Dredging my Google Drive for my essays continues! This one is forthcoming in the Wesleyan University Press poetics volume, American Poets in the 21st Century: Poetics of Social Engagement. This coincides with some really great FB discussions I am having (who knew we could have really great FB discussions) about Pinays and liminality, shapeshifting and resistance. I love the forked tongue metaphor, calling back to our being monsters, monstrosities, aswangs. And that somehow, we are tapping into a self-knowledge that we weren’t meant to have? Or that it’s inconvenient for others that we have this kind of self-knowledge.
To Decenter English
Lately, I have been asking myself, what would it look like, to truly decenter English in my poetry?
As is frequently noted about my poetry, it is multilingual, incorporating Spanish, modern Tagalog, and Baybayin/pre-hispanic Tagalog script into its predominantly English poetic body. “Incorporate,” indicates subsumption, assimilation into a dominant body. This is problematic and insufficient to me, as the body is still identified as an English one. Other non-English elements are viewed as ancillary, and even embellishment. I used to think that not to italicizing the “foreign” words in my poems was a form of dissent that would challenge the reader’s assumptions of foreignness. I continue not to italicize, though these days, I question whether that affects readers’ perceptions at all.
And so we must question English. A quick internet search will tell you that Filipinos have been ruled in English since 1898, and instructed in English since 1901. Question though, whether Filipinos are fluent in English — what constitutes fluency, what qualifies as fluency, especially in a (post)(neo)colonially stratified society — or whether Filipinos know enough English in order to mimic, but more so to be ruled and instructed, to execute basic commands. Question also: Which English? Whose English? The poet Jaime Jacinto once used the term, “subtracted bilingual,” to describe people like us, our fluency in our elders’ tongues disrupted by American education. Look up: Tag-lish. Code Switch. But do not assume all Filipinos are Tagalog speakers.
I was raised and almost exclusively educated in the USA (I spent one semester at University of the Philippines at Diliman), and still, these questions of language do pertain to me. For many of my parents’ and other elders’ generations of Philippine emigrants, I have learned they never feel entirely “at home” in English. My interactions and communications with them exist in a perpetual state of translation, or in some kind of third space. We collaborate, oftentimes clumsily, in an effort to agree upon meanings. Much of our system of communication is comprised of gesture, tone, and volume. Mostly, we remain in various states of disconnect. Can my poetry ever reach them, and if not, then have I failed as a poet.
In college, I took two semesters of Tagalog language classes. While I would like to think these classes helped bridge some of this aforementioned disconnect, we also learned a formal Tagalog that felt socially strange to employ. “Ikinagagalak ko pong makilala kayo,” for example, was not a phrase anyone I knew ever used. Perhaps it amused my parents to hear me say such things, though they themselves would simply say, “Nice to meet you.”
In the 1990s, I was introduced to the Quezon City based songwriter Joey Ayala, who hails from the island of Mindanao in the Southern Philippines, a non-Tagalog speaking region. Around this same time, I was also introduced to the Philippine film, Sakay (Raymond Red, 1993). What struck me then was that the language of Ayala’s songs and Red’s cinematic dialogues was a Tagalog so poetic and deep, such words I had never heard before. I wanted to use these in my poetry. They were so beautiful.
But as my parents’ generation were educated in English (see above, re: fluency), and had lived in America for decades. I learned I could not assume my parents could even access the meanings of such “deep” words. To quote my father, whom I think of as fluent in Tagalog, definitely more “at home” in Tagalog than in English: “No, we never use those words,” and “no, those are not words that I know.”
Today, what it means for me to be stuck between languages, and what it means for my father to be stuck between languages are two different things entirely. I want to say I write for my parents. Up until the day he died, my father never read my poetry. I can’t take this personally.
So then we must also question: Which Tagalog? Whose Tagalog? And how thick and impenetrable is that colonial residue which has made Filipinos ignorant of their own Mother Tongues? (Though, to be fair, American speakers of various creole Englishes experience alienation from “standard,” “formal,” “academic,” “institutional” English.)
