Posted in book review

TAKE CARE: the power of anti-colonial feminist poetry

How do you write a review for literature that feels very personal?

Ten years ago, I picked up a poetry book that was sold for ten pesos in Booksale. During that time my only exposure to poetry was the discussion of poems by dead white men in my English classes. When I read that poetry book I was astounded by how distinct and personal it was. With all honesty, I cannot remember the exact title of the book but I know it was written by a Filipina living in the United States. Her poetry was clothed with passion, confusion and isolation, and the power I felt whenever I read them stayed with me. Ten years later, TAKE CARE, a poetry book written by another Filipina reminded me of that feeling—the feeling of being heard, healed and transformed.

TAKE CARE is a collection of poems written by Eunice Andrada, a Filipina poet and educator who is currently living in Australia. It explores the experience of being a Filipina woman in a system that is blind to their struggles and lack of agency. The title of the book itself will give you an idea of her poetry, “Take care”/ “Amping ha”/ “Pag-amping intawn” is what we, Filipina women, usually say to each other as a send-off. I say it to my younger sister, my friends and to all the women I meet, together with a little prayer in my heart that they will be safe and will come back home whole and unscarred in a world that remains to be dangerous for them.

There has been a lot of talk recently in Philippine literary circles about the merits of diaspora literature. What constitutes Philippine literature? Filipino writers most especially those living abroad have been talking about the importance of decolonising their work. Yet, when I pick up books in this genre I cannot help but ask, ‘To whom is this written for?’. I will not dismiss the literary works of the Filipino diaspora but I do wish to find more writing that I could share to my students (if I ever go back to teaching in the Philippines) that would speak to them in a familiar voice, not a foreign one. This is the reason why I am so glad to have read TAKE CARE. Andrada’s poetry is not written for white people to seek their validation but it is written for Filipinos to validate their experiences.

Her poem “Comfort Sequence”, perhaps my favourite in the collection, is innovative in form and it perfectly delivers what it feels like as a woman to live in a country that perpetuates misogynistic culture. Starting from the absurdity of removing the statue of the ‘comfort women’ to applauding a president that spews rape jokes like its nothing, reading the long poem has made me hold my breath to stop myself from exploding—it is the exact same feeling I get when I try to hold back my tears while I explain to the men around me about rape culture so they would take me seriously and not tell me to stop being too emotional. I then exploded in her poem “Vengeance Sequence” that encapsulates the rage every Filipina woman who has been told by a white person, “You must be really good at taking care of people since you are a Filipina.”  In the same breath you are told that young Filipinas are gold diggers who somehow enchant old crusty white men to save them from their third world country. These are the same white people who continue to uphold the imperialism that has forced the necessity of Filipino diaspora. Many of her poems reveal the ridiculousness of how the world sees and treats Filipina women. We are only seen as carers—we take care of the world that continues to exploit and look down on us.

Eunice Andrada’s strengths as a poet do not end in her excellent command of the form and her talent to weave the right words together and evoke powerful emotions. Her greatest strength, I believe, is that her writing is aware that poetry alone will not bring forth the change that is needed. There is a lot more work to be done and her poetry will give fuel to every woman who is ready to take part in the fight to abolish the systems that dehumanise us.  

Before this book was sent to me, I was working on a personal essay with the title “I don’t want to hear about your ‘tiny’ Pinay ex-girlfriend.” I have been working on that piece for months but I keep on scratching parts and sometimes throwing it altogether because it sounded too angry. I always thought that maybe I was too sensitive about the comments I get as a Filipina. However, after reading this poetry book I realised that I have every right to be angry. The candour and bravery of this book’s verses pushed me to continue writing my own stories in the hopes that collectively “our song maps the terrain/of past to future labour. /We trust the others hear us. /They are gathering.”

You can purchase the book here: https://giramondopublishing.com/books/eunice-andrada-take-care/.

Posted in book review

Daughter of Fortune: My introduction to the rich literary world of Isabel Allende

The first time I heard of Isabel Allende was when Rory of Gilmore Girls mentioned her and a week after that “Daughter of Fortune” fell into my hands. I was scrolling through Facebook marketplace to look for a vintage wall mirror when I saw a listing that says “Books for free”. I met Maria who is a delightful, retired literature teacher and she gave me her half of her collection. I always consider that incident as a serendipity. The entirety of this book is also a serendipitous journey for each character especially for the spirited heroine, Eliza.

