History and the Work of Memory: An Interview with Luisa A. Igloria
by C. A. Gardner
Published widely in the Philippines and the United States, Luisa A. Igloria has won more than fifty literary awards, honors, grants, fellowships, and prizes, among them the Manila Critics Circle National Book Award (the National Book Award of the Philippines), the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature (the Pulitzer Prize of the Philippines), the Stephen Dunn Award in Poetry, the George Kent Prize for Poetry, an Illinois Arts Council Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, and the Charles Goodnow Endowed Award for Poetry. Her book-length publications (some appear under variations of the name Maria Luisa Aguilar-Cariño) include: Cordillera Tales (Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1990, ISBN 971-10-0379-1); Cartography: A Collection of Poetry on Baguio (Metro Manila, Philippines: Anvil Publishing, 1992, ISBN 971-27-0211-1); Encanto: New Poems (Metro Manila, Philippines: Anvil Publishing, 1994, ISBN: 971-27-0388-6); In the Garden of the Three Islands (Wakefield, R.I.: Asphodel Press, 1995, ISBN 0-55921-117-2); Blood Sacrifice (University of the Philippines Press, 1997, ISBN 971-542-157-1); Songs for the Beginning of the Millennium (De La Salle University Press, 1997); and, her most recent work, Trill & Mordent (Cincinnati, Ohio: WordTech Editions, 2005, ISBN: 1-932339-94-9). (For any that are hard to locate, email Linda Maria Nietes of Philippine Expressions Mail-Order Books at email@example.com.) In addition, Igloria has edited Turnings: Writing on Women's Transformations (with Renée Olander; Norfolk, Va.: Old Dominion University, Friends of Women's Studies, 2000) and Not Home, But Here: Writing from the Filipino Diaspora (Metro Manila, Philippines: Anvil Publishing, 2003). She holds a Ph.D. in English/Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago, an M.A. in Literature from Ateneo de Manila University, and a B.A. in Humanities from the University of the Philippines. She currently serves as associate professor in the M.F.A. creative writing program at Old Dominion University.
VL:How did you begin writing poetry? What were some of your biggest influences? Who encouraged you the most?
LAI:I have an early memory of coming both to writing and to reading. I learned to read at the age of three, which might have been the result of being raised as an only child. I didn't learn until I was twenty-eight that I have a half-sister and two half-brothers. My parents — the ones who raised me — were twenty years apart in age, so I felt there was a bit of formality in the way they brought me up. My father was a lawyer who went on to become a judge; my mother went back to school when I was nearly done with college and got her Ph.D. ahead of me. Their value system very much involved paying attention to the written word, to reading, to books, to the humanities in general. In my father's career as a public servant, there were times when he could score free tickets to cultural events — so we'd get to see a concert by Van Cliburn or the stars of the Russian ballet. I remember my mother taking me to music halls and my father taking me to spaghetti westerns — they loved the whole arena of cultural offerings, even in a small place like Baguio, and felt I should be exposed to these things. My father would always bring home books and ask me whether there was anything new I wanted to read; I remember asking him to bring home books rather than toys. I don't mean to portray myself as a complete square, but I really, really liked reading, and I think this too is because of their influence on me.
My love of writing, my love of poetry, began in those kinds of activities. I wrote my first story in first grade. My parents signed me up for piano lessons at the age of three, hoping I might pursue a career in music (I am told I was named after a Filipina concert pianist, Maria Luisa Lopez Vito). I took enough years of piano lessons that I could have gone on to the conservatory. Their other hope was that I'd be a lawyer, like my father. But when I was a college freshman, I got hijacked by my English teachers. They saw my potential and convinced me that I might really grow in a career in literature. They dragged me up to the faculty rooms, sat me down, and said, "Look, we really like your writing. We think that you have a gift as far as literature is concerned."
When I was six or seven, my mother gave me a book called Magnificence and Other Stories by one of the early Filipina fiction writers in English, Estrella Alfon. My mother inscribed the book with her wish that I would be a writer someday. Now that I think back on that story, I'm kind of stunned — what was my mother thinking, giving me a book like that at this age? It's something of an epiphany for me, because it was a very grown-up book — not a picture book at all, a very mature choice of reading matter. It's very deftly handled fiction. Estrella Alfon writes about everyday life, but she captures the details in this dazzling, intense light. She could write about the ordinary and make it extraordinary. She could write about a day on the farm or a picnic with friends or a poor laundry woman wishing that her life were different because she was being abused by her mistress. They were very simple stories about ordinary people, whose lives we don't know until she uncovers them in the stories. I was just hooked. Whatever designs my mother may have had, they worked. I feel so much more fulfilled because I had that early gift.Now that I think back
on that story, I'm kind
of stunned—what was
my mother thinking,
giving me a book like
that at this age?
