Interview: On Being Filipinx in Diaspora, For the City That Nearly Broke Me, For the City That Nearly Saved Me

The following interview took place online on 12/08/2019 with Filipinx graduate student Eugenie Mamuyac, in the Master in Asian Pacific Studies program. Here, we discuss my chapbook, For the City That Nearly Broke Me (Aztlan Libre Press, 2012).

As someone who is also bicultural, I have a conflicting relationship with Manila as well. When you wrote this poem, how did Manila break you? Would you consider this feeling of Manila still true to this day?

The key word in the title is “almost.” I don’t know if Manila has wholly broken me, but I think it may have come close. Manila is the city of my birth, and when after many years I returned to the city, I didn’t know what kind of relationship I wanted to have with it. Many may argue that because of my American life, my Americanness, I have no claim to my birth city. So maybe that’s how the city came close to breaking me, as I have come to learn I have no “in” into Manila. You can’t go “home” again.

I think it still may be true; Manila does not belong to me and I do not belong to/in it. I belong elsewhere, and rather than feel broken by this, as a Filipino in diaspora, I embrace my belonging elsewhere.  

In “Junto al Pasig,” I am really fascinated by the way you juxtaposed your poem with Jose Rizal’s. I want to further my understanding, so in what ways does the Pasig river anchor you here in particular?

I have had this poetic project of writing “taga ilog,” from the river, the etymological project of exploring my potential belonging to the city. The irony, of course, is that I don’t consider myself fluent in Tagalog. My hold on the language is white-knuckled, stubborn, full of tension, as it erodes or decays, or as its flow is stanched. So I wanted to read what I could of Filipino poets’ compositions about the river. “Junto al Pasig” is romantic, florid, a river I do not recognize in a city I do not belong in.

How does/did Oakland save you?

I am interested in the term, “Fil foreign,” as Krip Yuson recently wrote about us Filipinos in diaspora (https://www.philstar.com/lifestyle/arts-and-culture/2019/11/04/1965652/filipino-foreign-writers-way-dominance). These terms, “foreign,” “diaspora,” tell me we have to find belonging elsewhere. This “elsewhere” for me has become Oakland. I have lived in the Bay Area since I was two years old. I went to school here, from kindergarten to graduate school. I bought my home in Oakland, which I do not take for granted because I know the cost of living in this area is creating another diaspora, of long time Bay Area folks who can no longer afford to live here. So this is the place that fills my economic and poetic realities.

Oakland is the city that lives in the shadow if San Francisco, and I am a hella Bay Area Filipino living in multiple shadows.

One of my favorite poems of this book is “My California.” This poem is so rich in culture and language–with your use of Spanish and AAVE. I noticed that this poem is written after Lee Herrick’s “My California.” I did some research and found that Lee Herrick’s “My California,” he mentioned his California as a (political) utopia. Would you say the same for your version?

I’m not sure about “utopia,” political or otherwise. I’m wary of idealizing this place, because our histories here filled with undeniable and unrelenting violences. Our California is possible because of the conquest and genocide of the native people, and our continued occupation of this, their land.

What appealed to me about Lee Herrick’s poem is that joyful celebration of multiculturalism. In “My California,” our communities have historically labored on this land, to build up this powerful economy; should this not allow us to claim here as our home. In “My California,” the lingua franca is a multilingualism indicating how communities — campesinos, manongs, Black Panthers — can reach across political dividing lines.

The AAVE I use in this poem is informed by Hip-hop, specifically 2Pac and Dr. Dre’s “California Love.” This is another claim to this place and state, by a community and demographic always facing erasure through state-sanctioned violences. And so you celebrate your perseverance, and in this “wild, wild west,” re-create new selves.  

In “San Francisco de las Lagrimas,” the ending “I erupt in bleeding ulcers and boils/ My body, a cancerous tree in bloom” is bold and the diction is powerful. Were you conscious about word choice when you wrote this? How about when you write in general?

Yes, absolutely. The more concrete and vivid the pictures I can create, the more I think a reader of poetry can relate, anchor, feel, respond, based on what they “see.”  So this is a poetic choice I make again and again with language, to be vivid, painful, and beautiful.

What made you choose the words “tinted fishbowl” in “Ventana 2”? (I really enjoyed this poem too). I think these words illustrate how I feel when I visit my birthplace too.

When you are in an air conditioned car with tinted windows, being driven through crowded Manila streets, your experience of the place is not the same as the experience of those in the streets not shielded from crowds, heat, smells, poverty. Your view of the city is distorted, and you can put your thoughts together in quiet and comfort, as people move through their work and lives.

When I read your books, the theme that stood out was belongingness. How do you come to terms or negotiate with your two cultural ties? And how do you prevent them from competing with one another?

When I read Krip Yuson’s recent article about Filipino authors who are “Fil foreigners,” it reinforced for me what I’d already been working towards, that I am not really of “there” anymore, and had not been for a long time now. So the Philippines that I reach for in my poetry is not so based in reality, but in poetic imagination. There is plenty I will not get “right,” and then, I consider that “right” is also problematic and colonially informed.

Diasporic Filipino and Filipino American cultures, and by that logic, Bay Area Filipino American and Bay Area Filipinx cultures are markedly different from Manila-based Filipino cultures (I also suspect that non-Manila Philippine Filipinos would mark their cultures as distinct from Manila cultures).

My wildcard question: You also mentioned that you took a class at the University of the Philippines on Filipino Psychology. I’d like to know if this class at all played a role in your writing?

I took Philippine Anthropology at UP Diliman in the 1990s, and that is where I learned about Sikolohiyang Pilipino. This has everything to do with my writing, as it set in my mind the impossibility of a single language, specifically a colonially imposed standard English, in articulating anything I as a diasporic Filipino need to articulate about self, family, community, history, cosmology, spirituality.

I am constantly engaging in translation, especially a kind of translation that attempts to peel away colonial layers of meaning. I consider my primary language to be that negotiation between tongues, what cannot translate easily. Concepts like kapwa and loob have taken prominence in my work, and I don’t have neatly corresponding American concepts.

Leave a Reply

Back to Top