[Poem/Immigrant Song] Brown Girl Fields Many Questions

[This is the opening poem to my manuscript, Letters to a Young Brown Girl. It is also very much a “To Proceed, You Must First Understand” kind of poem. A previous version of this poem was published over at GIANTHOLOGY, so thank you Thomas Sayers Ellis for that.]

Brown Girl Fields Many Questions

If you want to know what we are whose body parts are scattered to the winds, dispersed as heirloom seeds into the beaks, stomachs, and droppings of migratory birds, broken through our clear film of rage to leaf and fruit, no matter what the territory or terrain,

i. In which “you” may indicate a “hearer of unspecified identity,” a second person narrator such that the “you” is really meant to be an “I,” a “we,” regardless of whether the hearer, onlooker, or reader wishes to be included or addressed,

ii. In which “know” may indicate “awareness through observation or inquiry,” “having information concerning,” “having a personal experience of,”

iii. In which the English “we,” is crude, lacking in the specific exclusive and inclusive distinctions of the Tagalog “tayo,” and “kami,”

iv. In which “what,” is a pronoun choice you might find curious; not “who,” which indicates personhood or personified thing, but “what,” as in concept, as in phenomenon, as in the object you already believe the “we” is,

v. In which “if” is the operative word, the contingent term, “in case that,” “on the condition that,” “despite the possibility that,” “even though,”

Here are some questions you may try to consider:

what’s it like to be collected and shelved by people who say they dig your (island) (oriental) (tropical) look, your dark lidless eyes, your endless straight black hair,

what’s it like for them to tell you with their wide round eyes, how lovely your accent is (they can’t identify where it’s from though) and yet you still speak such good English (how is that possible),

what’s it like to have white people coming up so close, gawking and poking at your flat little nose, your little body, touching your silky hair,

what’s it like to hear them tell you 24/7 that they wish they could bottle your skin like a liquid boutique bronzer for that tawny warm glow, all that gold,     

what’s it like to be this sun-kissed, plump-lipped, almond-eyed, fine-boned tiny thing, to be so precious and treasured and sublime,

what’s it like to be so treasured to be trafficked,

what’s it like to be locked in for your own good so no one will get their oily fingerprints on you, so that no one can hear your soft soft asking voice,

what’s it like when they mispronounce your alien name and shrug, when they tell you your ass should be deported,

what’s it like when they push you off the sidewalks and into the gutters,

what’s it like when they ask if you were bought from a catalog,

what’s it like when they mistake you for the help the nanny, the maid, the janitor, the dishwasher, when they say you speak such good English, how is that even possible,

what’s it like when they ask whether your mother was a green card hunting whore, a nudie dancer near the military base, a drug addict, a welfare cheat,

what’s it like when they say you are an illegal, when they say fucking monkey, when they ask why you eat dog, when they call you a dirty Filipino,

what’s it like when they tell you you should be grateful,

what’s it like when white kids in a prom limo yell fucking jap go back to China,

what’s it like when big white dudes get in your face shouting anything not white’s not right,

who will remind you of Bulosan’s songs of love (this meant something to you, once)

who will remind you where the heart is (there, between your third and fourth rib)

who will blame you for effacing your face, for peeling your skin from your body

what’s it like when white people yell at you that you ruined the neighborhood because you people kept landing at SFO and goddamn Mineta is named after you people now, you took over our church, you took over our market, you took over our donut shop, you took over our liquor store, you took over our beauty salon with your chatter and your babies,

what’s it like when they yell at you that you have so many damn babies, now you are taking over over Silicon Valley and all the schools, and now everything smells like fried fish and feet, all the weird shit you people eat, this place was quiet but now your grammas yelling who knows what to your uncles and your cousins, why can’t she just speak English, fix your busted cars in the driveway parked on the weeds in your junk front yard, they’re spilling into our street you’re parked in front of my home, move your damn car, stay away from my daughters, stay away from my dog, fix your lawn, this is not the ghetto where you belong,

