“Astounding Tongue-Fuckery”

[Currently on the iPod: Africa Bambaataa, "Renegades of Funk." This blog post should be read accompanied by this song.]

Yeah, so the other day I’d written this beautiful blog post about reading my students’ last journal entries and final projects in Filipino American Arts. I was struck by how thoughtful, critical, and insightful their writing and art pieces were. So much revelation was happening, so much stretching outside of their apparent social, linguistic, artistic comfort zones into illuminating work. Lots of risk taking, and voicing enjoyment for the material covered, the in class discussions, the kinds of hard questions we have asked, voicing gratitude for what they were able to accomplish this semester. I am being deliberately over-general because I don’t want to break any confidences, but suffice it to say, I’m so pleased with the depths of their excavations.

Anyway, I didn’t post that blog entry, because then I got caught up in some reading. I’ve finished John Murillo’s Up Jump the Boogie, and have just started Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado. I wanted to say that Murillo could be the poet child of Patrick Rosal, but I didn’t want that to sound belittling in any way. I also wanted to say that Murillo takes what Rosal does in Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive, and builds on it, even improves upon it, a Hip-hop poetics firmly based in literary tradition. But I didn’t want this to sound derogatory in any way. So I’ll just say that Murillo’s book, while not perfect, is very clean, tight with language, and as a reader and poet, I am wholly satisfied with it.

Now I’ve just started Syjuco’s Ilustrado, and out of curiosity, browsed user reviews of Goodreads. There seems to be a trend in these reviews: readers are irritated with Syjuco’s relentlessly, energetically clever use of language. Indeed, a few pages in, and I’m wondering how he can sustain it for 300 pages. I also find myself frequently laughing out loud at his pointedness and cleverness. I am thinking though, pretty hard, about this trend of irritation at his cleverness.

I think this ties in with some of my recent conversations with Oscar, about relationships with language — “proper,” and academic English, legalese, managed care terminology, political double-speak, or to reference Dan Vera again (in his AWP talk with Split This Rock), “astounding tongue-fuckery.” While Vera was specifically citing the Bush administration, I’ll use this term interchangeably with political double-speak, the kind of language that is used to disenfranchise common folk.

As Filipinos, we have a loaded relationship with the English language, which I believe is why we pun “bad” English, deliberately mispronounce and redefine English words. These are some ways of claiming ownership over the language, and isn’t it great, how we empower ourselves with the “master’s” language. Then I remember how I am not the only Filipino American who cringes and winces when Manny Pacquiao speaks to the American media post-fight, what kind of weird mangled English is going to come out of his mouth; I think this must make me an elitist or self-hating Filipino.

Then here we are, a community of authors making headway in the American literary industry, which in my mind means we’re mastering the English language, making it work on multiple levels, manipulating it to do what we want it to do, and enjoying it, even reveling in it. And shouldn’t we? Back to Murillo and Rosal, think of the battle rhymers. Think of poets, wordsmiths as members of this extended family. Think of troubadours battling sestina, think of dupleros (battlers in balagtasan). Language is our medium, and it is our tool (or to rephrase with a cliche, “words as weapons”); indeed I revel in it, or in my ability to use it critically and incisively. I’m continually surprised at and afraid of what I can do with language.

Given our cultural value of hiya (with which I have a complicated relationship), when is the above interpreted as showing off, or as generally an undesirable quality? And then given our cultural value of pakikisama, can an individual author who exhibits such skill with language in an individually authored work have a comfortable place within our community? I am wondering if wordsmiths are ever really trusted by the communities to which they (think they) belong.

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Barbara Jane Reyes

Author of Gravities of Center, Poeta en San Francisco, and Diwata. Adjunct professor in Philippine Studies at University of San Francisco.

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