My Past Was Always Tense, My Future Perfect, an essay by Ashley Marilynne Wong at Spillwords.com
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My Past Was Always Tense, My Future Perfect

My Past Was Always Tense, My Future Perfect

written by: Ashley Marilynne Wong

 

‘The past is always tense, the future perfect,’ – those were some of the words uttered by a character in Zadie Smith’s critically acclaimed novel White Teeth, which I decided to read last year, exactly two decades after its publication. I can still remember the moment I encountered those words in the ‘quotes’ section on Goodreads, a site owned by Amazon that doubles as a book cataloguing and social media platform for bibliophiles like me. I remember gawking, marvelling at the sheer ingenuity of the quote’s syntactic arrangement and semantic wordplay. That was – if my memory serves me right – in 2015, half a decade before I read the novel and three years before I made the one-decade-old protagonist in my short story write the same words for my university creative writing dissertation. Assuming that my memory is reliable, that I did come across the quote in 2015, I also encountered those words two years before I was convinced by my extremely supportive family members, friends and lecturers that I had what it took to be a novelist – convinced in fact to the point that I decided to gamble, to take that leap of faith and write full-time after graduating from university with a degree in English with Creative Writing on 21 July 2018 (I know the date to be precise, thanks to Facebook memories). I had a story to tell after all, a mission to heal the world by empowering myself and my fellow odd-ones-out, so why not write a novel indeed?
My past was always tense – in retrospect so were my friends’. When I thought of the past, these were what I saw:

Metal rulers trampling backs of fingers like heavy boots for failing to memorise passages by rote:

• Palms whipped when parents forgot to sign children’s worksheets;
• Bottoms flogged for making spelling errors;
• Sideburns yanked for wrong answers in quizzes;
• Heads shaved for posting a dance cover on YouTube that went viral.

And these what I heard:

• ‘You are the stupidest girl in the world.’
• ‘All those pimples and acnes make you ugly. Don’t you realise that?’
• ‘You should wear braces.’
• ‘Your fingers look so fragile. I bet they’ll snap. It’s just a matter of time.’
• ‘So sensitive, such a crybaby.’
• ‘You’ll only get straight “Bs” in your upcoming exam. Don’t you even dare dream of straight “As”. That’s virtually impossible for you.’
• ‘An 80 in Maths? That’s just a bloody borderline ‘A’. Not good enough, not good enough at all.’
• ‘No, don’t bother giving her seconds. I mean, just look at how skinny she is for a seven-year-old. I bet she throws up if she’s too full. She must be suffering from an eating disorder.’

When, a few years ago, I posted about how something – I can’t remember what now – triggered the memory of being labelled the stupidest girl in the world as a primary school student in the 2000s, this was what I read in the comment section of my Facebook status:

The fact that you still remember those words after all these years says something about you instead of your teacher. Move on. Buck up. Grow up. Stop overreacting.

Ironically, the comment was posted by someone who saw herself as a globe-trotting disability and human rights activist as well as a mental health advocate. Thanks to the support I received from friends who cared, I eventually had the courage to block her on social media after recurring cyberbullying, thereby cutting ties with the former toxic friend.

Of all the things I saw when I thought of the past, only an instance of physical abuse suffered by my friends was perpetrated by male teachers, or rather, a solitary male teacher. Of all that I heard, every word was said to me by female teachers, who, I discovered through my discourse and society module at university, had very likely been told the same things they told me by males around them. And as it was made obvious by the personal pronoun ‘her,’ the human right’s advocate who gaslighted and infantilised me when I shared my story of being verbally abused was indeed a female. In fact, when she and I were still friends, the psychology graduate shared with me numerous instances of racism and sexism she encountered. Why then, I had often asked in my works – though I was only conscious of asking the question upon reflection – that those individuals I described, who had been abused one way or another, hurt others instead of becoming more aware and empathetic? Why did oppressed women around me go on to oppress other women and girls too, disempowering rather than empowering those younger than themselves more often than not? Why did the cyberbullying activist fight for education whilst arguing, when we met at her house, that corporal punishment was necessary to keep Asian children in line so that they wouldn’t strike their parents?

