ARTWORK: SAI LI
On Grit and the Burden
Barbara Jane Reyes
Is my work really brutal? And if it is brutal, what specifically is so brutal about/in it? And then, is that a bad thing? So those are some questions. I continually ask these questions, as I ask myself whether I want my poetry to “do” anything, to serve some kind of purpose, and what kind of purpose.
I’ve been reading essays about this burden of representation that is thrust upon the work of POC writers. I think this is a problem. Who wants us to represent, and what do they want us to represent, and why do they want us to represent in the ways that they want us to represent. Within our own communities, this preference for the positive, uplifting, and beautiful portraits and narratives of us. How we look when we are well dressed. How we look when we are acting right, when things go our way, which I think of as a reaction against the centuries of negative portrayals of us. But then we have to think about whose value systems determine “negative,” “positive,” “beautiful.” I question though, whether the beautiful and uplifting portraits and narratives are honest and realistic ones.
This is nothing new I am saying here. I think of the well-dressed Filipino villagers in John Sayles’s film, Amigo. I think also of all the well-dressed Mexican villagers in The Magnificent Seven. In the case of the latter film, I learned there were consultants on the set who saw to it that no Mexican character appeared dirty or poor. I don’t know whether any consultants were on hand for Sayles. Artifice. I think also of Imelda Marcos’s comments on beauty and ugliness. How the standards for these are social and economic.
This thing about beauty and positivity is something we talk about in my classes especially when we read Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters. How do we as readers respond to these ugly people doing atrocious things to one another. How do we feel that these ugly people are Filipino, and that they are each ugly in various/multiple ways. Why write about these people and this society and centralize their ugliness? These days, my students are so young, mostly second and third generation Americans. They have a lot of distance from Philippine society, from the original publication and original brouhahas, that they generally don’t take it personally that her characters are so ugly and that Philippine society is portrayed as this ugly thing. So then we can talk about how it became that way. Also, by the time we get to the Dogeaters portion of the syllabus, we’ve already been talking intensely about colonial mentality, and class and privilege, about the violence and criminalization of poverty of Filipinos in both the Philippines and the US west coast in Bulosan’s The Laughter of My Father and America is in the Heart. So we already know it’s not all pretty.
Anyway, I bring these things up because I feel like we have selective amnesia as a community. We are still trying so hard to pretend no one writes about the terrible things that have befallen us in the world. We forgot all about the desperation, hunger, assault, and institutional violence in Bulosan. We forget or deny that a novel that takes place during wartime such as Tess Uriza Holthe’s When the Elephants Dance takes place when the country was getting the bejesus bombed out of it, when women and girls were being abducted and forced into sex slavery, when people were starving, and their homes were destroyed. We forget when we are reading Mia Alvar’s In the Country, that Filipino domestic workers in the Middle East are being violated of their human rights on the regular, and abused as property/replaceable objects. Our literature is about how we suffer, work, cope, survive, get gritty and fight, and celebrate. Then get back to work again. And so this is cyclical and ongoing, because this literature exists in the real world, written by real working, mostly gritty people who live in the real gritty, brutal world.
What if we — the writer and the reader — fundamentally disagree on what literature is supposed to do. And we also have to understand that not all writers agree on what our work is supposed to do, if it’s supposed to do anything at all. For myself, I have been a writer my whole life (generally speaking), and as an author, as a teacher of writing and literature, I think of writing and literature as mirror and microscope, and as an archeological dig. And then I also think of it as spell casting, committing to the page the words what you would like to manifest. But before we get to that, as we are digging, we don’t know what exactly we are going to unearth, and so what happens when the “problem” and/or premise gets bigger and more complicated, monstrous, micro and macro, personal and social, historical and contemporary. The process itself becomes complicated. The spell casting becomes complicated too. What do I really want to make manifest? How should I know? There are no easy remedies, no band-aids, no neatly tied up packages. Rewards are hard to come by, and can be fleeting. My idea of reward may not be your idea of reward. What comes next? Are we done? Everything is all good now? We’ve made it? I don’t think so. So then I write the next thing, dig through the next heap of shit towards hopefully something awesome. Sometimes I just keep on unearthing shit, and then it’s a challenge what to do with it all. I can’t simply ignore it.
That is my experience as a writer. What if the reader, what if the community wants something else, what if they want remedies and band-aids and neatly tied up packages? Life is hard. Is there any reprieve? Can you please give it a rest and give me my escapism? And/or: Filipinos always get a bad rap. Can you please use your power for good? No more maids, mail order brides, drug mules, gang members, wife beaters, and swindlers. Can you please write something that will give our youth pride and self-esteem? Something that tells the world how beautiful we are?
Or worse. Your version of Filipino is not my version of Filipino (you’re really more American anyway, so what do you know). Yours is inauthentic because it does not mirror mine. Therefore, you are a fake Filipino. You write in proper English, you publish with white publishers, therefore, you are writing for white people, and you are not down with your own community. You are a whitewashed, colonized Filipino who doesn’t know and doesn’t care about what it’s really like to be Filipino.
And what about the burden of representation that comes from outside our communities. Tell us what a real, genuine, authentic Filipino is. Tell us all about your trauma as an oppressed and colonized people. Give us all the details of your patriarchal suffering. Leave none of the pain out. You have to make us understand everything so you must translate all your foreign words and you must explain everything ethnic and cultural.
So that’s where I’m currently at. Somewhere in the muck of it all, just wanting to write good meaningful poetry (whatever that might mean). I would like to think I am writing about important things. But to be a writer who is a woman and a Filipino in this country can be strange and awful sometimes. For now, all I can say is that I choose to stay gritty and not be bullied by any demographic so much that their demands take precedence over what and how I mean to write, as I continually work to figure out what and how that is.
Barbara Jane Reyes is the author of To Love as Aswang (Philippine American Writers and Artists, Inc., 2015). She was born in Manila, Philippines, raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is the author of three previous collections of poetry, Gravities of Center (Arkipelago Books, 2003), Poeta en San Francisco (Tinfish Press, 2005), which received the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets, and Diwata (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2010), which received the Global Filipino Literary Award for Poetry. She is also the author of the chapbooks Easter Sunday (Ypolita Press, 2008), Cherry (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2008), and For the City that Nearly Broke Me (Aztlan Libre Press, 2012).