Abandoned as a baby in the British colony of Valparaiso, Eliza is raised by Jeremy and Rose Sommers, a prosperous pair of siblings who consider the girl a gift. Eliza falls in love with Joaquin Andieta, who got her pregnant and then sails for the promise of gold in California. The “terrible weight of idealized love” pushed Eliza to follow Joaquin with the help of her new Chinese physician friend, Tao Chi’en. What began as a search for love ends up as the conquest of personal freedom. Allende has clearly enjoyed providing rich elaborations that may not particularly advance the story but affirm her theme of personal discovery. Each of her characters finds “something different from what we were looking for.”

History is thematically rich no matter how it is presented.  When properly observed and documented, any piece of the past can expose both the best and worst of human nature.  “Daughter of Fortune” chooses to emphasize the vast inequalities between men and women, whites and people pf colour, rich and poor.  The haughty imperialism of the British towards the native population of Chile underscores the point as even when vastly outnumbered, white men still maintained full control over a country not their own.

This novel is a marvel of storytelling and I cannot wait to read more of Allende’s writing. I thank Allende for introducing to me such an appealing, adventurous and independent-minded heroine. Eliza had the courage to reinvent herself and create her own destiny in a new country and that to me is very inspiring. As someone who is also continuing to navigate a new life in a new county I hope I get hold of her luck, bravery and resilience.

Posted in book review

Her Body and Other Parties: The Horrors of Being a Woman

Misogyny is boring as hell. That is one of the most valuable lessons I have learned when I started to read more books by women. Two months ago, I was scrolling mindlessly through Twitter when I saw a tweet about “Her Body and Other Parties” by Carmen Maria Machado. I honestly did not even read the tweet because I was too busy admiring the book cover. I know that we should not judge a book by its cover but a great cover draws you in as a light invites a moth. I immediately borrowed the book in our local library. The book turned out to be as wonderful as its cover.

I love this book cover so much that I am thinking of getting it tattoed on my own body.

When I say wonderful I do not mean wonderful in a way where you try to stop yourself from smiling too much while reading it on a train, it is wonderful in a way that you have to put it down once in a while to grasp for air and say ‘fuck.’ “Her Body and Other Parties” is a collection of eight short stories which centre on women’s experiences and are mostly written with a queer, haunting, otherworldly, and erratic qualities to it. Machado was able to craft tales that are perfect blend of horror, science fiction and fairy tales.

The epitaph completely blew me away and I knew then that this will book will destroy me.

I love anthologies. My short attention span works well with the bit sizes of stories but many compilations are a hit and miss. A lot of times writers put their best story in the middle and you have to wade through the other mediocre ones to finally get the prized gem. Machado did not do that. Her first story “The Husband Stitch” is probably one if not the best horror short stories in contemporary fiction.  It is also the best story to set the tone of the book. It is narrated by a wife and is set up like a retelling of a doomed love story. The narrator weaves in popular tales in her storytelling. Through these communal stories Machado explores the deep roots of the horror women go through from childhood to marriage.  At the same time, she challenges our individual readings: “That may not be the version of the story you’re familiar with. But I assure you, it’s the one you need to know.” Once you have finished reading this story, I suggest that you should look up what the “husband stitch” means (though medically the internet says it actually does not exist) and you will be horrified, that is if this tale did not disturb you enough.

“The moral of that story, I think, is that being poor will kill you.”

from “The Husband Stich”

In the second story, “Inventory”, a woman lists her erotic experiences as a virus depopulates the world. Striding through these memories of lovers both male and female, the story delves into the blurred connection between physical intimacy and connection. And as much as I hate to say this, reading a story about a pandemic while we are in an actual pandemic is daunting. It also made me think about the connections I made and if all of those were worth something if this is indeed the end of the world.

