March 29, 2019

Talk Given at AWP on the Poetics of Anger: About Sweetie

‘Sweetie’ for Terre des Hommes from Havas Lemz on Vimeo.

I want to talk about a little girl named Sweetie.

Sweetie was created by the Netherlands based children’s rights org, Terre des Hommes, as part of a campaign to identify and catch online pedophiles. Sweetie is a virtual 10-year-old girl, created very much like WETA Works created Sméagol in Lord of the Rings. Sweetie is Filipina. I watched the Terre des Hommes video on NPR’s website, discussing her creation, and the fact that once a 10-year-old Filipino girl logged into a chatroom, men from all over the world would immediately swarm or swoop down on her. I saw screenshots of their chats. I saw the questions they asked her. I saw the naked pictures of themselves they sent her. The numbers of pedophiles Sweetie helped identify is in the thousands.

It’s hard to identify the exact point of my rage. It’s easy to say I am angry at the pedophiles themselves. I am angry that a 10-year-old Filipina could be such effective bait for pedophiles all over the world. And I am angry that a real 10-year-old Filipino girl could be so easily trafficked, by pimps and other parties that I can easily call unethical, and even evil. I am angry that oftentimes, the trafficker is a family member, the parent, of a 10-year-old Filipino girl.

It’s really easy to write from a place of rage; you just turn off your filters and rant, right? It’s easy to transcribe that shock and outrage onto the page. For me, that in itself does not make a good poem.

The generative process of the poem that became “10 F Philippines” (this is how one is identified in one of these chatrooms: age, gender, country: 10 F Philippines) was me working through the rage, reading through the literature discussing child internet sex trafficking and its incidence in third world countries like the Philippines. I read very thoughtful pieces about the process by which Sweetie was created. I began the poem with a ditty of an alliterative tongue twister, to invoke the spirit of nursery rhyme — child’s verse. I included found pieces, sentences, phrases, screen captures that captured my attention and elicited rage and sadness.

I wanted to humanize this non-human, dehumanized Filipino girl, to approach her with compassion, to try to imagine the family, the life of a trafficked 10 year old Filipina.

When Sweetie was born, the soundtrack
Of fetid rain clacking corrugated roofs.

Not roofs, really, but slattern shacks tied
With plastic shopping bag rope binding

Corner posts, not really posts but demolished
Parts stacked, rebar reaching as petrified

Extremities, brittle, begging for coins.
The shrieking thing’s birth was swift,

A tiny thing, barely the size of a man’s
Swinging fist. She was the daughter of a whore,

The sister of a whore. A whore begets a whore
Weans a whore, and then gets back to work.

When Sweetie was born, market research findings
Revealed the world wide web catalogue –

User posts on bulletin boards, blogged
Testimonial braggadocio, cottage industry

Pages’ illustrations, pixellated Third World
Motion capture money shots. Catholic charities’

Infomercial videography, capturing poverty porn
Titillating, consuming First World spectacle.

Here, you meet Sweetie’s harelipped kin,
Feral, big-eyed, swarming. Flipflops thinned

To concrete, matted hair, patella bones, open
Wounds, distended bellies. Petrified extremities,

Begging, broadcasting prime time toll free numbers,
Websites, suppertime. You call for the parasites

In their drinking water. You log on because you
Want the young pure for you. You whip out your

Credit card because you can. You want her to be
Waiting to please you. Yes, Sweetie was born ready.

Even here, I couldn’t appease my own anger.

And so I did what we all do in times of outrage. I turned to social media. The conversations among Filipina writers and educators, that I participated in as a result of having found Sweetie were intense, and so I included that experience in the poem as. We were collectively outraged. And we felt collectively helpless. not sure what good it would do, our virtual congregations for the 10-year-old Filipino virtual girl. I wanted to include that feeling of being helpless, ineffectual in the poem.

We are devastated by the thought of you, Sweetie
We are betting on you to defy the odds, Sweetie

We are entitled to your story is ours too, Sweetie
We are deconstructing your construction, Sweetie

We are checking our status updates for you, Sweetie
We are seeking solidarity in hashtags and reshares, Sweetie

We are writing ourselves into your sad narrative, Sweetie
We are raising our virtual fists for you, Sweetie

We are displaying placards of protest for you, Sweetie
We are creating memes of defiance for you, Sweetie

We are creating distance between us and you, Sweetie
We are confused about ourselves because of you, Sweetie

We are consumed with ourselves because of you, Sweetie
We are consumed, we like you not like you, unlike you Sweetie

Ending the poem with the quote ”Sweetie will not be used again,” I was hoping it would feel hopeful, triumphant. But then, this is where I think of the non-virtual, dehumanized humans, who are, who will continue to be used again and again. This ending just leaves me numb, and spent, and sad. The best thing I can say is that anger is not neatly resolvable in a poem. But we still try.

Here are the links to the two poems I eventually put together as one:

“10 F Philippines,” at Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology

“To Sell Sweetie” at The Rumpus

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