we, the memorium 

The settlement (or perhaps we can finally say recolonization) of Sphere-67 took place in a fervour of utopian piety.  High and lofty were the ideals they carried with them to the new planet, and the induced amnesia worked well, ensuring that the old hatreds, rivalries and suspicions could not travel with them. They lived for the first time in millennia in harmony; free from the scourge of violence, sharing common goals, respect, and rights that were honoured by all.

There were however, those who were immune to the amnesia. The other survivors called them ‘the memoriam'  because they were like walking, breathing monuments to a world long extinguished. The origin of this nickname was rooted in an ancient old-world tongue called Latin, meaning “in memory of” or “as a memorial to,” typically used by the sapiens in memorials to their dead[ “In memoriam.” (1) But in this new world there was no death. And so the memorium were named for their ability to recall something of that old world, of which only fragments and impressions now remain.

[Intrusions]. This is what I call them when I can admit to myself that the [intrusions] have been a part of my life for as long as I have known memory. [The intrusions] are [memories that do not belong to me] but that, nevertheless, [live and move] inside me. I house [them] within the breathing walls of my body because, it seems, [they] have nowhere else to go. [They] risk being lost or damaged in another body - a body that is perhaps already crowded with [too many unbearable memories].

Here is a basic example of how [an intrusion] is deposited:

It’s 2020. I call up my folks to see how they are doing during Covid Lockdown 1. They live about  an hour away from me in one of the outer suburbs of Sydney. My mother answers the phone and I can hear my father talking in the background. Her voice confirms that she still looks upon the world as if everything is new to her. She tells me- “I have never experienced anything like this before!” 
My father rebuffs her:  
“Yes you have,” I hear him say. “Remember in 1958 when we all had to stay inside because of the race riots.” 
“Yes,” she says. “They told us: சிங்களவர்கள் வந்து வெட்டுவார்கள்.” Stay inside or the Sinhalese will hack you up. She sounds mildly amused.  
My father gets on the phone to elaborate: “Some of our boys heard the army was coming and put up a barricade at the end of the street. As soon as the army arrived they sprayed the whole place with bullets. But a lot of people were sleeping on the floors out the back of their shops etcetera so they survived. It was the shop windows and things that were damaged.” [All of this] is conveyed in the same tone my father would use to tell my mother they have run out of milk.

I know about the ‘58 riots in Sri Lanka as a historical event. I had never placed my parents in this context because they never mentioned that they too went into lockdown at the time. Suddenly  Covid has reminded them of the riots because once again (more than sixty years later) they find themselves in a position where they cannot leave the house. And this is how [an intrusion] is formed. It is not my memory but suddenly I can see [the barricade at the end of the street, and the army truck pulling up just before it]. I can see [the guns they carry], hear the [bullets and the breaking glass], feel [the weight of expectancy in the air]. I can see [my mother, a ten year old girl, with two short black braids sitting in her living room in Jaffna town by the handmade lace curtains that my grandmother has made for the house, listening to the news on the radio, waiting quietly to see what happens so she can go back outside as soon as it is all over to ride one of her brothers’ bicycles]. I can see [my father’s face, already taciturn at the age of 19, silently taking in this happening in his neighbourhood, attentive but without any expression that could belie his feelings, even to himself]. This was the year he did his final Highschool exams and entered the Medical College; an extremely competitive feat in a time and a place where career options were few and doctors were treated like gods in their villages. Only when I get off the phone does the revelation land: my father never mentioned the riots disrupting his HSC year.

Somehow the memoriam had retained something of the spirit of the old world- its violence and its corruption. They were not necessarily violent or corrupt themselves, but their instinctive understanding of how such things once existed and operated, was in itself disturbing to the utopian survivors who had built for themselves a world of perfect idealism, hope and easy communion with each other. It unsettled the wider population.

The memoriam did not sleep. They carried with them knowledge of erased languages and proscribed words. These languages followed them like shadows, making the others uncomfortable in their presence. They were tolerated because they could fit into the various Sphere-67 work colonies and carry out tasks as well as anyone else. The majority of survivors barely registered that it was a superficial fitting.

Because they did not sleep the memoriam took on the hue of beings who suffered from the eradicated condition commonly referred to in old-world tongues as ‘jaundice’. On the other hand, their overexposure to the Sphere-67 atmosphere (they did not spend enough time in the oxygenated sleep capsules) kept them looking younger for longer and there were those who envied the memorium for their youthful appearance though they would not wish upon themselves the waking nightmare of being in those bodies.

