Essay: Towards a Pinay “We” Poetics

Source: AP News Photo
Source: AP News Photo

Part of my work progress and process on the Some Brown Girl: Notes on Pinay Liminality manuscript will be a refocus of this blog space, hence the website title change. I will be writing up a concise explanation of what “Pinay Liminality,” is, as I have been teaching it in my Filipina Literature class in USF’s Yuchengco Philippine Studies Program, as I have been working on it in my own writings and mentorship.

Speaking of mentorship, please have a look at this phenomenal work my students have done on Pinay Liminality. I love this so much; they deserve so much props and shout out for taking this classroom work into their own lives and spaces.

I want to post this following essay here: “Towards a Pinay ‘We’ Poetics,” which I had submitted for publication, though it sounds like — after some email correspondences with the editors — this project was cancelled or placed on indefinite hiatus. I had “rediscovered” this essay while searching my Google Drive for other works, and it is well worth putting into the world. It will be included in the Some Brown Girl manuscript.

Towards a Pinay “We” Poetics

I am interested in a “we” poetics. “We” is a persona in which I’ve been writing for a long time now, and even my “I” is a “we.” This came to my attention fully when poet Nathaniel Mackey articulated this “we,” in his discussion about the ongoing emergence journey of a people in his serial poem, “Song of the Andoumboulou.” This “we” appeals to me as a Filipina; I was raised in a culture of “we.” There are two Tagalog terms, pakikisama, and bayanihan, which speak to the social value of this “we” in practice. We are valued as members of a larger whole, in interaction and relation to others within this larger whole. We know ourselves as members of a larger whole, in interaction and relation to others within this larger whole.

Poetically, I also come from a tradition of a “we”; think of the community organizer, activist Filipino American poets Carlos Bulosan and Al Robles. While Robles wrote in Rappin’ With Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark, about and in the voices of the Manongs, the West Coast Filipino American migrant laborers of the early twentieth century, a socialism-oriented Bulosan invoked Whitmanesque multitudes of working men in “If You Want to Know What We Are.” I, too, have attempted to write as “the people,” this Filipino multitude:

We, Malakas and Maganda
We, Moluccas and Magellan
We, Devil and Dogeater
We, Starfruit and Sampaguita
We, Malakas and Maganda
We, Pepe and Pilar
We, Devil and Dogeater
We, Coconut and Crab
We, Malakas and Maganda
We, Eskinol and ESL
We, Devil and Dogeater
We, Igorot and Imelda
We, Malakas and Maganda
We, B-boy and Bulosan
We, Devil and Dogeater
We, Subic Bay and Stockton
We, Malakas and Maganda
We, Gangsta Rap and Galleon Trade
We, Devil and Dogeater
We, Comfort Woman and Carabao
We, Malakas and Maganda
We, Lea Salonga and Lapu-Lapu
We, Devil and Dogeater
We, TnT and Taguba
We, Malakas and Maganda

I think of this poem as conventionally “masculine”; I am acutely aware that I have already cited more male poets speaking as “the people,” in an essay about Pinay “we” poetics. I have previously written an essay on women of color and reticence*. I reject reticence as a natural state, and instead witness women writers of color ignored, or bullied into the interior provinces of the domestic, the personal, and private, while the men charge themselves with handling the “official story,” representing “the people,” addressing the outside world. Ultimately, many women are barred from being so ambitious as to speak on that “too big” outside world, effectively silenced. This is one contradition I am trying to unravel; the fine details of our everyday lives comprise a human being, communities of human beings, and the cultures of communities of human beings in the world. Writing these details then, should be regarded as ambitious.

With my third book, Diwata, I was centrally concerned with myth-making, and writing the Pinay version of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Storyteller. Indeed, Silko’s Storyteller was, along with a stack of books by Eduardo Galeano, a springboard for Diwata, as I tried to write in the voices of elder storytellers, to remember the stories they told, and the ones they never told. What intimate, unwritten knowledge, what “unofficial story,” do we hold in our memories and private spaces? What stories do we know in our bones, from having heard them so many times? What stories do we all collaboratively participate in telling? As women, how do these old mythic stories of mermaids and aswangs still hold relevance in the 21st century? Do we still need them (the stories, the tellers, the mermaids and aswangs)? What responsibility do we have to be the bearers and tellers of story, especially since many of these these elder storytellers have passed away?

Now, we are in danger of becoming disconnected, brown-skinned, immigrant American girls and women, living in American cities, besieged by a technology in which I find so much noise and so little wisdom, and which facilitates so little meaningful interaction or coming together of community and family into our sacred gathering spaces, our kitchen tables, our campfires and hearths. Revisiting Joy Harjo’s poem, “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” reminds us why these spaces are so important:

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

Discontended with thoughtless and passive online “community,” I want to demand something else. As an author, I have to ask whether the book can become our table and hearth, our sacred gathering space in which we may all collaboratively participate in the telling.

