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Fierce and Filipino

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - May 8, 2021 - 12:00am

Dear son,

In my place, here is a Balikbayan box. Here are the LeBron James rubber shoes (size 9) and the video game tapes to replace all the palm cakes I owe you for every Simbang Gabi and PTA meeting I could not attend. I promise I’ll be there for Christmas. I know I’ve been saying this for a decade now.”

Those are the opening lines of “Notes Inside a Balikbayan Box,” a searing example of the fiercely pure poetic voice of Romalyn Ante, who was recently shortlisted for the Jhalak prize for book of the year by a writer of color. It’s from a slim volume of poems, “Antiemetic for Homesickness.”

“Moving, witty and agile,” said the Observer review. “By turns playful and tender, offering a formally-various exploration of migration, community and nursing... there is honesty, musicality, a powerful heart,” according to the Irish Times.

“I realized that my poetry could connect, not just to the literary people, but also to the ordinary people, because I’ve got quite a lot of comments and messages from my readers, saying: ‘I don’t really read poetry or sometimes I don’t really get poetry but your poetry makes me love poetry, makes me understand poetry better,” Ante told me when we spoke over a video link the other day.

It turns out that this year of literary recognition also marks exactly a half way point for her as a migrant – she’s lived exactly half her life in the UK and half in the Philippines. It’s also particularly significant because Ante is a nurse who has been at the frontlines of the fight against the pandemic.

“As a poet, especially a poet of color, I’ve always wanted to do well, because for me, my work is a political act. I am speaking with a community of nurses, nurses who have been dehumanized because they’re migrants, reduced to their functions as nurses,” said Ante to explain why the recognition of her work is important.

In the course of the conversation Ante seemed to consider herself something of an outsider: “An artist, a person of color from a non-literary background who lives outside London… I’m not really connected with any establishment or literary establishment, I don’t even know if they know about my book,” as she put it. “I grew up in a house without any books, because at the time we couldn’t really afford anything.”

Instead, Ante was inspired by folk tales her grandfather told and the sound of his voice. There’s a similar sense of being non-establishment for her in the Philippines. Ante is from Lipa, Batangas, born while her young mother studied to become a nurse, her father working part time and grandparents market vendors. Life was already pretty hard, but then her grandmother was taken ill and the family sold everything to pay for her treatment.

Like so many other mothers, Ante’s left her behind so she could earn more money to send back home. Ante followed and so she speaks with another kind of half-ness: half-migrant, half-left-behind. The poems in “Antiemetic” reflect all this, shifting from persona to persona.

“You stood on the other side of the barrier, time is a tattered blanket draped down your shoulders. My tympanic membrane beat what you held back, Ma, wag mo akong iwan. Ma, don’t leave me.” – To Die A Little

“It’s my turn, Tagay! is 80 proof our talisman for survival. One day, we’ll go home, I’ll go home and scan the crowd for the smile that opens only to me at Arrivals.” – Tagay!

And most poignantly: “Someday I will realize the woman lonely in her mansion is not my mother but a future version of myself. I will chop bitter gourds on the galaxy-glimmer of her worktop.” – Names

Ante says she’s very busy with her full-time job as a specialist nurse practitioner, so why write and why poetry? “I write because I have that urgency to write and lift the narratives of migrant nurses to the light. I think I’m very attracted to the music of language, and to the power of few words,” she replies.

“The whole book is informed by my experiences, as a left behind and as a migrant myself. I’m trying to bring out in my poetry the emotional truth rather than the factual truth of what had happened. Recently in COVID, nurses are being called heroes. We’re all nurses in the household, but I think every migrant nurse would rather be seen as a human being than a hero. I think that’s what’s missing in the profession. We are reduced to our functions – statistics. What I wanted to do is to create a book where this polyphonic of human voices will be brought out.”

There is something absolutely original about Ante and her work – it is fresh and open, a deeply authentic coming together of multiple points of view in a unified vision based in an unjaded emotional truth. Her lived experience and awareness insist on discovery, rather than imposition, of form. Heart and mind are blended with a keen longing for something else, grounded in observed realities.

She credits nursing for giving her poetry. “The first thing that we are taught in nursing school is self awareness, how to listen. And then when we get out, we get to pay attention to the world. We get to pay attention if, let’s say, the patient’s blood pressure is dropping, we get to know what it could indicate, paying attention to the little tiny details of lives, and for me that’s what a poet does. The poet pays attention to the world. The poet pays attention to the voice, so they could craft this poem. And in the end, I think I’m very lucky that I’m a nurse, and that I got into nursing because I feel that nursing taught me poetry, more than anything.”

You can order “Antiemetic for Homesickness” through www.blackwells.co.uk. It’s published by Chatto & Windus.

BALIKBAYAN LEBRON JAMES
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