In 2009, aged 27, I stole hundreds of images from the Fairfax Media Photo Library where I worked part-time as a Photo Librarian. By ‘stole’ I mean, I copied them without permission and took them home with me, filing them away and green and blue manilla folders according to the years they were taken; green for things that happened on land and blue for things that happened at sea. They were black-and-white and sepia  pictures taken by foreign journalists of the race riots that happened in Sri Lanka in 1983 and of some of the events that lead up to it. Among these photographs were pictures of Tamils in the moments before they were lynched by mobs. Pictures of people with black rubber tires hung around their necks moments before [those tires would be set alight], a practice called [necklacing], copied from the ANC (African National Congress) in South Africa. How, I wondered, did the people who took these photographs walk away afterwards? Did they behave the same way those wildlife documentary makers do when they see a pack of hyenas attacking a zebra, leaving nature to take its course once they had what they needed?

The victims in these pictures looked no different from the surrounding mob. Only the expression on their face marked them as the one who would die in that scene. Looking at those pictures I understood why [during the ‘83 riots, Sinhalese mobs stopped cars on the road in Colombo asking drivers and passengers to pronounce Sinhalese words that would betray their native language]. They couldn’t tell otherwise who the enemies were. [Those who could not pronounce the words were dragged from their cars and burnt alive]. There were pictures of shops that were looted, pictures of civilian bodies lying lifeless and mangled after the first LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) bombings, pictures of [things I had heard about my whole life]. I mean “my whole life” precisely, since I was born the year that the Jaffna Public Library was burnt down by organized Sinhalese mobs and I began speaking in 1983, the year of the riots that sparked the Sri Lankan Civil War. It is not lost on me that I was born in the year of one of the century’s most violent biblioclasms, a book burning that destroyed so many irreplaceable ancient documents written in தமிழ்- the language of my ancestors. I have been a gatherer of imperilled  information ever since.

With the images I stole, I tried to match up some real-life pictures to [the ones that lived inside me]. I did not see it as theft at the time. I felt entitled to those images. The Civil War was ending in Sri Lanka and I could see that the story of this struggle was about to be rewritten by the winners. I took back those images from the Fairfax to hold onto what happened.

We retrieved,  from the old-world records via their primitive “world-wide” web (which did not seem to actually reach world wide), the notes of Dr. M. Atkinson in their studies of the of the pandemic phenomena of trauma: “Post memory then is: not mediated by recall but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation. To grow up with such overwhelming inherited memories, to be dominated by narratives that preceded one’s birth or one’s consciousness, is to risk one’s own stories and experiences displaced, even evacuated, by those of a previous generation. It is to be shaped, however indirectly, by traumatic events that deny narrative reconstruction and exceed comprehension. These events happened in the past, but their effects continue into the present.” (2)

This ability to access postmemory was the requisite in selecting and programming  those post-sapien beings who were intended to serve society as ‘memoriam’. Their job was to remember so that others could forget. This would localize the knowledge of old-world concepts to a minority of the population and thus propagate ideas that aligned with the utopian experiment. We could not know in advance that the memoriam would go further than just storing memories from the old world. In a sense, they lived with one foot in that world and one foot in this one.  

2021. My uncle in his early seventies has a minor stroke but seems to be recovering now. My father tells me his own 82-year-old memory is fading because he is forgetting the brand names of drugs he used to prescribe to patients and can now only remember the scientific names of say β-blockers, while the once-familiar timolol, carteolol, betaxolol and metipranolol elude him.  Still, he can remember the case history information of stroke patients he saw in 1973, the year he spent working in the Neuro-Ophthalmology Clinic at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London. He relates this information to the stroke case, complaining essentially, about what my uncle should be doing but is not. Then he says:  
“I had an uncle who had a stroke once. He came to live with us in Jaffna.”  
A sudden keenness enters his features, as if the 19-year-old he once was, is pushing aside the old man he now is, to get this story out.  
“Where was he before?” I ask, trawling my brain for which relative he might be talking about. 
“He was in Nuwara Eliya,” he says. “He had a [good government job] there, but he came back during the riots... In ‘58.”  
Nuwara Eliya was a place that was known -is still known- for its [beautiful rose gardens]; gardens that can thrive only in Nuwara Eliya because of the unusually  temperate climate. It was considered a [haven for the British when they occupied Sri Lanka] because it provided a refuge from the inferno-like heat experienced by the rest of the country. 
My father continues: “He didn’t show up to work one day so they sent someone to go and look for him. His colleague found him at home, hiding under his bed. He was afraid he would be killed by a mob if he went to work. He asked to be sent back to his sister’s place (your grandmother’s place) in Jaffna and the colleague arranged for it. When he arrived there he had a stroke.” 
“Because of the riots?” I ask. 
“Yes, in some cases extreme fear can cause a stroke. [He used to get angry- very angry- he would shake sometimes because he was so angry he couldn’t express himself]. He never spoke again.”

