‘My daughter is a poet’

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa - The Philippine Star

Born and raised in Lipa, Batangas, Romalyn Ante, 34, is a poet and nurse now based in Wolverhampton, England. Her latest publication “Antiemetic for Homesickness” was shortlisted for the 2021 Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Color who called it a “tour de force.”

The publishers describe the collection of poems as: “Steeped in the richness of Filipino folklore, and studded with Tagalog, these poems speak of the ache of assimilation and the complexities of belonging, telling the stories of generations of migrants who find exile through employment – through the voices of the mothers who leave and the children who are left behind.”

Her mother Rosana, 53, is an ER nurse who worked in Oman and Saudi Arabia before arriving in the UK. She says she knows every drama in a hospital and is now a grandmother of five who still works shifts.

Romalyn: I grew up hearing and using the Batangas accent and I think a part of the music pulled me into Tagalog writing, so I started my poetry writing in Tagalog but of course, because I’m in England now, I need to ask myself who my readers are and who I’m writing to. I feel safer in English because most of my relatives in the Philippines wouldn’t read it. Most of us we have a culture of “hiya,” like you’re ashamed of something. You don’t really want to show your work to your family member – when they read it you kind of blush – so it makes me feel safer in that sense.

But in terms of writing in English to English readers, it makes me feel I can reclaim a certain power that is taken away from me and from other Filipino writers or writers of color by the English language itself. Our country has been colonized for many, many years and we are taught to think in English, to live in English, but to actually write a literary piece in English means something for me. I have this relationship with English, as if he’s a teenage or a young love who doesn’t love me back.

I have so many poems that I love in Tagalog, but especially Poem #45 by Rio Alma, the National Artist of the Philippines. I love it because it’s so grounded. It’s actually a love poem, but if you were to read it again and again, you could put your own meaning into it and you realize, maybe it’s more political than that. It’s got so many layers of meaning, its imagery is so clear-eyed and the sound is so nice, especially when he reads it on YouTube.

One of my earliest memories of my mother is when a woman who lived in a squatters’ area by the river was in labor and they had to call my mom because they needed help. I thought that she’s just really cool because she knows what to do in an emergency and people call her. There’s a sense of pride and admiration, not just because she’s my mom, but she’s a person who helps a community. I think that’s the reason why I never really asked why she left. I’ve always had the feeling that she’s meant to help other people.

Each island and each region of the Philippines has their own customs and culture. In Batangas there’s a belief there is agimat in their blood and I remember when I was growing up my dad came from a family of shamans – agimat hunters. I feel that I brought that with me here so whatever England throws at me I can overcome, because I have agimat in my blood.

Rosana: I’ve been so busy because I’ve been looking after my grandchildren and I’m also working at the same time. I used to work very, very hard before, day and night, but you know I’m not getting any younger and I need to slow down. You need to really step back when you feel it. You can’t just ignore it because life is too short. You need to love your life and love your health.

Back in our village in the Philippines, I tried to help everyone if I could, because they normally come to us just for little things. I will never, never forget that time I helped the lady give birth. I still had some bits and pieces from when I was a student doing community nursing, and they were still OK, so I grabbed it and went. She was really, really tired from laboring all night before they called me. Well, I’ve really had to administer to her, otherwise she’ll die. Even if you’re scared giving the medicine or you leave them, then she will die, and the baby will die.

I advised them: if you want you can just take her to hospital, but I know that they won’t be able to afford it. You know in the Philippines if you have no money, you won’t be able to get treated properly or they won’t even let you into the hospital without the money. So I did everything, after 30 minutes she delivered the baby. Romalyn was only seven years old at the time, she took it as an adventure, and everything was fine.

There’s so many experiences, so many stories, and I think what Romalyn is doing with all those stories is getting some ideas to write a story or a poem. I’ve read some of her poems but not all of them. I think she’s very creative. All her poetry is based on true stories, on her experience, my experience, her colleagues’ experience, so I think it’s really good and honest. She’s got this big imagination and big ideas on how to write a poem about just one simple thing that she can broaden and make it a very, very interesting poem.

Our life is not happy all the time. Sometimes we have to show the reality of life. Like for example me, I’ve been through a lot and in front of my children and in front of other people, I always show a brave face, but behind the door... my goodness me, but you can’t show them. You know what I mean? I think Romalyn is just telling the true colors of life. Life is not just a bed of roses. Life is this and that and those you know, there’s sweet, sour, night, day, black and white. I think she wants to imply that reality. We are not living in a perfect world. So I think that’s how she writes: there’s nothing hidden, there’s a transparency in her poems, a clarity.

When someone writes a poem, they write it with their heart and with their brain. They have emotion that is like when a singer sings: they really feel it. In order for you to sing the song properly, you have to feel it, you have to feel the song.


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