On being foreign and female while manuscripting and publishing

Naguisnan ni Adan sa Paraiso ay maraming hayóp na ang lahat may mang̃a caparis. Bucod lamang siya, na namumugtong na ualang casama,t, catulong sa lugar na iyon na caayaaya. Caya pinatulog nang Dios si Adan, at nang macatulog, ay hinugot ang isang tadyang ay guinauang babaye na ibinigay cay Adan. Sa pag laláng na ito, ay may isang misterio na naaninao si San Agustin.Hindi quinuha nang Dios ang babaye sa ulo nang lalaqui; sapagca,t di itinalagá na gauing pang̃inoon mag uutos sa lalaqui; hindi quinuha sa paa at nang di iring̃in at ariing hamac na parang alipin. Quinuha sa tadyang sa tapat nang pusó, nang pacamahalin at nang ariing isang casama, na cacatulung̃in sa pagtitiis nang hirap sa buháy na ito.

The above is an excerpt of Modesto de Castro, Urbana at Feliza, which I wish I had come to a long time ago. It’s OK because I have it now, and I can read it as slowly as I am able to. I’ve included this excerpt above to demonstrate some of the “foreign” elements that become necessary for and in my work. The excerpt is a retelling of the fashioning of Eve from Adam’s rib. The language is Tagalog, though not the modern Tagalog which I am accustomed to reading. So it’s old, and utilizes Spanish “rules.” And anyway, I’m not even close to the level of sophistication I would like to be in modern Tagalog.

But I’m fascinated by this book and its language, especially because it’s all about proper female behavior, as dictated by an elder sister toward her advice seeking younger sister.

Women regulating women. Women enforcing patriarchy.

The center of my work is the broken woman — in body and spirit, and the many ways in which she works to repair, reassemble. She is literally broken into pieces. In one case, she can only be identified by the serial number on her silicone breast implants. In one case, her pieces are thrown unceremoniously out of a speeding, moving vehicle and into the roadways. I have mediated and mitigated  a lot of the violence, but realize in my rereadings that the hints towards dismemberment are just as troubling. Despite these dismemberments, she still moves towards wholeness and against silence, only to encounter more brokenness and more silencing, inflicted upon her by patriarchal forces.

The conditions of the patriarchy are reliant upon that silence, and so the manifold acts of violence upon the woman are sanctioned. Mechanisms for silencing and breaking are institutionalized. And engulfed by these mechanisms, every little thing can muster must be an act of resistance. She prays, a hell of a lot. Can you blame her. This is where I really relied upon the many different Pinays who sent me responses to my ~20 questions. This chorus and core of Pinays who spoke so truthfully about what was most important and sacred and painful to them.

All this said, I’ve really been feeling so much that my subject matter, no matter how important it is to me, no matter how much care and effort I invest in the process of this writing — no matter all this, many will simply never care, never consider its relevance or importance, never come near it, never think of reading it. And this is all hella Debbie Downer, but I am also being real. Because the broken woman is a foreign woman, who keeps having her life opportunities violently taken from her, and she ends up having to compromise her own dignity. Because the languages of her oppression and resistance are not just English, but also these foreign languages, in which foreign means not American, not English, not in the Latin alphabet.

She is ubiquitous, transnational, diasporic. One of her many places of residence and oppression is the internet, which is predatory and misogynist. Just like our culture, in which “our culture,” is this Western popular culture that is a global popular culture of inflicting violences upon women’s bodies, feasting on them, throwing away their remains. This is global ritual, constantly being repeated.

All this said, the work is, in my opinion, still quite poetic. And that it is poetic is also troubling.

I have gone through many iterations of this manuscript, I have thrown a lot out, stripped it of any potentially gimmicky bits, and I have given it more (white) space. These (white) spaces are also troubling.

Nailing down a publisher for this was hard. I received a couple of painful rejections, and a lot more silence. So I kept working on the manuscript, improving it, making it clean.

Well, PAWA is publishing it, and I think that’s for the best. I love that PAWA believes that publishing this work would be an honor. I am honored by that. An added hope is that Pin@y readers will actually want to read this book, maybe even teach this book, rather than run in the opposite direction and put as much distance between it and them. Or worse: act as if it is an invisible thing, as if it does not exist.

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Some Thoughts on Poetry, Difficulty, Language

Belated thoughts here, on my last lecture in Pinay Lit, in which we read Janice Sapigao‘s microchips for millions, and my For the City that Nearly Broke Me. This thing came up about use of languages not “readable” or readily accessible to readers. In Janice’s work, it’s the pervasiveness of the binary code. In mine, specifically the piece, “Malaya,” it’s the Tagalog/Indo-Malay “mash-up.”  

First, we recognize that binary code is indeed a language. We agree that it is a language, and we agree it is a language used widely in Silicon Valley, which is the setting for Janice’s work. We also agree that while we cannot read it, someone (or something) does; many someones (and many somethings) read it, function in it. It is directly related to the affluence of this area, the Bay Area and Silicon Valley.

If we cannot read it though, then is it enough, for us as readers, to have that recognition which I just described? Does that make the appearance of the language in Janice’s text effective?

Consider also, that while we readers cannot read this language, do the low-paid, overworked immigrant labor force of Silicon Valley, who are central to Janice’s poems read that language? Or are they as “in the dark” as we are, not knowing what is being communicated in that language? And if they are in the dark as we readers are, which I suspect is the case, then as readers, does that help us create a more layered reading experience?

(Similar questions arise regarding my “mash-up.” Can you read it? Probably not. If not, then what do you “do” with the poem? What is this poem about then?)

And does the presence of these languages in these works make the works, “difficult.” And if so, then is this a “bad” thing, this difficulty? In our communities, where so many readers and community members expect and demand narratives to be handed to them in the most non-threatening manner ever, especially narratives authored by women, and especially narratives authored by “younger” women. This perceived poetic cleverness, what I call a willingness to handle difficulty, is a thing if not disliked, then definitely discouraged. Anti-rigor.

I am thinking more and more about layers in poem, and layers in bodies of poetry. I am thinking I can’t write any other way, if I mean to write what and how I mean to write. And it is a challenge to write a layered, multilingual thing that both immediately disturbs you, and also unravels itself over time with a lot of thoughtfulness, and for readers and editors, it seems to become a terrible inconvenience.