Our own voices

- Alfred A. Yuson () - January 5, 2004 - 12:00am
(Second of 2 parts)

Two other titles (besides Jessica Hagedorn’s Dream Jungle, reviewed here last week) for which our expatriate writers and editors have recently been responsible give us further reason to rejoice. Both are anthologies of "our own voices."

Not Home, But Here: Writing from the Filipino Diaspora,
edited by Luisa A. Igloria, published by Anvil Publishing, assembles 15 fine expatriate Filipino writers whose essays distill the bittersweet experience of living in various places other than the homeland.

They comprise quite a distinctive collective voice, while retaining undeniably individualized perspectives cum assorted lyrical treatments of certain facets of self-exile.

The contributors are Merlinda Bobis, Nick Carbo, Felix Fojas, Loreta M. Medina, Reine Arcache Melvin, Leny Mendoza-Strobel, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Jon Pineda, Barbara J Pulmano Reyes, Bino A. Realuyo, Angel Shaw, Eileen R. Tabios, Pancho Vera Lapuz, Ella Wagemakers-Sanchez and Edna Weisser. A majority are poets. Poems – their own – make their way into the essays of Fojas, Tabios and Nezhukumatathil, while Shaw’s contribution comes in the form of a film script.

Bobis has taken up residence in Australia, Melvin in France, Weisser in Germany, Wagemakers-Sanchez in Holland; the rest of the contributors are based in the United States. However, Carbo’s take-off point for his essay is a terraced garden with a thousand-year-old olive tree in Andalusia, Spain, while for Pineda it is Piazza di San Marco in Florence, in the company of a silent old bell. Medina’s account is from her journal pages while sojourning in South Korea and Bangladesh. Munich-based Weisser writes of her visit with "London Boys and Other Filipinos." Fojas details his expat experiences in Jakarta before he resettled as a "born-again bachelor" in California.

Oh, yes, we are everywhere. And the richness and fresh vitality of Philippine literature is so much the better owing to this "luxury of displacement."

Editor Igloria, a Palanca Hall-of-Famer and distinguished poet who teaches at Old Dominion University in Virginia, prepares us in her Intro "Bino Realuyo writes about the meanings of status, empowerment and privilege accorded by speaking – or not speaking – English in a multicultural culture, as he falls in line daily for breakfast at McDonald’s. Jon Pineda meditates on the relationship between language and loss, on being mestizo, and on his readings of the story of a bell in Italy, whose tongue has betrayed itself into exile. Felix Fojas recounts adventures as a Filipino straddling the worlds of corporate existence and poetry in Southeast Asia, before arriving in America. Leny Mendoza-Strobel dreams of her hometown erased by lahar, of her grandmother instructing her on the care of her garden and of her diasporic soul, and constructs a Zen-like approach to defining being a Filipina abroad. Writer-turned-grape farmer Eileen Tabios raises her glass to a life of poetry, and sees reflected there a ‘universalized’ Filipina identity and meaning of being in the diaspora.

"Aimee Nezhukumatathil writes of the intersections of her Indian and Filipino and American heritage, and how they fuse into a potent and stimulating spirit for her poetry, which she both chases after and is chased by. Ella Wagemakers-Sanchez writes of her journey in the land of tulips and brick houses, and how she turned up some 500-year-old roots in the process. Reine Arcache Melvin watches her daughter, who knows pissenlit but not gumamela; she thinks of herself as a white cockroach in Paris, and at nightfall detects the long shadow of Manila falling across Montmartre.

"Nick Carbo stands next to an olive tree in Spain and hears stories of his own as well as of the collective Filipino past, which he collects into ‘beautiful books.’ Pancho Lapuz proposes wild lyrical riffs and counterpoints, improvisations on the theme of dislocation – these too are hopefully indicative of the open-endedness and freedom of future projects in defining and writing the Filipino diaspora. And finally, Merlinda Bobis meditates on the wishbone, tensile and fragile at the same time; as she dances, performs and crafts an aesthetics and politics of surviving and creating in the diaspora; she is drawn to those places that continue to invite the consideration of couture without the necessity of cultural chauvinisms."

