold the pain of being unable to reach him. A lesson I wish on no one.
“Little sister,” he said to me once, “I have died many times. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“I don’t want to live any longer,” he kept saying to our parents, “I am tired.”
His mind was in constant turmoil. In the aftermath of the pandemic, when group therapy and treatment structures were shut down and overburdened, he developed negative symptoms: he would sit and stare out into space for hours, he lost his appetite, his motivation. As I finish this essay, he has departed. He left halfway through these pages I have been writing for him in acknowledgement of everything he has taught me, the good and the bad; in acknowledgement of the fact that his suffering, and my own as his witness, are interwoven with my relationship to literature. It was not intended for me to understand any of this, to understand the timing of his decision to depart, to end his pain, and leave in his wake a silence that I do not yet have language for, may not know how to speak of for a long time yet.
Ibrahim Muhawi writes that in the Islamic view, existence is understood through the metaphor of writing. Writing, literature, language, the body—these things are a matrix, a sacred labyrinthine geometry that helps us reach our own center and return back out to the world and eventually become through death a part of the larger universe. You have to be optimistic to write against your own death. But that does not mean that you don’t also write from a place of rage or tender yearning or icy callousness or to stop yourself from weeping or all of the above at once which is, I think, most often the case with writers who have paid a high price in igniting the engine of their own voice. This mode of optimism has the capacity to transcend the page and enter the reader’s consciousness; once there, it can cultivate in us an unwavering defense of the innate dignity of all types of personhood, knowledge that that dignity exists independently of any external value judgement. This is literature’s optimism. It is expansive. It has many dwelling places. The story of the homogeneous, unified nation-state is severely limited in comparison to literature’s boundlessness. There is not one path for the novel. There are not two paths for the novel. There is an infinite multitude of paths. And they multiply as we reach to find new shapes to hold the cruel bitterness of life without forgetting its explosive awesomeness, its beauty and tenderness. The more shapes we can imagine, the more futurities, the more we can hold onto ourselves when we have to traverse death, our own and that of our beloveds, in order to say yes to life.
In loving memory of my brother, my one and only داداش, Amir William Van der Vliet Oloomi, May 4, 1981-September 17, 2022. You are a part of the larger universe now.