Thoughts on using the English language

The MFA Draft found on Facebook is a fantastic resource for emerging writers who want to learn more about applying to MFA programs. Another great aspect of it is its sense of community. You meet a lot of people around the United States (some who are even international) who also want to perfect their craft and attend/learn more about graduate school. You meet other beginning writers, share your work/writing sample over email, get great critiques, and strengthen your statement of purpose/other writings, etc. A greater perk of the Draft is that many current MFA candidates frequent the FB group/forum, leaving really helpful tidbits about the 854 MFA programs in the States. They also tend to berate those applicants who obsess whether they should staple or paperclip their manuscripts (it’s definitely a good place to get a good laugh).

On a certain thread, a writer asked: “If your manuscript could only be one line, what would yours be?” It was a great question to share creativity and to start discussion. My line was:

“My lola knew I would sound like a bastard child / when I tried to color my tongue Tagalog.”

I mentioned that I was influenced to write it based off of poets Lara Stapleton and Eileen Tabios, who both said they were “bastard[s] of the Philippine diaspora.” Because I wanted to get a discussion going around on what informs our writing, and why we would choose certain one-liners to represent us, I asked the group what their thoughts were on using English as our main vehicle, specifically nodding to those who were also colored writers. In short, it was too lengthy a discussion for a FB thread, so I decided to write out my thoughts here.

And so, I asked myself… Does writing in English inform my writing? My answer is: yes. It does.

Like poet Eileen Tabios, I write with an intention to subvert a colonizer’s tongue and experiment with it, using such language to shed a light on certain historical, cultural contexts and specifically focusing on the effects of the Philippine diaspora. As Tabios writes:

… My poems cannot help but reflect my identity as, in the words of Filipina American writer Lara Stapleton, a “bastard of the Philippine diaspora.” As a poet, this means I have no desire to be original in my use of a language that was introduced to my birthland, the Philippines, as a tool of imperialism and colonialism. I prefer to experiment with subverting their dictionary definitions or the cultural contexts in which I perceive the words posit their referentiality.

In the same vein, my writing cannot help but reflect my identity as a bastard child of the Philippine diaspora. But, my writing (or what I want my writing to achieve) is something beyond identity politics, something beyond just the “Filipino American experience.” Because as my good friend and I talked about the other day, it is impossible to “write of” the Filipino American experience, as our experiences are too diverse and too eclectic, and one cannot write of a whole community’s experience. Like John Gardner said in his Art of Fiction, when each of us writes, we show the world our own tattered window. It still is of the world, but our own writings speak of it tainted by our worldviews and eccentricities.

Lastly, let me reference Baldwin’s Nigger, a fantastic 40-minute documentary I suggest everyone to watch. I want to talk a little bit about the nature of oppression and its relation with language, especially the language of the oppresser. In Baldwin’s Nigger, Baldwin focuses briefly on the problem of the colored American–how we are of one house called America, but we are, unfortunately, the ones who are the despised and oppressed. Like blacks in America, we Filipinos have been colonized by Spain for over 300 years, and then were consequently colonized by America and Japan. This sense of colonial inferiority complex runs deep in many Filipino Americans, and it is very similar to what James Baldwin talks about here:

Question from audience: “Why do you call a man negro? Why don’t you just call him a black man? There is no country after negro, do you know that?”

Yes, I’m aware of that. Listen, it was not I or any black man in America who invented the word “negro.” It is not I who wrote that on my birth certificate. It is not who invented that language. I understand the principal of your question. And indeed, there is no country called “negro.” You know that, I know that. But you must understand too, I cannot change my vocabulary over night; I may agree with you. But we even called ourselves American negroes for nearly 400 years. Now, do you suppose that because it anguishes you that suddenly an entire nation is able to change its vocabulary? […] Your generation, not my generation, will call yourselves black, and that’s good enough for me. That’s the whole point. But my mother, my mother’s mother, called herself a nigger.

You must understand the nature of oppression, the most subtle effect of oppression, is what it does to your mind. What it does to the way you think about yourself. The whole cornerstone rests there. If you understand that, then you can see, I think, that even though my mother’s mother called herself a nigger, she managed to raise a family and instill, somehow, into her children some sense of dignity, which does not depend on the word. We have to learn to use those words to survive and even to triumph.

This is, briefly, how the language of English informs my writing. Like Tabios, I wish to subvert this language that has been used to colonize my people and, most importantly, my self–using it as a way to express and understand my own oppression, and this oppression has been built in me, in my culture, for over 400 years. The fact that I still look at myself in the mirror with disgust because of how dark my skin is shows how deep this oppression has taken hold. The fact that my father washes his body every day with papaya soap, a whitening skin product that burns, tells me something about the colonial inferiority complex. I want to, like Tabios and Baldwin, use my writing to explain and deconstruct the very intricacies of what it means to be in mental chains.

I will end with this powerful poem, which is the beginning epigraph to Junot Diáz’s fantastic short story collection, Drown:

The fact that I
am writing to you
in English
already falsifies what I
wanted to tell you.
My subject:
how to explain to you that I
don’t belong to English
though I belong nowhere else.

— Gustavo Pérez Firmat


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