I had an interesting conversation today with an older pinay, who recently read my winning story over at Glimmer Train, which was previously published at Kweli Journal. (As a note: Kweli Journal and Laura Pegram helped me extensively with this story during the Kweli Scholar Program and published “Walang Hiya, Brother” in their Winter 2013 Issue. Glimmer Train accepts stories previously published online to help new writers gain a wider audience/readership. Laura, Linda, and Susan sincerely, without doubt, search for and support fresh/emerging voices.)
It was a strange conversation, and a nuance you might only understand if you are Filipino / Filipino American (which is not one and the same–a constant thing I must remind my non-Filipino/FilAm friends). When a FilAm who doesn’t ‘speak the language’ wins an award or becomes more visible in the public sphere, the community will either try to claim or disclaim the writer based on authenticity. It’s, at times, a ridiculous stance for an artist, as he or she must write to explore fictional/emotional truth, and the debate of authenticity is but a subtle debate on whether the community can claim or shame you.
Here’s how the conversation went down:
???: Congratulations on your story placing first with Glimmer Train. I very much enjoyed the nuanced characters and the story but I have a couple of questions:
1. Why did you title it “Walang Hiya?” What does that phrase mean to you?
2. Why is the family referred to as ‘familia’ as opposed to pamilya? Is this to show the protagonists lack of connection with her father’s culture?
Me: Hi Mary, thanks for reading my story and your congratulations. I can’t appreciate it enough.
As for your questions, I truly believe that a work of art must live and breathe on its own once it is out in the world. Considering these questions, my answers will be varied and irrelevant. Let your impressions of the protagonist answer your questions. Thank you again for reading my work. Again, I appreciate it. — m
???: Very true. I do, however see the protagonist in one way but have questions about word choice as the phrase “Walang Hiya” does not mean “to be without shame” but rather “to be shameless.” It’s more used in the context of being an insult rather than in the way it was used in this story. Hence my confusion.
Me: Exactly. See what the protagonist is doing to that phrase, what she is trying to do. That will be the answer.
???: So she meant it as an insult to her brother?
Me: See what she is trying to do. That’s all I will say.
???: I understand as an artist you want to create an image without being literal. I suppose it’s hard to get past context since I speak the language.
Me: Yes, of course. Here in the story, you have to see her as what she is: someone who doesn’t speak the language. So she’s doing something that someone who doesn’t speak the language would do. Now, this is all I’m going to say. Have a great day.
This harkens back to my older post a few days ago, when I mention BJR’s question of what’s at stake for the writer:
“Which brings me to this question: How does a prospective author prepare herself for authorhood or authordom? And here, I do not mean the manuscript work of editing and revision, nor the submissions hustle. How does a prospective author emotionally prepare herself for the unmitigated meanness and hostility that people unleash upon those in public space, especially when a prospective author’s writing can be so personal and confessional, especially when she’s drawn from her own intimacies?”
So, what is at stake for me as a writer of color? As a FilAm writer who doesn’t speak the language? Who writes stories that try to usurp what it means to shame or how ‘shame’ functions in the community? This story is a difficult story that collapses “hiya” and tries to dismantle what it means to be “shameless.”
The other day, BJR advised me that the community will either try to own or disown my stories. I took that advice wholeheartedly. It was strange to me that an older pinay would contact me via Facebook and try to look for one, specific answer. I left my answers open-ended, because I wanted her to come to her own conclusions. Whether or not I succeeded in doing this doesn’t matter. I was incredibly thankful that she read my story. Nonetheless, I felt semi-accosted. It felt as if she were saying to me: “How dare you use an insult incorrectly in your story? I am confused. This is a story about Filipinos. So I own this story. Why did you do this?”
But of course, she didn’t say these words. I am only inferring strings of emotive dominance from what I emphatically know about my community, from what I know as growing up “walang hiya,” from being called behind my back “walang hiya.” I am, and will always prefer, to be walang hiya.
I don’t quite know how well this story will be received by my community. All I know is this: I am happy this story made the older pinay question. There is a multiplicity when it comes to language, to literature, to art, and I can only hope that she sees the varied nuance in using a condemning phrase, in usurping that condemning phrase. But as I said to her–my story must live and breathe on its own once it is out in the world. My intentions as the author are varied and irrelevant. The story, at the end of the day, must hold on its own.