what’s it like when they yell how many goddamn illegals can you pack into that little house (fix your paint job; this is not the ghetto), there are so many of you, you’ve snatched up all the houses you built over the old orchards you picked the apricots gladiolas and almonds, we remember the mustard flowers and the dragonflies, our children rode their ribboned bicycles, but now your boys racing rice rockets break the quiet into pieces, you killed our peace, you stupid Filipinos can’t even drive,  

what’s it like when they say your boys are hoodlums and your sisters are indecent, all your girls are whores, just go back to where you came from, go back to where you came from, go back because you don’t belong here, because we never wanted you in our neighborhood

how are you still here, breathing, working, hustling like a motherfucker

how haven’t you given up, when everybody tells you not to speak, how are you speaking

how haven’t you disappeared into your sheets, into the dark, with the windows shut and the front door bolted

how do you step outside your front door every day, how do you stand and walk that walk

how aren’t you afraid, sister, were your parents afraid, how did they teach you to be so steel, please teach me how to be steel like you

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#APAHM #APIAHeritageMonth: Time for Some Author Introspection

APIA Heritage Month is drawing to a close. I don’t know that I accomplished much out there, in the big world, apart from surviving my last semester of teaching an enormous Filipinx Lit class. I did a cluster of book events, readings, which were difficult for me; my voice cracking and my being breathless throughout, and so I have been thinking about this difficulty.

Invocation to Daughters is a hard book. I have so much in it I am so emotionally close to. There is also a bluntly stated brutality in it that is hard to read aloud to audiences, and to discuss with students. This brutality is contained in what I worked really hard to make poetically sound, and even manageable. Yes, this is the power of poetry, to make appear manageable what is not … and should not be?

To Love as Aswang was also filled with brutality, but my emotional stake in the material was a lot less intense, mostly political and artistic questions. The reach of this book was considerably “smaller” than Invocation and so discussion felt contained. It has also appealed to a different kind of reader of poetry, perhaps someone who never considered themselves a reader or subject of literary works.

I don’t know that I had this kind of emotional difficulty with Poeta en San Francisco, speaking of farther reach. I was so young in the industry, and at a place where I could still be so brave, precisely because I was young, and the most difficult thing happening in my life at the time was student debt. I had a lot of energy to be “out there,” defending my shit and arguing hard on my own behalf. I had a lot of confidence in rallying “allies” as well. I thought fracas made my work cool, that it was a measure of its success.

Yes, bravery and difficulty are what I want to talk about here, and “success” too. I see when other writers and authors shrink from public view. Being in the public view is not safe. It’s almost counterintuitive , to put all your shit on blast, and appear perfectly comfortable discussing this with total strangers. For me, that’s all performative. You’re on a stage, enacting your public persona. There may be pieces of that public persona that approximate your true self (whatever that is), but it sure gets difficult over time to be in that performative space.

I am going to say, that for WOC, for Filipinx Americans in public, literary spaces, it takes a toll, all of this white supremacist, all of this patriarchal crap to which we are called upon to respond. All of this, how to make people care about this work, when we know that in life outside of literature, they will never give a fuck about people like us, much less, what we have to say when we are speaking on our own behalf.

It becomes even more exhausting when you are called to “battle” against, to answer to folks in your own communities, who disapprove of your work and its execution, and in life outside of literature, they’d just as soon avoid people like you.

So I am here, exhausted by this work, and the stupid lines drawn across our so-called POC and APIA communities, where we end up being on the side of wrong, for not staying inside socially acceptable lines, as per the Filipinos who chide me for my anti-colonial and anti-patriarchal anger.