As Pinays, we constantly resist silence; many of us know the pain of having been mothered by silenced women. From within a culture of we, silence can be construed as consent, and dissent as an inconvenience, an alien, undesirable element undermining consensus and community. To dissent and to demand is to be a bitch. We dissent, are privately thanked and publicly alienated, as other women police the boundaries of acceptable thought, social behavior, and speech. This reprisal breaks my heart, because we know experientially that we cannot afford not to speak our piece in a world that so casually mistakes us Pinays, no matter how distinguished or accomplished, for nannies, maids, “bar girls,” mail order brides, various girls who service you. This is obscene and offensive, identifying all Filipino women as consenting, purchasable bodies in this commerce.

My second book, Poeta en San Francisco, rails against the international commerce of Filipina bodies, that expectation of being serviced, as has emerged from military, Christian, cultural, economic invasions of the islands. This commerce relies upon the denigration of the Pinay from her original position of social, religious, and civic power, and it relies upon her silence (construed as consent). Poeta en San Francisco rejects that silence (negates that construed consent) by aggressively indicting the Christian missionary, the American soldier, the sex tourist, the Asiaphile, those benefiting from our dehumanization; my position here is often called, “white man hating”:

[why choose pilipinas, remix]

the answer is simple, my friend. pilipinas are noteworthy for their beauty, grace, charm. they are especially noted for their loyalty. their nature is sun sweetened. their smiles downcast, coy. pilipinas possess intrinsic beauty men find delightful and irresistible. pilipinas are family-oriented by essence, resourceful, devoted. what’s more, english is the true official language of the pilipinas, so communication is uncomplicated. and even though some believe in the old ways, the majority of the pilipinas are christian, so you are assured they believe in the one true god you do. foreign, but not too foreign, they assimilate quickly and they do not make a fuss. in short, the pilipinas are custom tailored to fit your diverse needs.

now will that be cash or charge?

I culled the above text, “found poetry” from a Filipina mail order bride website; it is actual testimonial from satisfied customers, serving as marketing material for those men on the fence about purchasing a Filipina over girls from other impoverished nations.

I am a poet because I believe poems can effectively resist silence, and I believe in, as June Jordan has written, poetry as a humanizing project. In writing against the Filipina mail order bride dehumanization demonstrated above, the self-representation should be truly collective, not spoken in an imposed, singular Pinay voice silencing other Pinay voices.

If we collaboratively participate in the telling, then what does that look and sound like? That’s what I wanted to try to write next. I began to wonder whether overcoming Pinay silence could be as simple as asking a group of Pinays a series of questions, and opening up the space to answer. I have followed Bhanu Kapil’s example of gathering questionnaire responses from other South Asian women for her book, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. In her introduction, Kapil writes, “Is it possible for you to say the thing you have never been able to say, even to the one you have spent your whole life loving?” She aimed for an uncensored “honest and swift” text, and I’d wondered if any conditions we set up could really ensure such pure, unbolstered results.

I was also influenced by Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan’s poem, “One Question, Several Answers,” in which an unseen speaker asks the same one question, “Where did your father live?” again and again. The addressee appears to have no choice but to keep answering. From her responses to this persistent questioning, a picture of her father’s life in the WWII Japanese internment camps emerges, gains color, dimension, detail, and sadness.

I posted a call for participants on various Filipino artist and community listservs, and many Pinays wrote back to me, not to participate or to voice any opinion on the project. They wrote to me to make their presence known, either as private gestures of solidarity, or so that I could acknowledge them, which confirmed for me the need to be visible (or to overcome invisibility), and to be heard (or to overcome silence or being silenced).

I was disappointed but not surprised at the small number of Pinays who voiced interest in participating, and in the smaller number of Pinays who followed through, and responded to my questions about body, self-image, mothering, daughtering, home, voice, worry, and ritual. What I wanted to know: If we can speak for ourselves, then what are we saying about ourselves, how do we represent ourselves, what is privately and socially important to us. What’s really eating at us when we’re looking in the mirror, preoccupied with applying lipstick, dreading going on a diet (think unforgiving full-length mirror here) before we rush off to the next errand, task, or chore.

In the spirit of Anne Waldman’s “Fast Speaking Woman,” and her predecessor María Sabina, I have come to craft these Pinay responses into trance-like, incantatory bursts. In the spirit of Diwata, woman’s voice is wind, woman’s body is earth; woman is muse, deity, and poet, and these responses become woman-centric genealogies, prayers to our mothers and to ourselves:

Daughter of reinvented selves, she of the new names.

Daughter of Evangeline la Reina, daughter of Eve.

Daughter of Maria la China, she of the rice powdered face.

Daughter of Praxedes Adviento, she with the tree trunk arms.

Daughter of Trinidad y Adoracion, storytellers who do not speak.