I grew up in a household that spoke and/or listened in Tagalog, Ilocano, and English interchangeably. Code switch is our real lingua franca. Addressee has always been a factor deciding which language and combination of languages to employ — for inclusion, but also exclusion (Tayo or kami? Atin or amin?), tracking who does not understand which languages, and who understands how much or how little of each language. This is how you tell “secrets.” This is how you tsismis (chisme/gossip). Perhaps this is why some monolingual folks harbor suspicion for those of us who (must) operate in multiple languages, who appear to flow unimpeded between them. What slippery motives we must have. What wily Filipinos we all are.
To further complicate language, I know very few Filipinos and Filipino Americans who actually read Baybayin, which I had never seen nor heard of until college. My parents had never seen it either. I never knew the Philippines had its own systems of writing (of which the Tagalog Baybayin is just one; Hanunóo and Tagbanua are others); this is also colonial mentality, the uncritical assumption that the West brought us literacy and literature. A quick internet search may tell you that pre-conquest, Baybayin was written on impermanent materials (tree bark, bamboo), and used for such things as personal letters and poetry. These days, Baybayin seems to be more of a thing to be looked at. We tattoo the symbols on our bodies, and so then we must translate our bodies upon demand.
A colleague in graduate school once said to me, “Don’t use foreign language just because you can,” and I swear, I wanted to lunge across the table at him and to sink my fist into his smug, white, hipster face for his tone of inconvenience. But it is offensive also to be told that it’s as simple as writing in whichever one language I am most comfortable with. Either English or Tagalog. That too tidy to be realistic “or” is what I resent, am constantly resisting, and ultimately, would like to decenter. And this is why my speakers and personae are constantly composing polyglot lyric, breaking and reconfiguring language, translating and mistranslating, forking their tongues.
Part of my work progress and process on the Some Brown Girl: Notes on Pinay Liminality manuscript will be a refocus of this blog space, hence the website title change. I will be writing up a concise explanation of what “Pinay Liminality,” is, as I have been teaching it in my Filipina Literature class in USF’s Yuchengco Philippine Studies Program, as I have been working on it in my own writings and mentorship.
Speaking of mentorship, please have a look at this phenomenal work my students have done on Pinay Liminality. I love this so much; they deserve so much props and shout out for taking this classroom work into their own lives and spaces.
I want to post this following essay here: “Towards a Pinay ‘We’ Poetics,” which I had submitted for publication, though it sounds like — after some email correspondences with the editors — this project was cancelled or placed on indefinite hiatus. I had “rediscovered” this essay while searching my Google Drive for other works, and it is well worth putting into the world. It will be included in the Some Brown Girl manuscript.
Towards a Pinay “We” Poetics
I am interested in a “we” poetics. “We” is a persona in which I’ve been writing for a long time now, and even my “I” is a “we.” This came to my attention fully when poet Nathaniel Mackey articulated this “we,” in his discussion about the ongoing emergence journey of a people in his serial poem, “Song of the Andoumboulou.” This “we” appeals to me as a Filipina; I was raised in a culture of “we.” There are two Tagalog terms, pakikisama, and bayanihan, which speak to the social value of this “we” in practice. We are valued as members of a larger whole, in interaction and relation to others within this larger whole. We know ourselves as members of a larger whole, in interaction and relation to others within this larger whole.
