In Eloghosa Osunde’s column Melting Clocks, she takes apart the surreality of time and the senses.
Eloghosa Osunde, At the Beach in Your Dream, 2020, mixed media.
If you really think about it, we were all raised inside a giant dictionary. Society as we know it is simply a collection of shared definitions. Who is normal? What is beauty? Who is a criminal? What is a woman? What is a man? What is good love? What is sex? What is fair? Who is holy? What is evil? The more you agree with the definitions you’ve been given, the more you belong. The more you belong, the farther away you are from punishment. And you want to be safe in this scary place, don’t you? So you do what you’re supposed to do, and you avoid what leads to suffering. You don’t want to be lonely either, do you, so you believe the rule: there’s nothing but nothing for you outside the defined lines. You’re told this from when you’re little, that your questions will put you in trouble, that you are and will always be too small to challenge a meaning. You’re just one person and this is how it works: society decides, you obey. But is that true? Seeing as many of us are alive on the outskirts of definitions, seeing as that’s the address that saved some of our lives, the place where we watch our safeties spring out of the ground, it’s clear that whatever was defined can be redefined. Whatever was written by a person for a people, can be edited by a person or a people. We’re proof. What is society, anyway? It’s an anthology of someones. We make it up. We have always made it up.
Art making is my strongest argument for redefinition, because nothing shows you the lie of impossibility and the multiplicity of worlds better than a body of work standing where once there was nothing. You don’t know how to turn Something into Something Else? Listen to what a remix does to a song: how in African Lady, an ADM remix, TMXO lays Masego’s music over a Lagbaja sample, rubbing two worlds against each other until they spark a three-minute-fifty-seconds long fire. Listen to the Red Hot + Riot album made in honor of Fela’s music and enter the rooms that appear when Meshell Ndegeocello, Manu Dibango, Sade Adu, Kelis, Common, Tony Allen, and D’Angelo are invited to the same house party. Or watch Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer and notice the world you hold too tight become subsumed in an alternate reality, another now. Watch the Greek film Dogtooth and remember how you were taught to see; see how every manipulation has its genesis in language, how language reshapes the cornea and whatever stands before it. Read The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa and register what feels familiar about the premise; where have you seen that before? It’s strange, isn’t it, to know that what we remember is also a collaboration. Find all five remixes to Rema’s “Dumebi” [Vandalized, Major Lazer, Henry Fong, Becky G, Matoma]. All these unalike branches, growing out of the same tree. You think language is set in stone? Listen to a Nigerian talk a person to the fringes of their own English using pidgin—a genius composition. Strict binaries and genre are real until you watch DJ Moma play a New York club or DJ Aye play a Lagos night. Technically a thing like that should be impossible—continents ejecting you onto the same dance floor, that voice meeting this synth, the low wail of a bass guitar free-falling through the deep grunt of an ancient drum: jazz meets Afrobeats meets house meets alternative meets grime meets highlife meets soukous—but there you are, all of a sudden, thinking, Wait, who said these things can’t belong together?
Two months ago, when a fraction of my chosen family and I gathered to talk about the things we’re often discouraged from saying in public, one of us named that space—my living room couch—The Womb. I didn’t ask why because I didn’t need to; I know Whose it was. It fit. We all belonged inside it in a way that everything outside my door claims is impossible. It makes sense to me to miss being carried in safewater, it makes sense to me to feel yourself being (re)made, (re)gaining realness—later and now and before, all at once. Womb is a word that made me wince for a long time. That time includes now, and the reasons are still just mine. But a word means one thing until it gets a chance to mean another. The promise of being born again appealed to me for a reason, after all. That February in twenty-fourteen, the church didn’t even have to try hard. Said once as a promise, and I was already on my knees saying Yes Please, Yes. So, in the dark of The Womb, there were stories shared over palm wine and smoke that are still behind my ribs. Everyone was truth telling and the room shimmered with an earned sweetness. In response to one of those stories, we shuffled truth about our shadows, about the darker parts of ourselves we’d folded away for at least two and a half decades because it was that urgent to be A Good Person. We admitted the reasons we all fight so hard for the word Good, the reason we