Is This Diasporic Pinay Mythopoetics

With the permission of author and publisher Christina Newhard, who sent me these questions, I am posting my responses here:

Name: Barbara Jane Reyes

Where you live: Oakland, CA

Descriptor: Author and Educator

What are your works of / about Philippine mythology (books/ podcast/ art /classes, organizations)? Please list them: Poeta en San Francisco (Tinfish Press, 2005), Diwata (BOA Editions, 2010), To Love as Aswang (PAWA Inc., 2015) are probably the most prominent, but there are aspects of mythologies present in all my works.

What attracted you to working with Philippine mythology? When did you start?

When I was very young, my mother’s mother lived with us in our suburban track home in Fremont. She would tell me the story of a god who made people out of clay, and baked them in an earthen oven. The ones baked just right were us. 

Decades later in Robert Black’s Native American History class at UC Berkeley, I read the Pima story of the “Well-Baked Man,” in Erdoes and Ortiz’s American Indian Myths and Legends (Pantheon, 1984). Its narrative was almost exactly the same as my grandmother’s, which I later found out, through reading Damiana Eugenio’s Philippine Folk Literature: The Myths (Philippine Folk Literature Series #2) (University of the Philippines Press, 1993), was the Ifugao story of Kabunian, who created human beings out of clay. We were the “sturdy and perfectly moulded form of a little brown fellow.”  Sturdy. Perfect. 

When I was at UP DIliman in the 1990s, I picked up the anthology, Forbidden Fruit: Women Write the Erotic (Anvil Publishing, 1992). Two pieces that stood out for me were Maria Elena Paterno’s “A Song in the Wind,” spoken (sung?) from the point of view of a mermaid, debunking the conventional myths of her; and Noelle Quinto de Jesus’s “Equivalents,” in which a pregnant Filipina finds terror, pleasure, and power in her dreams and in her own body.

What I remember of my first reading of Paternos was that her mermaid’s voice was so strong, gorgeous, speaking of desiring versus being the object of a man’s desire — a rejection of man’s tongue in favor of her own, nothing I had previously encountered. I also learned about some sea deities in Sylvia Tiwon’s Southeast Asian Studies classes at UC Berkeley, so this was common sense; island nations would locate so much power in the (bodies of) water. But when I started Google searching mermaids and Philippines, I found mostly Christianized narratives of dutiful daughters and peasants gifted with daughters as a reward for their hard work and sacrifice. I wanted something wilder, dangerous as seas are dangerous and frightening. 

Since reading Paternos, there have been mermaids inhabiting my poetry; with Paternos’s work in mind, I wrote my first mermaid poem, “Sirena (The Mermaid) Sings,” in the 1990s. It was published in Babaylan: An Anthology of Filipina and Filipina American Writers, edited by Nick Carbó and Eileen Tabios (Aunt Lute, 2000). A mermaid has lived in my books, and so did/do other mythic presences. 

Filmmaker Matt Abaya had told me of an idea he had, about a mermaid stuck in the San Francisco sewer systems, which inspired me to write some specific poems, “[objet d’art: exhibition of beauty in art loft victorian claw tub],” and “[the siren’s story],” as well as “[evidence],” a poem trying to debunk her as a tourism gimmick, that became part of Poeta en San Francisco

When I was writing Diwata, I asked the folks in my grandfather’s town of Gattaran, situated on the Cagayan River, about that river’s mermaid, about which my titas used to warn us. The folks definitely got tired of me as this annoying American who didn’t know how to read the room and shut up, and in my persistence, I witnessed some of these folks go from categorical denial of her existence, to a “there’s no more mermaid here,” which then changed my line of questioning to, “where did she go,” “when did she go,” “why did she go,” and so on.

My interest in aswang and manananggal came later, after meeting and talking with Rachelle Cruz, who was writing the book that became God’s Will for Monsters (Inlandia Institute, 2017), and I always remember de Jesus’s story, as well as Lynda Barry’s “Aswang,” a powerful and frightening, unknowable presence in One! Hundred! Demons! I also remember Peque Gallaga’s film, Aswang (1992), which my family and I rented on VHS and watched with glee and horror, but mostly glee. My interest in the aswang and manananggal became about breaking and repairing oneself, the monstrosity of girls and women finding their own power and acting outside of social boundaries, and embracing all that is not conventionally, socially beautiful, falling outside of patriarchal gendered demands. 

I think new fans of Philippine mythology don’t realize how different the interest is today, as opposed to 10, 20 years ago. Can you share what it was like then? Did the average Filipino embrace books and films about Aswang?

