I thought it was a poem
but it won an award
Cheers to your militant vision
I thought it was a poem
but it won an award
Cheers to your militant vision
How in control you are of your curls
You must be someone to model cruelty after
Five drinks in and I am still not amoral
Should we take that chiseled jaw elsewhere?
I’ve got so much sugar to burn
from this roomful of commissioned art
It’s all fun and games
until someone loses it on the highway
Nothing an overpriced piano can’t fix, but that’s just me
Let’s fuck like strangers for old times’ sake
I’d watch you google “happiness”
but there are books from your to-move pile
I need to steal
from Partial Views: On the Essay as a Genre in Philippine Literary Production
pre-pandemic work, forthcoming from DLSU, maybe this year
The lines of inquiry I pursued in writing this monograph on the essay as a literary enterprise were in no small part prompted by a controversial essay and the debates it stirred in circles well beyond the literary. In 2017, The Atlantic posthumously published Filipino-American journalist and author Alex Tizon’s “My Family’s Slave,” which details the lifelong exploitation of Eudocia Tomas Pulido or “Lola” as a maid for the author’s family. Lola served the Tizons for more than half a century, beginning in the 1940s in Tarlac, when the author’s grandfather “acquired” the young Pulido as a “gift” for his motherless daughter, and continuing for decades in the United States, where, lured by the promise of an allowance that she could send back to her family, Lola agreed to move with Tizon’s mother and her young family. Throughout decades of service, however, Lola was overworked, unpaid, and physically and verbally abused. A veritable prisoner of the Tizons, she was cut off from her own family, whom she could neither support nor return to, and denied a life beyond her indenture, isolated from the country and culture to which she was forcibly taken. Without the financial means, without any social circle and possible source of support, and, soon enough, without the legal status to opt out of the Tizon household, Lola lived a life of enslavement. In his lengthy first-person account of what he recognized, even as a child, to be a shameful family secret, Tizon narrates his own lifelong struggle to apprehend and, eventually, make amends for the exploitation suffered by Lola in the hands of his family.
Available for free online, Tizon’s essay was so widely read that it earned the distinction of being “the most-engaged story on the internet in 2017.” Accounting for the essay’s popularity, The Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg invoked features often attributed to creative nonfiction, the go-to category for essays that foreground subjectivity and literariness: “People value story, great writing, and honest emotion.” Although the “tragic, very personal story” was written by a relatively unknown veteran author, “the marketplace still rewards quality,” said Goldberg, flagging the commodity-status of the literary text. Readers bought (into) the Tizon piece because it is a true story told sincerely (a nod to the admirable humanity of the author) and skillfully (a nod to the admirable virtuosity of the author). Based on the discourse published online in response to the essay, however, the public’s reception of it could hardly be characterized as uniform. Some readers were touched, and others offended. Praise for the heartbreaking narrative of Lola’s suffering was countered by outrage over the author’s perceived reticence in putting a stop to her abuse. The one tenuous thread that arguably held otherwise polarized responses together was Tizon’s masterful writing. Amid impassioned debates over what the essay says, admirers and critics agreed on the faultlessness of how the author says it, employing the logic of the age-old division between form and content.
I regularly teach “My Family’s Slave” in an undergraduate literature course on creative nonfiction, and a passage that students often cite to illustrate the author’s skillful narration involves the whipping of Lola by Tizon’s grandfather, an incident that precedes the author’s birth but is relayed to him by his mother and corroborated by Lola herself. The scene is doubly violent because Lola is beaten for an offense she did not commit. It is Tizon’s mother (at the time still a young unmarried woman) who has broken her father’s rules and, in the face of his wrath, declares Lola to be the substitute recipient of her punishment. Accepting this proposition without question, the father punishes his daughter by whipping her maid. In class, my students point to this brief scene to demonstrate the power of Tizon’s storytelling: the brisk pace of the narration, the tension produced by minimal detail, the onomatopoeia generated by punctuation, the impact of italics used strategically. Of course, the story itself is appalling. The corporal punishment is stark evidence of the patriarch(y)’s control over women’s bodies, and the class privilege that “saves” Tizon’s mother from patriarchy’s violence is at the expense of Lola, whom she designates as her proxy. Doubly marginalized by gender and class, Lola literally suffers in silence. She is wordless when her amo, Tizon’s mother, uses her as a pawn to escape punishment, and she is soundless when her amo, Tizon’s grandfather, subjects her to his belt. But even as we feel repulsed by the situation, we also recognize the deft hand that crafted a tightly narrated sequence, the outcome of bare exposition accented sparingly by an adjective here and an adverb there. We trace the terror we feel from the grandfather’s violence to the strategic use of repetition, in which the severity of one statement (in this case a reprimand), written twice, creates the effect of amplification. The story is appalling, but the storytelling is not. There is beauty in Tizon’s telling of the story. It is this beauty that moves readers to say, in response to a narrative about a woman’s sustained abuse as a maid and migrant worker trafficked in the United States, “ang ganda.”