VL:I know you've written under different versions of your name mostly due to changes in your marital status, but there have also been changes in your first name and initials (Maria Luisa B. Aguilar-Cariño, Ma. Luisa B. Aguilar--Cariño, Maria Luisa A. Cariño, Luisa Igloria, Luisa A. Igloria). Is this a reflection of the poet's journey and changing identity? Did your family call you Luisa, or did that come about later? Have you had difficulty with audience recognition?
LAI:My name changes have certainly been because of marriage. I was married for about fifteen years, and then that fell apart. When I got out of that relationship, I was playing with the idea of reclaiming my maiden name, but the journey didn't end there. When I remarried in 1999, I decided to change my name to Luisa Igloria and drop the Maria, partly from some annoyance or frustration. Here in Northern America, most people don't seem to know what to do with names like Maria -Luisa — Hispanic-sounding names. I didn't like to be called just Maria, leaving out the Luisa. It was either both together, or don't say it at all. It's a much more common thing in the Philippines for little girls to be given two names. Maria seems to be an honorific; perhaps at one point it was a religious thing — the Philippines has the largest Roman Catholic population in Southeast Asia. People understand that when a girl is Maria Theresa or Maria Carmencita, it's the whole package — she's not just Maria. But at the same time, if her name is Maria Christina, it's perfectly okay just to call her Christina. You also have shortened versions, Filipino nicknames like Maricris. For a while when I was growing up they would call me Marilu or Malu. I didn't really like it; it just didn't feel like it was me. But Luisa was okay. So now it's Luisa Igloria. I have enough confidence in who I am to know that the name I was given at birth is still going to be my name, no matter what appears on paper. And I find that people remember it better; there might be some advantage to having a compact name.
VL:Did you have any trouble with people recognizing that you were the same person despite the different forms of your name?
LAI:I don't really stress out about that much because I feel there are enough other cross--references that will lead them to that information. People have written to me, saying, "I didn't know you were Luisa Cariño. I used to read her." I don't think it's my job to explain all the time.
VL:What differences are there between the literary scene in the Philippines and the one here?
LAI:Before I came to the U.S., I already had a significant publishing history. But that background wasn't something I could rest on. I felt I had to reestablish myself and build up credentials here. I guess every community, every culture has its own form of ethnocentrism. And it's a bigger pond here, with more fish swimming in it. There are many more writers here, and it didn't necessarily mean anything that I had this background.
VL:It should have.
LAI:Yes, but I felt I had to prune myself away from that. My credentials — for instance, my National Book Awards in the Philippines — have been both a buoy and a bane sometimes. It can be a really positive thing when people recognize what it means to have been given such an accolade; but at other times, people find a need to query it more closely: "Is it the same as the American National Book Award? Would you please explain further?" Sometimes I wish that people would make the effort to look beyond their own customary perceptions and admit the existence of other things in the world. It often feels that there is an additional burden on me to keep explaining where I come from. There is this perhaps idealistic wish among writers of color or people who might be coming out of a third-world context, people who are labeled "ethnic" or "minority" writers, that they didn't have to be the medium of translation for who or what they are perceived to represent. Not that I see myself necessarily as a representative of a people or a collective experience, because first and foremost I write from a very personal standpoint. I do like to write about subjects that might have an interest for other people with the same background, but I can't claim to speak for them or their experiences of the world. In a more general sense, I think it's an issue that all writers face. Everybody wants to be understood, to reach an audience. But writers who are coming out of this set of circumstances and cultural backgrounds have additional burdens.
