Essay: On being an immigrant poet in America

Some Brown Girl: Notes on Pinay Liminality manuscript building continues! I wrote this essay in around 2014, as I was invited to submit to the anthology, Others Will Enter the Gates: Immigrant Poets on Poetry, Influences, and Writing in America, edited by Abayomi Animashaun, and published by Black Lawrence Press in 2015. There’s some amount of retreading in my essays, as if I am corroborating my own stories. I think this is apt.

On being an immigrant poet in America

“Imagine an entire culture that is passed down for thousands and thousands of years through the spoken word and narrative, so the whole of experience is put into narrative form — this is how the people know who they are as a people, and how individuals learn who they are.” — Leslie Marmon Silko

I immigrated to San Francisco in 1973; I was two years old. My parents had previously moved here, in 1969. They rented a small unit in an apartment building near Mitchell’s Ice Cream in the Mission District, decades before the area became hip. My mother flew back to Manila in 1971 and gave birth to me. She returned to San Francisco, leaving me and my older sister in the care of our grandparents, aunts, and teenage uncle, who we thought was our older brother. My parents dove into the American grind, saved up, and two years later, my sister and I arrived here, into the arms of our parents, two people we did not know.

The story I’ve always been told is that back in Manila, and sensing our impending departure, I hid my uncle’s car keys under my grandmother’s spinster sister’s bed, and that upon arriving in a dreary and rainy San Francisco, I cried for days and days. A trip to Disneyland did not assuage me. Other stories of that time entail me throwing up and ruining the interior of my mom’s brand new Toyota Celica.

My parents, hardworking immigrants that they were, bought their first home a couple of years later. We moved to the suburbs, Fremont, to be exact, just north of Silicon Valley before it became widely known as Silicon Valley, and where we had a backyard, a cat, and a garden. My grandmother came from the Philippines, lived with us, and took care of us as both my parents worked. In the 1970s in Fremont, among my classmates’ parents, my mom was one of the only moms who actually worked full time. My sisters and I attended private schools, took Honors English, Advanced Placement History, and Calculus. We scored high on the SATs, attended big (maybe even prestigious) universities. Decades later, we are paying mortgages and property taxes.

I tell you this story, not to brag, but to give you an idea of what I think was my parents’ American Dream. And I am thinking about this American Dream, and American Dream as mythology, because I am thinking about being an “immigrant poet.” Stories about my family and the English language, of my parents being apprehensive to speak English in public spaces, of me being tongue tied hence shy and bookish around my American classmates, all of these stories belong in the realm of mythology now.

And that’s what’s happened to my poetry. It’s entered the realm of mythology.

My interest in writing about “the homeland,” and “my culture,” has not faded in my four decades of privileged American living, or in my two decades of writing and publishing in this country, or in my three years immersed in my MFA program, and not because of nostalgia or familial obligation.

My history, and my family history have always had documents and artifacts: posed and candid photographs, home movies, report cards, detention slips we forged with my parents’ signatures, diplomas and degrees, marriage certificates, evidence of immunization, naturalization papers, Philippine and American passports, Facebook posts, and Instagram accounts.

My family history also has its share of lore and folklore. Oral tradition has ruled our self-knowledge, and with oral tradition has come multiple, sometimes quarreling, versions of “truth”; has come hearsay, from which all those wonderful stories that begin, “I wasn’t there, but I heard that…”; has come this wonderful phenomenon called tsismis (chisme, gossip), in which everyone gets to speak, some with authority, some with the power of speculation, some only under the condition of anonymity.

This is the largely subjective, undocumented substance that interests me — the quarreling, multiple versions and interpretations of events, reliable and unreliable narrators, secret tellers, disavowers, eyewitnesses, fabricators, yarnspinners. Rather than dismiss any of these artful tellers, I think of how much they must know, what wisdom they contain and how much they withhold, either because nobody has ever asked, or because the message they have accepted and internalized is that their stories are not legitimate, that they are petty and superfluous, because their stories do not conform to the master narrative.

Oral tradition has made me suspicious of single, authoritative texts and master narratives. Instead, I am drawn to what persists and survives despite mainstream cultural insistence upon single, authoritative texts. I love and value the stories in which asides lead to more asides, tangents lead to more tangents, oftentimes with no hope of returning to the original narrative. Consider that sometimes, the narrative asides and tangents are indeed the point of the story.

To be a poet is to be a very good listener. To be a poet is to piece together some kind of musical or artful narrative from official and unofficial documents and undocuments, and to do so in all languages available to me.

Most importantly, I have come to know that some stories take decades before they are ever told, and that in order for me to ever have access to these stories, I must offer something to initiate the exchange. I recently told my now retired mother about one of my dreams, in which her deceased father appeared. I told her this, not in any kind of formal setting, but while she was sweeping the kitchen floor. In return, she told me about how her mother, my grandmother, once had dream foretelling her own miscarriage. This miscarriage was not something I ever knew. Some stories must wait decades to be told, and when they arrive, they do so spontaneously.

None of what I have written here is specific to Filipino immigrant poets in America. But perhaps it can be said that my work ethic and aesthetic preferences as an immigrant in America emphasize exchange/sharing, hearing and writing multiple voices speaking simultaneously.

Leave a Reply