Poetically, I also come from a tradition of a “we”; think of the community organizer, activist Filipino American poets Carlos Bulosan and Al Robles. While Robles wrote in Rappin’ With Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark, about and in the voices of the Manongs, the West Coast Filipino American migrant laborers of the early twentieth century, a socialism-oriented Bulosan invoked Whitmanesque multitudes of working men in “If You Want to Know What We Are.” I, too, have attempted to write as “the people,” this Filipino multitude:
We, Malakas and Maganda
We, Moluccas and Magellan
We, Devil and Dogeater
We, Starfruit and Sampaguita
We, Malakas and Maganda
We, Pepe and Pilar
We, Devil and Dogeater
We, Coconut and Crab
We, Malakas and Maganda
We, Eskinol and ESL
We, Devil and Dogeater
We, Igorot and Imelda
We, Malakas and Maganda
We, B-boy and Bulosan
We, Devil and Dogeater
We, Subic Bay and Stockton
We, Malakas and Maganda
We, Gangsta Rap and Galleon Trade
We, Devil and Dogeater
We, Comfort Woman and Carabao
We, Malakas and Maganda
We, Lea Salonga and Lapu-Lapu
We, Devil and Dogeater
We, TnT and Taguba
We, Malakas and Maganda
I think of this poem as conventionally “masculine”; I am acutely aware that I have already cited more male poets speaking as “the people,” in an essay about Pinay “we” poetics. I have previously written an essay on women of color and reticence*. I reject reticence as a natural state, and instead witness women writers of color ignored, or bullied into the interior provinces of the domestic, the personal, and private, while the men charge themselves with handling the “official story,” representing “the people,” addressing the outside world. Ultimately, many women are barred from being so ambitious as to speak on that “too big” outside world, effectively silenced. This is one contradition I am trying to unravel; the fine details of our everyday lives comprise a human being, communities of human beings, and the cultures of communities of human beings in the world. Writing these details then, should be regarded as ambitious.
With my third book, Diwata, I was centrally concerned with myth-making, and writing the Pinay version of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Storyteller. Indeed, Silko’s Storyteller was, along with a stack of books by Eduardo Galeano, a springboard for Diwata, as I tried to write in the voices of elder storytellers, to remember the stories they told, and the ones they never told. What intimate, unwritten knowledge, what “unofficial story,” do we hold in our memories and private spaces? What stories do we know in our bones, from having heard them so many times? What stories do we all collaboratively participate in telling? As women, how do these old mythic stories of mermaids and aswangs still hold relevance in the 21st century? Do we still need them (the stories, the tellers, the mermaids and aswangs)? What responsibility do we have to be the bearers and tellers of story, especially since many of these these elder storytellers have passed away?
Now, we are in danger of becoming disconnected, brown-skinned, immigrant American girls and women, living in American cities, besieged by a technology in which I find so much noise and so little wisdom, and which facilitates so little meaningful interaction or coming together of community and family into our sacred gathering spaces, our kitchen tables, our campfires and hearths. Revisiting Joy Harjo’s poem, “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” reminds us why these spaces are so important:
This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.
Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.
We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.
Discontended with thoughtless and passive online “community,” I want to demand something else. As an author, I have to ask whether the book can become our table and hearth, our sacred gathering space in which we may all collaboratively participate in the telling.
As Pinays, we constantly resist silence; many of us know the pain of having been mothered by silenced women. From within a culture of we, silence can be construed as consent, and dissent as an inconvenience, an alien, undesirable element undermining consensus and community. To dissent and to demand is to be a bitch. We dissent, are privately thanked and publicly alienated, as other women police the boundaries of acceptable thought, social behavior, and speech. This reprisal breaks my heart, because we know experientially that we cannot afford not to speak our piece in a world that so casually mistakes us Pinays, no matter how distinguished or accomplished, for nannies, maids, “bar girls,” mail order brides, various girls who service you. This is obscene and offensive, identifying all Filipino women as consenting, purchasable bodies in this commerce.
