Salamat y gracias to Camille Dungy for including Poeta en San Francisco in her Poetry Foundation blog discussion of multilingualism and Englishes in American poetry (link is here). She discusses Keith Cartwright, M. NourbeSe Philip, Cathy Park Hong, and myself. An excerpt:
Though [Cathy Park Hong's] Dance Dance Revolution contains no glossary, the Historian serves as a sort of translator for some of the book’s more difficult passages. On the contrary, though parts or all of Barbara Jane Reyes’s Poeta en San Francisco are written in languages including Spanish, English, Tagalog, and Baybayin, the book includes no translation guides. We come to understand the script in the book in three ways: as image, as sound, and as signifier. For fluent readers of English these three modes of understanding usually align in a manner that sometimes causes over simplified readings. When we are forced out of our comfort zones, the three modes of understanding separate and the results can be particularly exciting and informative. I can’t read the Ancient Filipino script Baybayin, but I sure do love how it looks on the page. In the context of Reyes’s book, I have to question what my de-contextualized objectification of the script reveals. I don’t understand Tagalog, but I love to hear people speaking it. In the context of a book that directly investigates the fetishization of Asian people and lands, a response like, “That sounds so pretty and nice,” adds a layer to what we come to understand about the book and its subject matter.
First thing: I’m thrilled that baybayin is being discussed, particularly as one of its uses in pre-Hispanic Tagalog society, which was predominantly an oral culture, was indeed to write down poetry. I am quite happy to see that Camille’s discussion includes her encounter with it visually, as my inclusion of it in Poeta en SF has everything to do with its visual unfamiliarity. I think my colleagues may have felt alienated by their encounter with it in my numerous manuscript drafts, and really, there was nothing to be done about the alienation except to omit the baybayin, which wasn’t ever an option.
This reminds me of a Filipino American playwright who received his MFA at Columbia University over a decade ago. Apparently he had written a twenty-page play which he submitted for workshop, and within these twenty pages, the term “nipa hut” appeared once. Subsequently, his colleagues refused to read his work and discuss it, based upon this single foreign element.
I can only say I am fortunate that it never came to this for me.
It seems that folks like Camille previously unfamiliar with baybayin have been open to the experience of seeing it, and thinking about why it’s there, and thinking about their responses to its presence, knowing they cannot read it. It’s heartening to know that in her position as educator, her students have the space in which fruitful discussion can happen regarding this unfamiliar element, regarding centering the Other. By the way, in the book, the baybayin appears in the section entitled, “dis • orient.”
As for myself and the baybayin, I have questions regarding our pre-Hispanic elements and what relevance these have among Westernized, English-speaking Filipino Americans, or whether we ourselves objectify and fetishize the indigenous.
Now, as for English, some of you may know that we Filipinos have a pun-tastic way of dealing with the language, playing with it, stretching its boundaries and set definitions. I get that we do this to make light of the language which we were force fed. I get that we do this to claim this language on our own terms. It’s accurate to say that my/our relationship with English is a major point of discussion in my work, even one of the things informing the poetry’s architecture. I have previously blogged in more detail about Filipinos and language (see my MELUS Journal write-up), so I won’t say much more here.
Let me end with this: there are so many of these English usage jokes, mocking our own accents, and now that I think about it, perhaps even mocking the US citizenship exams for their English tests. These jokes are commonly shared in Filipino company, and serve some kind of bonding function (at one point in my life, this was the only way my father and I could interact in a civil manner). I could go on and on with these for a very long time:
- Q: Three bears were in a car, and the car went into the river. Which bear did not get wet?
- A: Da Dry-bear [Driver, get it?].
- Q: Use the word “deficit” in a sentence.
- A: Before I jump into the pool, I first must check how deficit.