This week I am scheduled to speak in Margaret Rhee’s Asian American Literature class at UC Berkeley, as she has once again assigned Diwata. I am always grateful for those who teach my work! I don’t know exactly what she and her students are discussing about the book, but I told Margaret that lately, I’ve become more and more interested in the narrative of the disobedient girl, the girl and/or woman who breaks the rules, the transgressive female narrative that obviously runs through my work. In what ways do they transgress — for really, the fact that they speak or even set foot outside of their homes can be breaking the rules. Why do they transgress, whom do they disobey, what figures of authority, what social rules. And hence, why? And what are the consequences and outcomes of transgression? How do these acts of transgression contribute to world-making?
This is where we talk about diwatas, muses, myth making. And of course, about feminism! Reconfiguring Pinay heroines to question and act against patriarchal norms. How my heroines do it, with much risk to themselves, and how writing against patriarchal norms is a continual challenge to me as an author. Because it’s not only about writing against Western standards and expectations, but also questioning Filipino American standards and expectations. Doing this, there are consequences. Something about airing dirty laundry or exposing cultural baggage and ugliness, when we are always expected to show only “the beauty of our culture and our people.” But whose standards of beauty? And what if those are colonially defined? And what if those are also narrowly, anti-intellectually defined?
Remember Manuel Ocampo’s “Free Aesthetic Pleasure Now!” exhibit.
So those are some thoughts for this week.
Last week, I visited Valerie Soe’s Asian American Studies Community Arts course at SFSU, and this sure was something! We discussed my poem, “A Little Bit About Lola Ilang,” from Diwata, and we talked about the art of storytelling. So then: voice and POV, the particulars of any specific POV, how that speaker uses language, how they speak is determined by to whom they are speaking. In other words, how does storytelling in intimate settings determine the storyteller’s language, inside language, codes, shortcuts, known givens. Digressions. How this is different from “official testimony,” narratives in historical and academic texts. But even before that, how does one enter or create a storytelling space? And here we discussed centering exchange and offering, versus centering tools/devices for documentation, having these set literally in between us and our storytellers.
The language and subject matter of ”A Little Bit About Lola Ilang,” while historical, is also so intimate that it brought at least one of the students to tears. And this got us talking about where stories are in our families and in our midst, but how they are still untold. How we need to learn how to ask (hence, offering and exchange), and we need to learn to listen very finely, rather than treating our elders coldly, scientifically, as “interview subjects.”
Part of this talkstory session being so emotional also had to do with at least one student saying she has never read anything about “us” in books before. I then told the class that as a poet and as an author, it’s very very important for me to get that process right — the listening, the paying attention to nuance and specifics of language; the writing of each poem and then the entire collection; the work of finding editors who are great readers of this work and who are champions of this work; the importance of production and distribution. For me, this is what’s really high stakes with getting it right in this industry.