Going back to the original question, I think both the Philippine and U.S. literary scenes are lively, but lively in different ways. I still get a sense of what people are doing back home in the Philippines. I have friends who are active in writers' circles there. With the help of the Internet, writers have really been able to close distances and collaborate despite geography. For instance, when I edited Not Home But Here: Writing from the Filipino Diaspora, I'd say eighty-five percent of it was pulled together through electronic means. Only after the book came together did I meet some of the writers at literary events. And it's great — there are ties that I keep and maintain with writers through the Internet. I collaborate with a few writers in the Philippines, and we do translations of each other's work. I still maintain ties with the Philippine Literary Arts Council, and I'm hoping to take part in an exhibit that they're planning for January 2007 called Chromatext, combining visual art with text (installation art). There are all kinds of things going on.…writers who are
coming out of this set
of circumstances and
have additional burdens.
Here, there's a similar sense of activity, of programs always going on, lots of readings, conferences — the U.S. literary scene is very alive in this sense. I try to go every year to the conferences of the Modern Language Association and Associated Writing Programs. You can see how huge the field is when you go to these things — it's like a five-ring circus, so many activities. But as I've gone back year after year, even if the numbers are swelling, it seems as if it's also a very small group of people — certain groups keep coming back, and you see the same writers over and over again. I wouldn't say it's completely incestuous, but it can also seem like a closed culture.
VL:Was it like that in the Philippines?
LAI:Maybe because the community is smaller, it feels like there can be closer links over there. There are mentorship opportunities, for instance, with younger writers or people who are trying to discover whether the writing path is for them. Maybe they decide to commit themselves to attending a workshop or seeking the tutelage of older or more experienced writers. In a way, I feel that it can be a more generous community of writers. I don't know why that's so.
VL:It seems to me, since the United States is so big, that a lot of organizations are somewhat faceless. There are so many of them, so many people involved.
LAI:Right — and that facelessness, I suppose, speaks to a lot of the ways in which creative writing practices have become more institutionalized. I didn't come out of a culture of creative writing programs; the first time I set foot in a creative writing workshop was when I came to the U.S. for my Ph.D. In the Philippines, we would sit and chat with writer friends, and exchange work in very informal settings. We'd certainly come together and have readings. But here, you take specific classes, you have genre concentrations, you take a certain number of workshops, you do a thesis. I didn't become aware of that until I got here — so I'm sort of a late bloomer in respect to that aspect of creative writing culture.
I think it's getting to be a little bit more like that now in the Philippines. There are writing institutes — there's the Silliman National Writers' Workshop that the late Edilberto Tiempo and his wife Edith, both writers, started at Silliman University in 1962. They were products of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and when they returned to the Philippines, they started a similar version of an annual national writers' workshop, to which they invited leading writers in several genres — poetry, fiction, nonfiction, playwriting — to come and teach budding writers. It is considered the leading national writer's workshop. But even when I was in the Philippines, I never was involved in it until after I returned from my Fulbright Program (I was invited as a panelist in 1997).
As a writer based in Baguio, as opposed to the writers in Manila at that time, I felt like I was pretty much working in isolation, with other local writers in the city. We'd talk informally and encourage each other, but there was nothing organized. I had the sense that the literary action, the center of publishing, was really in Manila — the way you'd think of New York, or making it on Broadway. Since then, there is more of a spread in focus, and people are more aware of the various regional centers of literature. There's more emphasis on cultivating the vernacular languages and making sure that writers in regional centers don't get overlooked.
VL:Did you make a conscious choice to write in English?
LAI:When I was growing up, at home we spoke three languages simultaneously. English was one of them. That's partly because of the historical conditions, not only of the Philippines as a former colony of the U.S., but also of Baguio, which was a hill station of the U.S. colonial government. A lot of people there grew up the same way, speaking English alongside Ilokano and Tagalog, which are the other languages I know. I would like to think I can claim English as a first language, too.… some of the people
in my Fulbright summer
asked, upon finding out
I was a poet, "Why
don't you write in your
VL:I think it's wonderful to be able to learn so many languages when you're young. I wish everybody had that chance.
LAI:We're trying that with our five-year-old. But it's difficult when we don't have a sense of a linguistic community around us (we don't have extended family here). We're trying to teach her, get books, but it's a different kind of immersion. I wonder when we can give her that first-hand experience.
But it really wasn't a conscious choice for me to write in English. I have always written in English. When I first arrived in the U.S. in 1992, some of the people in my Fulbright summer orientation program asked, upon finding out I was a poet, "Why don't you write in your own language?" I looked at them quizzically: "What do you mean?"
VL:I was just wondering because some of the Filipino poets I've been reading talk about how much language is a political issue.
