There is a story I have been rewriting and rewriting since 2010. It is a story that lifts a veil. It is a story about the veil. About a Filipina prostitute in Bahrain. A story about an old affair. A story about a U.S. Sailor. A story about his wife, who wants to leave. A story that conflicts the privileges of two Filipino Americans among a city that enslaves people who look, feel, and think-feel like them.
I weep every time I rewrite it. It has gone through many changes, many erasures, many beginnings, many different forms. When I first workshopped the piece in its infancy form, traces of inner racism, colonial mentalities, and hatred of self and skin color leapt off the pages. Writing, in its most natural way, exhumes the darkest places within the writer. I was called out on these complications at my very first VONA/Voices Workshop back in 2011. And rightfully so: I was very young, an inept writer, and out for revenge. But I was called out in a community that supported and loved me. They kept me up when I felt the pressures, the drowning. So, I kept rewriting it. Entering it at different points of my life. Living and becoming until I was ready to write it. I now think, think-feel, that I am ready: to write, to do the work, to be isolated, to enter the darkest places.
Let me explain: I am writing about the body. The Pinay body. How it is commerced, digested. I write of it, in this fiction story, through my own personal lens. It is, like all fictions, based upon emotive realities of my life. This is just one of the ways I am allowing myself to digest it: through thinking-feeling. My professor, Micheline, says it better:
In his wonderful essay “A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” and in response to fierce criticism of that novel, DH Lawrence wrote: “The body’s life is the life of sensations and emotions. The body feels real hunger, real thirst, real joy in the sun or snow, real pleasure in the smell of roses or the look of a lilac busy; real anger, real sorrow, real love, real tenderness, real warmth, real passion, real hate, real grief. All the emotions belong to the body, and are only recognized by the mind.” In response to your question, I would say that I have long been and remain interested in the real, and intuitively and sometimes consciously, as Lawrence says it here, I know that the real is experienced in the body. It’s how we know anything. He goes on to say: “The Christian religion lost, in Protestantism finally, the togetherness with the universe, the togetherness of the body, the sex, the emotions, the passions, with the earth and sun and stars.” Perhaps that’s part of my “writing the body,” my interest in writing the whole, the “togetherness.” I have long thought that there ought to be a word in English that encompasses to think-feel, this seems to me how we come to know things, and then just recently I realized that the Latin word “sentire,” which in English we define as “to realize” and is the root of words like “sentiment,” actually does mean that! Think-feel.
— Micheline A. Marcom in “The Real Is Experienced in the Body: an Interview.”
But there’s a rupture that happens when you write, when you delve, when you think-feel about a body that has been traumatized for hundreds of years. There’s a process, a devaluing process, that happens, and it is because of the cultural erasure/amnesia that occurs within the contexts of the domestic, social lives we lead. I’m being vague here, and I’m being vague on purpose: it is hard to write about the diasporic body. It is exhuming. It is flogging. It is like being hung on a cross over and over. Barbara Jane Reyes, my other wonderful mentor, says it better:
You are right; it is horrible thing, writing that diasporic body. It’s a horrible thing that we must write in defense of our bodies, that what should be private, intact, sacred, is not. It’s commerce. The Filipina body withstanding historical and socioeconomic violence is one of the recurring themes in my work. I appreciate that you call it courage to do this, when others have called it “white man hating.”
The truth is, I am so fed up to the point of nausea being viewed as a Filipina body that is supposed to be silent, a body whose sole purpose is serving and servicing others. I hate that in this world, to be a “Filipina wife” means someone at the gym in Oakland can think out loud to my husband that he bought me through a service.
I write to speak to that ugliness, to dig through the muck of it, until there’s no more muck left (I haven’t reached this point yet).
— Barbara Jane Reyes in “Women of Color and Body Politics.”
This process, this writing of the diasporic body, is, always, exhausting. Sometimes, it is blinding. Utterly blinding. Numbing. Sometimes, as you continue writing into the dark places, you write without the light. You write surface-ly, shallowly–if only to protect yourself. It is why when my thesis advisor, Elmaz Abinader (a woman who has been my utmost support during these past two years at my MFA program), analyzed and ripped apart my in-progress thesis, I was surprised when she said this: These stories… These stories can go out into the world as they are. They can. But, I must warn you: you are dealing with Filipino tropes that may haunt you later in life.
That comment took me aback: the things that I write have haunted me for as long as I can remember. But it is not exactly the sentiment that surprised me; it was my own lack of awareness to see the shallowness of process I had with my own work, my own characters, my own personas that I shifted and taken from my own life:
I am a daughter of a call girl.
I am a daughter of an ex-meth addict.
I am a granddaughter of a woman once kidnapped by the Japanese.
I am a granddaughter of a major and guerrilla resistance fighter.
I am a niece of a Filipina prostitute.
I am a sister of a girl once impregnated at sixteen.
I am a half-sister of a girl once molested by her stepfather.
I am a half-sister of three half-white children who know nothing of their call-girl mother.
I am a half-sister of a boy who didn’t grow up with the loving father I had.
I am a woman who eloped in the sweltering heat of Las Vegas to a U.S. Sailor.
I am a woman who carries a diasporic body of contradictions.
I am a diasporic body who carries the memories of these contradictions.
I am a diasporic body who cannot forget. Who must think-feel. Who must weep. Who must question to exhume, to remember, to be.
So I had to ask myself: What was I missing?
What I was missing, I believe, was what my body wanted to forget: the utter nightmare that is the Filipino psyche–that is the diasporic body. The trauma that the collective Filipino “body” in the diaspora has forgotten in order to continue on.
So, before I began my revisions, I read Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters. But before I read Dogeaters, I watched Lino Brocka’s Macho Dancer. I watched the showering boys dance. I saw the brothels that sprinkled the streets in Ermita and the tourist belt. I saw the women in frilly, white dresses, who stood behind doors in a hallway silenced by drugs and money. I relented when I understood the macho dancers’ need, dependency on drugs, and how those drugs fucked up every moment of their fucked up beings: but it made it easier to continue on, to let one day bleed into the next. Then, I picked up Hagedorn’s beloved classic–a book I am glad I did not read until now, because otherwise I would have just imitated Hagedorn. But once I read it, the nightmares began. The weeping occurred. The memory of a country lost in gaping gluttony and greed, wrapped in colonized piety and self-hatred and rage. I remembered the words of my thesis advisor and nodded at how right Elmaz was: this, this is haunting. It is hard. It is why my body fought against it: in resistance, it wanted to forget, to let each day bleed into the next, to continue on.
It is why, as I try to rewrite this story I have been rewriting for four years, I weep. As Jessica Hagedorn said lovingly: Filipinos are good at weeping. But I continue writing it. I struggle to find its entry points, its passages, its closed doors, its opened ones. I know, however, I am closer to finishing it. It finally has its legs, its skeletal structure, its right context and sequential framework. I just have to do the work. Let the pain usurp the body. Let the body feel every uplift, every knife, every high and low. Most of all, I must write. Write through the highest self. The most “selfless” self. The most “giving” self. The most “true” self. I am not afraid to write what haunts me, what disrupts and fractures my colonized body: I write to not be afraid. I am in the process of decolonizing, I am under the flame, under the pressure, writing till the light goes out, till it comes back in. In these dark moments, I think of my mother. I think of the pain between the loss and the leaving. I think of how her leaving molded me into a writer: I questioned because of her absence. And for that I thank her. For that, I let the darkness come. Let it stay. Let it leave. Let it be.