This suspension of the reader in the realm of the aesthetic encounter is, on the one hand, a marker of the essay’s success as a literary text. We dwell in its literariness, finding pleasure in the text in and of itself, a whole constructed from interlocking formal elements. On the other hand, the eloquence of Tizon’s piece could be regarded as a grave flaw. “Underneath the poetry, something was up,” writes Andrea Malaya M. Ragragio in Davao Today, suggesting that good writing as we know it could obfuscate rather than clarify. So finely crafted, the essay’s sheen as an art object distracts from its disturbing content, that is, Lola’s monumental suffering, which deserves the reader’s undivided attention, and not because it has been aestheticized in a literary work. Walter Benjamin said as much about the duplicity of art when he observed how photography “has succeeded in transforming even abject poverty, by recording it in a fashionably perfected manner, into an object of enjoyment” (230). The backlash that plagued the Tizon piece soon after publication indicates an awareness among readers of the need to see “underneath the poetry” and go beyond the boundaries of an aesthetic response. This was evident in the diverse pool of early respondents to “My Family’s Slave,” who were not limited to writers, critics, or that abstract figure that is the general reader. People responded from extraliterary points of view and framed their responses in relation to their identities, whether as historians, sociologists, and anthropologists; or as advocates of women’s rights, workers’ rights, and human rights; or as Filipinos living in the Philippines, Filipino-Americans, and Americans.
The genre in which Tizon wrote played a crucial role in determining the provocation it engendered, both intentionally and unwittingly, and in compelling readers to engage with it in ways above and beyond the exclusively literary. “My Family’s Slave” is an essay. The woman whipped in the text was whipped in real life. The woman who worked for no pay in the text worked for no pay in real life. The woman who suffered for over half a century in the text suffered for over half a century in real life. The family that abused her in the text abused her in real life. The author really tried to make up for his family’s transgressions after his mother’s death and really brought her ashes home to her family in Tarlac. This direct line between what happens on the page (or screen) and in real life spells the difference in the reader’s reception of the text and clarifies the stakes of writing in the genre. If Lola Eudocia were in a short story, the reader would receive her as an imaginary character: the pivot around which a domestic drama unfolds, the foil to the mother and key executor of her abuse, the object of the narrator’s affection, guilt, and remorse. She would be, for all intents and purposes, an analog for millions of Filipino maids and migrant workers, many of whom, like her, are trapped in the formidable machinery of modern-day slavery and many of whom, like her, are silenced and suppressed to the point of invisibility, resurfacing only in narratives written by others about and for them.
In an essay, however, the reader’s engagement includes and exceeds these forms of analysis. Lola Eudocia is not mere representation but actual victim. What the text discloses is not merely an unsavory family secret, but the real-life commission of a crime. In reading Tizon’s account, we become secondary witnesses to the trafficking of Lola (by a consular officer, no less) and the sustained violation of her human rights. We know the identities of the victim and the perpetrators. We know that the victim, in life, never saw justice. There was no rescue from slavery, no repatriation and reunion with her family, no back wages for decades of labor, no recompense for the lifelong ordeal. (There is charitable treatment from the author, which is framed, perhaps unintentionally, in the essay as the result of coming of age in the U.S. and imbibing liberal American values, in sharp contrast to the author’s parents, whose formative years and early adulthood were spent in feudal and patriarchal Philippines.) As readers of nonfiction made privy to a crime punishable by law, our engagement leaps off of the page and into the world where we, together with Lola Eudocia and the Tizons, reside. That both Lola Eudocia and Alex Tizon are dead (the former in 2011 and the latter in 2017, a few months before the publication of “My Family’s Slave”)hardly deters readers from debating what is to be done with their case, how some form of justice might be arrived at, what the obligations of the perpetrators’ family are to the family of the victim, and how we are implicated in the system that permits the enslavement of Lola and countless others.
Despite the lack of Tizon’s own account of his motives in writing the essay, it is reasonable to surmise that the public confession of his family’s secret was partly prompted by confession’s promised rewards: relief and rectification. “I do not want to valorize the master,” writes Filipino-American poet Barbara Jane Reyes, for “to do so would be to valorize generations of class-based and gender-based institutional violences. I do want to give [Tizon] credit as a writer, for attempting to tell this story.” Honoring the divide between form and content, Reyes distinguishes between Tizon the writer and Tizon the master and treats their actions as separate, which permits the credit given to one to be simultaneously withheld from the other. In contrast, a statement issued shortly after the publication of “My Family’s Slave” by the Damayan Migrant Workers Association makes no such distinction: “[j]ust like murder, labor trafficking cannot be waived by a heartfelt apology, by a cathartic journalistic exercise, or by taking the victim’s remains back to her relatives.” Writer and master are intertwined in an essay that is literally a master narrative, where the slave, silenced in real life, continues to be silent and silenced on the page. Even in narrative, Lola exists only according to the terms set by the author, and the continuing power of the master over the slave in art makes his benevolence as portrayed in the essay, to say the least, self-serving. While Damayan is blunt about the insufficiency of the text in itself in addressing, let alone compensating for, the suffering that Lola endured, Ragragio contends that something can be done with the text in itself to make it more productive despite its fundamental inadequacy as a form of action. It is Tizon’s work as a writer that she demands more of when she writes, “given his talent for writing and his sense of the injustice done to Lola Eudocia, would it be unfair to look for more than painful family memories and a road trip narrative?”
