Writing Culture in Diwata (y Poeta)

[Minor edits below.]

Yesterday evening I had a late visit to Bob Glück’s Writers on Writing class at SFSU, to read from and talk about Diwata. It was an interesting class. There is one student’s question that I’ve been thinking about since last night: How did I make the decision to use very culturally specific references, language, etc, and did I fear alienating readers from the work.

This is a very valid question. The funny thing is that lately, I haven’t really felt this kind of fear, at least about non-Filipinos turning away from the work because they can’t relate to it. I told the students I’ve had a lot of time to work this out, to think about the risk of alienating folks culturally dissimilar to me. Certainly, my readership has grown, due in very major part to the relative “success” of Poeta en San Francisco, which some years ago, I really believed no one outside of my political poetic cadre would read, precisely because I believed it was very specific.

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Diwata Reviewed in Coal Hill Review

An excerpt of this very thoughtful review by Carolyne Whelan at Coal Hill Review:

Starting with a monologue of longing from Eve, Reyes weaves seamlessly the creation myths of the Book of Genesis and of the Tagalog people of the Philippines, along with the bloody history of colonization in the Philippines and her grandfather’s role during World War II. We are offered Reyes’ own version of oral history, the history of her split heritage, the story of survival, and myths of Reyes’ own creation that add an additional emotional truth despite their deliberate inaccuracy. We leave this book both shellshocked and empowered, reborn and rib-torn.

While these poems are capable of standing alone with their musical incantations (“We bring her tobacco when she calls shrill bird trill carried upon air as though her voice were a body’s warm rib cage we could wrap our arms round tight.”), they work collectively as one long narrative that uses traditional Filipino poetic devices, including call and response, repetition, and songlike refrains. The long humming lines matched with short pulse lines (“Here I shall weave a selvedge of we.”) hypnotize us like a fire on an otherwise black night.

Read more.