While for a while I felt like I could open my personal me to the poetry, which the readers I was trying to reach seem to respond well to, I am now here, after I read, “The Day,” having had strangers in public spaces open up to me to tell me about their grieving, which is beautiful and difficult to do in crowded rooms of people I don’t know. I have also had strangers tell me to my face that I could have done more to keep my father alive. Who the fuck are you, telling me this to my face like you know me and my family. Fuck you and your armchair judgment. Why do you think you can do this. And this too, is the beauty and difficulty of poetry.

Perhaps these are ways of telling that the poetry is effective, and perhaps you will tell me I must weigh the “good” and the “bad.” That it evens out in the end, that it is a good problem to have, people in public talking about your work, talking to you about your work, responding to your work because they took the time to listen to you. I am inclined to agree, but I also know it’s wearing me down.

I have been asking myself whether I should want to continue sharing these deepest, most honest things in my work, and it is making me uncertain, where I want my next manuscript to go when it finally leaves my hard drive. What will it, and I, go through, once it’s in the world. I see why other writers go the route of the clever and the quirky as a kind of social protection. I see it, I get it, and I also hate it, seeing POC writers having to make themselves socially neuter as a strategy, or falsely transcendent, looking obviously disingenuous. I think this too, is the opposite of bravery.  I can’t help but think, might this also stunt the growth of the work.

I don’t have a tidy resolution here. I’m just in this space, and I don’t know yet what to do with it. I know readers in my community who want honesty and social relevance, not cleverness and artifice, and I love that about them. And I want to keep bringing it.

#APAHeritageMonth: A Kind of Grieving

I failed at utilizing my blog to signal boost APIA poets for #NationalPoetryMonth! But now it’s May, and it’s APA Heritage Month, and the show must go on.

I wanted to talk a little bit about discovery. As a young reader of color, as a young immigrant (or child of immigrants) reader of color. When do people like us eventually find ourselves and our narratives in literature. What happens to us at that point?

I talk and write all the time about that invisibility we experience from the get go, that invisibility we normalize, we resign ourselves to not being important enough in the world to be the subject of books.

By the time many of us are already young adults, we’ve spent our childhoods in a normalized invisibility, living all of the emotional complexity of that invisibility without a lot of the vocabulary or institutional knowledge. We’ve been little and belittled. We’ve had to find ways of standing out. Many of us act out, in desperation. Some of us are destructive, or self-destructive. Many of us find ourselves in a long term  relationship with self-hatred — if I’d only been born into a more visible, normal, beautiful, place worthy of everyone’s attention, and damn this ugly, weird, obscure foreign culture I was born into; nobody understands anything about me — does any of this sound familiar?

And then, as we slowly make our way out of our familial homes, into the bigger world, there may be a forward thinking mentor or teacher who puts in front of us the books we have needed to read our entire lives.

I hadn’t read Asian American or Filipino American authors — much less Asian American and Filipino American WOMEN authors — until I was in college. In 1989, in 1990, to have books by Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Jessica Hagedorn  entered into my head space by various local teachers was a godsend. I was 18, 19 years old; I was pretty self-erasing, self-negating, emotionally self-destructive. I was so stuck there for a long time.

This “life of literature” that I’ve made for myself since my late teens has been decades in the making, as I’m inching towards my 50s. It’s been a lot of hard work, not just the literature and writing education, but the emotional work, to motivate, push myself out of that self-erasure, self-negation, emotional self-destruction into a place where I have centralized and normalized the self — a self-insisting Pinay who speaks and places the utmost value in her own voice, who resists individual, patriarchal, institutional bullying and intimidation, and who tries like hell to branch outward, toward other Pinays.

But for the “stuck” piece, I am coming to realize what’s happening there is a kind of long grieving. it’s like Carlos Bulosan’s “I Am Not a Laughing Man,” essay, in which his anger — because no one ever told him how “easy” it was to write, to be a writer, to publish, to make money as a writer publishing — his anger was a kind of, a part of the grieving. Look at all the abuse, the life or death situations, starvation and homelessness, hopelessness and despair he had to live, because he couldn’t previously conceive of anything other than that, because there were no avenues to exit this, and how to realistically exit that mindset and open himself to a different place, for himself, for his own folk.