My second book, Poeta en San Francisco, rails against the international commerce of Filipina bodies, that expectation of being serviced, as has emerged from military, Christian, cultural, economic invasions of the islands. This commerce relies upon the denigration of the Pinay from her original position of social, religious, and civic power, and it relies upon her silence (construed as consent). Poeta en San Francisco rejects that silence (negates that construed consent) by aggressively indicting the Christian missionary, the American soldier, the sex tourist, the Asiaphile, those benefiting from our dehumanization; my position here is often called, “white man hating”:
[why choose pilipinas, remix]
the answer is simple, my friend. pilipinas are noteworthy for their beauty, grace, charm. they are especially noted for their loyalty. their nature is sun sweetened. their smiles downcast, coy. pilipinas possess intrinsic beauty men find delightful and irresistible. pilipinas are family-oriented by essence, resourceful, devoted. what’s more, english is the true official language of the pilipinas, so communication is uncomplicated. and even though some believe in the old ways, the majority of the pilipinas are christian, so you are assured they believe in the one true god you do. foreign, but not too foreign, they assimilate quickly and they do not make a fuss. in short, the pilipinas are custom tailored to fit your diverse needs.
now will that be cash or charge?
I culled the above text, “found poetry” from a Filipina mail order bride website; it is actual testimonial from satisfied customers, serving as marketing material for those men on the fence about purchasing a Filipina over girls from other impoverished nations.
I am a poet because I believe poems can effectively resist silence, and I believe in, as June Jordan has written, poetry as a humanizing project. In writing against the Filipina mail order bride dehumanization demonstrated above, the self-representation should be truly collective, not spoken in an imposed, singular Pinay voice silencing other Pinay voices.
If we collaboratively participate in the telling, then what does that look and sound like? That’s what I wanted to try to write next. I began to wonder whether overcoming Pinay silence could be as simple as asking a group of Pinays a series of questions, and opening up the space to answer. I have followed Bhanu Kapil’s example of gathering questionnaire responses from other South Asian women for her book, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. In her introduction, Kapil writes, “Is it possible for you to say the thing you have never been able to say, even to the one you have spent your whole life loving?” She aimed for an uncensored “honest and swift” text, and I’d wondered if any conditions we set up could really ensure such pure, unbolstered results.
I was also influenced by Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan’s poem, “One Question, Several Answers,” in which an unseen speaker asks the same one question, “Where did your father live?” again and again. The addressee appears to have no choice but to keep answering. From her responses to this persistent questioning, a picture of her father’s life in the WWII Japanese internment camps emerges, gains color, dimension, detail, and sadness.
I posted a call for participants on various Filipino artist and community listservs, and many Pinays wrote back to me, not to participate or to voice any opinion on the project. They wrote to me to make their presence known, either as private gestures of solidarity, or so that I could acknowledge them, which confirmed for me the need to be visible (or to overcome invisibility), and to be heard (or to overcome silence or being silenced).
I was disappointed but not surprised at the small number of Pinays who voiced interest in participating, and in the smaller number of Pinays who followed through, and responded to my questions about body, self-image, mothering, daughtering, home, voice, worry, and ritual. What I wanted to know: If we can speak for ourselves, then what are we saying about ourselves, how do we represent ourselves, what is privately and socially important to us. What’s really eating at us when we’re looking in the mirror, preoccupied with applying lipstick, dreading going on a diet (think unforgiving full-length mirror here) before we rush off to the next errand, task, or chore.
In the spirit of Anne Waldman’s “Fast Speaking Woman,” and her predecessor María Sabina, I have come to craft these Pinay responses into trance-like, incantatory bursts. In the spirit of Diwata, woman’s voice is wind, woman’s body is earth; woman is muse, deity, and poet, and these responses become woman-centric genealogies, prayers to our mothers and to ourselves:
Daughter of reinvented selves, she of the new names.
Daughter of Evangeline la Reina, daughter of Eve.
Daughter of Maria la China, she of the rice powdered face.
Daughter of Praxedes Adviento, she with the tree trunk arms.
Daughter of Trinidad y Adoracion, storytellers who do not speak.
Daughter of Everilda, lady of sharp tongued gossip.
Daughter of Rufina, maker of dresses, lover of orchids.
Daughter of Florentina, pursued by American soldiers.
Daughter of Leyteño peasant, daughter of .22 long rifle.