LAI:No matter what language you write in, you make political statements. I can see how it could represent more of a conflict for people who have grown up here and didn't get a chance to learn much of a Filipino language, experiencing it as something that's in a sense torn away from them. But I never felt like English was either forced on me or taken away from me. I feel I can appropriate it freely. I'm certainly aware of the postcolonial issues surrounding the choice of language, but I feel that it's an instrument that we certainly should wield, because we have the facility to use it. It doesn't necessarily make me more or less Filipino. I don't feel that I am betraying anything, any idea of being Filipino, by using English. And I feel that my writing is political — I write about history, and I am also very concerned about the same issues that postcolonial writers describe. That body of subject matter is something that continues to interest me.
VL:Is there a community of writers in Virginia or the United States in general with whom you feel particularly at home?
LAI:I belong to an electronic listserv of Filipino writers called FLIPS (http://www.uni.edu/gotera/flips/). The name that the group has adopted is also interesting, because it is a "So what? Let me tell you some things you don't know" reappropriation of a word that has been used pejoratively or derogatively to refer to Filipinos (I read somewhere that in this type of usage, it was supposed to stand for "F ------ Little Island People"). On FLIPS you learn a lot about what people are writing, what people are reading, whether there's any new stuff coming out and where. Really good things have come out of it, like sharing strength in the community. Many of the people in this writers' group are aware of the problems confronted by writers of color, and specifically, of problems confronted by Filipino writers not just in Northern America but globally. For instance, the opportunities that may or may not be available to us because publishers think that we have no audience. It's a sort of catch-22 situation: "Why should we publish you if you have no audience? And if you have an audience, do they read?" We are told that blatantly time and time again. So we get together on that list and decide, "Well, if nobody's going to write our reviews and get them to the necessary places for us to be given more of an audience, then we'll write reviews for each other and try to get them in the proper places." That's one way of sharing strength. We also try to get Filipino writers invited to various cultural events, college lecture series, or literary festivals. We call each other, create panels, and look for opportunities where all of us can have a chance to both present our own work and see what we can do together. For instance, Reme Grefalda, editor of Our Own Voice, just organized a symposium in the Library of Congress on Carlos Bulosan on April 28 as part of a series to celebrate the one hundredth year of Filipino immigration to Hawaii.
VL:You're an artist as well as a poet — you created excellent illustrations for both Cordillera Tales and Cartography, and your website says you like to paint. Do you feel a connection between the two forms of art? How far back does your art date? Did you ever consider a parallel career as an artist?
LAI:I do like to paint. I don't always have time to finish what I start. In fact, I abandoned painting for a number of years because I'm so busy here with family and trying to establish my professional roots in the area. I just picked it up again this past summer, after ten years.
My parents signed me up for art classes when I was little. There was a painting teacher at my old elementary school who gave lessons every Saturday afternoon for a minimal fee. It was so much fun, and he was very patient. When I was in college, I took classes in printmaking with Pandy Aviado and a workshop in traditional Japanese bookbinding with Nancy Pobanz. In the early years of my first marriage, I fell in love with the art form, and I still do a little bit every now and then.
I think the connection between poetry and art is that both are expressive mediums. Both art forms, the visual and the poetic, have to do with intangible things that you can't quite put a finger on — that sense of mystery that defines what's art and what separates it from, say, a newspaper or a bit of information.
VL:Have you ever thought about illustrating more books? The illustrations in Cordillera Tales are excellent.
LAI:I haven't done any pen and inks in a long time. Maybe I'll write some children's books in the future. I want to collaborate with my daughters, too. My oldest daughter in the Philippines also paints and writes; the two older girls who live with us here in Norfolk also write and are into graphic art. And my youngest describes herself as "a real artist."
VL:How did you collect the stories for Cordillera Tales? Are they stories you grew up with?
LAI:A lot of the stories came from research. I worked with interview transcripts collected by anthropologists in the area. Because of what they were, they weren't in a form that privileged the narrative. Most of them were collected by missionary scholars. I thought they were wonderful, and I wanted to work with them to bring out the quality of story. I used a more contemporary idiom, and many of them came out very much like Aesop's fables — teaching stories or parables. I also tried to look for indigenous designs, for instance from local weaving or basketry, to use as elements in the illustrations.