I am not trying to say that being “freethinking” is the way. Shit, lookit Kanye’s “freethinking” mess and nonsense that’s all over social media. That doesn’t do anybody any good, emotionally, spiritually, materially.

What I am saying is that we grieve, precisely because the worldview we’ve been told is the only worldview we are allowed to have, has boxed us into envisioning no possibility that we could create for ourselves and work toward.  Step by step, finding mentors, community, and allies along the way to work with us to build something else. Something that is sustainable.

Sometimes we get stuck in the grieving. The pain is for real. It’s hard to let go if that is all we know, being erased, negated, and abused/violated — thralls to/reliant upon that white supremacist, patriarchal worldview.  We’ve normalized trauma.

So the “OMG I never knew,” — about our voices, about how we can work to create other possibilities for ourselves — can be a place where we live the rest of our lives. Just in shock and grief. Think about how trauma can stunt our growth, keep us revisiting a place in our histories we actually never leave. Is it possible that an entire community can be stuck in a place of grief? And is it possible that literature and art can help, or even be the primary catalysts, for jarring a community from a place of trauma and into a different space, perhaps even spaces where we can grow to accommodate more complex thought, engage in worlding — yes, worlding, world building something we envision and work towards as a community of artists and educators.

#NationalPoetryMonth: Brown Girl: A Glossary of Terms

Brown Girl: A Glossary of Terms

Internal Colonialism
In the story, children who bite their tongues eat a porridge of falsehood til they are fattened little piggies. In the story, ladies who say yes are locked in wrought, jeweled cages. They dance to the tune of Taylor Swift covering Earth, Wind & Fire, and they say, this is just fine.

Decolonization
They want to take this word away from you. They want you to explain why you look Asian, when your name is clearly Spanish. They want to bring you Jesus, even though they see your people nailing themselves to crosses on Good Friday. Moreover, they think they brought you light bulbs, feminine hygiene products, and feminism. They love your fine white sand beaches. They think your whole nation is one of military bases and air conditioned shopping malls, and fine white sand beaches made for them. They need you to clean their houses and raise their babies. They don’t even pay you minimum wage to change their elders’ adult diapers. They don’t accept that you are from Oakland. They don’t accept that you have a nation they did not name.

White Privilege
In the story, the hero is always light-eyed and fair-haired. The distressed damsel is as well. Of course, he is meant to claim her. Of course, they are meant to have the brightest babies. See them banish the dark from their domain. See them build their castles of light where our dark children play. Our dark bodies and tongues will be outlaw. Our dark gods as well. See the hero thrust himself upon his dark maidservants. See those dark maidservants silenced. See how wreched and ratchet, all their dark offspring. Hear the chorus of “not all white people.” Hear the chorus of “all lives matter.”

Pinoy
You know what annoys me? People who won’t see the through line from Joe Bataan to Bruno Mars. You ever wonder about the sound of a poet rappin’ with ten thousand carabaos in the dark? You ever eat fish and rice with your hands, off styrofoam plates, in a hole in the wall, South of Market Street? You ever roll down your windows while speeding down Highway 101, to smell the Pajaro River? What if that’s the poem, and you missed it, because you were looking for something roseate and effete.

Pinay
Do you know yourself, Pinay? Do you name yourself, Pinay? This name was made here, born here, American as you, your SPAM cans, and your balikbayan boxes. American as the jeepney. American as your father’s favorite Applebee’s on Farwell in Fremont. Do you cringe when your people don’t translate — have you Googled “cultural cringe”? I fucking hate that term. Do you know that Prego® commercial daughter, pleading, “English please,” for her white lover, at a table full of titas and pinsans? That fabled Filipina hospitality, so much giving unto others until you are shoeless, penniless, mute and hollowed out. Hija, you ain’t Jesus, multiplying fishes and loaves.

