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.

One Response

  1. Thanks for the mention here, Barbara, and your work has been so foundational in my own negotiating with the aswang.

    “…that monstrosity was only guilty of being monstrous because she was fighting for her humanity.” YES! And might I add, what happens when she begins to own and accept her own monstrousness, to celebrate it, to luxuriate in it because it’s her way to survive and move beyond/through it.

    The taut, carefully measured lines in To Love as Aswang bear so much of the weight of the voices included; the sheer terror, beauty and questioning they experience. The line’s clean aesthetic almost make it palpable for the reader to endure these experiences; this artful deception. I recall hearing some of my students say how “fast” of a read it was, but how so many images haunted them afterwards.

    Can we move some of your recent posts to the Aswang Poetics blog as well? I feel like there’s more discussion here that I’d love to have!

    Also, how do you feel about culling some of our Aswang-related blogs/articles and linking them to the blog? It’d be nice to have a place for all of our previous process work, in addition to our more recent conversations.

    Thanks again, Barbara, and Happy Year of the Aswang! I’m super excited about this.

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