We are amphibians, we writers, and maybe even we Filipinos, we enter class at different doorways and entry points. With this comes intimacy, the ability to know a stranger immediately and without pretense, the gift of being dropped any place in the world and to have the audacity to say to any fellow drifter: "Hello, stranger, I have finally met you; hello stranger, we are familia; hello stranger, I know you: you are my friend."
This is what I can give to you, for this is what my familia has given to me: the ability to write in darkness and light. What I gift to you is what familia has been gifted to me: a heavy past, a strong bond among loved ones, and a will bent to survive. This inheritance is not much, but if you are born an artist like me—which I am sure you will be, with the countenance I will give you—it will strengthen your path on this artist's journey rarely taken, it will give you the legs to stand on when you are alone, when you disturb the peace, when you think-feel the ferocity of the inner chaos within and the outer chaos that society suffers. Papa Baldwin, of course, says it more eloquently:
The state of being alone is not meant to bring to mind merely a rustic musing beside some silver lake. The aloneness of which I speak is much more like the aloneness of birth or death. It is like the fearless alone that one sees in the eyes of someone who is suffering, whom we cannot help. Or it is like the aloneness of love, the force and mystery that so many have extolled and so many have cursed, but which no one has ever understood or ever really been able to control. I put the matter this way, not out of any desire to create pity for the artist—God forbid!—but to suggest how nearly, after all, is his state the state of everyone, and in an attempt to make vivid his endeavor. The state of birth, suffering, love, and death are extreme states—extreme, universal, and inescapable. We all know this, but we would rather not know it. The artist is present to correct the delusions to which we fall prey in our attempts to avoid this knowledge. (James Baldwin's "The Creative Process.")
I know, if you are anything like me, you will fight with society like a lover. In your writing, your art, you will need to expose its unwillingness to witness its oppression, its loneliness, its refusal to see truth and its addiction to shadows. And if you are anything like me, the world outside, which is both beautiful and not, both loving and not, both happy and sad, will force you to be sensitive to its pangs and joys, allowing you to think-feel. What is to think-feel? My old writing professor and D.H. Lawrence break it down:
D.H. Lawrence wrote: "The body's life is the life of sensations and emotions. The body feels real hunger, real thirst, real joy in the sun or snow, real pleasure in the smell of roses or the look of a lilac busy; real anger, real sorrow, real love, real tenderness, real warmth, real passion, real hate, real grief. All the emotions belong to the body, and are only recognized by the mind."
As Lawrence says it here, I know that the real is experienced in the body. It's how we know anything.
Perhaps that's part of my "writing the body," my interest in writing the whole, the "togetherness." I have long thought that there ought to be a word in English that encompasses to think-feel, this seems to me how we come to know things, and then just recently I realized that the Latin word "sentire," which in English we define as "to realize" and is the root of words like "sentiment," actually does mean that! Think-feel. (Micheline Marcom's "The Real Is Experienced in the Body: an Interview.")
This sensitivity, this ability to think-feel is what makes us writers, the kind of writers with the disposition to know and feel the most extreme states of the human condition (birth, love, and death). And it is because of this that we enter into these liminal spaces alone. We suffer these extreme states to know what loneliness feels like, what sadness, happiness, trauma, and hope are, both in body, mind, and spirit. Papa Baldwin said we are called, as artists, to disturb the peace and to disturb it alone.
This is why I began to write a story about the body. The Pinay body. How it is commerced, digested. It's because I couldn't stop thinking-feeling about my own fluctuating existence as a writer and a Filipina Americana. I wrote it in the vein of autofiction—after my trip to Bahrain, after witnessing Filipina prostitutes in loud and dark clubs, after being called "Madame" by the Filipino hotel busboy, who asked me if I were "half." My existence—a Navy spouse traveling thousands of miles to meet her Nuclear Machinist Mate husband attached to the USS Truman—confused him: for how could a Filipino body like himself be of another class? It is like I said: we writers, we Filipinos are amphibians. His confusion propelled me to write this story about the Pinay body; it helped me realize, think-feel, the rupture that happens when you write, when you delve, when you think-feel about a body that has been traumatized for hundreds of years. There's a process, a devaluing process, that happens, and it is because of the cultural erasure/amnesia that occurs within the contexts of the domestic, social lives we lead. I'm being vague here, and I'm being vague on purpose: it is hard to write about the diasporic body. It is exhuming. It is flogging. It is like being hung on a cross over and over. Barbara Jane Reyes, my other wonderful mentor, said it better:
You are right; it is horrible thing, writing that diasporic body. It's a horrible thing that we must write in defense of our bodies, that what should be private, intact, sacred, is not. It's commerce. The Filipina body withstanding historical and socioeconomic violence is one of the recurring themes in my work. I appreciate that you call it courage to do this, when others have called it "white man hating." The truth is, I am so fed up to the point of nausea being viewed as a Filipina body that is supposed to be silent, a body whose sole purpose is serving and servicing others. I hate that in this world, to be a "Filipina wife" means someone at the gym in Oakland can think out loud to my husband that he bought me through a service. I write to speak to that ugliness, to dig through the muck of it, until there's no more muck left (I haven't reached this point yet). (Barbara Reyes's "Women of Color and Body Politics.")
