(This is the third installment in a short series. Stay tuned for more about the PEN World Voices Festival.)
Every spring, for nine years running, the PEN World Voices Festival brings an astounding array of writers from all over the globe to New York City for a weeklong exchange of ideas and celebration of matters of literary exigence. Next year, even if you can get to only a few of the myriad events scheduled, you’ll get to be part of a remarkable conversation about life and literature that you won’t soon forget.
Obsession: Joy Harjo on Time: Friday, May, 3 2013.
Imagine that Time is not merely the linear ticking off of seconds, one following the other in the ever-progressing movement of this moment to the next. Imagine instead that it is fluid, immense, infinite, and that you could dive in and out of it at any point you choose.
Imagine that your daydreams and déjà vus, your waking thoughts of other places – even places you’ve never been too – are not merely idle wanderings or fluke tricks of the mind, but are actually travels to and knowledge of other realms.
Imagine not dismissing these daydreams and sensations, but developing them, allowing them to flower as full experiences in their own right, and honoring them as real travels through and with Time, not just flights of fancy.
Such is Joy Harjo’s experience with Time. For her, Time is a being that can be bent, one that can be worked with, altered, conjoined, entered into or exited from at various points other than the here and now.
Time is Harjo’s “Obesession,” and her talk on Friday night was one of a new PEN mini-series that heard Lewis Lapham expound on Smoking, Andrew Solomon explore Sleep, Simon Critchley discuss Memory Theater, and Naomi Wolf muse on Truth. I suspect not a single one of these other intellects brought the audience to the mystical territory that Harjo reached in her travel through Time.
In her recent memoir, Crazy Brave, Harjo opens with a very early childhood memory. “[S]omething happened that changed my relationship to the spin of the world. It changed even the way that I looked at the sun,” she writes. She then describes her first experience with “this suspended integer of time.” As she and her father are driving down the road on a hot Oklahoma summer day, the radio plays a jazz tune:
I wonder what signaled this moment, a loop of time that on first glance could be any place in time. I became acutely aware of the line the jazz trumpeter was playing…I don’t know how to say it, with what sound or words…I followed that sound to the beginning, to the birth of sound. I was suspended in the whirling stars. I grieved my parents’ failings, my own life, which I saw stretching the length of that rhapsody.
Is it possible for a human being to stand so far out from the fabric of Time she can see the entire pattern of life that would make sense of the senselessness of some aspects of the world? This is Harjo’s design is honoring her travels with Time.
Surrender to the elasticity of time allows for a more fluid interpretation of our life’s story. “Words and stories are energetic beings,” Harjo explained during her talk. If we allow for a non-linear relationship to time, we may be able to alter outcomes that seem set in stone.
She told a mythic story of someone being falsely accused of murder and an angry mob about to inflict its own brutal justice. In the moments she had before her fate was sealed, the accused was able to leave the here and now and travel to genesis of the story where she saw the crime and the true perpetrator. Coming back to the present, rather than simply denying and pointing out the actual criminal, the accused began a story and song of the entire origin of the event, so that the identity of the murderer became so obvious he confessed and the crowd retreated from their mistaken target of justice. Is it possible to travel back to the dawning of an event and explore its physical and psychic sources so that the story ends differently than it seems it ought to? Harjo’s own specific use of language in her talk demonstrates her convictions: “I was in a story not too long ago,” she says as she begins weaving her next story.
With the audience in an otherworldly hush as the conversation ended, Harjo exclaimed on ending a bit early, “Oh, I thought we’d have to be here till midnight!” Time.