VL:Your poems seem equally informed by your own history and that of others. Indeed, "history" plays a role in many of your poems, as you not only reflect on and provide a new perspective for historical events, but also write from the fictionalized perspective of people in the past. Would you speak about the importance of history and memoir in your work?
LAI:I really am very interested in history. After Trill & Mordent, I completed another manuscript that I still haven't found a publisher for. It's been making the rounds for the second year now. It's based on the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, Missouri — a large-scale exposition to which 1,100 indigenous people were transported from the Philippines to be part of the exhibit, alongside indigenous individuals from Japan and Egypt. They even sprang the Native American Indian chief Geronimo from jail, and made him whittle miniature bows and arrows that were sold for a copper penny apiece. The whole World's Fair centered on the idea of American progress and the superiority of the American lifestyle, as demonstrated through some artificial comparisons. Alongside the new toaster model, new cars, new lawnmowers, they would have the exhibits of indigenous people and reconstructions of their villages to show the progress from savagery to civilization. It's all very well documented. There are excellent books on the subject. Robert W. Rydell's All the World's a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876–1916 has some great photographic reproductions. The manuscript that I wrote, Bodies Robed in Dusky Brown, has a section of poems on the Filipino exhibits at the fair. It's my commentary on what we do when we look at and appropriate things. And the other parts of the collection have to do with my reflections as a person today looking back at this history, trying to make sense of it, trying to use it to understand similar questions that I have at the moment. For instance, sometimes colleagues have asked me things like, "Do you know where I could get good house help?" I'm wondering what a question like that means. Am I being oversensitive, or is there something underlying their ability to ask me a question like that in the first place?They even sprang … Geronimo from jail, and made him whittle miniature bows and arrows that were sold for a copper penny apiece.
VL:I know what you're saying. It's very offensive.
LAI:Yes. So it's the World's Fair all over again. And the whole idea of being a democracy — it's something we all want. But people overlook the facts, the history. People have short memories, in other words.
History is also a big part of my new book project. I'm obsessed with this group of Filipino intellectuals, scholars, and artists who went to Spain in the 1800s to study, to paint, to learn about art, to travel. Some of them were products of a mixed heritage, Spanish-Filipino, which may have allowed them a newfound mobility to see more of the world. It's fascinating to me how they encountered the same set of problems that Filipino-American writers today are struggling with. I want to know what they found out. I want to see if I can dialogue with them across this distance, and find out how they answered the same questions that I ask myself: "Who am I talking to? Who am I making art for? Who am I really addressing as my audience? What is my subject?"
One painter, Juan Luna, was part of that group, including José Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines. They were all part of the ilustrados, an educated class who used their talents for reform. Luna was very gifted, and his art teachers in Manila sent him to study in Spain. Not long after he arrived, he joined an art competition in Barcelona, the annual exposition, and won a gold medal for a mural called Spoliarium, depicting two defeated gladiators being dragged away from the arena and into a chamber where their bodies were to be stripped of arms and clothing (and often burned afterwards). It's not a very elegant subject, but it's painted in a high neoclassical style, and is set in Rome. So here was this Filipino painter, running away with one of the gold medals for a painting immersed in the classical tradition. What does this mean?
I want to find out more about this era and this group of people who went to Europe and discovered not only themselves and their talents, but also, it is said, helped to give birth to the idea of revolution. Rizal wrote about Spanish abuse, the corruption of the Spanish colonial government. Luna's painting was quickly co-opted by other intellectuals and made to serve as a metaphor for Filipino nationalist sentiments. They read ideas into it that the painter himself may not have meant or intended; but even to this day he's considered part of the group of intellectuals who helped bring about the revolution against Spain, which was successful in throwing out the Spanish local government only to have this newfound freedom transferred to another colonial power after the Battle of Manila Bay.
VL:So there you have both your history and art interests.
LAI:That's right. I've been gathering research material, writing scholars abroad and in the Philippines. Everything I've found out has just increased my desire to write more about this subject. I guess it's partly because my poetry is also very much about place. And memory is definitely part of that, because history is a work of memory. But I don't want this history to be just facts in a book. I want it to be meaningful to the future as well as the present. What can I learn from history? What can it tell me about myself? I don't have any grand designs. But seeing a little bit more might mean that the next time around, things will be better. If not for me, then for my daughters' generation.
VL:How long does it take you to write a poem?
