Skoliogeography: Writing the Place of Time

Words and pictures by Natasha Burge, author of Drifts

I was standing at the edge of an archeological site with the glinting water of the Arabian Gulf at my back, a sprawling sixth century fort to my right, and the excavated remnants of an ancient street at my feet.

On the northern coast of Bahrain, the Qal’at al Bahrain archeological site chronicles more than four thousand years of habitation by Dilmuns, Kassites, Greeks, Persians and more.

Gazing down at the roughhewn walls pockmarked and golden in the late afternoon sun, an idea – long a murky yearning – began to crystalize, about a book that would tell a story from the indefinable point where place and identity intersect. 

As an American born and raised in the Arabian Gulf, from a family who lived here for more than half a century over 3 generations, my notion of home is complex.

I knew that I wanted to explore that transcultural complexity through a series of psychogeographic drifts in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, but what I didn’t yet realize was just how much my eventual book, Drifts, would also be centered around time.

Drifts, first of all, took its time. 

Writers observe that our books seem to have minds of their own and it is not our job to bully them into existence, rather to usher them into being while respecting their wishes.

When I initially tried to write Drifts, it eluded me. A reader of the earliest chapters told me that perhaps I would be able to write it in the future – that I needed more time. So I wrote a novel instead. But those nascent passages stayed with me. Over several years, I worked on the book sporadically, writing for stretches of weeks or months before realizing I once again needed to put it away and give myself more time.

In the midst of the years Drifts slowly swirled itself into being, a neuropsychologist diagnosed me as autistic. 

A common observation of late-diagnosed autistic people is that being identified autistic initiates a retrospective analysis of one’s life: time is suddenly strung together in a new way and experiences that never quite made sense finally do. I found myself dashing through time like a stone skipping along the surface of a lake, examining my memories in wonder.

Some have suggested that autistic people have the propensity to experience time in unique ways, not merely as a sequential chain of events, but as a visceral sense of the past, present, and future occurring simultaneously. 

"Being identified autistic initiates a retrospective analysis of one’s life: time is suddenly strung together in a new way and experiences that never quite made sense finally do."

I discovered this temporal perspective was already evident in the early chapters of Drifts, in that I had never felt beholden to tell a singular story in a straightforward way.

I let the book shatter where it wanted to shatter and stories from my own past bubbled up alongside stories from the Gulf’s deep past, from the lush interstitial zone that exists between cultures, stories of freshwater springs and semi-sentient mountains spurred to movement by love.

This temporal mutability allowed for other tales to twine themselves into the text. They emerged as I threaded myself through the landscape, walking among ancient jebels, catching whispers of the sagas told by the circling honey buzzard and the flower-strewn wadi waiting for rain.

As time passed and I learned more about autism – and how it often looks nothing like what the cliches tell us – I understood why I had so frequently been told that my psychogeographic writing was strange. 

My writing diverged from expectations, in part, because it was so thoroughly autistic. I discovered this was already in full bloom in the early pages of Drifts


In the book’s fragmentation, orthogonal trajectories, perseveration on detailed depictions of setting, and its insistence on a mercurial understanding of self, these initial chapters had been telling me I was autistic long before a doctor ever did.

I realized that these traits did not have to be something in need of fixing, they were not quirks or wayward aberrations; the ways that autism shaped the telling of Drifts was integral to the story the book was trying to tell. Sometimes the things that don’t quite fit are not mistakes, but signposts.

Following these signposts, then, I began to imagine a form of psychogeography that made space – and time – for autistic modes of perception and expression.

I called it skoliogeography.

"My writing diverged from expectations, in part, because it was so thoroughly autistic."

For me, skoliogeography has been about finding the marvelous – even the miraculous – in the mundane. 

The world is suffused with wonder and skoliogeography has been my way of seeking that out and sharing it with others. This practice emerged over several years – more accurately, over a lifetime – and it remains a porous, shifting dance of intention and surprise. 

As the evolution of skoliogeography emerges across the stories in Drifts, there are excursions into ancient caves in the wake of the Gulf War, school fieldtrips to Masmak Fort in Riyadh, icy winter walks at the edge of London, and summer evenings lit by lightning bugs in the fields of South Texas. 

The book, which insisted on taking its own time coming into the world, also insisted on traversing millions of years into the past to witness the geologic emergence of the Arabian Peninsula landmass, just as it insisted on remaining oriented to the relentless churn of the present moment. 

Drifts tells a story from a moment in many times, a story that is still emerging from the interstices, a story that is, even now, unfolding.

Skoliophotography: Natasha's views from the Gulf

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