I note how in these moments, my father- whom I feared growing up for his own thunderous anger- can so calmly relay this information. He gives me the facts. I attach the horror and the devastation to it. It will plague me over the next few months, and beyond. Why have we never spoken of this before? I will experience the anguish my father does not display. I will experience the sorrow. I want to ask my father (but never will) if looking back, he thinks it was a high price to pay, not feeling his own feelings in real time to enter the medical college the year all this happened. Instead I will carry these snapshots for him, carry them into the future, inserting the associated feelings like well-worded captions embedded in metadata, accepting the role of the living archive and housing these [undocumented attrocities], because I simply do not know any other way of being.

Once of the key questions asked in the knowledge sharing consortiums dedicated to the Sphere-67 mission were: are their ghosts in this new world? Or is it, because people will not commit atrocities anymore, or because they will be more emotionally attuned, that there is not enough ‘unfinished business’ to create a ghost? This was one of the most difficult questions put to us by researchers and technicians from the android synth labs.

2012. I am 30-years-old when I first set foot in the country of my ancestors. When I say country I mean it in the same way that, in Australia, First Nations people use the word; I mean ஊர்; not the British colony of Ceylon or the nation state of Sri Lanka, but the copper soil of Jaffna, its insular cement walls, the palmyrah that pierce the sky, and the pure (or antiquated) Tamil they speak there, depending on who you ask. It is that dry land where only tobacco really grew easily, where they say the harshness of the soil has taken root in its people, shaping a culture of ambition, tenacity, cunning and fierce competition, unimaginable to most Australians and perplexing even to other Sri Lankans. The Civil War was over, yet there were government soldiers on every corner. The scars of war were only freshly forming; and one could sense the tender wound still pulsing underneath.

[My parents’ country] has always been an imaginary one. I could not go there for thirty years because it was always occupied by some armed forces or other, be that the Sri Lankan army, the LTTE (along with other armed dissident groups) or the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Forces). The [images I had of the places they had grown up] were too vivid, hyper saturated by a child’s imagination. I felt I was visiting a museum where some of the displays I’d been promised were missing; the imaginary country had been introduced to me through the rose-coloured glasses of my parents’ nostalgia, a curated version corroborated by all the uncles and aunties who were part of the mass exodus of Sri Lankan Tamils who left in the 1980s. They could afford such illusions because they left Sri Lanka with a fully formed cultural identity. They were here to forget. I went there to remember.

We noted the previous occupants of Sphere-67 erected monuments of memory on their lands and we took a thorough inventory of their records before the recolonization. They had, it seemed, housed their stronger archival resources in people’s homes and in the hand-held devices they carried in their pockets, and in the conversations that pipelined this information between human bodies. We found these to be the more robust records, strong enough to accompany the sapiens through life and be passed from generation to generation. We noted that the structures erected by the colonizers among them seemed to house the most fragile remnants of the old-world. They thus required protection in great sandstone buildings, covered by domes or veiled by glass casing. We noted the hubris of the old world colonizers: in constructing small fortresses around their records, they had made a spectacle of their own weakness.

So strong is a displaced parent’s need to record what they have lost that they can store this loss in us, their offspring, via mechanisms we will barely register until it is much too late to choose a response. They can crowd out our own memories, making us the repository for all that they cannot bear or bare but, at the same time, fear losing. We cannot challenge any of it. With no lived experience of the home country, and no representation of ourselves in the dominant western cultures that ignore us even as they shape us, we fall victim to imagination, a wild and unmappable place where it is easy to get lost, to lose oneself, and to misunderstand where their story ends and ours begins.