Daughter of Morena, we lift our eyes to the sun.
Daughter of Kayumanggi, we warm ourselves in your earth.
Litany, participatory prayer and procession, has been one of my organizing principles; repetition as affirmation, reinforcement, assertion, and public demonstration.
Mother of mother’s compassion.
Mother of are you eating enough.
Mother of put that away.
Mother of clean this up.
Mother of make your bed.
Mother of do your homework.
Mother of shut off the lights.
Mother of you’re so beautiful.
I am interested in these prayer-like forms elevating the domestic work which has been used to debase and silence us, as in poet Irene Faye Duller’s words, “I am the maid of the world, and the world has made me dirty.” Can we also be Whitmanesque multitudes of Pinays, speaking for ourselves, living, working, in which the voices and work of women are elevated, in which we are not just humanized, but even deified. This is the gist of the book I am currently writing.
As I have been blogging my thoughts on Pinay poetics, writing this essay, and thinking more about this book project, I have just heard from Tina Bartolome, a Pinay writer and San Francisco native, now finishing her MFA at Indiana University. I clicked over to her blog, and have found a treasure of thoughtful writing on her “literary universe,” as a politicized Pinay writer. I appreciate and need this resonance; certainly, now as I write more and more about this Pinay “we” poetics, I want to be able to articulate clearly what storytelling can do. Here are some points Tina has outlined:
Storytelling as taking inventory
Storytelling as collective memory
Storytelling as paying homage
Storytelling as a comrade to social change (a conversation in progress)
She elaborates on the last point by quoting Martín Espada’s Zapata’s Disciple: “Any oppressive social condition, before it can be changed, must be named and condemned in words that persuade by stirring the emotions, awakening the senses. Thus, the need for the political imagination.” And then further down in her post, Tina tells us she wants writing to “mess with hegemony.”
I recall Hayan Charara’s essay, which was his NEA Author Statement, “Animals: On the Role of the Poet in a Country at War,” in Perihelion:
And while I don’t believe that poems will keep bombs from falling on schools, or bullets from entering bodies, or tanks from rolling over houses, or men or women or children from being humiliated, poetry insists on the humanity of people, which violence steals away; and poems advocate the power of the imagination, which violence seeks to destroy. Poets change the world. I don’t mean literally, though some try. I mean with words, with language, they take the many things of this world and make them new, and when we read poems, we know the world and its many things differently—it might not be a better or worse place than the one we live in—just different—but without the imagination, without poetry, I don’t believe that the world as most of us know it would be tolerable.
This is messing with hegemony, to insist upon poetry as a humanizing project, through which we may imagine, envision something other that what we’re given, and inspire others to do the same — to think, to speak, to write, and to act in ways other than what is officially sanctioned. This is storytelling as transformative experience. Imagine Pinays transformed in international perception from consenting, silenced, servicing bodies in commerce into dignified human beings in the world; this transformation is facilitated in large part by art, literature, and cultural productions that we create, centering the Pinay, and portraying ourselves as speaking and acting human beings exercising free will and demanding to be heard.
Concerning “activism,” I fear I am abstract; poems will not, as Charara writes, “keep bombs from falling on schools, or bullets from entering bodies, or tanks from rolling over houses.” Still, considering the silences and noise of our everyday lives, I want neither of these. I want and need something else. Pinays are capable of so much bravery, and I need to connect with other Pinays who are brave, emboldened, who have opinions about the world, about art, about cultural movements, who are willing to engage in civil public discourse about these things—not just “thumbs up,” not just “like,” not just link. I believe these are the beginnings of a Pinay “we” poetics that messes with hegemony.
04/28/2011 Oakland, CA
* My essay, “On Feminism, Women of Color, Poetics, and Reticence: Some Considerations,” was first published in XCP: Cross Cultural Poetics #20, and reprinted in A Megaphone (Chain Links, 2011).
