Having “Mercy” in the writing life

“I only question my father about these half-truths now, after all these years, because of the nightmares. Because I think about my mother. Because I imagine leaving my husband.”

— Excerpt from, “Mercy,” in Guernica’s newest issue

As always, I feel like I am running through life without stopping. This past week, we traveled back home to L.A. because of familial loss. We flew back to Virginia, I taught, and then up we went to New York for my #LitCrawlNYC reading with Hyphen Magazine, Alexander Chee (who’s AMAZING, btw), Sally Wen Mao, Cathy Linh Che, and Jason Koo. I am so exhausted.

Today, my story, “Mercy,” was published in Guernica. When I got the acceptance news a few weeks ago, this piece had been rejected by over 30 other journals. I came home that night exhausted from teaching a Wednesday morning class, working my second job at a military magazine, and teaching a night class at a community college. I ran around my empty apartment, alone, for my husband was away at sea, and I wept on the floor nearby the porch window. I was so exhausted.

But there is something I said last July at the Kweli Journal Conference, which was also in the beautiful city of New York, that alleviated my exhaustion:

Mind you, before I came to the Kweli Journal Writers’ Conference, I was still mulling over my workshop with Junot Díaz. The one caveat he left us with before we headed into the world was this: “The whole culture is telling you to hurry, while the art tells you to take your time. Always listen to the art.” Coming to the Kweli Conference, I had this implanted in my mind—that despite what the behemoth of the industry would say, at the end of the day, I must, as an artist, separate “the work” from “the machine. As I sat in the pews waiting for the conference to begin, I could feel the anxiety rise from the belly to the throat. But my VONA tribe was there: all of us sat together, ready to get our pitches out.

— Excerpt from, “From the Belly to the Throat,” in Kweli Journal’s blog

In New York this last weekend trip, many of my writer friends were exhausted. When we took a cab to Dumbo Sky after my reading in Lower East Side, we commiserated on working over two jobs, teaching, filling up class time with writing prompts and videos and making more activities so we could have less time to talk to our students, commiserated over the amount of time it takes to eke out a life and survive while finding precious moments to write. We knew each other’s pains, growing pains, our anxiety over this “writing life,” our hopes and awkwardnesses and dreams and maybes and what-ifs.

I remembered what Steve Barnes said to me at the VONA 15th Party I planned back in June:

“I love being awkward. It’s a sign of transition, of growth. If you’re in that state, be thankful. It means you are growing.”

I don’t know if I’m growing. I know I’m in an awkward phase of my life–I’m in transition, I’m running, I’m always in transition, it is always painful, but I feel the growing. I feel the rushes from the belly to the throat; I feel my soul under pressure; I feel exhausted; I am exhausted; however, I am hopeful. I’m not sure what I’m hopeful for. Maybe this emotion is hopeful because I finally feel as if I have found my place in the world. As I sat on the second deck of the bus and watched the enormous city pass by me, I felt at home–it wasn’t necessarily New York, it wasn’t necessarily that I was traveling back down the coast to Virginia, it wasn’t necessarily my husband holding my hand next to me–but it was part of it. It’s like what I said to my half-Kurdish, half-Persian student last week–it’s what we do when we’re born of the Diaspora. Home means the city passing by you; home means the skyscrapers looking down at you; home means the taxi cab driver who lifts his fingers in the air and roars, claiming his name means “lion” in his native language. Home means here, this place where my heart meets my tongue, my memories, this trauma I’ve inherited, it means having mercy when I am feeling low, when I am lost, when I am hopeful, when I am awkward. I don’t know where I’m heading next in these few years, or where my writing will bring me, but home is like the sound of my mother’s name, “Mercy,” slow and sweet and heavy, meaning a thousand things and the embodiment of silence and acceptance at the same time.

Exhaustion: On Anger & Being a Pinay Writer

Sometimes, I am just exhausted.

A few week ago, I was exuberant and thankful when a good writer friend, Rae Paris, invited me to read my craft essay, “On Rewriting the Diasporic Body: On Trauma, Process, Body,” to her Bread Loaf Middlebury fiction class. The students and I had a wonderful, intense, and insightful conversation on the communicative thread of literature, writing, race, how to dismantle the burden of representation (which is a fallacy), and the danger of the single story (if you haven’t yet, you must listen to Chimamanda Adichie’s “Danger of the Single Story”: here and read here).