answer when it is called and try to claim it like a name, how frightened we are of Bad. I’m trying something new: asking myself if the choice I want to make is matched with a consequence I can live with, instead of if it’s good or bad. We talked more about how much we tuck in, how even in grief, there is a correct way to feel the weight, there are feelings we’re still not allowed to admit having. But not-allowed means hiding, even from yourself; and hiding is exactly why Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom insisted on disassembling me recently. A humbling feeling, being turned inside out like that. Also a kind of kindness. “You know when a story sees the things you’ve been hiding from yourself?” Yeah, that. This time, nothing was off the table, not even when it started shaking; not even when one leg fell off. So in response to “Wait, are we allowed to say these things out loud?” I said, “Well, here we are.” I can’t vouch for anywhere else in the world, but where I live, the only commandment is that there are no commandments. Be true, is the only rule. Put the lie on that rack, take off the uniform they insist you wear when you’re outside—and just be true. This is not always a beautiful or weightless thing. When you ask for truth, sometimes heavy things get said. Heavy things got said. So two weeks after The Womb had closed and we’d all been born again, in response to: “Do you ever get lonely?” (living differently, living outside, fashioning a life), I played Obongjayar’s “Carry Come Carry Go” to the person who asked this in my car. Even now, recalling it, I can see the road get stretched insanely by the hook. The answer is that feverish bridge; the answer is the way he moves on the track; it isn’t just what is said, it’s in how it’s shivered onto the beat, almost wept. The answer to what helps and holds me, what restores me to myself is also inside sound: “Good” by Sutra, “Get Free” by Mereba, “Bordeaux” by SuperJazzClub, “Ngeke Balunge” by Mafikizolo, “Giant Steps” by John Coltrane, “Unspoken Word” by the Soil. More, more.
There are multiple exits out of what is often referred to as Real Life on a daily basis, if you’re really paying attention. You probably fall in and out of your life regularly: between deep belly laughs at the dining table, or in clubs, bass beating against the small of your back. You do it when you’re watching a film that sucks you in or reading a book that pulls you deep into the corridor on the inside of your body, because imagination is a place. Distraction is a place. But you come back to, crawl right into the present so quickly, so casually that it’s hard to know what you’ve just done. Some of us have been there longer than others. I would know, having dissociated for years at a stretch, consistently moving at at least zero point zero two seconds ahead of myself, always catching up. I come to when I catch it, because I need me. Plus, you’re meant to snap out of stories and realms that are too fleshed out, too fantasy seeming, because people who believe stories and alternate realities too much and for too long see things that are not there, see things others can’t see, are called insane. Well, I used to fear that word until I was that. Until people I love were that and my love still met them there. Now I can’t care. There are a thousand reals vibrating in formation at any given moment and I’m open to many. We choose what we plug in to. The rest is the rest.
Words have synonyms and antonyms, for depth of meaning, yes—the meaning of a word thickens next to its partner or companion, its opposite or opponent, because just like you, language needs company. But my favorite thing about language is that it responds to how it’s used. It can be anything, really: from a cave or an obstacle to the bridge between lives, the road between worlds. Redefinition is relocation. It’s why the easiest way to get Somewhere Else is to name it like something real. I was raised to worry about right or wrong. I cared until I was labeled wrong and did not die. So I tell myself: don’t worry about being good; just be as intentional about destruction as you are about creation. Do not create anyone, do not destroy anyone. Understand this and no need to run: nothing on the inside of you can swallow you from there if you keep an eye on it. Keep an eye on it. Anyone can change. Forgive your fumbling. People who don’t change don’t change because they trust the dark label like they would a name. Only your name is your name. When people tell you a word can only mean one thing, they are telling you—subtly, too—that change is impossible. It’s not true. Destroy that idea. Create another truth. A word can mean something new because language is still and always being made. It’s why you can take a word like Vagabond—weaponized by the law of your land in real time— name your work after it and still be here. It’s a kind of rhythm making, this; the synthesis of your internal soundtrack. Another word that might fit here is: chaos. And another: freeing. You are free.
