Why Aswang Poetics?

In 2010, my third book, Diwatawas published by BOA Editions, Ltd. The closing poem of Diwata is “Aswang,” which I wrote, inspired by Pinay poet Rachelle Cruz, who had been writing about aswangs for some time. There was, there has been something in the air, slowly coalescing among a few Pinay writers and artists. Or maybe there was something in the water we are all drinking.

At the end of 2016, I wrote the introduction for Rachelle Cruz’s forthcoming and excellent debut collection, God’s Will for Monsters. In my introduction, I recall what it is she said about her aswang. She wanted to know how the aswang would live in our time and place. Rachelle’s aswang is also laden by history, as much as she throws her middle finger up at it. Her aswang is troubled by body, by the handling of the Pinay body.

In 2010, Rigoberto González interviewed me for the National Book Critics Circle; here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

However, the book ends with “Aswang”–gesturing toward the indigenous women priests who were demonized for the wisdom that threatened those in power. Is there no hope then? Will this Diwata also be silenced, shunned and exiled for her visions? Or is this a warning from the other aswang, who awaits the days of reckoning? Is there a place for diwata in our troubled times?

Thank you so much for your reading of Diwata. You are right, in that Diwata does not primarily aim to critique colonialism or erase a colonial history, which is impossible to do. Rather, it foregrounds women who have resisted, survived, endured colonial invasion and dislocation. They have done so by being creative, by (metaphorically) shapeshifting, by passing down wisdom through the generations (through story, song, dance, tattooing, weaving, etc.), and by arming themselves and fighting.

I am heartened by my shapeshifting Aswang’s existence in our modern, urban America. The fact that she has the last word speaks to me of her defiance of colonialism’s patriarchal structures and world view. Her words are fightin’ words. She’s telling those who’ve demonized her that they are right to fear her.

The last words of “Aswang,” are “Blame me.” Writing the poem was a rush. I love how “fuck you” she is. She’s brave, much more so than many of us can ever be; we are so hemmed in by respectability politics, we think we have so much to lose, and perhaps we do, depending on whose value systems we’ve bought into. She’s old, she’s endured, she’s fought. There’s so much bullshit she will not take. Here, I don’t mean personal acts of bullshit, though as we know, those can be informed, framed, sanctioned, normalized by patriarchy and white supremacy. She frightens you, she pisses you off, and she means to. Those value systems do not serve her; those value systems objectify and demean her.

In 2015, my fourth book, To Love as Aswang, was published by PAWA, Inc. This felt like the logical next step from my previous book’s ending, to take that historically and socially monstrous Filipina female, and grow her voice to contain multitudes, to ask the Pinays around me about themselves, and pass their words and worries through the prism of aswang. I don’t know whether I was explicit about it when I asked other Pinays to share; I don’t remember whether I told them that I believed we were that monstrosity, and that that monstrosity was only guilty of being monstrous because she was fighting for her humanity.

The poems in this collection began to take on cleaving, not because of the voices splintering, but because the voices were all speaking simultaneously. I needed to find a way to give these voices space, to show these voices as distinct, rather than to allow the voices to blend altogether, no longer to be heard. How could these voices provide their own melodies and harmonies, even if speaking in contradiction. The line became very clear to me, that is, the poetic line needed to be clean, and so there are poems where you see the chaos of many voices speaking, and you see how those can be sorted, how each voice can then sing, chant their genealogy, beatitude, psalm, or lamentation.

To Love as Aswang was an exercise in poetic kapwa, “shared humanity.” That humanity, constantly under attack, must be preserved and upheld, by any means necessary. Recognizing, practicing kapwa can be essential, crucial here as insurgency. Is this praxis? Not entirely, not yet, but it begins the process of bringing to light our epistemologies, and doing so collectively. I would like to think that critical dialogue, that circles of women, like war council, can return to our own families, communities, and work, can  bring something back with them, and enact. Aswang poetics has informed the ways I approach and seek to empower young Pinays, and young people in general in my classrooms.