I won’t plot summarize; it’s a lengthy story and well worth the read. It’s a difficult read. Folks are feeling defensive, indignant, triggered, confused. Folks are quarreling, shaming, name-calling, weeping and straight up ugly crying, but yes, they are (for the most part) reading this.
I am not writing this to chastise anyone for their response to Lola’s story.
First, yes. Lola has a name. Eudocia Tomas Pulido. Say her name.
I want to think through a couple of points of view here. I am a teacher of Pinay Literature. The core of my work is to center Pinay narrative, lyric, and epistemology. I am an author, and as Carlos Bulosan wrote in “The Writer As Worker,” “the writer must participate with his fellow man in the struggle to protect, to brighten, to fulfill life.”
I am struggling with Tizon’s story, and I start with language.
“Lola,” means grandmother in Tagalog. Eudocia Tomas Pulido was not the writer’s grandmother, though her role was to mother, and to serve. Eudocia Tomas Pulido’s story is a story of uncompensated reproductive labor, and it exists within the Philippine historical context of colonialism, feudalism, and patriarchy.
I had not heard the term “utusan,” to describe human beings. I know the word, “katulong,” who work in the homes of the wealthy and the middle-class. I admit my naivete, in not knowing of the “utusan.” I admit also, that I know little about the “katulong,” except that my extended family in the Philippines has always had “katulong” in their homes.
If you are reading this, you might want to shout at me; you may be judging me for “giving Tizon a pass.” I am not giving him a pass. I am trying to work through a lot of complex emotions and responses I am having to this story. If the kind of dialogues happening right now are an indication of a story’s success, then this story is a success.
I want to be clear on this: One thing that is apparent to me is that this story is Tizon’s story. I also believe Tizon could only write Tizon’s story, from his own point of view. This is not to say there is no possibility of honoring Eudocia Tomas Pulido, though I use the word, “honoring,” with some amount of reticence.
Does this story honor her? I am not sure. I think this story was Tizon’s way of working through the shame and guilt of owning a human being. There are readers who are saying Tizon did not do enough, and did not do it soon enough. There are readers saying he glorifies his own position as a master, paints himself as a benevolent master.
As a writer, I will say that we back away from writing because it is hard. Stories like this must be told. In my world, Eudocia Tomas Pulido would be able to tell her own story. But also in my world, we come to resent writers for not doing what we expect them to do, make the difficult understandable. We come to resent writers, not knowing exactly how difficult it is to do this. Some writers stop trying; the anticipated backlash already being a deterrent to even getting started. And then some writers try their best.
I believe Tizon tried. Did he fail? If his reason for writing this story was to humanize Eudocia Tomas Pulido, maybe he failed. In my world, Eudocia Tomas Pulido would be able to tell her own story as a human being with a voice.
But as writers, should we then not attempt to write these stories?
I do not want to valorize Tizon; I will not say he is brave for coming forward with this story of modern day slavery in his own home. I do not want to valorize the master; to do so would be to valorize generations of class-based and gender-based institutional violences. I do want to give him credit as a writer, for attempting to tell this story.
As a teacher of Pinay Literature, in which we center Pinay voices which have been silenced, or squelched before the Pinay can even take a breath and think of the first words she may say on her own behalf, I want to think about whether there are any places in which Eudocia Tomas Pulido tells her own story, even if in flickers and small moments. If these exist, then they are not so small.
Alice Walker wrote in “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” of the many places women tell their stories, when they have been systematically denied access to literacy and education, much less any kind of autonomy, ability to make decisions for their own lives and destinies. I have been combing through this story for those places where Eudocia Tomas Pulido conveys her own narrative — which, of course, is filtered through Tizon’s narration. Tizon did not own Eudocia Tomas Pulido’s narrative, but it is through his filter that her narrative becomes known to us.