Forgive yourself for acting like you’ve never met yourself. Forgive yourself for sweating in the pursuit of importance, of acceptance. Forgive yourself for growing spikes when ashamed. Forgive your stubbornness. Forgive yourself for being more willing to die than fight, then forgive the defeats you stacked up inside. Forgive you for how tired you are. Forgive you for not knowing better. Then for knowing better and not yet being able to do better. For your hiding and running, for the suffocating disguises. For the secrets you still keep from you. For the times you unbecame yourself for someone else—a partner, a parent—because you were trying to become real, desirable, a shame to lose. Forgive you for the size of your love (you needn’t repent). Forgive you for the hands (they weren’t even yours). Forgive you for believing in anything that called you forbidden, for kneeling before whatever tagged you a sin. Forgive you for deceiving your head, for thinking the lie made you matter, more solid, more indestructible. Forgive you for breaking your heart, for lashing out, for falling apart, for losing your mind. You are here now. Let this matter more. A different now is close enough to exhale on you.
What does fiction do for me? It allows me to see what has been made, just as it is. It reminds me that if there are seven billion of us, there are seven billion ways to experience the world, seven billion valid iterations. The systems do what the systems do, and the kindest thing I can think to do for anyone I love is to follow them to the end of their desire, is to go with them to the beginning of their imagination—that place where I wish turns into I want. I listen to my loved ones when they say: I wish this was a world in which I could decide not to have kids. I wish I could decide not to get married. I wish this world was kinder to queer people. I wish we’d all take friendships more seriously. I wish this world was fair to neurodivergent people. I wish. I wish. There’s so much I still wish for, too, but also so much I have now only because someone stayed with me past a question mark. What would you be like if you had room? I try to ask that often. When they start describing it—I’d live with my friends; I’d treat my partner more kindly because I’ll at least be allowed to love them; I’d just not get married; I’d just be an aunty or uncle instead of trying to be a parent; I’d share resources with people around me; I’d put way less emphasis on money and more on community building—I watch what dawns on all of us. Maybe it’s not possible for us to have everything right here right now, the world being what it is, but it’s not true that we can’t get closer to what we want. It’s not true that none of it is accessible. Your hope is the perfect size, so no point waiting, sometimes. Because what is society anyway? It’s an anthology of someones. We make it up. We make it up.
It’s hard to remember this, because some feelings are so particular, so precise that you think no one will ever know what it feels like under your skin; but there’s a song for every feeling and a story for every situation for a reason. It’s how we get through. Maybe your life tells you that you’re right about being unseeable at the moment. Maybe that’s what you found to be true with people. Good thing stories can go everywhere then. Wasn’t it a book that reminded me recently that I have the spine it takes to stand up to my life? This life is massive, and of course. Massive and on course. It was a song that reminded me, too, some nights ago what a privilege it is that what I call family without flinching is a fiction I made; that there is a group of people who bear the truest witness of my life; that I get to live out the impossible. It’s only because of stories and music and art and love that I’m able to remind me how free I am to act in favor of myself and how free I am to not. I’m free to reach for more and I’m free to not. When I put it that way, I know what I choose.
One of the first definitions I remember learning is from primary school. “Culture,” the teacher said, “is a way of life.” We repeated it after her; a simple sentence. As long as we’re alive, there’ll be other ways of life being made as we breathe. Some of them can be ours. It’ll just require us to take what we see and want and wish for seriously. If I say that I am free to dream and I’ve dreamed a world with decentralized power, a much slower pace, more kindness, a timeline in which people can fall apart and hibernate, where rest isn’t a luxury, where gender is an abundant harvest instead of two darkly rigid lanes, where sanity is not the measure of worth, where no one is an outcast and we’re all responsible for each other, where friendships can survive mistakes and tension, where thick love is commonplace, where I can hold my love close no matter the skin they’re in, then I’m free to test run that way of life on myself and my relationships. I’m free to do it now, because now’s when I’m alive. That won’t always be true, but I’m here now and that hereness is sometimes a vehicle, sometimes a tool.
We were all raised in a giant dictionary, yes, and we’re more able to move out if we can find somewhere else to go: a where, a how, and a who to be with there. We find somewhere elses by making up and living out freeing fictions—even in small clusters. When we ground our faiths in the right not-yet-reals, when we look at the nonlinearity of time, we see how right here the future has been since yesterday, how we’re always practicing it in fractions now. Aliveness has always been a staring contest between us and time. We know that. No one blinks with you when you do. We know that. It’s costly, this, always—a life has to be—but what I know for sure is this: there are always other words and other definitions, always other worlds and other locations. To know this is to see this, too: we can grow the spines we need to stand up for our lives.
Eloghosa Osunde is a writer and multidisciplinary artist. Her debut work of fiction, Vagabonds!, will be published by Riverhead Books in March 2022.