Another version here.
I share a tiny apartment on the fourth floor of a low-rise with my partner and three cats. It’s a one-room affair, far from ideal for two people attached to too many things, though it seems a pleasant enough set-up for the felines—there are shelves to scale, books to perch on, infinite sheaves of paper to poke and pull and rip and shred, a shape-shifting terrain of clutter that lends variety to their daily routine of chasing after each other. We live near the university where I teach—two quick jeepney rides, there in twenty minutes. This proximity is hardly useful to me now, though I continue to think it makes up for the tiny space and the insufferable landlord.
It must’ve been some time in May when I mindlessly switched on my commute playlist while doing laundry in the bathroom sink. It wasn’t a good idea, I realized five seconds in, but my hands were already wet and turning my phone off too complicated. So I stood there, washing a couple of shirts and masks, and followed the songs back to early March, down the four flights of stairs to the corner of our street, to Kalayaan Avenue on a speeding jeep, to the store in Philcoa that I liked to stand in front of while waiting for my next ride, its sentinel cat sitting still by the candy jars, to the breezy route around campus and the jeepney stop nearest my building that I could never be quite certain of, not since stops kept getting relocated to adjust to all the construction projects in the university.
On what turned out to be my last day of teaching on campus, I remember having a somewhat uninspired American lit class on Nella Larsen’s Passing, which I resolved to make up for the following week.
The nook I claimed in our studio to have a semblance of privacy in an un-private space is farthest from the doorway, nearest the bed. It includes the larger of the apartment’s two windows, which looks out to the street, two apartment compounds, and a jaundiced mid-rise. This egress window leads to the fire escape—a steel ladder that gets you to the awning above the building gate. Since March, birds have been docking daily on this ladder, sometimes mayas, always Maria Capras. It’s become routine for a visiting bird to flutter about and for the cats to stalk it, both parties slamming against the glass. By the window are other watchers—a gold solar-powered lucky cat waving two paws, a yellow papier mache horse, a garden gnome picked up on our way home from La Union early this year, the news of the Taal eruption reaching us as our vehicle entered Manila.
These days I barely leave this nook, stumbling to the couch from bed first thing in the morning, rising only to get to the fridge or bathroom. Within arm’s length I keep a small wooden folding table I use as a laptop desk, a plastic storage cart on wheels for files. I am the fixture around which the cats trade sleeping spots. Behind me, shelves of books. Before me, shelves of books. A cocoon within a cocoon that the screen sucks me out of.
After the shock of staying put, the shock of going on, the shock of scaling down work to the fit the screen, the shock of the tape peeled away from the camera and the camera switched on, the shock of the screen awake at all hours, an unblinking eye, the work an endless stream. After decades of textbook-resistant pedagogy, I am compelled by the powers designated to manage education under the current crisis to convert immediately to regimentation as the only approach compatible with remote learning. In each pandemic-era course I construct, I struggle to imagine a life of teaching writing and literature not completely hijacked by learning outcomes and study guides and bullet points and checklists. Asleep, I sink into the disciplinary logic of rubrics and rehash losing arguments against copyright compliance. I begin each workday working my way out of dreams of work. I will my mind to construct a flimsy partition to subdue the chatter of a podcast emanating from the other side of the shelf, the background noise my partner needs to focus. I assemble myself for the screen, open multiple windows I hopscotch around, keep up with the news dispatched by the second, the ever-rising numbers of the dying and the dead, the reckless, ruthless counterinsurgency script. In my correspondence, I apologize and promise, I hope and understand. In front of the camera, I am well, thank you. Whenever possible, I am a blank screen among screens—off camera, on mute. I would also rather stay off the record, but the pressure to document often prevails over the anxiety of surveillance. In this joyless version of interaction, I ask my students how they are doing—their college life unceremoniously ripped from the pleasures of campus life and reduced to schoolwork done in isolation. When I assure them that we are “in this together,” I wonder what good this is to the names blinking on and off the screen, distress calls across the ether.
When the Faculty Center burned down, taking with it a sizeable portion of my personal library, it also took away parts of my job that I loved: the privacy of my own office, spontaneous visits from students, cheap pancit bihon from the cafeteria. I learned to hold impromptu consultation hours immediately after class, while walking from the classroom to the classroom-turned-department office, learned to plug in my earphones and play wordless albums on full blast to get work done in the space shared with colleagues displaced by the fire. Now, newly displaced from our four-year-old makeshift common office, I realize that things could be worse. I consume hours composing in writing what would take minutes when said out loud in a classroom setting. My exhaustion grows with every stuttering discussion facilitated by the mute button, every monologue delivered to a grid of black screens. Are you there? Can you hear me? I miss students casually co-piloting class discussions, all the thinking paths unexpectedly taken because somebody blurts out something that just occurred to them. There are no sidelong glances, no conferring with the one sitting next to you, no “we were just talking about this” to preface a response to a text. I miss eye contact, laughter, the unremarkable presence of ambient noise.