Certainly, my writing is now very directed. I know who I am writing for, and it bears repeating that my ideal reader is that young Pinay who has never seen herself in literature, only superficially represented as an acquiescent wordless body for patriarchy. This young Pinay is at the beginning of envision possibility for herself, but she isn’t exactly sure yet where to begin. She is beginning to ideate what Pinays really are capable of. I am not here to give anyone discovery (this feels like someone else’s world view, not mine). Think Audre Lorde’s poem, “Coal.” Think of what would be birthed from the darkness within, given pressure/compression and heat, given time.

What is Aswang Poetics?

How does one become “woke.”

Some continuing thoughts from yesterday’s Aswang Poetics post.

For my own career as an author, I have said this many times, but it always bears repeating. The more I focused on my own political and ethnic specific work, and the more I wrote towards/for my imagined reader — the young Pinay who’s never seen herself in literature, the young Pinay who’s hungry for something she hasn’t yet figured out what it is but it is fierce, affirming, articulate, in your face, full of love — the less I worried about who I (folks who I imagined had more “power” than I) was pissing off, the more “success” I have been able to find.

It feels like Aswang Poetics would be an entire curriculum leading to praxis. Epistemology. Decolonization (discussing Internalized Oppression, for example). Pedagogy. Indigeneity (including Filipino Core Values). Pinayism. Feminism and Womanism. Literature. Literary Criticism. Poetics. Rigorous Craft/Writing and Process Workshops. Seminar/Talks on Gender, Patriarchy, White Supremacy, and the Publishing Industry, on confronting, demystifying, and disrupting these things. Actions such as Pinay-centric publications, and Pinay-centric events. Creating these events re-imagining the use of space, the dynamic with the reader and “audience.” Publications that rethink our relationship with gatekeepers, “status” and “prestige,” and the means of production.

Making Kuwento. Kuwentuhan.

This does indeed feel like ongoing work. I keep flashing back to my undergrad years, lectures and seminars on American Imperialism, so many great literature classes, taught by folks like Barbara Christian. Reading and discussing Anzaldúa, Silko, José Rizal, José Martí, Edward Said, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Jessica Hagedorn.

Seriously, how does one become woke, how one works with others in the process of all becoming woke. How can this be just like making kuwento, with hard/intense decolonization happening. And food.

Aswang Poetics

Image: Pacita Abad.

What is Aswang Poetics? Well, it’s not a new thing. As I’ve been engaging in discussions with fellow Pinay writers and authors, and with Pinay students, there’s something about this creature that appeals to us as American Pinays.

In 2017, I would love to get a working group blog going, in which we flesh out what Aswang Poetics is, or can be. For now, notes:

  • Poetics, on the art of writing poetry. Or, thoughts on how and why elements of a text elicit certain (emotional) reader response. So then, the construction of a work itself, form, parts, purpose, complexities, before even getting to “meaning.”
  • Re: decolonization. Something about poetic voice, authorial voice, speakers and narrators whose ability to self-reflect upon her/their historical circumstances. Something also about relationship to the literary industry. Something also about our relationship to readers and audience. Examining our relationship to the White Gaze.
  • Re: Pinayism. Something about our relationships among ourselves. Something about our speakers, narrators, characters, and their relationships to one another as self-identified Pinays. Something about their position in relation to center and margins, and their/our relationships with those who would subsume us.
  • Re: our relationship to Judeo-Christian Western value systems.
  • Re: treatment of gendered social behaviors, speech, subject matter.
  • Historical continuity of Pinays as monstrosities! Transgression, witches, hags, all-in-all examining what it means to be well-behaved (see above, re: gendered social behaviors, et al).
  • So then, this is about our being woke against patriarchy.

This is not new. But it is needed. I am personally tired AF of being expected to make nice, to sit the fuck down, to shut the fuck up, to defer to everyone else when I know that I know what I am talking about. I and we are constantly told we are not authorities on anything except the things we are told to master, in the service of patriarchy.

That’s all I have for now. I will get the blog up soon, so we can write.