Consistent among the essays are the tone, diction, and reliance on memorable imagery. Each one succeeds in meeting the objective of the anthology’s editor. This is no mere collection of mini-memoirs on living abroad, but of well-chosen, sensitive entries on the here and now of being out there.

Pineda writes: "Here is the poetry of exile, tense as a horse galloping toward you with a rider brandishing the truth." And Mendoza-Strobel manifests this by recounting how nearly daily at 6 p.m. in a California suburb, she has to catch TV Patrol via cable, and keen to Noli de Castro’s Magandang Gabi, Bayan!

She writes: "Is Noli de Castro addressing me? Am I part of his bayan? I am no longer a Filipino citizen, no longer a voter and taxpayer, yet I still claim that language and that place as homeland. During People Power 2, I cried when I heard President Arroyo say God loves this country and its people. This resonated deeply within me, in ways too difficult for words."

Ah, the pang of poetry, in and out of the homeland.

The book was launched last month at the Philippine Center in New York. A similar launch ought to be held here (even with most of the writers in absentia), to start off the new year right.

I can only agree with one of the blurbs, as provided by California-based fiction writer Marianne Villanueva: "A lovely and powerful book – a meditation on what it means to be other. It’s about journeys; it’s about memory. It’s about recovery and discovery. Ultimately healing and transformative, this is a book to savor."

Another anthology that bids fair to enrich the growing Filipiniana on our remarkable global dispersal is Our Own Voice: Filipinos in the Diaspora, edited by Remé Antonia Grefalda, Nadine L. Sarreal, and Geejay Arriola (who also served as designer). Billed as a "literary/arts journal," it is actually a hardcopy edition of an e-zine that has conquered cyberspace since 2001.

We should hope that it’s the first hardcopy edition, as it only collects the literary and arts stuff (poems, stories, essays, book reviews, photo essays and illustrations) that have appeared in the website oovrag.com on its first year, that is, on the months of January, April, June, September and December of 2001.

The joint publishers ought to take a bow: the PWU Center for Culture, Arts and Music and HZB Development Center, in coordination with the Firstfruits book design and publishing group of Arlington, Virginia, USA.

"We all have a story to tell, a vision to impart," writes co-editor Grefalda.

Sarreal pitches in: "Some might question the value of a Filipino-centric e-zine like ours. Why focus on this narrow segment to the exclusion of other segments? The answer is simple – more and more Filipinos away from the Philippines are searching for their reflection in literature, in the mirror of life."

Emerging voices are among the contributors, including some bylines that have become familiar, such as F. Omar Telan, Mari Henson, Camilo Antonio, Cristina Querrer and Joel B. Tan. Among the senior writers are Luis Cabalquinto, Jean N.V. Gier, Helen Toribio, Luisa Igloria, Eileen Tabios, Loreta Medina, Reine Arcache Melvin, Edna Weisser and Felix Fojas (the usual suspects, right?). The poet Ma. Fatima Lim-Wilson surprises us with a short story. Alberto S. Florentino must be proud to join in along with one of his two precocious, prodigious granddaughters, Tala Florentino Kernan.

Homebound poets and writers are also represented, with Mila Aguilar, Macario Tiu and Al Santos among them, along with Angela Manalang Gloria and P.C. Morantte. The children’s story writer Margarita Francia Villaluz has several entries, and there is a Bikolano translation by Jose T. Figueroa of "Mi Ultimo Adios."

Fittingly, the Philippine Women’s University will be launching the journal from 4 to 6 p.m. on Jan. 8 at Mira-Nila Heritage House on Mariposa St. in Quezon City, with former Senator Helena Benitez hosting. Copies will be available at a special launch price of P500 each, discounted from the regular local price of P850.

Proceeds will go to a special fund for the digital recording of the works of National Artist Dr. Lucrecia "King" Kasilag. Special guest performer will be the young violinist Stephen Shey of Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who will play Philippine classical music. OOV editors and contributors "at home" will autograph copies.

Hail our own voices, hail Our Own Voice!

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