Eudocia Tomas Pulido was a human being who never had the opportunity to narrate her own story. Eudocia Tomas Pulido was a human being who never had the opportunity to choose her own path. I do not absolve Tizon and his family, for they were the central beneficiaries of her servitude. My sadness, the kind of mourning I seem to be experiencing stems from knowing Eudocia Tomas Pulido’s voice, her narrative will always be filtered through others with more power than she ever had.
I think also of Tizon’s mother, who, for lack of a better term, is the “villain,” of this story. I want to think about the relationship between Tizon’s mother and Eudocia Tomas Pulido. Did the mother ever experience the kind of guilt that Tizon appeared to experience? With my students, we discuss Pinayism, and the social, historical, and cultural barriers which prevent Pinays from connecting with one another. In this world, we are bred, conditioned to take one another down. What does it take to subvert this? A lot of work of seeing and understanding that the patriarchy needs us to never form solidarities with one another.
As a counterpoint, I have been thinking of the narratives I do present and discuss with my Pinay Literature students — those of Whang Od and Lang Dulay. I am thinking of the narratives of Mary Jane Veloso, Jennifer Laude, Izabel Laxamana, Norife Herrera Jones.
I think of the work so many have attempted, as journalists, activists, advocates, artists, and writers so that these Pinays’ narratives are centered, and may speak on their own behalf. I am thinking of Yay Panlilio Marking, Angeles Monrayo, Helen Rillera. I am thinking of Sister Mary John Mananzan, Marjorie Evasco, Xyza Cruz Bacani, Ninotchka Rosca, M. Evelina Galang, Jean Vengua, Melissa Roxas.
I think of myself as one Pinay advocate among these Pinay advocates, and as a work in progress in centering Pinay narrative, lyric, epistemologies. I think this work is hard. I think if we attempt it as we do, we will experience failure. I think this failure should not deter us from this work.
The theme for this coming Sunday’s UC Berkeley’s Pilipinx American commencement ceremony is, “araw,” which means both sun, and day. I admit, I have been at a loss for a “message,” I may impart upon young Pilipinx American college graduates. Part of it is my exhaustion from teaching and working, but a larger part of it has to do with the need for quality time with young people for exchange, and for dialogue. And a larger part of it has to do with a certain cynicism that the current political moment has got me in. How do you tell young people to fight for what they believe in, when we are living in the now that we are living in. What longterm good are inspirational memes and their vapid clichés.
I am combing through my own essays and interviews for glimmers of sunlight. I am clicking through so many literary websites to see what others are saying. I found the above image over at Brain Pickings, and this is helping me tremendously.
Perhaps I start by recounting this experience to the new graduates. It is challenging to find these moments, these glimmers of light during such cynical and corrupt times. We lose our faith. We want to crawl inside of ourselves and into our own darkness, at first to escape, and then, to heal, and then to incubate. These moments, these rites of passage are acknowledging that we now enter society as grown-ups, and decide how we are going to work. We have to reaffirm our belief systems; do we really believe what we have been saying we believe, in the vacuum of the academic institution, in which consequence is intellectual. How do we become thinkers and doers in the real world, and can we become agents of social change in that real world?
The work is day-to-day, and we can fall into the drudgery of the longest days. It is more often unromantic, bureaucratic, and it feels the obstacles and setbacks are more frequent than the successes. This is where we must put our work ethic to the test. Changing the world, changing our communities, changing our families, is a glacial, incremental process, every day a new setback, another closed mind we must attempt to open, another person sitting in darkness, to whom we must bring that light. People will resist, they will dismiss you. They will tell you, you are young and so what do you know — you with your fancy new college ideas, what place do they have in the real world, where people struggle, go hungry, become homeless, lose their loved ones, and so they have no time for your ideas. Or they may not recognize that they have been sitting in darkness (they’ve been there for so long); they’re just fine where they are.
So that’s where I am this morning. Contemplating light, and change.
Reminder. Never, ever underestimate what our predominantly Filipino American students are capable of. They are young, resilient minds, in a place of critical and intellectual inquiry. Give it to them. Open up the space for them to do this, to ask questions, to grapple with ideas and concepts with which they may not have any previous exposure. Facilitate their inquiry. Ask them questions. Coax and push, bit by bit, past their social, political, historical, cultural comfort zones.
