Interview: On Intersections of Identity

The following interview was conducted in March 2019, by a college student at a local literary journal. Publication of this interview has since gotten lost in the shuffle, as turnover between semesters and school years happen.

The editors had contacted me, telling me they were inspired by the “intersections of identity” in my work.

How old were you when you and your family immigrated from the Philippines to San Francisco? What was the move like for you and to what extent do you pull from personal experience in your work? I was young, two years old. My sister was four. My parents had come to work in San Francisco prior to this, and my sister and I lived with my mother’s family in Manila. So I lived my first two years without my parents. I have some memories of leaving Manila, impressions of leaving a warm place and arriving in a cold, rainy place. The most significant piece is this: my parents were strangers to us. My mother’s sister took us from Manila to San Francisco, before moving on to Chicago. I have always been told I cried for days after she left, to start her own American life as an RN there in Chicago. I don’t know that I felt any “abandonment,” as much as I knew that as a young person, the way I viewed and related to my parents was nothing like how my American classmates seemed to worship, seemed to be so in love with their parents. Maybe you see this, maybe there’s a tone to my poems indicating distance, disconnect, disruption of “normal,” associated with the pragmatism of transnational movement. Or maybe you just see anger.

You started out your higher education at U.C. Berkeley and graduated with a degree in ethnic studies. What made you want to pursue that degree and how does that influence your poetry? All my reading and studies, all the art and music I consumed in and out of the university have everything to do with my writing. I decided to major in Ethnic Studies after taking a six year hiatus from college, after taking a semester abroad at University of the Philippines, where I took enrolled in a Comparative Literature class on Filipina Literature, and Philippine Anthropology. The reading and writing I did for my Ethnic Studies degree enabled me to pull back and think of historical, institutional contexts for my community’s and family’s American lives. I was able to understand us in relation to Spanish and American colonialism, and American institutional violence. The challenge then, for my poetry, was how to bring these concerns into poetry and set aside the academic language. In other words, how could I write poetry that was indeed poetry, and not something else.

What made you decide to get an MFA in creative writing? Have you always had a passion for writing or was it triggered by an event later in your life? I was raised by storytellers. I have always written, and have always kept private notebooks full of writing. When I was young, I didn’t confidently call myself a “writer” or a “poet,” but I definitely wrote, loved writing, saw my writings published in a UC Berkeley student publication, and participated in local spoken word events. After college, my friend and I took a poetry class at Berkeley City College, and that was the very first writing class I had ever taken. I’d never had consistent stimuli and structure. I wrote a ton. I opened myself up to poetic experimentation. Our instructor was Elizabeth Treadwell, who had graduated with her MFA from SFSU; she asked me if I had ever considered applying to MFA programs, which at that point, I hadn’t. But she showed me how I could grow and thrive when challenged and pushed, and offered to write me a letter of recommendation. So then I applied to SFSU.

In your published collections of poetry, we’ve noticed themes of religion, family history, and cultural identity. Do you find that you gravitate towards these themes in the majority of your writing? I’m not so interested in writing about cultural identity; I am interested in writing from a place of centered Filipino-ness and Filipino American-ness — not as static and monolithic but as liminal, as a set of lenses through which I view, understand, and experience the world. With religion, I am interested in belief and faith (both of which I personally struggle with), in prayer as poetry and poetic form, in indigenization. I am interested in unraveling patriarchy and calling attention to resistances against patriarchy.

Are there any writers in particular who have inspired you? So many. Federico García Lorca, Carlos Bulosan, Gloria Anzaldúa, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Marjorie Evasco, Merlinda Bobis, Jessica Hagedorn, Eduardo Galeano, Juan Felipe Herrera, Adrian Castro, Leslie Marmon Silko, Bhanu Kapil, Truong Tran, Anne Waldman, Diane di Prima, Al Robles, Jaime Jacinto, Eileen Tabios, Catalina Cariaga, Jack Agüeros, Pedro Pietri. So many more.

When did you start teaching and has working with student writers made an impact on you as a professional writer? I have been teaching for over a decade now, mostly in Philippine Studies. I occasionally teach in MFA programs. An overwhelming majority of my students are not writers or literature majors. This is very informing though; it’s not my priority to write for other writers. I’m interested in writing to and for young Pilipinx Americans who, in this country, never see themselves in literature. I want to write in languages and musics that may be familiar, resonant, but not oversimplified.

What’s your advice for young poets who want their work published? Is there anything you know now that you wish you had known when you began writing? There are no shortcuts. If you really want to write and publish, be ready to invest in the lifelong work of reading, drafting, editing, revising, failing, throwing it all out and starting over again, trying new, different things, writing what we need to write, not what others expect or demand we write. Many years into the work, we are always arriving again and again.

We live in a time in which artists are using their work as a means of combatting our political climate. What role do you believe literature can play as we navigate the United States’ political divide? Well, humans have always lived in times when artists and writers have created art and literature for political movements, and with political messages — art and literature have always had a place in political movements, lending language and vision.

Are there any topics that you hope to explore in your future writing? I am currently writing a series of poems after the photojournalist and documentarian Xyza Cruz Bacani’s amazing book, We Are Like Air, which is about her family’s history of separation due to overseas contract work, as well as the countless other disrupted Filipino families who are both ubiquitous and invisible laborers abroad. I am also currently writing about memory and myth; I’d set out to do something else but kept returning to memory and myth. So then, maybe the best thing to say would be that I don’t know what other topics I want to write about; I think I’ll just keep freewriting until something interesting emerges.

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