‘Stop being too white. You don’t know what you’re talking about because of your sheltered upbringing. Barbaric child-beaters? Pure nonsense. Believe instead that for Asians, hitting your daughters means educating and disciplining them, whilst hitting your mothers means you’ll be struck by lightning.’
The residue of shock and amazement I have felt upon hearing those words still clings to my bones today. Indeed, why did my former, much older and self-proclaimed wiser female friend, want her juniors to cling to superstitious beliefs when she took video footage of her being in education and women’s rights conferences and posted Facebook statuses expressing her solidarity with her friends in the LGBTQIA community, all the while telling 19-year-old me that I was too young to discuss similar issues? My pursuit of passion at university had distracted me from mulling over the question for a few years, and it was when the pandemic came shattering the world with its deadly force, that the question fell like a brick wall back into my head. The storm that was the pandemic brought with it several bombs in the forms of unwelcome phone calls and WhatsApp messages from people long erased from my mobile’s contact list, that nearly blew my brain to bits through their (electric) shocks. That was the moment when all the ghosts of sounds and images from the past described earlier entered my mind with their tons of sharp stone edges by the quarryfuls. That was also when unanswered questions listed in the previous paragraph formed jagged tattoos, tugging like leeches at my flesh-and-bone-made haunted-house-colored heartstrings.

It puzzled me. It puzzled those around me. I simply could not pause to think. Impulsive, compulsive, propulsive thumb pressing the ‘block’ button, battling the intrusively persistent calls and text messages each time they came. My thumb was unforgiving. I was merciless. I spent time shaking rather than writing, but no matter how long I trembled my past stubbornly stuck to my slippery, slashed, sobbing soul, blocking my view of the present and my way to the future. For a long while I experienced profound hopelessness, believing that the past would dominate my life the way COVID-19 took the world in its powerful, perilous, parasitic grip. The virus clung to the present. My past clung to me. Unforgiving … merciless … Past and present forming an elliptical, vicious circle that breathed and ceased and breathed and ceased and suddenly seized my neck … not to strangle me as it later turned out, but to squeeze! Life! Back!

When the calls and texts came I was in the middle of a reconciliation with my inner child, who, it occurred to me, embodied itself as the first draft of my novel which I intended to abandon for good this time around. I had been sorry, promising my twin flame the novel that I’d never do that to her again, never leave her behind. We would grow together, for better or worse. I soon learnt that it was easier said, or dare I say thought, than done. Hurt novel with its characters withdrew, scared to open up to me, for fear of my making that same mistake. Indeed, as I strived to meet my novel’s gaze, the glare it gave me was made of a writer’s block of ice. Frozen to the spot, I could not even shiver, not until those calls and texts barged, unannounced, into my bandaged brain. Indeed, at first, the metaphorical sticking plaster seemed to have been rudely ripped from the innermost part of my skull. Despite my blocking those calls and messages from reaching me, they appeared to be taunting and haunting, tearing off my defences with those biting stone edges. I had nowhere to run and hide from that inevitable confrontation between my old self and my good old self – a truly ‘me, myself and I’ moment indeed.

During that intense and tense heart-to-heart with my past, I was tempted to tell myself to buck up and grow up the way my former toxic friend rudely commanded and demanded in her Facebook comment. I had, the critical parent in me reasoned, lost touch with some of my friends over the pandemic, so why didn’t I want more people to like me, approve of me and be my friends? There ensued a battle of will between my critical inner parent and me that lasted for three whole days. She threatened. She raged. She used big, bright, bold, brassy, bossy, bullying words on me, calling me spoilt, ungrateful, antisocial, disrespectful … the list piled up like unwashed plates in dirty sinks. Still, I would not give in to the toxic masculine critical inner parent trying to mould me into the fabric of society, to blend me in, attempting to stone my individuality to death, as if it were a witch who needed to be a sacrifice to an ancient deity. The boiling water in me remained unevaporated. I would not be lukewarm, not in a million centuries. At length, with a calm and assertive ‘no’ telepathically transmitted to the critical inner mother, who tried to talk me into unblocking those ghostly toxic contacts, I was free. A miracle was created, the writer’s block of ice melted from the heart and eyes of my novel, who, as highlighted, doubled as my inner child and twin flame. We embraced, soul to soul, spiritual soles in sink, as we stepped back into my childhood dystopia where I found my novel, and my novel found me.