I always start with what they claim to know. I ask where and how they came to that knowledge. I go from there, excavating, examining pieces very closely, proposing alternative points of view, presenting other existing knowledges. (One of the things that I appreciated most in this semester’s recent weeks was how my students said of Cheena Marie Lo’s A Series of Un/Natural Disasters, that the poetry affirmed, solidified what they already suspected or thought they knew.)
I discuss concepts, always doing my best to discuss them in real life contexts. After it’s clear they are understanding what’s being discussed, after they have contributed themselves to that understanding, then I offer them the terminology. We all contribute to meaning making, to defining.
We read. We read critically. We hone in and pull way back. Here, Amanda Ngoho Reavey’s figurative tesserae and mosaic in her multigenre work, Marilyn, are useful. Examine the individual pieces closely, reflect upon their “fit,” with/among one another. To what larger picture is each tessera contributing.
I am saying all this, because I am tired of our community underestimating our young people’s capacity for literary, poetic rigor. I think we resort to what is most simple when studying our community’s literary work, because we are compartmentalized — we believe intellectual work belongs only behind the closed gates of the highest echelons of the academy, and then we resent that intellectual work exists only in singular form, only behind the closed gates of the highest echelons of the academy.
We want to be passive and just watch a performance. We want to be entertained. We want meaning spoon fed, glossed over, and given to us in memes. We don’t want to engage what we don’t already know. We don’t think we want to expend the energy or invest the time. We dismiss complexity in literature as “colonized,” as literature for “white people,” and in doing so, we dumb down some pretty amazing work that folks in our community are creating.
The obvious problem is that the above logic is saying, only white people write and read complex literature; we are saying to others that our own people are not capable of literary complexity. So when others come and treat us in a simplistic, reductive, and imposing manner, why be offended? This is the message we’ve put out there, that we are incapable, that we are passive.
We think of reading literature as a “bourgeois” activity and pastime — “Filipinos don’t read,” remember? But seriously, even the most so-called “street” or “everyman” poets and authors in our community are avid and sophisticated readers of literature.
When I was very young as a writer, back around the year 2000, I remember arguing on a listserv with a fellow aspiring APIA writer, about “straight forward,” “narrative” poetry, versus “experimental,” “inaccessible” poetry. This person chided me about my being so influenced by “experimental” poetics, telling me no one would read or “get” APIA authored work that was “experimental,” because it was “irrelevant” to “The APIA Experience.”
I wonder where this person is now. I haven’t heard from them or heard their name in 17 years.
(In the meantime, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee is canon in Asian American Literature.)
I want to say that suspicion of those who wield English is legitimate. This is part of our colonial legacy. I also want to say that as we collectively work towards decolonization, we have to look very closely at our use of English. Nothing of what I am saying is new or revolutionary, by any means.
Do be critical of our mastery of it, the language and its literary forms. But yes, strive towards mastery of it. Not to be in its thrall, and not to oppress our own, but to complicate it, to hybridize/mongrelize it, to transform it.
And yes, rather than replicating those same oppressive systems, rather than perpetuating inequality among our own, let’s wield our Englishes to communicate well our complexities, use it in our everyday liberatory practices.
I believe the finer we communicate our complexities, the more painstaking work we invest in our literature, the much more long term its effects. Cheap and easy = disposable culture. I do not want my poetry to become a victim of forgettable, throwaway culture.
Ultimately, I come back to the reasons why I chose to dedicate myself to the arts. Art opens us. Art makes dialogue happen. Art and literature stay with(in) us, having entered through our pores, our hearts, our brains, our ears, our eyes, all at once. They reside in our memories, as if they reside in our cells. We feel and experience their effects for years to come. We pass these down to the next generation, that they would in turn, do the same.