The fear of becoming a casualty of: sickness, sadness, loved ones unseen, vendors unmasked, second jobs, unpaid bills, air-conditioned vehicles, cops on the road, laws passed, SUVs bulldozing their way down bike lanes.
I move between window and screen to monitor the super typhoon, the strongest to hit the planet in 2020. The typhoon coincides with reading week, the mandatory break from classes to give everyone time to catch their breath. If it isn’t one disaster, it’s another. I normally ease my fatigue from the screen by looking out the window, but today they are one and the same, the catastrophe on the news pounding on the glass, the glass turned opaque by rain.
When I think of R, I think of being young: beach-hopping and stargazing and dolphin-watching in Dumaguete, where we met; spending languid hours in the Faculty Center in Diliman laughing and talking about unimportant things in between his classes as a new instructor in the English Department and mine as a med school dropout and new recruit to the writing program; watching a saccharine coming-of-age flick at the Film Center and jointly concluding, like the protagonist, that we (now colleagues in the same department) needed a way out of the same old same old life that we seemed to have ended up signing up for; getting on different planes to different states for graduate school in the US, he in MA and me in PA and us vowing to meet up in NY, which we did, for a day. When I met R, I was a skittish teenager so tentatively undoing over a decade’s worth of miseducation from an all-girls’ Catholic school and he was a soft-spoken Atenista who was bookish about spirituality. I was new to writing, painfully unsure of my attempts, easily undone by the cutting appraisal of my work by the editors of the campus paper that I was part of, easily swayed by the tastes and preoccupations of the campus poets I so admired. R was a good (writing) friend to have around–intense but not overbearing, smart and not a show-off, capable of being silly and not taking himself too seriously, talkative without ever talking over you. I was at ease with R–a big deal, if you are a bundle of nerves.
We lost touch when he stayed on in the US and I went home. Eventually, he moved back, but we didn’t pick up where we left off. Different lives, I guess. We did occasionally bump into each other, and these occasions were always light and easy, just talking and laughing. I saw him last in August.
It’s strange to be in a world where it is no longer possible to bump into R. The brutality of these days is made even more stark by impossibility of coming together to condole with those who loved him best.
When she first appears in early March, she slams repeatedly against the window for hours. It is exhausting to watch. I try to get back to my reading, ignore the relentless thud thud thud. The three cats give her their undivided attention. Two of them chase after her. I can’t tell if she can tell that they’re there, following her every move, clawing at the glass. Periodically, she (and they) take breaks from her spectacle of self-flagellation. She perches on the steel ladder that is our fire exit, hops and flutters about, looks around, flies off, returns. And then the ruckus resumes. By late afternoon, only one of cats is still interested in her.
A. says Maria Cafras are bossy and territorial. The bird was charging at her reflection in the attempt to drive what she presumed to be another bird away. It took sunset for her reflection to disappear and the battle to end.
My bird book lists her Tagalog name as Maria Kapra, which makes me wonder if we’d just assumed that she and the Pinoy rock band from the 70s shared a name. Google does call her Maria Cafra, or the lowercase maria cafra. Other names for this “showy and energetic flycatcher,” according to my bird book, are: Pandangera (Ilokano), Balyala and Bilad-bilad (Visayan). Scientific name: Rhipidura nigritorquis. Philippine Pied Fantail. I name her Piper on the fourth consecutive day that she visits, and as if in response, she disappears for a week. When she returns, I figure I shouldn’t call her anything.
I don’t know why I think of her as a she, but that’s that.
Shortly after mid-March, she brings family with her. Sometimes there are two of them, sometimes three. When I look at them closely, I’m able to tell them apart (sort of). There’s the tiniest one, the chunkiest one, and the one who isn’t the tiny one or the chunky one. I am reminded of the possibility that the bird who visits daily, the one I’ve grown to think of as a particular bird, may actually be different birds docking at the fire exit one at a time. I’m unable to tell them apart if I don’t see them together.
The slamming-against-the-window routine still happens, but not too often. The poster we put up, it seems, has also served as a deterrent to bird self-harm.
These days, I get up before sunrise, sit on the couch, have coffee. A bird stops by. I wonder when I’ll see anyone again.
Note: This is part one of a three-part essay.
Ten days after the strongest typhoon to hit the planet in recorded history made landfall in the Philippines, I flew from Albany, New York to Hong Kong for a poetry festival. Months earlier, as I coordinated my trip with the organizers, who were all strangers to me, I thought it absurd that they would want to bring an obscure Filipino writer attending graduate school in the United States to Hong Kong to do a reading of her poetry. I was, however, happy to overlook the strangeness of their invitation in exchange for a free plane ticket to a country in the same time zone as the Philippines. Filipinos could enter Hong Kong without a visa, and it was close enough to Manila, where my partner was living, which meant he could afford to travel to the festival and we could spend a week together.
