Trading Time: Memory as Currency in “Sexagesimal”
[Ed. note: As part of The Book of Apex Blog Tour, we are very excited to present this guest post from author Katharine Duckett. She graciously agreed to unlock all of the secrets of her story “Sexagesimal,” explain the concepts behind her unique post-death economy of memories, reveal the mystical rituals of Kazakhstan that helped her become a world-famous writer, and share a word about sheep head soup. This is probably the smartest 1300 words that will ever be published at Two Dudes. Thank you, Katherine, and everyone else please enjoy!]
You can see summer from here,” said Zoya. “On a clear day, anyway. And September’s a ten-minute walk.”
When I write stories, the opening line usually remains the same, from first draft to the last. Everything else gets reworked, thrown out, mixed up, and reconfigured, but the nugget of a concept contained in that first line endures.
“You can see summer from here” was the first line of “Sexagesimal” I wrote, long before I understood the world of the story. From there, I began experimenting with the idea of a place where time worked differently than in our reality, where seasons could co-exist and characters could wander from year to year. I wanted space for that scenario to unfold, for the idea to follow its own logic, while still feeling solid and plausible to readers. The Afterlife presented itself as a natural setting: it’s hard to argue with any certainty about the mechanics of what happens after death, and it allows room for all kinds of imaginative scenarios, like the many explored in David Eagleman’s excellent Sum, a collection of “forty tales from the afterlives.” I started sketching out the trajectories of a few different characters who were making their way through the Afterlife’s murky landscape, and realized that, without money, materials, or other obvious assets, their memories would be the most valuable resource they possessed. What would survival look like, in such a world? What sort of value would people assign to different experiences, and how would they barter for them?
The development of Teskia, the story’s main character, came from pieces of my own experience with memory and its loss. In the time before I began writing “Sexagesimal,” my great-aunt, and then my grandmother, were both diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which brought home to me the fragility of personal memories and narratives. The way they experienced the disease differed greatly: my great-aunt, who eventually died from its complications, seemed to lose great swaths of herself suddenly, fading quickly and succumbing fully to dementia. My grandmother, on the other hand, misplaces names, or times, or the functions of objects, but remains herself, at the core of things, cracking jokes and singing old Irish songs, retaining small, valuable bits of her life even as her perception clouds and warps. With Alzheimer’s, of course, you have no choice about which memories you surrender: but what, I imagined, if you did? What if, like Teskia, who also suffers from Alzheimer’s before she dies, you had experienced the leaking of your memories, the indiscriminate loss of portions of yourself, and then had the chance to curate those experiences, to regain them all and pick and choose what you kept? Who would you become, if you gave up your eighth year, or your wedding day, or your guiltiest secret?
I was doing a lot of thinking about the subjective nature of personal experience around the time I finished writing “Sexagesimal.” I’d just moved back to the United States after two years of living in Kazakhstan, teaching English with the Peace Corps in a remote village in the Kyzyl Kym desert. I carried around all kinds of particular memories I couldn’t transfer to anyone else: the memory of stargazing from the window of a train on a 30-hour trip across the steppe; of eating countless communal meals of beshbarmak, a national dish of noodles, onions, and sheep’s head; of dodging a group of frogs who had taken up residence in my family’s banya while trying not to scald myself with boiling water or fall through the gaps in the wood-slatted floor. My English had suffered from two years without a trip to the States (to the point where a new volunteer who arrived during my second year, thinking I was a native Russian co-teacher, told me, “Wow! You speak English really well!”), so the disjointed format of “Sexagesimal” worked well for me, creating the sense of dislocation and isolation I sought to express. As I readjusted to life in the States, those two years became less and less tangible, existing only, in some ways, in my head. I could recall what it felt like to live on the steppe, but I was not that person any longer: my context changed how I related to those experiences, and without anyone else around who shared them intimately and lived them daily, they fell into the realm of story.
We tell stories to share experiences, but I think all writers are aware of the limits of the form, of the fact that full immersion in someone else’s mind is impossible, though art strives to bridge that gap. I’m always curious to see how other writers approach the thorny problem of memory and experience, and am currently reading a novel that explores the idea of memory of currency, in deep, literal detail. Trading Rosemary by Octavia Cade presents a future world where memories can be cast as coins, traded, and collected. It’s a fascinating take on the same concept I started from in “Sexagesimal,” and I’ve been struck by the similarities and differences of Cade’s exploration of the theme. One feature our stories share is that characters retain some vague sense of the memory they’ve lost, even after it has passed into someone else’s hands. In my story, I described this sense as being like “a story you heard somewhere, once. Like something you read in a book, but you couldn’t remember which one, or when, or why you cared.” In the moment of reading, we can connect so intensely to a character’s experience that we lose ourselves, completely; but we always come back to our own realities, and that sense of communion becomes distant, simultaneously real and unreal.
So it is with love, like the love Teskia and Julio, her partner, experience in their lives and deaths. They share the same bond, in a sense, that an author and reader share: a sense of inherent trust, of assured divulgence of necessary facts and secrets. Teskia and Julio grow up together and share nearly every moment of their lives together, but they can never share exactly the same experiences, or fully know each other’s minds. The name of the story, “Sexagesimal,” means a system that uses sixty as its base, like our measurement of time, but I also sometimes thought of it as “sex/age/simul,” which seemed like a description of Teskia and Julio’s connection. They’d shared bodies, years, and simultaneous lives, but this closeness made them blind to the cracks forming between them. The most valuable memories turned out to be the ones they’d kept from one another: the ones Teskia struggles to work out as Julio lies helpless in the Afterlife.
A short story can only contain so much, and even a novel cannot encompass the full scope of any life. Writers must always pick and choose, deciding which experiences are the most important, which details make the cut. I’m interested in the conversation around assessing that value, as well as the pitfalls of trying to do so: after all, who can say what makes one memory more valuable than another, especially with regard to someone else’s experience? “Sexagesimal” represents an attempt to engage with those issues by turning memory into currency, while recognizing that perception and experience are not straightforward things, and that neither minutes nor stories can be traded with total clarity; though as writers, of course, we will always try to do just that.