[Note: I wrote this essay almost exactly one year ago; it was an attempt at “anti-memoir,” which now I do not remember what that is.]
Ibagsak! or, This Pinay’s Epistemology
Barbara Jane Reyes
“Who are you, why are you here, and what do you want?”
…We, Devil and Dogeater We, Indio and Immigrant We, Malakas and Maganda We, OCW and Oaktown We, Devil and Dogeater We, Pacquiao and Pensionado We, Malakas and Maganda We, Taliban and Turntable We, Devil and Dogeater We, Karaoke and Katipunan…
This is not a confession.
Hi, my name’s Barbara Jane Reyes. I’m some Filipina American kid who grew up in the 1970s in the ‘burbs, in the shadows of San Francisco and a rising Silicon Valley. For a long time, others’ shadows framed everything about me. Not American, I was also not Chinese, Japanese, or Mexican. I was some dark, ugly girl, whose too-large-to-keep-track-of family shouted, gossiped, and prayed in languages no one else recognized, and who disembarked in frequent waves, from international flights at SFO, armed with balikbayan boxes labeled with impeccable penmanship, filled with dried, packaged, stinky pasalubong.
This is not a piece about self-hatred, and trauma, and healing.
My entire writing life, I’ve been writing to figure out my relationship to centers of power.
I posted this on Facebook a couple of days ago: I don’t say this enough, but as a Pinay author, I am grateful I grew up in the SF Bay Area. I am grateful I majored in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley, where activism and DIY were built into my foundations and my programming, and my world view. I benefited from TWLF activism as an artist, via Kearny Street Workshop and BAPAW. I am grateful I did my MFA here. I am grateful I teach here, and have had the opportunity to propose new Filipino and Filipina literature courses, to have these courses fulfill university breadth requirements for literature. That, to be based in the Bay Area, I have the autonomy to write what and how i want to and need to write, to publish how I want to, to have my work critically received well outside of my circles, that I have access to a lot of literary spaces, am in a position to advocate for fellow Pinay writers, to make space for them. It’s a privilege to do this work.
As is customary in social media, virtual high fives. 100 “likes. “What a blessing.” “More power to you, girl.” But this bears some unpacking.
Like Chief Sitting Bull, Tom Paine
Like Martin Luther King, Malcom X
They were renegades of their time and age
So many renegades -- Afrika Bambaataa, “Renegades of Funk.”
TWLF is the Third World Liberation Front, a student movement that began in 1968 at San Francisco State University. TWLF demanded a School of Ethnic Studies that held actual power in hiring and decision making, representation among faculty and student body, and in curriculum.
Things were not just given to us. Things are never just given to us out of the kindness and benevolence of the structures of power.
Assess those structures of power, see where rearrangement is required. Sometimes, in your assessment, you see it requires much more than rearrangement. You shout, Ibagsak! You fall in love with the sound of your own voice, shouting in public for the first time. You move on. You envision possibilities to fundamentally dismantle. You begin to construct alternatives.
From TWLF, not just student activism. Arts in activism. Activism in arts. Arts organizations were born, reflecting the histories, diversity, and political concerns of Third World peoples. Kearny Street Workshop formed in the same space of the legendary International Hotel on Kearny and Jackson, right outside North Beach, Chinatown, and the growing financial district. KSW’s art was very much tied to issues of immigration, labor, urban development, and gentrification. In classrooms, I studied the I-Hotel. In real life, I knew only the decades-old giant, unused hole in the ground on Kearny and Jackson. Something alive once stood there. Human beings had a home there. My mom told me, your uncle’s uncle lived there. He was evicted. We don’t know what happened to him. People I knew fought for the I-Hotel. People I knew wrote about that fight. Kept it in people’s memories. Made sure the City of San Francisco would not bury it.
Liwanag Literary and Graphic Expressions was born in 1975 at SFSU. Here, I first read Al Robles, Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn, and Serafin Malay Syquia. Here, I first saw the art of Carlos Villa. Syquia wrote, in “Politics and Poetry”:
The nature of the times requires, no, demands realism, both in politics and poetry. A people starving cannot be fed on pictures of gourmet dishes. A people with nowhere to live cannot live inside 21 inch television sets. To feed people obscure thoughts perpetuates the obscurity of such thoughts. If poetry is to reflect life as it is, it must concentrate on the symptoms of the sickness that have necessitated the various escapes that artists are forced to take in order to separate themselves from reality. Poetry should not nurture the symptom that created the sickness in the first place. It should help to cure the problems of the world by exposing and offering a sensitive response to the causes of the failures in society.