This process, this writing of the diasporic body, is, always, exhausting. Sometimes, it is blinding. Utterly blinding. Numbing. Sometimes, as you continue writing into the dark places, you write without the light. You write surface-ly, shallowly—if only to protect yourself. It is why as I finished my last year at Mills College, when my thesis advisor, Elmaz Abinader (a woman who has been my utmost support during these past two years at my MFA program), analyzed and ripped apart my in-progress thesis, I was surprised when she said this: "These stories
These stories can go out into the world as they are. They can. But, I must warn you: you are dealing with Filipino tropes that may haunt you later in life."
That comment took me aback: the things that I write have haunted me for as long as I can remember. But it is not exactly the sentiment that surprised me; it was my own lack of awareness, my inability to see the shallowness of process I had with my own work, my own characters, my own personas that I had shifted and taken from my own life:
I am a daughter of a call girl.
I am a daughter of an ex-meth addict.
I am a granddaughter of a woman once kidnapped by the Japanese.
I am a granddaughter of a major and guerrilla resistance fighter.
I am a niece of a Filipina prostitute.
I am a sister of a girl once impregnated at sixteen.
I am a half-sister of a girl once molested by her stepfather.
I am a half-sister of three half-white children who know nothing of their call-girl mother.
I am a half-sister of a boy who didn't grow up with the loving father I had.
I am a woman who eloped in the sweltering heat of Las Vegas with a U.S. Sailor.
I am a woman who carries a diasporic body of contradictions.
I am a diasporic body who carries the memories of these contradictions.
I am a diasporic body who cannot forget. Who must think-feel. Who must weep. Who must question to exhume, to remember, to be.
So I had to ask myself: What was I missing?
What I was missing, I believe, was what my body wanted to forget: the utter nightmare that is the Filipino psyche—that is the diasporic body—that is the extreme form of being the diasporic body. What we share with our ancestors, with our bloodline, with the Filipino cashier in Daly City or the Filipino busboy in Bahrain or the writer you've met at a conference who shares a similar colonized past, is this: the trauma that the collective diasporic "body" has needed to forget in order to continue on.
So, before I began my revisions, I read Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters. But before I read Dogeaters, I watched Lino Brocka's Macho Dancer. I watched the showering prostitute boys dance. I saw the brothels that sprinkled the streets in Ermita and the tourist belt. I saw the women in frilly, white dresses, who stood behind doors in a hallway silenced by drugs and money. I relented when I understood the macho dancers' need, dependency on drugs, and how those drugs made it easier to continue on, to let one day bleed into the next. Then, I picked up Hagedorn's beloved classic—a book I am glad I did not read until now, because otherwise I would have just imitated Hagedorn. But once I read it, the nightmares began. The weeping occurred. The memory of a country lost in gaping gluttony and greed, wrapped in colonized piety and self-hatred and rage. I remembered the words of my thesis advisor and nodded at how right Elmaz was: this, this is haunting. It is hard. It is why my body fought against it: in resistance, it wanted to forget, to let each day bleed into the next, to continue on.
It is why, as I try to rewrite this story of the Pinay, a story I have been rewriting for four years, I weep. As Jessica Hagedorn said lovingly: Filipinos are good at weeping. But I continue writing it. I struggle to find its entry points, its passages, its closed doors, its opened ones. I know, however, I am closer to finishing it. It finally has its legs, its skeletal structure, its right context and sequential framework. I just have to do the work. Let the pain usurp the body. Let the body feel every uplift, every knife, every high and low. Most of all, I must write. Write through the highest self. The most "selfless" self. The most "giving" self. The most "true" self.
What I gift to you, my unknown daughter, is this: do not be afraid to write what haunts you, what disrupts and fractures your colonized body—write to not be afraid. For us, this is our inheritance of writing: it's our process to decolonize, to sit under the flame, under the pressure, writing till the light goes out, till it comes back in. In these dark moments, I think of my mother who left when I was only two. You are not even born yet, and I am already thinking of you. I think-feel the pain it took for my mother to leave, this pain between loss and leaving. I think-feel of how her leaving molded me into a writer: I questioned because of her absence. And for that I thank her. For that, I write to you, unknown daughter, and let the darkness come. Let it stay. Let it leave. Let it be. This is our inheritance: to write in darkness and light, disturbing the peace within, the peace outside, and to remember the liberation we gain after our writing's, our inheritance's, purge. With it, my daughter, we become whole again—our bodies, the Pinay body, remembers itself, thinks-feels itself, and here, we become whole.
Abstract: This creative essay deconstructs how the diasporic body inherits intergenerational trauma, focusing on the craft of prose for writers within the diaspora. It highlights how writing is through the "highest self," through a hyperawareness of what is inherited, what is passed on, and what is given. The writer takes on a highly personal approach to unravel the universality of writing about postcolonial pain, and how that pain haunts. The essay attempts to discover what is achieved by writing through the dark places of the diasporic body, to "write without the light," and reveals the power of decolonizing creativity through the "highest self."