There is a comfort in believing that all our ancestors’ understandings of time and space, however met with destruction, live on.
This is Dialek :: Dialect, a column by Khairani Barokka on language, culture, and power.
The New Inquiry
Yet Western European-influenced science is now exploring and confirming what Indigenous communities around the world have known for hundreds of years: that plants have sentience, for example, or that climate change could well revive long-dormant viruses. That intergenerational trauma can be passed down from body to body. However, there are those of us who eschew the need for Western science to prove something true and deeply significant to our communities—Indigenous, Black, brown, and Asian knowledges that have resisted decimation. Here there is an important distinction between the proliferation of fake news that is anti-science, which is a very real issue (to support, for instance, climate change deniers), and the instant denigration of Indigenous, Black, brown, and Asian beliefs and worldviews about the natural world as fanciful, “of the past,” rather than timeless concepts of fundamental communal importance that have survived the continuing marks of genocide and colonialism. That have allowed us to survive, that are the keys to our continued survival.
Science has always been political. What counts as “the truth” always is. So what the many planes that verbs without temporal tenses means to me is an acknowledgment of a plurality of truths, of ways to feel at home in the world. Of ways in which our relationships to plants, animals, and each other exist not only in the here and now; and that people before us and after us knew, will know, of these relationships. There is a comfort in believing that all our ancestors’ understandings of time and space, however met with destruction, live on in our soulbodies somehow—just as our flight or fight reactions today come from the ancient need for survival, chemical reactions as present now as they were when we first discovered how to make fire.
The late performance studies scholar José Esteban Muñoz is one of my favorite theorists; in Cruising Utopia, he writes about “queering” time, envisioning queer futurities and notions of time beyond the usual strictures. I’d like to think he would love the Indonesian language’s understanding of time as expansive and filled, potentially, with possibilities for different understandings of it, understandings beyond capitalist ones: non-linear notions of time.
In a performance installation I did at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, entitled Annah: Nomenclature, I speak to various potential Annahs—the Annah supposedly portrayed in Gauguin’s 1890s painting Annah la Javanaise [Annah the Javanese]—as various possible spirits who existed and persist. It felt real to me; it was real. Throughout the eight years that I’ve been creating arts projects and a book-in-progress about them, these possible Annahs have felt very present, some of them even guiding me. When an audience member told me afterwards that they, too, had felt Annah’s presence in the room, it was all I could ask for.
So when we say that those who are departed are still with us, that we can feel them, this is a truth also found in and reinforced by our language. All the energy our ancestors created on this plane of existence lives on in how they changed us, in more publicly palpable material things they created or altered, but also according to understandings from myriad spiritualities and languages. Reclaiming this embodied knowledge may be as simple as understanding that our language—in my case, Indonesian—does not automatically or easily translate into the supposedly distinct notions of “past,” “present,” and “future” in English. That it contains larger truths: the speculative, the spiritual, the sacred, the bodily acknowledged. That it holds what is plainly felt and simultaneously hidden from a world that so often seeks to co-opt, to explain with harmful forms of rationality.
What is being acknowledged here is simultaneously subtle and ubiquitous, all-encompassing—a glowing, untranslatable patina of possibility. In language, and in the emotion it evokes, it is possible to be grounded in a comforting understanding of existence beyond oppressive notions of time and space. Here we know the peace and the comfort of justification for the spirits so many of us feel among, and for how we feel about existing as spirits in others’ futures, in others’ pasts. What frequently gets lost in English translation regarding the understanding of time can instead be saved, clung to, and understood as a gift—albeit one so vast as to be, fittingly, uncapturable. In this we can find a reminder of ancestral strength, as well as a warning: not to bend others’ timelines and universes to fit the shape of our own.
Khairani Barokka is an Indonesian writer and artist in London, whose work has been presented extensively, in fifteen countries. She is Researcher-in-Residence at UAL's Decolonising the Arts Institute, and Modern Poetry in Translation’s Inaugural Poet-In-Residence. Among Okka’s honours, she was an NYU Tisch Departmental Fellow and is a UNFPA Indonesian Young Leader Driving Social Change. Okka is co-editor of STAIRS AND WHISPERS: d/DEAF AND DISABLED POETS WRITE BACK (Nine Arches), author-illustrator of INDIGENOUS SPECIES (Tilted Axis), and author of debut poetry collection ROPE (Nine Arches).