When Typhoon Yolanda, known internationally as Haiyan, hit the Visayas, it pulled ships from the sea and sent them pummeling into coastal neighborhoods. It destroyed roads and farms, cut off communication lines, and wiped out entire villages. Those in evacuation centers found no refuge as the centers succumbed to the force of the typhoon. In the aftermath of the storm, survivors searched for loved ones in the ruins and among the many corpses that littered the streets. At the UN Climate Change Convention in Warsaw, the Philippines’ chief negotiator, whose hometown was in the path of the typhoon and who had yet to confirm the safety of his own family, went on hunger strike to demand specific policy changes and resource allocations to address the climate crisis. Rejecting the term “natural disaster,” he insisted that Haiyan and the like be understood as outcomes of social and economic inequity on a global scale, with the poorest of the world enduring the repercussions of unchecked progress and consumption. The death toll from Haiyan would eventually reach 6,300. The typhoon, which affected close to a fifth of the Philippine population, destroyed over a million houses and displaced 4.1 million people.
As the Philippine government’s response to the calamity shifted from silent to painfully slow, and as survivors, who were literally living among the dead, struggled with hunger and disease, I embarked on a series of flights two hours short of taking me home. On one of the flights, the attendants handed out envelopes to passengers for donations to the Filipino victims of the typhoon. I saw my partner “in real life” again at the Hong Kong airport. It seemed absurd to be alive and intact, even happy. We shared a car to the hotel with an American poet, an editor for New Directions, who was also a guest at the festival. Our small talk during the drive was sporadic. It was evening in Hong Kong, and two of us had just emerged from long-haul flights. The American poet asked after our families back home. At some point during the ride, I mentioned to him that a Filipino poet, José Garcia Villa, was an editor for New Directions in the late 1940s. I was surprised by his interest in this bit of information. Apparently, he was quite familiar with the history of the publishing house yet he had never heard of Villa. He asked me to repeat the Filipino poet’s name. The American poet promised to look him up.
Hong Kong has the fifth highest concentration of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in the world. Of the 331,989 domestic helpers working in the country, 173,726 are Filipinos. Months before I attended the poetry festival, the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal ruled that foreign domestic helpers, unlike all other foreigners employed in Hong Kong, could not obtain permanent residency after working in the country for seven consecutive years. Two Filipino domestic helpers had taken the fight for permanent residency to court, and the legal battle, which spanned a couple of years, culminated in the landmark decision. The Hong Kong court maintained that foreign domestic workers should not be regarded as “ordinarily resident” in the country. Its tautological logic invoked the precarity of the domestic worker’s labor as justification to keep her vulnerable, subject to deportation upon unemployment, and permanently ineligible to move her own family to the country where she works. At the festival, when people learned where I was from, the conversation often turned to Haiyan, which continued to figure prominently in the news. Occasionally, and noticeably when in the company of Americans living in Hong Kong, I was asked about the “situation” of Filipino domestic workers, a matter more contentious where we were and therefore less palatable as material for small talk than the catastrophic typhoon. That Filipinos were “the help” in Hong Kong was a reality one would be hard pressed to ignore, observed the Americans, who were mostly working in the country as translators, university professors, or teachers of English. Maids were an ordinary part of Hong Kong households. Some of the Americans, in fact, employed Filipino helpers at home. More than one of them said to me that I was the first Filipino they had met in the country who was not a domestic worker. They were unanimous in their recognition of the gulf between their position as “expatriates” and those regarded as “migrant workers.” They were equally incredulous over the Court of Final Appeal decision.
The first Filipino I met at the festival was a woman with whom I locked eyes as I stood among the crowd outside the performance hall after a poetry reading. When I returned her smile, she approached and greeted me warmly in English, saying I must be the Filipino participant at the festival. Oo, I said. She said she had been on the lookout for me. Buti andito ka, I responded, referring to her attendance of the reading. Ako ang yaya niya, she said, pointing to a child in the crowd, the son of the Chinese poet who was the director of the festival. Ah, sikat yang boss mo, I chuckled, which prompted Auntie L– to tell me about her employer, whom she described as a kind and generous amo. He was easy to talk to. He had a house full of books that she was welcome to read. He hosted writers from all over the world in his home; she was in charge of their meals, but she often also got to meet them. Auntie L– first learned about the festival when her amo was planning it, and she told him she hoped he would invite a Filipino poet. She was unfamiliar with Filipino poets herself, but surely they were out there. He seemed to think this was a good idea, because after a few days he mentioned the name of a male Filipino poet to her as a possible guest. It would be nice if you chose a woman instead, she suggested. Later, he told her about a female poet, a Filipino-American living in the US. She said he could consider inviting a poet who actually grew up and still lives in the Philippines. Now the festival was happening at last, Auntie L– couldn’t be happier that a Filipina was chosen to represent our country. She said her boss even invited a Filipino band based in Hong Kong to perform in the same program as my reading. He insisted that she invite her friends to the event. She hoped they would go; there would be no reason for them to miss it since it falls on a Sunday, their day off from work.