“But the fucking thing is only passing through physical contact,” she said. “If people would just stay apart—” She grew silent. She curled up next to me and we drifted off.

from “Inventory”

I have been showering the book with praises but it is not to say that it is perfect. Machado’s risks and experimentation with the narrative form is sometimes dizzying and this is observed in the next two stories: “Mothers” and “Especially Heinous”. In “Mothers’ a same-sex couple defies nature and has a baby, sending the narrator into a tailspin of fantasies and memories we are not sure are real. “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU”, the longest piece in the collection comprises  vignettes in which Machado borrows characters and episodes from SVU and constructs a supernatural saga of doppelgängers, alien abductions, and ghosts of murdered teen girls with bells for eyes. I do not care much about SVU as a series but her prowess and passion with crafting a narrative has held me hostage. You cannot put it down even if you may feel lost in the whirlwind of it all.

“It’s not that I hate men,” the woman says. “I’m just terrified of them. And I’m okay with that fear.”

from “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU”

“Real Women Have Bodies” is a commentary on the fashion industry and how it preys on women’s self-image issues.  In this sad tale, two young women fall in love as a mystery epidemic causes women literally to fade away. The writing here may not be as astonishing as the rest of the stories in the book but I personally find it one of the most depressing. All the calls for inclusivity and diversity in the beauty industry does not eradicate the fact women are still held to an impossible standard. To what extend are we willing to let our true selves fade away in the chance of being accepted by this fucked up society?

“The woods are quiet but for the hum of insects and twittering of birds. We peel off our clothes and soak in the sun. I examine my fingertips against the light, pink-amber halos around the shadows of my bones.”

from “Real Women Have Bodies”

The neatest narrative in this collection is “Eight Bites” and it is a familiar tale (at least to me) of self-hatred and the obsession with weight loss. It centres on the promise of transformation: “It will hurt. It won’t be easy. But when it’s over, you’re going to be the happiest woman alive.” Every woman who has been through the incessant cycle of weight gain and weight loss has been too familiar of this promise. Just like the narrator of this story who hates her body I have contemplated a lot of times on whether my life will be fixed if I have the perfect body. When you are told again and again that your life will be better once you lose all that unnecessary fat you will begin to believe it and you starve yourself or go through some bariatric surgery like the main character. If you are like me and you have participated in one of those fad diets and continually obsess with the idea of being pretty and thin or if you have an eating disorder please read this story with caution.

I lean down and whisper where an ear might be. “You are unwanted,” I say.

from “Eight Bites”

“The Resident” borrows the common elements of the Victorian gothic tale: an eerie out of town setting, bad weather, eccentric guests, and a mad woman. The narrator juxtaposes her present moment at the residency with a traumatic experience during Girl Scout camp years ago in that same location, an experience that occurred as a result of displaying her queerness. She descends into ‘madness’ as the lines between her past and present begins to blur. At the same time, she is writing a novel about a madwoman and another resident criticizes her for doing and ‘being’ an overdone trope.  Personally, this story also makes me think of the isolating nature of the creative process and how easy it is to get stuck in our own heads. It also asks the overarching question: How much are we willing to suffer for the sake of art?

“I understood that knowledge was a dwarfing, obliterating, all-consuming thing, and to have it was to both be grateful and to suffer greatly.”

from “The Resident”

 Lastly, in “Difficult at Parties” a woman experiences a sexual trauma and while trying to rebuild her sex life with her partner, she suddenly hears the internal thoughts of actors in porn videos. It is an uncomfortable read not because it is graphic but because it is emotionally raw. Unlike a lot of fictional stories where a women’s trauma is turned into some exploding revenge fantasy, in this tale our main character finds it difficult to function normally again (whatever “normal” means). Trauma does not always make you stronger, often times it destroys you and the people around you.

“I want to say, Don’t bother asking me anything. I want to say, There is nothing underneath.”

from “Difficult at Parties”

These eight masterfully crafted stories critique the intricacies of the feminine experiences. This collection centres around bodies that have been harmed by other people, collectively or individually, but sometimes the perpetrator is the woman herself. Women are never safe in the world of this book. Tragically that is also true in the real world. Machado was able to reveal the truths about our world through these otherworldly tales. Reading this book is an exhilarating journey and I wish everyone I know could experience it.

