Filipinas/os Talk Back
A Review of Aimee Suzara’s "Souvenir"
If Filipinas/os could ‘talk back’ to history, that is, if Filipinas/os learning their history became appalled at what they were learning, what would they say about what they see? What mistreatment and slow heartbreak would they witness by doing research, visiting museums in the Midwest, looking at exhibits through glass, and finding some semblance of themselves in library archives?
Aimee Suzara’s book Souvenir shows readers what that vexing process is like as it evokes Self as otherworldly, foreign, and estranged. Divided into four sections, or, “exhibits”, Suzara captures not only what it would be like if one were to talk back, but to point out, map, and braid a polyvocal response, even if those voices contain traces of scientific racism, scathing benevolence and deep-seated hyper-empathy. Using the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri as the main backdrop for the book, Suzara also connects and personalizes the history of Ota Benga, a Congolese man who was also displayed at the Fair; poeticizes her story of living in the United States as a young girl from the Philippines, and problematizes gazing.
The 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis marked for U.S. history the juxtaposition of how far and proud America had come in its conquests with how it necessitated civilizing and Westernizing the natives from Philippines. Suzara points out the tension of this American bias and skewed perspective, for instance, in the poem “Philippine Souvenir Card #1,” Suzara as the speaker depicts the card and the way in which she is seeing and embodying the card at the same time, “Upon a kalabaw, I sit / tilling the perpetual rice / paddy of your imagination” (lines 2-4) and incites a willful response,
The souvenir card displaying Filipinas/os leaves much to be discovered and also leaves out many truths. The composed speaker detests; the people in these cards are not permanently what viewers will see, but it is, unfortunately, what some will wrongly keep. Suzara further incorporates the authenticity of imagination when she writes back to the tale of the White Man’s Burden felt by tourists, the curators, the politicians, and the creators of Philippine dogtown and its inhabitants in the poem “Norms,”
Suzara uses subversion to point out the White Man’s burden as self-indulgent. “Norms” posits that the burden is shared after it is American-made. By humanizing those captured by Americans and put on display, the speaker spins the seeing; the Americans are also the foreign, the otherworldly, and the estranged to the Filipinas/os. Like the speaker in “water cure: a telegraph to 1901 from the future”, the readers “wonder who the terrorist is” (line 18).
Suzara’s process of writing is evident in her thread of poems “Museum Notes.” Her notes from her trip to the Missouri History Museum and its Research Library reveal how the Midwest is another new environment that places the readers in the moments she once inhabited. In particular she writes, “Bring notebooks, lots of notebooks. / Bring your research. Bring your pencil” (lines 11-12). The notes seem to call for transparency from curators and archivists, but it may not always make intentions clear or okay. The speaker investigates and researches for transparency against the displays, acts, dances, rituals, and the overall production, against those who authored Filipino-ness. Transparency troubles and is not performativity; what is performed is not true, nor real. Those who produced the stage for those Filipinas/os on display performed an authority that Suzara distinctly questions.
Souvenir is salient because Suzara’s immigration and acculturation stories are also weaved into the text. She transitions from the Fair to Manifest Destiny to how her own family headed “West for fabled Dream to Manifest” (line 7) in the poem “Manifest Destiny 1980.” Suzara’s iterations of coming to a land, gaping at that land, and normalizing Self into that land reveal dismay from meditation and consciousness from opacity.
This book is brave. Suzara is not only the speaker, poet, and guide, but she is also an explorer—one who complicates what she’s showing you, one who encourages you to see what you cannot see and teaches you not to make fact from what you glean. Souvenir reminds us, almost dares to us to know, the stuff of U.S. discourse and U.S. forbidden history.