I had been wondering to whom I should credit my invitation to the festival, which had reached me via what seemed a convoluted route (a message sent via academia.edu, a platform I rarely use) that bore no distinct link to my department in the University of the Philippines, where I was employed, or to any of the writers I knew back home. As I laughed and listened to Auntie L–, who was quite the energetic storyteller, it became clear to me that I owed my presence in the poetry festival to her, a Filipino domestic helper, whose intervention occurred as she went about her household duties while chatting with her employer, a famous poet in Hong Kong.
Only two of Auntie L–’s friends joined her at my reading, two equally maternal aunties who were lavish in their praise of my performance, my ease as I read my work onstage, my excellent command of the English language. I myself wouldn’t want to spend my day off at a poetry reading, I (half)-joked to appease Auntie L–, who was unhappy that the rest of her friends didn’t show up. We were sitting at one of the tables outside the performance hall for post-reading refreshments. Over snacks, the aunties told me where I should go to get good shopping deals in Hong Kong. They also talked about their amo, and once again I heard how lucky Auntie L– was, this time according to her friends, whose working conditions were far less ideal and whose employers were not particularly kind to them. The conversation drifted to longed-for trips back home, the never-ending work hours of domestic helpers, God, Yolanda, the annoying children they were helping to raise, the adorable children they were helping to raise, the children they left back home to be raised by relatives, the extended families they needed to support. Periodically, one of them would look in the direction of the festival crowd and say to me, Kaya mabuting andito ka, para makita nilang hindi tulad namin lahat ng Pilipino.
Between Auntie L–’s broad-strokes description to her employer of what she thought a Filipino poet should be (similar to her, a woman born and raised in the Philippines) and why the aunties approved of my presence at the festival (I was a Filipina who was not like them) lies a thicket of political and economic realities that intensify my lack of conviction in the capacity of poetry (or art) to represent national identity and serve as an agent of social transformation. When I am asked to produce one, then two, then three identification cards in a Tokyo bank so that I can have my money changed, I know that I am being sized up and subjected to bureaucratic tediousness because I am presumed to be an entertainer (a common occupation of Filipino women in Japan), which my documents and a brief conversation about the university where I am an exchange student eventually dispute. When I hold up an immigration line in the Amsterdam airport because I’m asked to explain what a writer’s residency is, and then show the letters to prove that I am indeed on my way to one, I know I’m being made to dispel the suspicion that I am actually a domestic helper with fake travel documents. When my travel companion and I are taken to the “inner room” at the airport in Detroit because his tone in responding to an immigration officer’s question is deemed insufficiently subservient, I know that we are being trained, through the threat of deportation, to combine our unquestionably legal travel papers with the appropriate demeanor of Filipinos seeking entry into the United States. When we are presented to the deporting officer, I do the speaking for both of us, because a petite Filipino woman seems more likely to communicate deference effectively than a burly Filipino man.
In all instances, I experience the treatment endured by and reproduce the submissiveness expected of the aunties, my newfound friends in Hong Kong, on a daily basis as Filipino women who are overseas domestic workers. In all instances, our sameness is short-lived, and it is in my interest for our sameness to be disproven. The sooner it is determined that I am not an “unskilled worker,” let alone an undocumented immigrant, the less likely it becomes that I would be at risk of deportation, or detention, or harassment, or plain old rudeness, which domestic workers must contend with on top of the low wages, long hours, lack of security and benefits, and susceptibility to abuse and violence that are part and parcel of the work that they do. In a letter sent by José Garcia Villa in 1950 to his employer at the American publishing firm New Directions, the Filipino poet rages against what he believes to be unjust treatment from his boss by declaring, in no uncertain terms, the types of blue-collar work he has been forced to but should not be made to do. To retrieve his dignity, Villa insists that certain forms of labor are beneath him; in effect, the Filipino expatriate poet asserts difference from the Filipino migrant worker, distancing himself from his contemporaries who take on undesirable, low-wage jobs in the United States, and from the aunties of the globalized world.
My profile in the professionalized world of poetry is not unusual: schooled in academic institutions of creative writing, both in the Philippines and the US, published by university presses and literary journals based in universities, employed in an English Department as teacher of undergraduate literature and creative writing courses. It is unsurprising to see these details recur in the brief biographies of eighteen poets from eighteen countries in attendance at a poetry festival. In a country where “Filipino” is regarded as synonymous to “maid,” I go onstage, buttressed by my academic degrees and the grants that granted me time to write, and read my poems in English to an international audience. Behind me, translations into Chinese of my lines, as I read them, are flashed on a big screen. The space I am given to present my work is made possible with the help of a domestic helper, who reminded her employer to consider including a Filipino in the festival lineup. My poems betray preoccupations removed from the realities of the three Filipino aunties in the audience, who have, perhaps unwisely, decided to dedicate a portion of their day off to showing their support for a Filipino poet. The poems are what they are in part because I believe that what’s worse than a Filipino poet in English who does not in her poetry speak on behalf of fellow Filipinos is a Filipino poet in English who does.