Well, before the internet, my “field” was Arkipelago Books, the card catalog in the Southeast Asian Studies Library at UC Berkeley and my Southeast Asian Studies professors, pilgrimages to the small Filipinana sections of bookstores in Metro Manila, and oral tradition if elders were properly requested (and lubricated with offerings of Tanduay Rhum and Fundador brandy) to tell.

As with my encounter and engagement with Forbidden Fruit, I had to work backwards from two contemporary Filipinas’ contemporary short stories to understand why the mermaid/sirena, the aswang, and the manananggal were powerful voices for Filipina writers to wield. 

When my parents saw my interest in Philippine mythology, and Philippine Studies, they were surprised, precisely bcause they raised us here, to be successful, English-speaking Americans, but they did not discourage me. Others in my extended family see my interest in Philippine mythology as inextricable from my life as a writer and educator in Philippine Studies: Storytelling. Worldbuilding. 

I don’t know what the “average Filipino” thought, or thinks now about these books and art; it feels like a lot of “average Filipinos” here in the USA are only sometimes interested in Filipino authored works in general. I do know that among the Filipino American writers and artists I know, mythology is powerful, full of potent symbols, for sure, but also, full of other worldviews and cultures many of us feel we have been deprived of as Americans. 

Why do you think the vast, rich world of Philippine mythology (which is bigger than some better known mythologies), has had such a hard time finding appreciation, at home and globally?

I think this is true for the same reason that Filipino narratives are underappreciated — whether diasporic Filipinos cannot find access to the works of artists, writers, creators, typically subsumed and drowned in “Asian American” or multicultural literatures and arts, or because these works exist in spaces alternative or counter to mainstream and popular cultures, or because we have been taught that our success as diasporic Filipinos is achieved when we direct ourselves outward, not towards our own.

I wonder also, given Western-centric beliefs about success, whether “pre-colonial” beliefs and narratives are dismissed as backwards superstition, therefore not worthy of serious study, art, or high culture. 

What are your mythology source materials, and where did you find them?

Damiana L. Eugenio, Philippine Folk Literature: The Myths (Philippine Folk Literature Series #2) (University of the Philippines Press, 1993), which I originally bought in in a campus bookstore at UP Diliman. I later found other books in this series at Arkipelago Books.

Frank Lynch and Gilda Cordero-Fernando, The Aswang Inquiry (Anvil Publishing, 1998). I think I also found this at Arkipelago, if not in a National Bookstore somewhere in Metro Manila. I was already familiar with Cordero-Fernando’s output as a fiction writer, and then as a prolific producer of books on Philippine culture.

Maximo D. Ramos, many different books I flip through every now and then.

Jordan Clark, The Aswang Phenomenon (2011), which is a documentary I found online just Google searching “aswang” a long time ago, and which I found comprehensive and helpful. The narrator’s North American outsider point of view, and the fact that Peque Gallaga was one of the interviewees, were some of the more interesting pieces for me. I am an outsider to Philippine culture and mythology. I did not grow up with the “correct” or insider language, knowledge, or extensive life experience, just a couple of stories my grandmother told me in Fremont, when I was very young.  

These days, my sources for Philippine mythologies are contemporary Filipino authors of speculative fiction, such as Dean Francis Alfar — my intro to Alfar’s work was The Kite of Stars (Anvil Publishing, 2007) — and now, Isabel Yap’s Never Have I Ever (Small Beers Press, 2021), Arnold Arre’s phenomenal The Mythology Class (1999), and Budjette Tan’s wildly popular Trese, for carrying these narratives into contemporary literary and popular culture worlds. Alfar’s and Arre’s books I bought in the Philippines (Powerbooks in Shangri-La Plaza, if I remember correctly). Yap and Tan are widely available. 

My sources also include fellow Filipino American writers and artists conducting their own research or creating from their own oral traditions, such folks as author Rachelle Cruz, filmmaker Matt Abaya, visual artist Mel Vera Cruz.

Anything else you’d like to share?

I think of myself as a lifelong learner, and I love and appreciate this long process. I admire that as well, among my community of fellow writers and artists. We learn stuff from our own independent studies and research, and from one another — I like to ask what stories their elders told them; we share what we find. And I love bringing this work to my students, many who are Filipino Americans who come into the critical learning spaces that are my classrooms because they are hungry for, in need of connection to Filipino cultures. They want to understand something about themselves and their families. It’s really very straight forward. We come to these narratives because we want to learn.