Archiving extends conscious memory into the past as well as into the future. Those who do not have the power of the state behind them, those whose identity is systematically destroyed by the state’s self-aggrandizing version of events, must create their own archives to survive that destruction. We make with our own bodies those archives. Who is this we? It is not one specific ethnic diaspora that I speak of though I have specified the struggle of Sri Lankan Tamils here. Why do these snapshots of others’ lives make their way into some of us and not others? Why is it that some of us cannot help but breathe life into the past in such a terrifyingly vivid way?

The memoriam were the only “people'' who experienced an (albeit fleeting) understanding, before the experiment was shut down, that the utopia of Sphere-67 was in fact a collective of androids; that the induced amnesia only worked because the survivors were made up of enough machine parts to actually have disks and drives that could be wiped in the first place, that the oxygenated capsules they slept in were not about oxygen at all but keeping their machine parts at a certain temperature to avoid overheating. The capsules also served as ‘evidence’ for the utopian origin myth that they were all humans who had survived some cataclysmic event. This fabrication, we reasoned, would make it easier for them to simulate human behaviour if they could go about unaware that they were, in fact,  the synthetic hybrid creations of an alien species. Unable to save them from themselves, we endeavoured to salvage some of their consciousness and recreate what could have been, embedding (via those they called the memoriam) a living archive into their world so they would not be forgotten by the cosmos.

The memoriam, however, could not easily adapt to this world we’d created for them. The very postmemory they were selected for disrupted them. Somehow, like a leaked battery (see appendix for an explanation of this anachronistic analogy), memory had worked its way into their main frames. There the memories took root and seemed to take on a life of their own, knocking at the structure trying to get out. In other words, memory lived in their flesh, albeit synthetic flesh. It could not be dislodged because how does one get rid of something that, like rhythm or DNA, flows through the flesh?

In direct proportion to my capacity to accommodate [the intrusions] is the violence of my imagination. I am not a gracious repository. I resist [the intrusions]. I feel ambivalent about having to care about anything or anyone outside of myself. At times I feel like a traitor, knowing that I am storing the very things people would rather forget, an archivist working against their own culture in preventing those acts of conscious destruction that are as much a part of archiving as the act of preserving (3). The more [intrusions] my body accommodates, the more adept it becomes at projecting itself into other spaces, times, dimensions. There is simply not enough space in this body for all of me so “me” seeks to exist elsewhere. I inhabit the song, the character in the prose, the body on screen that is not mine, at times overidentifying and getting enmeshed with some of the many imagined worlds I am exposed to. I feel most at home in my own body when it is engaged in the act of creation; the act of pouring itself into something outside of itself. When you cannot comfortably inhabit the present, because your past is largely imaginary you end up inhabiting imaginary futures, imaginary selves. Your present self is simply too full, too crammed with stories whose survival you have been charged with, to provide you a tranquil dwelling.

And so, there I am, in a story about Sphere-67; a post-apocalyptic tale about what happens to planet earth after humans are long gone but sentient aliens have salvaged some of our consciousness and grafted it into androids whom they program to recreate the world- only this time fairer. Somehow in this narrative I am still here (and somehow I am still a troublemaker) along with all those people afflicted with postmemory, all those people who are living archives of a traumatic past. In a post-sapien world it is us who have survived, still strangers among our own kind, but still here.

We, the memoriam, see portals where you see products. You can recognize us easily by our obsession with pop culture or fantasy or fiction, by the way we move in and out of story the way you move effortlessly between land and water. We house the pain of our people and expect them to walk by us the way I’ll always walk by the Museum of Contemporary Art at Circular Quay on a sunny day, ignoring its imposing structure and instead turning my face towards the heaving harbour and its salty sea breeze because that is where life teems. That is where the future lives. It is the price we pay for our gifts and, in my case, for the safety this lottery of life has bestowed upon me. And this is as it should be. This is how we, the memoriam, the artists, thinkers, storytellers, and seers, were meant to serve our societies.

  1.  “In memoriam.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/in%20memoriam. Accessed 14 Jul. 2021.
  2. Atkinson, Meera. 2018, Traumata. Lucia, Queensland : University of Queensland Press (p 116)
  3. Machado, Carmen Maria. 2020, In The Dream House, London: Serpent's Tail. (p.2-3)