On the international stage of professionalized poetry, I belong to the minority by virtue of nationality and ethnicity, and my presence both signals and advocates inclusivity in the world of letters, whose achievement continues to define the struggle of writers from the margins. My presence, however, is also indicative of multiple privileges that set me apart from the minority that I appear to represent. I am the Filipino at the festival precisely because I do not come from the margins of Philippine society. I neither live below the poverty line, like most Filipinos, nor am I forced to migrate to other countries in search of better (minimum) wages, like Auntie L– and many others. My privilege is encoded in the very language that I use to write. A Filipino poet who writes in the language of the educated and the elite cannot easily claim to represent the oppressed in her work. A Filipino poet can hardly claim to address or express solidarity with the marginalized, if she writes in the language that excludes them.
The need to reckon with the privileges inscribed in Philippine literary production in English is obscured, I think, by the minority position of Philippine literature in the “world republic of letters,” combined with the likelihood that Philippine literature in English, rather than in other Philippine languages, would gain access to this minority position, since it can be read by a global audience without the aid of translation. What dominates the hierarchy of literatures in the Philippines, becomes a stand-in for Filipino national identity in the global literary arena, where it is an extremely minor player and must struggle for visibility. I think this struggle, or even just the idea of it, at times emboldens Filipino writers in English to testify to the global audience about the lives of Filipinos, and to occupy or represent, in art, subject-positions of the marginal from which they are estranged in their immediate environment. Such moves can predictably generate essentialist or exoticized renditions of “the Filipino experience,” whose deployment of otherness to pander to the market is arguably compensated for by the space they strive to carve out for Philippine literature (in English) on the world literary map. More complex and nuanced imaginings of national identity, while contributing more meaningfully to the struggle for representation, are nevertheless still embedded in the business of representation. This inevitably commodifies the struggle and converts it to cultural and economic capital, whose immediate beneficiary, for good or ill, is the writer herself. It is simply more likely that efforts at literary representation would translate to accolades, or sales, or promotion points, or plain old recognition or credibility among the smallest of audiences, or an additional line in the writer’s curriculum vitae, than to a world where the exportation of Filipinos as cheap human labor, who live in the margins that frame the writer’s speech, becomes obsolete.
The invisibility of Philippine literature globally, when generalized to a degree that downplays the hierarchy of literatures locally, also reinforces the valorization of writing as a struggle in itself and thus in itself an explicitly politicized action. That the page is the arena in which the writer labors has yielded a routine exercise in the local world of letters that presents itself as a form of activism. In a country prone to disaster and rife with atrocity, the Filipino poet, myself included, responds to disaster or atrocity by writing poetry about it. In some instances, the magnitude of the death toll, or the extent of the violence, can drive a poet to mobilize other poets to write more poems, to post the poems on social media to reach a wider audience, perhaps put together an anthology, perhaps donate the sales from the anthology to the victims. Such gestures seem to restate even as they conceal the division between aesthetics and politics. There is something amiss in collective action when all that comes out of it is more poetry.
I don’t think I have ever felt the uselessness of being a Filipino poet more acutely as I did when the aunties in Hong Kong regarded me with pride because I was not like them. That I did not represent them made me fit to represent them at the festival. My privilege is indeed my loss. It is hardly consolation that the gulf between us would remain unaltered, even if I had written poems on domestic helpers for the occasion.
APWT Panel on Tomorrow’s Poetry, 22 Oct 2015, UP Diliman
The poetry I write has no value. I write poetry of no value. I write poetry despite its lack of value. I write poetry because it has no value. By value I mean money. I think poetry as a genre is most indisputably incompatible with profit. It’s a losing proposition to mainstream or commercial publishers. I don’t earn from my books of poetry. Often, when I publish work in small journals, I get a free copy or two of the issue (if they are print journals). If the journal is online, I get a link, which I’m happy to pass around. I am part of two small presses, to which I, like everyone involved in them (all writers), contribute money and free labor (editing, proofreading, coordinating with printers, promoting, selling, delivering books). What we earn from our books, we use to publish more books. One of these collectives might be described as any marketing person’s nightmare because it is a poetry press; it publishes only poetry. That poetry press has been around for thirteen years; it runs a journal online and has published close to 40 books. Its existence and endurance prove not that poetry is profitable, but that the profit motive is not the only motive there is to invest in art. The tendency of poetry to resist commodification, when regarded as a capacity to be harnessed rather than an obstacle to be eliminated, is potentially time away from capital, and in a world whose spaces are relentlessly consumed by capital, poetry can be a pocket of resistance, a glimpse into an ‘other life,’ a world other than the given one. Which is why when I think of the work of poetry, I also think of the work of independent publishing. There are aesthetic and political gains in writing not compelled to abide by or serve the interests of industries and institutions.
I say this with poetry in mind but I suspect there is not much money either for those of us here in the Philippines who produce work that falls under the category of ‘literature.’ I have yet to hear of a Filipino writer practicing in the country who no longer has the need for a day job because he or she can live off of advances, or royalties, or fees. I was recently contacted by a prominent publisher for permission to reprint an essay of mine in a textbook, and when they sent me their contract, it did not include compensation. I needed to remind a leading corporation in a multi-million peso industry that it should pay me for my work.