Pakikipagkapwa-tao
Hella indigenous, which does not mean gone native. Kakayahan umunawa sa damdamin ng iba, for real. You know, like Ruby Ibarra and one hundred Pinays giving you resting bitch face. You know, like those syndicated, full color photographs, of boys and men in LeBron James and Steph Curry jerseys, thinned flipflops on their feet, one body together, shouldering a nation. One bamboo hut at a time. One set of lungs breathing. One heart. Isang mahal. Isang bagsak.

For AAAS: “Gaps” between Asian American Literary Scholars and Literary Community

So, I am on a panel this Friday re: the above-mentioned “gap” between Asian American Literary Scholars and Literary Community. So I want to step back from any emotional arguments that as an educator, I usually hear/am the recipient of: “I am an Asian/Filipino American writer; why don’t you teach my work?” Similarly, any “list” I put out there for a literary body, or even on my own website/blog is met with a “You didn’t include so-and-so,” “You didn’t include me.”

There’s a lot of assumption and expectation loaded into those statements/complaints.

I used to feel obligated to respond to each complaint, to explain in painstaking detail my process, my criteria I have for the works I ultimately select for course adoption. And I do believe it’s important to be very clear, transparent with criteria, parameters.

This is, I guess, the gist of my spiel for tomorrow.

I accept that the interests of the scholars and the interests of the artists don’t always intersect, nor should they necessarily intersect.

Our industry, specifically as American poets, is a fast-moving one. We can publish pretty rapidly. But even before tackling the relative velocity of poetry publishing, let me say I see in contemporary poets on my radar, how fast their/our poetics and bodies of poetry can also grow. Whether it’s because of being open to constant pop culture and social media exposure, or being open to the constant onslaught of new publication and new media, poetry, “Contemporary American Poetry,” grows and changes fast.

Is it just “what we do” as poets. I think of “taking the temperature,” of a current moment, what informs the current moment, what language is being used and changed in the current moment. How is this all linked to the larger condition.

I can’t assume to know what scholars do, and why they do it. Some work in historical recovery. Some work in specific historical periods and specific historical and social phenomena. Those kinds of scholarly works would not necessarily include contemporary poetics and contemporary literature.

I can say a few things about literary scholars who have engaged my work. To date, the work most frequently engaged, most currently engaged, is Poeta en San Francisco, a book which I wrote around 2003-2004, and which was published in 2005. Timothy Yu and Jane Wong are two Asian American literary scholars who have engaged this work. And perhaps it’s more accurate to say, literary scholars who are Asian American, for whom my poetry coincides with their research. I also think that because Yu and Wong are also poets in addition to being scholars, we have intersecting concerns. Thea Quiray Tagle is another scholar, though not specializing in literary scholarship, who is Asian American, specifically Filipino American, who has written about Poeta en San Francisco. Craig Santos Perez, a Chamoru poet and scholar, has also written about my work via interview and book review, and I feel like he has done so outside of his academic research’s scope, as a poet engaging another poet — i.e. as the way we practice poetry community and literary citizenship.

Since the publication of Poeta en San Francisco, over a decade has passed, and I have had three poetry chapbooks and three full length poetry collections published, all of which have built upon some aspect of Poeta. Who knows if my subsequent work will ever be so actively written about.

I know of only one scholar who’s taken on my body of work in some kind of trajectory — Martin Joseph Ponce, who had included Poeta en San Francisco in his Beyond the Nation: Diasporic Filipino Literature and Queer Reading. He has written about a substantial cross section of my work for the forthcoming American Poets in the 21st Century: Poetics of Social Engagement, after being specifically solicited to do so. I feel like this is a rare thing, this larger cross examination of the work of a living, mid-career, contemporary poet.

And so, I think what I am coming to is that what we two different parties do are wildly different things. Any expectation to be included without any consideration for the specifics of one’s work would be based on identity politics. And this will only take you so far.