As a child I did not quite believe that home was where the heart was; hell was where my heart was most of the time, working out ways not to be chained to that world I belonged to, a universe of gender divide like no other. Indeed, I wanted to escape the broken home populated by older women who, in the self-delusional guise of toughening my female friends and me up, oppressed and abused us in ways they might have been oppressed and abused. They assaulted our bodies and talked about those bodies as if they owned them, or rather us; they assessed our bodies as if those bodies belonged not to us but to competitions in which they were the grand judges; they punished those bodies, saying if they did not do so we would end up being child-body-bullies. Adopting the masculine roles adopted to treat them, those female adults mansplained to us, telling my little girl friends and me what thoughts, food, books and looks were good for us, and what weren’t. We were also given backhanded compliments – told that we were, amongst other things, too clever for our age. There was name-calling too – our mother and sister figures endured wounding words like bitches, whores, and sluts, whilst making us endure labels like snotty kids, whiny little demons, bad young things, attention-seekers and spoilt brats. When we defended ourselves, we were sentenced to the children only verdict of talking back. At school, or as I’d prefer to call it scruel, female spies called prefects were sent to confiscate our mobile phones. Like us they suffered in silence too – having been bestowed power and conditional love by those who claimed to be their second mothers, they had to force their own mouths and eyes shut when they saw female teachers played games on those same devices we were forbidden to bring to scruel. How cruel. It was a kind of cruelty all right, or was it, owing to power and privilege, a kind of all right cruelty for the female teachers and prefects working under them, labouring for their affections? I didn’t know – I still don’t, never having been a prefect at, dare I say again, loud and clear this time, scruel! On our way home and at home, our parents blared out calls made to radio announcers, arguing why mobile phones would corrupt young girls and negatively affect their intelligence. The callers, most of them mothers, behaved just like Victorian male psychiatrists who enjoyed reading and smoking, but who told their female patients not to read and smoke because the patients’ dispositions could not handle such activities.

Even as an adult, I knew that I had not completely escaped the dystopian childhood. I lived in a society that deified the notion of filial piety, where it was all too common for older females to infantilise those younger than themselves, regardless of age, whilst demanding reverence, not respect. That was the reason why, when I was nineteen, the female human right’s advocate felt entitled to be rude to me in her Facebook comment and when we met in person. That was also why, in a television drama I watched, an older sister and career woman felt entitled to beating up her twenty-something younger sister who so-called slacked off when the latter was preparing for her university admissions test. It was also the reason why words like ‘Stop overreacting,’ and ‘You live in this house, so do as I say,’ were brandished around like guns at the backs of my peers’ trapped, free-spirited heads, by older women who kept barging into their bedrooms, robbing them of privacy.

As I relived my history, or shall I say her story with the novel I found and who found me, I could not help wondering why I had told my truth through a slanted view. Whilst I recalled my male friends’ sideburns yanked and heads shaved as a child for instance, the dystopian world my novel and I inhabited did not contain male protagonists and antagonists. Upon reflection I realised that my novel and I had our joint-limitation – indeed, it was hard, at this point in time, to say everything I had wanted to through a single novel. However much I’d wanted to speak up for my homosexual and transgender friends who had been discriminated against, for religious cult members who had faced institutional abuse, and for the same male friends whose sideburns, as highlighted, were yanked and heads shaved, those would have to be discussed in different novels, one novel at a time. For now, I would have to commit to finishing my second draft of my debut, whose previous draft, as highlighted, was almost abandoned unrewritten.

Thanks to the tense past that was 2020, I heard over and over on the BBC that writers and other artist faced extreme uncertainties. However, thanks to the unanswered yet positively confrontational text messages and phone calls that carried part of the tense part, I discovered that my urge to speak up for oppressed young girls and women overshadowed those uncertainties. The urge had split into all the questions, both answered and unanswered, listed in this essay, begging to be explored in my current and hopefully, subsequent novels. Those questions had in turn shown me, in no uncertain terms, that my tense past could indeed be utilised to create a perfect dream future, in which ‘hurt people hurt people’ had ceased to be a fact and had instead become a warning, and in which equality had finally been achieved through the realisation that ‘unconditionally loved people loved people unconditionally.’ I had therefore learnt the valuable lesson on the importance of being present to the present – indeed, my past was always tense, my future perfect and my present, an empowering presence and present in the form of my current novel, in which I write down the tense past, to rewrite that perfect future into existence.

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