LAI:It depends. I revise a lot. But the fact that I'm a full-time mom, full-time professional, full-time faculty member, full-time everything makes me feel like I can't waste a single moment. There was a time when I used to complain about not having time to write, and I'd get miserable. With Trill & Mordent, I got so sick of hearing myself complain and feeling overburdened by all the different demands on my time that I said, okay, if the time I have left to do my writing is the time after everything else is done, then I'm going to take that time.
I teach nights, so I usually come home at 10:15, have a very late dinner, then clean up and make lunches for the next day — all my nightly rituals. Then I can write. By then it's usually midnight. I wrote Trill & Mordent over a year, in spurts between midnight and whenever. I would sit at my computer, and if nothing came, I'd go to bed after an hour and a half. But when I was in the middle of something and felt I was getting somewhere, I would sometimes pull an all-nighter, or write till four and be very bleary-eyed in the morning. Also, we have one car and share in ferrying duties, so I don't have the luxury to stay in bed. That's how this book got written.It's like allowing those
subterranean currents in
the mind or in memory to
just keep moving; I follow
as best as I can…
I take whatever time I can, whenever I can. And you're always writing, anyway — when you're washing the dishes, or driving between home and daycare, your mind is still working on ideas for poems, for revisions, or for things to work on the next time. I bring a journal in my purse to take down notes.
VL:How much of a poem gets written before you have a chance to set it down?
LAI:Often a poem will start as an idea that's not fully developed; or really, it's more like a sense of an idea, a kind of hunch or intuition. Sometimes I don't really know until I start working what I actually wanted to say about this idea I've been so excited about. I try to do something every day related to writing — taking notes, reading. I read every day, whether it's just a passage or a whole chapter. That's another way of developing ideas for whatever it is that eventually gets born. It's like allowing those subterranean currents in the mind or in memory to just keep moving; I follow as best as I can, and get very excited when the current takes me somewhere that reveals what it is I wanted to write about in the first place.
VL:Your poetry collections seem to be intricately involved with theme. Trill & Mordent, for example, has several poems that deal explicitly with formal musical motifs, such as "The Goldberg Variations," "Trill and Mordent," and "Stairway to Heaven." Tantalizing hints of music wind their way through other poems, such as the aria in "Would You Give Up Your Life for Love?" In addition, the tonal shifts and emotions in the poems fluctuate up and down like the shape of these ornaments, dipping through grief and death and rising to life and love. Do you consciously compose poems to be included in a particular volume? At what point does the theme of a book resolve?
LAI:Remember when that father and son went on a shooting rampage in the Baltimore/West Virginia area? The title poem of Trill & Mordent was actually triggered by that. When I look at the whole book now, I didn't realize until it came together how many musical references there were. All these associations became apparent only after the book was organized. I didn't know this when I was writing the individual poems; but I guess they come from the same sensibility, and my musical background must have been influential, too. I wrote the poems in that post 9/11 climate; and even if the poem wasn't specifically about 9/11, I think what I was trying to say in Trill & Mordent is that we are all affected by this climate of anxiety; we're living in an age of terror. People are getting deployed; there's the fear of avian flu, and those riots in Paris. What do you do in the face of anxiety? Do you go into a hole and shut yourself up in a safe place and not come out again? I've heard people say how hard it was for them to do the normal things they enjoyed after 9/11, or after those sniper shootings, or after every event tinged with tragedy or trauma. But you need to find a way back to the experience of beauty and release, and I think that's what I was trying to say in this book.
VL:Cartography is another book that focuses on a specific theme. In some ways, with its emphasis on preserving memories and reflecting on a place and its influence on people, it seems to carry on some of the mission of Cordillera Tales, and provides a synthesis between past and present. You stated in the preface to Cartography, "Because there are so many stories to tell, so many depths to plumb, it is possible that this collection may never be quite finished." Might In the Garden of the Three Islands be part of this continuation?
LAI:In Cartography, I was preoccupied with the history of Baguio as a colonial hill station and how its history overlapped with indigenous communities' histories, with the intrusion of colonial forces. Since that's where I grew up, I felt very close to this history, even if I'm not of indigenous blood (that is, I am not descended from the indigenous tribes that were the original settlers in Baguio and the surrounding Cordillera region).
