Essay: To Decenter English (Re: the Forked Tongue!)

Dredging my Google Drive for my essays continues! This one is forthcoming in the Wesleyan University Press poetics volume, American Poets in the 21st Century: Poetics of Social Engagement. This coincides with some really great FB discussions I am having (who knew we could have really great FB discussions) about Pinays and liminality, shapeshifting and resistance. I love the forked tongue metaphor, calling back to our being monsters, monstrosities, aswangs. And that somehow, we are tapping into a self-knowledge that we weren’t meant to have? Or that it’s inconvenient for others that we have this kind of self-knowledge.

To Decenter English

Lately, I have been asking myself, what would it look like, to truly decenter English in my poetry?

As is frequently noted about my poetry, it is multilingual, incorporating Spanish, modern Tagalog, and Baybayin/pre-hispanic Tagalog script into its predominantly English poetic body. “Incorporate,” indicates subsumption, assimilation into a dominant body. This is problematic and insufficient to me, as the body is still identified as an English one. Other non-English elements are viewed as ancillary, and even embellishment. I used to think that not to italicizing the “foreign” words in my poems was a form of dissent that would challenge the reader’s assumptions of foreignness. I continue not to italicize, though these days, I question whether that affects readers’ perceptions at all.

And so we must question English. A quick internet search will tell you that Filipinos have been ruled in English since 1898, and instructed in English since 1901. Question though, whether Filipinos are fluent in English — what constitutes fluency, what qualifies as fluency, especially in a (post)(neo)colonially stratified society — or whether Filipinos know enough English in order to mimic, but more so to be ruled and instructed, to execute basic commands. Question also: Which English? Whose English? The poet Jaime Jacinto once used the term, “subtracted bilingual,” to describe people like us, our fluency in our elders’ tongues disrupted by American education. Look up: Tag-lish. Code Switch. But do not assume all Filipinos are Tagalog speakers.

Question understanding, comprehension, readability — question whose understanding, whose comprehension. Readability for whom?

I was raised and almost exclusively educated in the USA (I spent one semester at University of the Philippines at Diliman), and still, these questions of language do pertain to me. For many of my parents’ and other elders’ generations of Philippine emigrants, I have learned they never feel entirely “at home” in English. My interactions and communications with them exist in a perpetual state of translation, or in some kind of third space. We collaborate, oftentimes clumsily, in an effort to agree upon meanings. Much of our system of communication is comprised of gesture, tone, and volume. Mostly, we remain in various states of disconnect. Can my poetry ever reach them, and if not, then have I failed as a poet.

In college, I took two semesters of Tagalog language classes. While I would like to think these classes helped bridge some of this aforementioned disconnect, we also learned a formal Tagalog that felt socially strange to employ. “Ikinagagalak ko pong makilala kayo,” for example, was not a phrase anyone I knew ever used. Perhaps it amused my parents to hear me say such things, though they themselves would simply say, “Nice to meet you.”

In the 1990s, I was introduced to the Quezon City based songwriter Joey Ayala, who hails from the island of Mindanao in the Southern Philippines, a non-Tagalog speaking region. Around this same time, I was also introduced to the Philippine film, Sakay (Raymond Red, 1993). What struck me then was that the language of Ayala’s songs and Red’s cinematic dialogues was a Tagalog so poetic and deep, such words I had never heard before. I wanted to use these in my poetry. They were so beautiful.

But as my parents’ generation were educated in English (see above, re: fluency), and had lived in America for decades. I learned I could not assume my parents could even access the meanings of such “deep” words. To quote my father, whom I think of as fluent in Tagalog, definitely more “at home” in Tagalog than in English: “No, we never use those words,” and “no, those are not words that I know.”

Today, what it means for me to be stuck between languages, and what it means for my father to be stuck between languages are two different things entirely. I want to say I write for my parents. Up until the day he died, my father never read my poetry. I can’t take this personally.

So then we must also question: Which Tagalog? Whose Tagalog? And how thick and impenetrable is that colonial residue which has made Filipinos ignorant of their own Mother Tongues? (Though, to be fair, American speakers of various creole Englishes experience alienation from “standard,” “formal,” “academic,” “institutional” English.)

I grew up in a household that spoke and/or listened in Tagalog, Ilocano, and English interchangeably. Code switch is our real lingua franca. Addressee has always been a factor deciding which language and combination of languages to employ — for inclusion, but also exclusion (Tayo or kami? Atin or amin?), tracking who does not understand which languages, and who understands how much or how little of each language. This is how you tell “secrets.” This is how you tsismis (chisme/gossip). Perhaps this is why some monolingual folks harbor suspicion for those of us who (must) operate in multiple languages, who appear to flow unimpeded between them. What slippery motives we must have. What wily Filipinos we all are.

To further complicate language, I know very few Filipinos and Filipino Americans who actually read Baybayin, which I had never seen nor heard of until college. My parents had never seen it either. I never knew the Philippines had its own systems of writing (of which the Tagalog Baybayin is just one; Hanunóo and Tagbanua are others); this is also colonial mentality, the uncritical assumption that the West brought us literacy and literature. A quick internet search may tell you that pre-conquest, Baybayin was written on impermanent materials (tree bark, bamboo), and used for such things as personal letters and poetry. These days, Baybayin seems to be more of a thing to be looked at. We tattoo the symbols on our bodies, and so then we must translate our bodies upon demand.

A colleague in graduate school once said to me, “Don’t use foreign language just because you can,” and I swear, I wanted to lunge across the table at him and to sink my fist into his smug, white, hipster face for his tone of inconvenience. But it is offensive also to be told that it’s as simple as writing in whichever one language I am most comfortable with. Either English or Tagalog. That too tidy to be realistic “or” is what I resent, am constantly resisting, and ultimately, would like to decenter. And this is why my speakers and personae are constantly composing polyglot lyric, breaking and reconfiguring language, translating and mistranslating, forking their tongues.

One thought on “Essay: To Decenter English (Re: the Forked Tongue!)

  1. Dear Barbara, thank you for this beautifully compelling post. I so needed to read this today (spirit being crushed by a rude boss — alas, colonialism thrives). As you know, there are striking parallels between the reality you write about and what we live through/with here in South Texas. The straddling. The in-betweenness Gloria Anzaldúa called nepantla. Currently, I’m working on an essay titled “Who is this ‘Martínez’?” That title is taken from a note written to the Executive Director of a not-for-profit agency in New Mexico where I interned back in the mid-80s. I was deeply proud that the E.D., an erudite and principled man, published a series of artist profiles I wrote as part of my internship. My first byline! I sent copies to my parents. I couldn’t stop beaming. And then one day shortly after the first one appeared in print, the E.D. shared a memo he had received from the agency’s Board President, an exceptionally wealthy, and therefore powerful man who was well known locally. The memo comprised only two sentences that are indelibly inscribed in my memory: “Who is this ‘Martínez’? It’s you, isn’t it, Bill?” He could not believe that someone with my name was capable of writing that prose — something he had read and appreciated. We ‘master’ (that word!) the language, but even then we are regarded as suspect, or not quite good enough.

    Again, many thanks for provoking/urging us to think deeply.

    Your grateful reader,


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