We frequently overlook that the artist activists of the 1970s wrote thoughtfully about aesthetic choices as political choices. I could not access Syquia’s essay the first time I read it. A 20 year old spoken word artist, still grappling with “meaning” and “message,” I wasn’t ready for a conversation on aesthetics.
My first artist mentors, the people who gave me poetic possibility, were poets of color who took the means of cultural and literary production into their own working hands. KSW published Asian American writers so grounded, gritty, and angry. Imagine that! Unapologetically angry! The writers of BAPAW (Bay Area Pilipino American Writers) regarded me as their militant baby sister poet. Jaime Jacinto! Jeff Tagami! Virginia Cerenio! Imagine that! Filipino Americans wrote books!
I recently blogged: I had to be reminded that everyone else may still operate within much more limited and oppressive MFA frameworks, in which the Western-Euro-centric, Judeo-Christian, hetero-male perspective is always the unbudging standard by which we must gauge ourselves.
I don’t live and work in that world. I am a fortunate soul. Or maybe, it’s better said this way: that world does not break me or tell me what I should do.
Anything of wit that’s interesting to spit
Show who’s king of this fucking English lit? -- Eminem, “Baby.”
I’ve been disobedient a very long time. Some time in my adolescence, I became quite the rebellious back-talking thing. Ask my mom, and she’ll tell you about my relationship with authority. A working mother of four daughters, she surely bore the brunt of my rebellion. These days, she regards my unruliness with pride — my girls do not get pushed around.
Still, I entered MFA space, a “master’s house,” of ethnic horror stories — brown people who entered, and emerged bloodless, processed and packaged meat. Stacked, shiny cans of SPAM®.
To MFA is to bathe in Eskinol.
Stacy Doris found me in grad school. For the too brief amount of time that Stacy (may she rest in peace) was in my life, she pushed me harder than anyone could. Break apart the multilingual in me. Bastardize. Translate. Omit.
Dig into the heart of my languages. Gut them. Dig into the languages of my family. Gut the languages of this specific geographical place. Its lies. Its propagandas. This liminal space. This site of collision. This lawless frontier. This precipice of empire.
My Pinay mentor Eileen Tabios had been shrewd and direct. Think hard about the “ethnic” and “cultural artifact,” she advised. Explore, execute in complex, interesting ways.
Be smart. Be aggressive. Always be brave. Upset the monolingual, a charge to break convention and expectation.To form its broken pieces into so many barbed and strange configurations.
And the world was a woman puta que bruta siya ay bruja kontrabida y demonia wala siyang hiya ay que bárbara
And the word was a woman a bitch spitting witch splitting the hissing hussy tongue fussy
And the word was a woman tsismosa she loca y loba disgracia borracha usap-usap bunganga
People used to ask me if my handling of language and culture presented a barrier to publishing. The less I cared, the more I found publication.
These days, Tagalog, Spanish, and Baybayin, various registers/dictions enter my work when they must. The page is their performance space. The poetic line gives structure. The music facilitates entry. I have always thought of my poetry as Pinay-specific, but in my Pinay-specificity, I find readers open. Opened by my work.
These days, I am still some Filipina American in the SF Bay Area. Oakland, to be exact. Everyone around me shouts, gossips, and prays in languages that sometimes intersect with English. The people in my family hold fancy degrees and own homes. We don’t trip on balikbayan boxes and stinky pasalubong. We welcome them. We are living the Filipino American Dream.
Wait. Are we?
“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” -- Audre Lorde.
I remained challenged by Audre Lorde’s statement. Rather than fixating on who occupies the “master’s house,” I try to remember, the most important part of Lorde’s statement is to “enable us to bring about genuine change.”
How to enable? Who to enable? What does genuine change look like?
After we collectively shout, Ibagsak! -- and who is “we,” in the first place -- What then? This is where I’m stuck. This is where it’s frustrating. What I want is to find others who envision genuine change. What I want is to have a dialogue about genuine change. This is a credo, for myself, for those who want to be a “we” with me:
Not inferior. Not alien. Not other.
We will not ask permission. We will not apologize.
No shame. Sin vergüenza. Walang Hiya.