In the Garden of the Three Islands is still part of the journey. I wrote it just after I came to the United States. This was my Ph.D. thesis. In it I looked back at where I came from, looked at my new landscapes in America, and found things that reminded me of the other continent. My publisher wanted to include some poems from Cartography to introduce my voice to an American audience.
When we were preparing the galleys, someone asked whether the three islands was a reference to the three island groups of the Philippines. I said, "No, absolutely not." It hadn't even occurred to me. The title poem actually refers to the Japanese garden in the -Chicago Botanic Garden, "The Garden of the Three Islands." The woman who asked me the question was reading diagrams into the work that I hadn't even considered at that point. But that's fine because it leads to a more expansive reading.
VL:You speak several different languages, both artistically and literally. You've also lived in two countries and had two marriages and two mothers. Has this unforeseen multiplicity shaped your poetry?
LAI:The duality, the multiplicity, definitely affects my poetry. If you're a writer, you do get pulled toward that, attracted toward that idea of duality, because it is what attracts you to language. The idea of language as not just attentive to the surface matter of experience, but to the other things that might lie underneath, is why we write.
VL:Your list of awards and grants is so impressive. How did you win your first few awards? Do your awards have any impact on the way you approach your work?
LAI:Well, my first-ever award was the Palanca in 1984. I had just joined the faculty of the University of the Philippines at that time, and the other professors had some familiarity with my writing from having had me in their undergraduate classes. A number of them had told me I was "ready." I was scared, but they kind of forced me to turn in my poems for consideration. They told me to just think of it as a way to get more experience. So I did, after much bullying. I didn't really believe what they were saying. It was last-minute, too, because I was very hard to persuade. So I nearly fainted when I got this phone call saying that I was tied for first place. It was my first attempt, and I won first. There was a little bit of a sense of pressure after that. It felt for a while like I was the object of scrutiny; all these people were now looking at me, whereas before I pretty much could go undetected. I sometimes get a similar sensation after I've written something that I feel is successful: it's almost like a kind of death. Partly it is because I feel that poetry is mystery, an intangible magic that I approach again and again in the hopes that I might be able to learn some of its lessons well. When I do feel I have managed to write a poem that succeeds, I feel that it can't have been only because of me. I ask myself, "Will I ever be able to do this again?" I'm so afraid that I can't do it again.It felt for a while
like I was the object
of scrutiny; all these
people were now
looking at me…
VL:You've been teaching at ODU since 1998. What drew your interest in coming to work for ODU? What changes have you seen in the program since you arrived? What part have you played in its development?
LAI:I was hired to help create Filipino--American studies initiatives at ODU. To date, we still don't have a department that might house a Filipino-American Studies major or minor. There is no Ethnic Studies Department. There is the Institute for Race and Ethnicity; but as far as minors are concerned, they only have the African--American studies track. The Filipino American community here made a significant contribution to the university — something like $100,000 — to secure university commitment to infusing curricular content with Filipino--American studies material. I was hired in the fall of 1998 to help do this; but since there was no ethnic studies base, I was housed in a home department commensurate to my main field or background — the English Department. What started as a visiting appointment turned into a tenure track appointment in 2000. I'm now doing the last stages of my final tenure review.
The Tidewater area has been described to me as having the largest population of Filipino--Americans on the Eastern seaboard. A few years ago, it was estimated that there were maybe 700 or 800 Filipino--American students at ODU. But we're still at an interim stage, because the classes are not as large as what we'd like to see. There are a lot of well-attended programs on the West coast; they have a lot more time invested there, because California has historically been very much part of the landscape of Filipino immigration in this country. The interest in Filipino--American studies has had a much longer time to grow and take root. It's just starting here. So the numbers will probably come eventually.
A semester after I arrived, they hired a director for the Filipino American Center at ODU, which helps to liaise with the community and students. What I try to do is work with existing structures at the same time that I look for opportunities to propose initiatives. For instance, I teach courses on women writers for the Women's Studies Department; so when I'm given two sections of the same course, I'll turn one into a special focus course on Filipina writers. In that way, I get to infuse Filipino culture. I also started an Asian-American literature class which is now about four years old, and I make sure there is a significant unit on Filipino-American literature.
VL:What was school like in the Philippines when you were growing up? Was grade school taught in English, Tagalog, or regional languages?