I was struck by the numbers cited in this cease-and-desist letter. There is such a thing as fair use, but as it turns out, the selected sentences in the anthology were a commodity so precious, a property so private, that their repurposing by another writer to comment on the the anthology in which they appear was valued at over half a million pesos in fines and over a decade of jail time. Apparently, here in the Philippines, where writers are poorly paid, writers could be excessively penalized: what we lack in compensation is made up for in regulation. A publisher and its editors could quote a six-figure amount for your work, but only to fine you for it, with jail time thrown in for good measure. In an industry that seems to lack the resources for remunerating creativity, there are apparently resources for policing it. Policing is an apt word here, because the turn to litigation is after compliance, not discussion. In fact it forces compliance by assigning a financial cost to discussion, by removing it from the free and public space in which literary debates often take place, and relocating it to the costly (and time-consuming) arena of a legal battle, whose outcome, when reached, involves the imposition of punishment. In light of such litigiousness, it seems pertinent to ask the members of our community of writers how you appraise your own work, since it plays a part in determining the climate in which literary practices can evolve and thrive. When does the value of your work become commensurate to the imprisonment of another writer for its use? In what instances does your work attain a value that justifies your pursuit of the forcible erasure of another writer’s work and the outlawing of another writer’s artistic methods?
Early this year I gave a talk to undergraduates in UP Mindanao on poetry and plagiarism. The invitation for me to visit came with the context that plagiarism was on the rise among their students, and there was a need to put a stop to it. My talk was meant to help clarify the difference between the utterly lazy, utterly unimaginative, mercenary, and run-of-the-mill plagiarism that plagued their students and “the creative and innovative means with which writers and artists appropriate the works of others.” In flagging the difference between plagiarism and appropriation, the invite implicitly and usefully acknowledges that the two also overlap, which suggests the possibility that what students do when they do the former could be meaningfully transformed and mobilized to result in the latter. In the age of cut-and-paste, the meme, the share button, the re-tweet, the torrent, along with all other technologies post-mechanical reproduction, it is unsurprising that many of us are casual, cavalier, or careless users and movers and copiers and displayers of data. In our context too here in the Philippines, where, through piracy, we are able to bust the barricades, so to speak, and gain access to knowledge and culture and information which would otherwise be unavailable, inaccessible, or unaffordable to many of us, it is an oversimplification to vilify our poaching ways.
When I talked to the students, I focused on how the cut-and-paste reflex could be turned into a deliberate method in the work of appropriation, which is as old as art itself. The art we make is necessarily engaged with the art that is already out there, and what varies is the extent to which we disclose these engagements in the artwork itself. Using mostly the work of Filipino writers, I showed them examples of interdisciplinary, multimedia, cross-genre efforts that work directly with pre-existing texts and manipulate, alter, and transform them into new texts. I showed them erasures (texts produced by deleting portions of pre-existing texts) and collage poems (with lines drawn from other sources). I showed them constraints-based rewrites of a pop song. I showed them a poem made up of lines from the subtitles in English of a pirated dvd of an American movie. These pieces, which are outcomes of methods that engage technology and new media, reconfigure what it means to be an author and to produce a text in this place and time. They are also the first to go, it seems, if literary production were to be overseen by an increasingly corporate mentality, committed to privatizing ideas at the expense of writing itself, for literary works are never untouched by the works of others. I think it is important to interrogate the gestures that transform the literary arena into yet another domain that supports the survival of the materially fittest, molded in the image of the status quo. While I’m sure that this arrangement enriches, I am also sure that what it enriches is not literature.
It isn’t out of the ordinary to say we turn to literature for things other than money, so it doesn’t seem to be a stretch to end this talk by inviting you to explore literature that skirts or tries to operate outside the circuits of capital. I encourage you to explore the work of independent or small press or self or DIY publishers, or whatever else you call efforts that strive to forge alternative routes for creating, circulating, and distributing literary work. These aren’t particularly preoccupied with breaking into the national or international markets, or being backed by the major stakeholders in the publishing industry, or receiving validation from institutions of art, through which most of the limited resources to produce art here flow. The work is out there. It doesn’t have the machinery, it doesn’t have the mechanisms, it’s not recognized by award-giving bodies, it’s not supported by prestigious grants, it’s not sponsored by government institutions, it’s not represented by agents, it’s not being sold in the big bookstore chains, it’s not reviewed in the major broadsheets, and that’s okay. It’s available online, through independent bookstores, through small press/DIY expos, through street fairs, through its creators and collaborators. It circulates via word-of-mouth, via readers who pass it on to other readers, via teachers who encourage their students to read widely. It’s bartered, it’s cheap, it’s free, it’s limited-run, it’s printed on demand, it’s handmade, it’s ephemeral. It circulates differently, and it just might be a different kind of literature too. It’s out there and I encourage readers to look in its direction.