Barbara Jane Reyes answers the questions of Filipino American girls and young women of color with bold affirmations of hard-won empathy, fierce intelligence, and a fine-tuned B.S. detector.
Letters to a Young Brown Girl
American Poets Continuum #182
A Blessing the Boats Selection
BOA Editions, Ltd., 2020
The Brown Girl of these poems is fed up with being shushed, with being constantly told how foreign and unattractive and unwanted she is. She’s flipping tables and throwing chairs. She’s raising her voice. She’s keeping a sharp focus on the violences committed against her every day, and she’s writing through the depths of her “otherness” to find beauty and even grace amidst her rage. Simultaneously looking into the mirror and out into the world, Reyes exposes the sensitive nerve-endings of life under patriarchy as a visible immigrant woman of color as she reaches towards her unflinching center.
Barbara Jane Reyes’s Letters to a Young Brown Girl interprets the song of the broken with a ghostly call and response. There are life-saving questions here that Reyes’ poetry just might have the answers for. The who, the what, the where, and why breakdown for the brown girl in all of us, uttered through an ancient voice, fragmented autobiography, and a mix-taped, multi-tracked lens. Reyes shows us how to dissolve and reassemble in the presence of our elders; how beauty is scalped and tainted for the sake of our mirrors; how best to arm ourselves. Letters are Reyes’ most potent weapons against imperialism, commoditization, and being single-storied. Make no mistake: This is Barbara Jane Reyes’s duende like you’ve never heard (or read) before.
— Willie Perdomo, author of The Crazy Bunch and The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon
Barbara Jane Reyes’s sixth collection of poems, Letters to a Young Brown Girl, is fire – in the colloquial and primordial sense—life-giving, path-lighting. This is a book I know I needed as a young brown girl; it’s a book I didn’t know I needed, still. Reyes’ collection is a gathering place, a site of survival. Part interrogation, part epistle and chronicle, part soundtrack and roadmap, Letters to a Young Brown Girl, weaves together songs of experience and wisdom, songs of kapwa and loób, connecting the voices of a lineage of power—from Sugar Pie De Santo to Ruby Ibarra—to create a resounding, multitudinous chorus of young brown women transforming shame into dignity. This book makes me want to throw on my pambahay, raise my glass, and sing!
— Michelle Peñaloza, author of Former Possessions of the Spanish Empire
In Letters to a Young Brown Girl, Barbara Jane Reyes is the articulation of rage, power and radical self-love — creating and demanding a space for justice and the value of one’s body, one’s stories, and one’s joy. “They say the earth’s most unruly parts sing like you,” Reyes writes, remembering ancestors’ songs and lovesongs and whalesongs, claiming tongue and narrative “no matter what territory or terrain.” I have needed these poems my entire poet’s life–these poems that speak to “how a brown girl writes and lives,” that respond with profound love to the urgent plea: “how aren’t you afraid, sister … please teach me how to be steel like you.”
— ire’ne lara silva, author of Blood Sugar Canto and Cuicacalli/House of Song
Barbara Jane Reyes’s latest collection centers the Pinay voice as resolute, as within a place of its belonging, and it is a voice that refuses to let go. It refuses to allow others to control the narrative: “Yeah, I’m pretty animal, I’m beastly. Are you threatened that this dark monster can holler and drown you out.” There is nothing gentle about the disturbance Barbara creates in Letters to a Young Brown Girl. It is meant to be as unrelenting as the power structures it works against. Yeah it’s pissed, yeah it says f*ck more than a few times — this book asks for more than anger, it requires movement. It is meant to shake, to shudder, to transform.
— Jason Bayani, author of Amulet and Locus
Reyes is a cultural worker in a never-ending mission to connect with women’s lives as intersectional, demonstrating how race, ethnicity, class, religion, gender, and nationality are significant to the creation of art and literature.
These are poems about what we give ourselves, rendered in language to assure the young brown girl writing in America that she is not alone. What is a mixtape if not a love letter that confirms we have all existed in the world, and we have been listening, perhaps together? We have not been living apart from one another. Here is work to assure us that what we give ourselves is necessary, because “none of those poems were for them, di ba?”
I have long-savored Reyes’ butterfly tongued, expertly-carved prose and poetry through the years. Reyes’ [brown] body of work is consistently interrogative, liminal, daring, textured, and wholly satisfying—of mind, body, and spirit. She also gets down, honoring the intrinsic musicality of words like a DJ in a night club, a mixologist of language that warms my insides and zaps me alive.
These poems are a battering ram to the heart. This book calls to the Filipina-American, specifically the Pinay writer. Its references might strike other readers as too targeted, too Brown, but that’s exactly why they must be there. To the girl who is taught to be small, who fears that no one will ever hear her, Reyes affirms that she is listening, that we are everything and enough.
Against amputation, Reyes offers stitch, a communal refashioning of self with others, what is known in Filipino studies as kapwa—“a sanctuary of shared selves”—and loób—what scholar Jeremiah Reyes (no relation) calls “relational will.” I think of Letters to a Young Brown Girl not as a book, but bricolage, inspired less by the secular toolkits of craft than the indigenous practices of Reyes’ own culture(s).