I was on a high. Rae’s class was filled with many students–most of whom were white –and they were willing to listen to what I had to say. I felt as if it was the first time, in a long, long time, where I had the privilege to have authority on a topic that permeates my daily life. It is not normal that I have this “privilege.” Most of the time, my thoughts, feelings, experiences, oppressions are put into question, criticized, critiqued, and undermined, and whenever I do speak up, I am always put against a rock and a hard place, always forced into a spotlight to defend why I am, why my people are, why people like me still are, oppressed.

This is why I am exhausted when white men message me on Facebook and ask me to read their stories. This is why I am exhausted when white men become offended when I say, “No, I am busy, and I do not have time, but here are some stories to read to help you.” This is why I am exhausted when I help them further, when I say the truth of the matter, the danger of the matter: “I hope you understand if you write about a Filipina bar girl’s relationship with a Marine, you are writing into a deep crevice of complicated and traumatic colonizing history.” This is why I am exhausted when white men become offended and act as if they are “familiar” with this “neocolonial” history but conveniently bypass that they come from the vantage point of the oppressor. If you, dear white man, were familiar at all with this “neocolonial” history (as if the “neo” strips you of any responsibility or burden when the effects of American colonialism in the Philippines is still present today), you would not come to a Filipina American writer and have the audacity and immodesty to ask her to read this “brilliant” story your U.S. Marine friend has written and demand that she give him her “approval.”

I am exhausted because it is constant: this walking between lines. The decisions whether to say what I actually feel, think, and think-feel, or simply stay silent. I am exhausted because when I do speak, and they are offended, there is a interplay between safety and a use of energy that I must determine whether or not I can give. Yesterday, I did not have the energy to give the defense of my experience or bodily oppression. Yesterday, I was just tired. And angry. And sad. And trying to celebrate my partner’s birthday. Yesterday, I was reminded how easy it is for a white man to disparage my experience just because he thinks he is “familiar” with this “neocolonial” history. Sometimes, I am tired of fighting.

Because like the men who harass me on the street, who whistle at my ass or my tits and who think they can lay claim to my body, there are also men who come to me either on a viral space or in academic spaces and demand that I give them my time, for they believe they can lay claim to my mind. I believe it’s a tendency for men, especially white men, to think they have a right to be coddled. If you watched Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which has been hailed as “a sprawling investigation of the human condition,” you’d see what I mean. The white man’s story is always hailed as the “universal human condition.” The white man’s story has never fallen into the trap of the Single Story: his story is always privileged enough to be his own and the world’s. So, when a white man asks (but really, his asking is a demand) that a marginalized woman read his friend’s story about a marginalized bar girl the man has once fallen in love with, he does not expect her to say, “No.” He expects her to oblige him. He expects her to excitedly say, “Yes.” He does not expect her to say, “Do you realize, dear white man, that your friend is writing into a complicated and possibly racist history/story, because of the epidemic of the Filipina sex worker, because of the epidemic of human trafficking, because of the cultural consequence of G.I. babies, because of the history of American colonization and present-day neocolonialism, and because if I were to read your friend’s story, I would have told him this:

Because of this traumatic history, dear white man, you cannot just be ‘familiar’ with it, you must know it, think-feel it, experience it, your body must know it, lest you either perpetuate or paint your Filipina bar girl like the caricature and ideal you made her to be when you said you loved her, when you fucked her, when you abandoned her, and did you, dear white man, did you really love her? Did you even know her?”

Because the truth is, I didn’t say this to you, dear white man. I was polite. Kind. Advised a short story to read and a movie to watch, because I thought it mind have informed this story of a Filipina bar girl your “brilliant” friend had written. The truth is, I gave you this advice is the kindest way possible, and you responded like the white man you are–offended and angry that a Pinay like me had the audacity to say, “No,” and give you a lesson. And if you end up reading this essay, dear white man, I hope these words echo:

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story, and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story. […] The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

— Danger of the Single Story
Chimamanda Adichie

But to myself, to those who are like me, to those who are angry, to those who are exhausted, these are the words I part to you, this is what I hope echoes:

“If you’re not angry, you’re either a stone, or you’re too sick to be angry. You should be angry. You must not be bitter. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it.”

— Maya Angelou
to Dave Chappelle

We are exhausted. We are angry. And it is okay. It bleeds into our art. It makes the silence not worth it. It makes the art strong enough to salvage that which has been loss, strong enough to regain that which has been stolen and re-appropriated and taken away.