Daughter of Everilda, lady of sharp tongued gossip.

Daughter of Rufina, maker of dresses, lover of orchids.

Daughter of Florentina, pursued by American soldiers.

Daughter of Leyteño peasant, daughter of .22 long rifle.

[…]

Daughter of Morena, we lift our eyes to the sun.

Daughter of Kayumanggi, we warm ourselves in your earth.

Litany, participatory prayer and procession, has been one of my organizing principles; repetition as affirmation, reinforcement, assertion, and public demonstration.

Mother of mother’s compassion.

Mother of are you eating enough.

Mother of put that away.

Mother of clean this up.

Mother of make your bed.

Mother of do your homework.

Mother of shut off the lights.

Mother of you’re so beautiful.

I am interested in these prayer-like forms elevating the domestic work which has been used to debase and silence us, as in poet Irene Faye Duller’s words, “I am the maid of the world, and the world has made me dirty.” Can we also be Whitmanesque multitudes of Pinays, speaking for ourselves, living, working, in which the voices and work of women are elevated, in which we are not just humanized, but even deified. This is the gist of the book I am currently writing.

As I have been blogging my thoughts on Pinay poetics, writing this essay, and thinking more about this book project, I have just heard from Tina Bartolome, a Pinay writer and San Francisco native, now finishing her MFA at Indiana University. I clicked over to her blog, and have found a treasure of thoughtful writing on her “literary universe,” as a politicized Pinay writer. I appreciate and need this resonance; certainly, now as I write more and more about this Pinay “we” poetics, I want to be able to articulate clearly what storytelling can do. Here are some points Tina has outlined:

  • Storytelling as taking inventory
  • Storytelling as collective memory
  • Storytelling as paying homage
  • Storytelling as a comrade to social change (a conversation in progress)

She elaborates on the last point by quoting Martín Espada’s Zapata’s Disciple: “Any oppressive social condition, before it can be changed, must be named and condemned in words that persuade by stirring the emotions, awakening the senses. Thus, the need for the political imagination.” And then further down in her post, Tina tells us she wants writing to “mess with hegemony.”

I recall Hayan Charara’s essay, which was his NEA Author Statement, “Animals: On the Role of the Poet in a Country at War,” in Perihelion:

And while I don’t believe that poems will keep bombs from falling on schools, or bullets from entering bodies, or tanks from rolling over houses, or men or women or children from being humiliated, poetry insists on the humanity of people, which violence steals away; and poems advocate the power of the imagination, which violence seeks to destroy. Poets change the world. I don’t mean literally, though some try. I mean with words, with language, they take the many things of this world and make them new, and when we read poems, we know the world and its many things differently—it might not be a better or worse place than the one we live in—just different—but without the imagination, without poetry, I don’t believe that the world as most of us know it would be tolerable.

This is messing with hegemony, to insist upon poetry as a humanizing project, through which we may imagine, envision something other that what we’re given, and inspire others to do the same — to think, to speak, to write, and to act in ways other than what is officially sanctioned. This is storytelling as transformative experience. Imagine Pinays transformed in international perception from consenting, silenced, servicing bodies in commerce into dignified human beings in the world; this transformation is facilitated in large part by art, literature, and cultural productions that we create, centering the Pinay, and portraying ourselves as speaking and acting human beings exercising free will and demanding to be heard.

Concerning “activism,” I fear I am abstract; poems will not, as Charara writes, “keep bombs from falling on schools, or bullets from entering bodies, or tanks from rolling over houses.” Still, considering the silences and noise of our everyday lives, I want neither of these. I want and need something else. Pinays are capable of so much bravery, and I need to connect with other Pinays who are brave, emboldened, who have opinions about the world, about art, about cultural movements, who are willing to engage in civil public discourse about these things—not just “thumbs up,” not just “like,” not just link. I believe these are the beginnings of a Pinay “we” poetics that messes with hegemony.

04/28/2011
Oakland, CA

* My essay, “On Feminism, Women of Color, Poetics, and Reticence: Some Considerations,” was first published in XCP: Cross Cultural Poetics #20, and reprinted in A Megaphone (Chain Links, 2011).

One thought on “Essay: Towards a Pinay “We” Poetics

  1. Thanks for writing this, Barbara! It hit on several emotional triggers for me that I’ve been thinking about for the past year as the way I think about own writing has evolved. As a kid, there was no sense of “we” as a Pinay, especially not in school and the specifics of my immediate environment/location. It felt more like “it’s just me”, wanting to fit in with Latina classmates/friends and making attempts to stand out from them and not realizing what those attempts meant until recently. It’s these voices that have been peeling back the layers of wallpaper on some really fantastic gems of stories and histories and truths and struggles that would’ve been so cool to grow up with reading about as a kid. But I’m glad to be exploring and thinking about them now as a young writer.

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