September 19, 2018

The Making of a Book: Letters to a Young Brown Girl

Hey, so I’ve got this book for which I just recently was offered a book contract, and which I happily accepted. Letters to a Young Brown Girl is scheduled for release in Fall 2020, from BOA Editions, Ltd. They published my third book, Diwata, in 2010. I’m very happy to be back there, and am often still stunned to think of the places my work gets to go. I say this, not to affect false modesty, but to be as real as I can, about how painstaking, tedious, exhausting, self-reflective, joy and wonder filled, and rewarding this whole process of writing, editing, revising a book to a polish, seeing it find a great home, and seeing it connect with community is.

Letters to a Young Brown Girl consists of three parts: (1) Brown Girl Desig(n)ation, (2) Brown Girl Mixtape, and (3) Letters to a Young Brown Girl.

I started writing poems for this collection in a couple of different places. First, I was collecting language about “beauty,” and here I mean beauty as defined by the beauty industry. What were all of my Sephora and Ulta emails telling me I needed to consume, to part with my hard earned cash, in order to achieve or attain beauty. Really, what I mean is, we consume beauty, and we consent to its narrow definitions. When we do not fit these narrow definitions of beauty, what happens to us. How do others view us. How do others treat us. How do we view ourselves. What do we do to ourselves. This is gendered. This is class-based. This is age-based. This is racial, and cultural.

This consumable beauty, as per the beauty industry, has larger implications. What is our value, as women, as women of color, as immigrants, as citizens. Do we let others determine that value for us. What others. Why do we give them power over us. Do we have a choice. What happens when we try to wrest that power back. What happens when we can’t even recognize how crippled by, and how inculcated we are into that larger structure, such that we have lost our ability (and/or will) to envision. Or, what are the consequences of trying to envision a different kind of structure. Who’s policing us but our own. Why.

This is the context in which I started writing my letters to many young — and not so young — brown girls. I put out a call to fellow Filipinas. I asked them, what do you need to ask me. There were so many questions about writing as an “ethnic,” “foreign” person in the literary publishing industry. So much anxiety, so much fear of our own “foreignness.” So much fear as standing out as “alien.” So much fear of white and male reprisal. I return to my Sephora and Ulta inspired poems. We fear not fitting into that narrow standard of beauty. We fear rejection. We relate rejection with self-worth. All of this fear of institutional rejection becomes the major determining factor for whether we even speak at all. It doesn’t occur to us that there are alternative structures where we do belong. It doesn’t occur to us that those alternative structures are not of lesser value.

When I first started writing these poems, the working title of my manuscript was “some brown girl.” It didn’t know its purpose. It wasn’t getting to what I wanted this work to do. Retitling it Letters to a Young Brown Girl gave me direction. It put human relationship and human connection on the line. It made care rise to prominence.

The epistolary is intimate and personalized. It is earnest and honest. It is emotional. And it is highly curated. Before email, before texting, epistolary was a manual and tactile art making. It was handwritten with just the right writing implement — ink color, nib or point, heft of the thing in your hand — on just the right paper — wide, college, or narrow ruled, grid, weight and texture, color, stationery design — with the right postage stamps — hearts, rainbows, comic book characters, historical figures. All of this speaks to meaningful, high emotional stakes human connection. It also speaks of aesthetics.

I return to my study, understanding, and practice of Filipino Core Values, which for me become the heart of the matter — kapwa, loób. In other words, I return to my center. I write from there. I write with the most confidence when I write from there. And I write with the most confidence because I remember why it is I love to write, and why I chose poetry. Before I ever became an adult. Before I went to college. Before I considered the MFA route. Before I knew anything about this industry. I wrote because writing was my process for understanding my own belief system, for understanding where I come from and where I’m at, for understanding who my “people,” are, those with whom I wish or aspire to make meaningful connection. Writing poetry is my way of understanding this world, and my way of reaching outside of myself.

A more accessible means of communication, for those thwarted by “High Literature,” is the mixtape, where tone/mood, rhythm/music, and lyric intersect in accessible units and media. You think about transition and arc, individual song message, and larger body message being conveyed. Before digital music, constructing mixtape was a manual and tactile labor of love. It was DIY. It was gift and keepsake.

Aren’t these the places we come to understand how we are connected to one another, how we come to see ourselves in one another — kapwa. Aren’t these the places where soul-baring necessarily happens — loób.

Is it naive for me to want to return to that personalized, curated labor of love, especially living within all encompassing capitalism, where everything is up for consumption. Where all human relationships are reduced to consumer relationships. I don’t want to accept this as naïveté. So this is Letters to a Young Brown Girl. I promise it’s full of (tough) love.

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