LAI:My elementary school was run by Belgian nuns and priests who were themselves away from home, in exile. It was a private Catholic school, but I don't think Catholic and private meant the same thing then in the Philippines as they do here. I was classmates with both the janitor's daughter and the mayor's daughter. There may even have been some kind of socialized tuition scheme. I think the only differences between that and the public school were the kinds of resources that we had and the fact that we had religious education. I went to Holy Family Academy in Baguio for elementary school, and I went to high school there for a year as well until my father decided he wanted me to have some exposure to a more liberal environment — by which he meant the University of the Philippines, where he had gone to school. So I went to the University of the Philippines for high school and college. My M.A. was earned at the Ateneo de Manila University, a Jesuit university.
English was the medium of instruction. The nuns and priests in my grade school would fine us five centavos for any word we spoke in the vernacular while we were at school. So there's your oppressive colonial language.
VL:Did you get to study Filipino authors, or did you have to study mostly English literature?
LAI:I don't think I read as many Filipino authors until I went to high school. My college literature classes were really quick surveys. Primarily it was because of the difficulty in sourcing the textbooks. We'd read excerpts of Moby Dick or Faulkner, not the whole thing. There'd be forty of us in a class, sharing one really faded photocopy of articles in the library, even when I was teaching. I would try to make more copies available, but the toner was watered down to stretch the ink further, and the copies were very blurry, barely legible. Forty people would be sharing this, but nobody complained.I would try to make more
copies available, but the
toner was watered down
to stretch the ink further,
and the copies were very
blurry, barely legible.
My parents' generation may have been weaned on more of the Western canonical tradition; but when I was going to high school and college, it was after martial law, and people were debating the meaning of nationalism, and wondering whether to turn the educational system into a bilingual one. There were many who felt very strongly about the use of Tagalog or Filipino instead of English. People joked about whether they should file their taxes in the vernacular or in English, and pondered the best way to translate technical and scientific subjects into the vernacular. Perhaps because of that I had a chance to be immersed in more Filipino material as part of the sensibility of trying to bring more texts from regional authors to the attention of kids in school. Nevertheless, English is not going to go away as a universal language.
Some of my poet friends in Manila were telling me about projects that have been done to encourage awareness of traditional poetic forms. In order to help generate interest, they had this bright idea of sponsoring a poetry contest using traditional poetic forms, but having kids submit their poems through the cell phone texting feature. Very innovative. Of course afterwards, the kids then know better what tanagas, salawikain, or other poetic forms are. I believe they received a really enthusiastic response, and afterwards collected the submissions into a little anthology. And the Textanaga/Dalitex/Dionatex/Textsawikain is now an annual contest.
I hear that they're also bringing back the old poetic jousts, like the balagtasan. These are traditional, in high Tagalog. They are extemporaneous verbal jousts, with one poet responding to another. It is like a poetic debate on a given subject. It was very popular in the 1700s and 1800s, and now they're bringing them back.
VL:What advice would you give librarians seeking to build a Filipino literature collection and give it greater visibility, in addition to the books you've recommended to me? [See the following article, "Serving Your Filipino-American Community," for these and other resources.]I wish this wouldn't just
happen during Asian
Heritage Month or Filipino
LAI:Build a library network with links to existing Filipino databases, Filipino-American literature, Filipino writers, and Filipino literature in general. There are some good Filipino literature websites that have some of the largest hits worldwide. They are organized beautifully, and are very informative. There are articles, poems, plays, author bios, criticism, news on conferences and where people are giving presentations. There are also some really popular sites, like the Filipino Golden Links (Tanikalang Ginto) website, that cover everything from cooking to books to travel. There are also lots of organizations in the U.S. and globally. That's a great start. And then there are things you're already doing, like the multicultural programs that were offered through the Newport News Public Library System last year [see "Cultures Come Together at the Newport News Public Libraries," pages 7–9]. You can get in touch with local communities and look for resources and people to come in and give presentations.
And I wish this wouldn't just happen during Asian Heritage Month or Filipino Heritage Month, when it's just one of those interesting things that we only think about once a year. There is so much value to exploring cultural heritage and encouraging people to think about it as an organic part of their own lives and community experience.
C. A. Gardner serves as catalog librarian at Hampton Public Library. In addition to coediting Virginia Libraries, she's had 22 stories and 115 poems published or accepted by venues like American Arts Quarterly, The Doom of Camelot, The Leading Edge, and Twisted Cat Tales. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.gardnercastle.com.