Modern Griots Reviews: Rasheedah Phillips’ “Recurrence Plot and Other Time Travel Tales”


Recurrence Plot cover

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Experiment: Write a letter to your future self or past self. Try to meditate and astral project yourself into the body of one of those selves before or while you are writing to do so. Can you remember past and future memories?

(Not from the book but in the style of it)

If you study metaphysics and archetypal psychology, you might have heard the term synchronicity. Popularized by Carl Jung, synchronicity is defined as “the coincidental occurrence of events and especially psychic events…that seem related but are not explained by conventional mechanisms of causality” or as he describes it, “synchronicity is the coming together of inner and outer events in a way that cannot be explained by cause and effect and that is meaningful to the observer. I’ll be honest I do believe in synchronicity because I have had numerous strange coincidences maybe because I was intuitively looking for something and happen to come across it, or I set things into motion by looking for something in one place and stumble across something relevant in another. For example, I applied for a poetry fellowship and I was compelled to go through the list of the previous fellows; one of them was Reginald Dwayne Betts. I read some of his poems and happened to like them. About a week or two later, I went to the library and randomly decided to look through the poetry section and found a collection of Robert Hayden poems. I remembered enjoying his poetry as well, so I flipped to the forward and started reading; the writers description sounded familiar and I didn’t realize why until I looked at the cover again and realized that it was written by Betts. How did I stumble across a collection introduced by Betts soon after I just found out about him? Hmmm? Does it mean something? I don’t know, but it was spooky.

Why am I beginning with this? Well a similar circumstance happens to the character Khepri in Rasheedah Phillips experimental book, Recurrence Plot and Other Time Travel Tales. For synchronicity to happen, Time itself works not only in a surface-level linear fashion that implies causality, but it works also at deeper, circular, interwoven movements of several times. Phillips explores the complexities of time and memory via concepts found in metaphysics, physics, philosophy and quantum theory. The book begins and stays with for majority of the time with the main character, Khepri, whose name is the same as the Egyptian scarab beetle god of rebirth and sunrise (note: her mother in the book actually names her after the Capri Sun name but with a variation in spelling, which could be considered a play on synchronicity). Khepri is a journalist who is investigating a series of virtual reality experiments done on young teen boys who are committing violent acts afterwards for not reason. But during a day off and a travel to a thrift shop, she    stumbles across a book called Experimental Time Order, a book within a book like 1984’s Goldstein’s book, which she was meant to find and is a mash-up of quotations from several thinkers and reflections on the mind, memory, time, physics, quantum physics, spirituality and metaphysics. This opens the door to conversations with her future self which help her to reveal suppressed memories of her difficult past that will help her present self.

Recurrence Plot back coverThe major linchpin of the book is Phillips’ slippage between reality and fiction. It pervades throughout the entire book as well as in a metafictional sense. Walls between the reader and book seems to break down at several points with the inclusion of chapters of Experimental Time Order interspersed, and especially in one of the later chapters, it seems as if the reader is the one to whom the book addresses. From early in the book, it is introduced that the stories are interpreted as computer programs and the readers wonder if they are on the same experimental PTSD machine that is creating these virtual realities for the young boys and main characters. The characters in the first three stories, Khepri, Deenah and Afina, all suffer from some kind of memory issue. Khepri’s memory issues, based on this slipperiness of time and reality, make it questionable whether she is actually speaking with her future self or that her past self writes reminders to her present and future selves. All of these reinforce much of the major themes in the book of the interconnection between the observer and the observed, the slipperiness of memory and identity, the interconnectedness of all things, and the quantum concepts of life as an illusion or hologram.

Philips also uses these themes of metaphysics, quantum physics and the construction of realities to write a commentary on social systems. Social systems are not the results of passive linear progress or the way the world just is, but a result of a mix of intentions and actions that we put into motion under the superficial surface of the results we see. We created them and there are multiple levels to life beyond what we do see. It is much like the movie of the Matrix: it takes conscious action, a mental and emotional awareness of oneself and the world around them and a recognition of patterns to cause a shift in the system (think back on synchronicity). One of of the pieces of information mentioned in Experimental Time Order is the types of memory – ones that are mechanical and habitual and others that are consciously constructed. When social systems fall into the former mechanical one, it becomes dangerous because we no longer question other possibilities that exist; our attention is focused on that one possibility that we see much like the observer in the wave-particle theory. Khepri’s development of awareness of her past, present and future selves helps her see her connection and the complexities of herself in relation to institutional racism, racializied scientific experimentation and cultural philosophies about human existence.

Another linchpin of the book is its matriarchal, womb-like structure of it. The main characters of the book are all women and while they are not obviously connected or related, you sense a kind of lineage and interconnectedness of each character and the reader feels an embodiment of the characters. Each character is like a reincarnated presence of another building on the book’s idea of recurrence. Based on Phillips’ own personal stories reimagined in a speculative way, the book reinstates women as creators of worlds, a status that is often refused to them in traditional religions and other public institutions. In the ending stories, “The Shift (Afina)” and Zero Point (You), the stories ascend from more personal stories to more social and cosmic, the latter much like 2001′s “starchild” about to descend into its avatar, both in the divine being descending into human form and the computer representation of someone sense. Whether the book is read forwards or backwards as it suggests in the end, Recurrence Plot manages to find balance between its own chaos and order.

Recurrence Plot book tourAdditional Reading:

The Power of Flow

Books mentioned in Recurrence Plot:

History and Memory in African American Culture

Astro-Mythology:The Celestial Union of Astrology and Myth

Grammatical Man: Information, Entropy, Language and Life

Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present

Recurrence Plot Part 2 coming in Winter 2015.

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