Posted in Personal Essays

On why I read more books by women

The first time a man told me that he does not read books written by women because he finds the writing to be too “feminine” and unrelatable I was appalled. I took a step back and gave myself time to think about it. All my life I have been conditioned to accept that books written by dead white men are the gold standard. I never questioned that even though I forced myself several times to finish Moby Dick (sorry still can’t finish it). I just accepted that these stories of angry and miserable men going to wars or having an existential crisis are the important stories. Not until a guy told me that he only read books by male authors did I start to question my very own reading choices.

That encounter was five year ago. I felt invincible when it comes to talking about literature because I devoured 70-100 books a year during my undergrad studies.  I read almost everything that I came upon, the popular ones, the ones considered crucial, and I finished most of them no matter how bored and unengaged I was. I ate books without chewing.  But that sentiment changed my reading habits. I was enraged. What makes a book too feminine? Why are feminine things considered inherently inferior? These were some of the thoughts in my head as our conversation went on.

After that chat I examined myself and dug deeper. I then started to realise that unfortunately I was a bad reader and a bad feminist. Is this why I don’t talk much about all the Chick Lit I have read because I unconsciously don’t want to be known as the heart-eyed woman who only reads romance novels? Is this also the same reason why when we talk about Jane Austen we often dismiss her as the old maid who wrote the best novels about courting and marriage that we tend to forget that she also made arguably the best commentary on the English middle class and elite? I almost fell into the trap of an inherently patriarchal and misogynistic literary thinking where domestic stories of women are regarded as less essential reading. I did not even question then how most male writers struggle to create complex and nuanced female characters. I had no idea about what the “male gaze” is all about. The male gaze as Margaret Atwood beautifully explains it in her book The Robber Bride: “Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it’s all a male fantasy: that you’re strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.”

I was determined to push off that man inside me.

Getting rid of that internal misogyny that was installed in each of us from birth is a complicated task especially when the literary world is full of it. But it was a challenge I was very much willing to take. I have decided to teach my younger self who loved YA novels how the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is a tired and lousy trope. This was not that easy as I have spent a lot of my teenage years trying to mould myself into that archetype. I was an “I am not like other girls” girl. It even affected how approached dating when I first got into it. I unintentionally turned myself into the kind of woman who thinks she could change and save a man who in actuality needs a therapy. I had a lot of unlearning to do. I needed to admit that I had internal misogyny (probably the toughest part) in order to work on myself and be free from it. From then on I turned myself into a more critical vigorous reader. That night I have decided to actively seek out books written by women. I will no longer read anything just because it is popular. I promised to seek out stories from women of diverse backgrounds and from different parts of the world because these stories matter. And that is the one of the best decisions I made in my entire life.

I promised to seek out stories from women of diverse backgrounds and from different parts of the world because these stories matter.

I was taken aback by how invigorating it is to read about female characters who are not put into boxes. She is not just the dream girl, the patient wife, or the symbol of a man’s desire. She is a girl, a woman, and she can be anything. She can be messy, ugly, and she is not defined by how big and smooth her breasts are or how her lips feel when she is kissed, because in this world she is more than just a body. Her thoughts, journey and growth filled out the pages.

My new reading choices has not only opened my eyes to many realities but it also made me more empathic. It has also made me felt seen and validated. I have felt less lonely and more understood. Virginia Woolf in her long essay, A Room of One’s Own, made me see the struggles women writers have gone through the centuries. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book, Americanah, helped me make sense of my own battles as I was adjusting to a new country. The book made the hardship and confusion of the diaspora experience easier for me to navigate. Margaret Atwood brought me to the incredible world of speculative fiction. Roxane Gay taught me about intersectional feminism and has inspired me to pursue this blogging journey. Arundhati Roy, Jumpa Lahiri, Bernardine Evaristo, Chingbee Cruz and many more women writers continue to produce writings that inspire and educate me.

Just recently I read an article written by MA Sieghart in The Guardian entitled: Why do so few men read books by women?  The article provided some very alarming and disheartening statistics. I don’t want to bore you with numbers so let me quote a part of the article that somehow encapsulates it (I highly suggest that you read the whole thing: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/jul/09/why-do-so-few-men-read-books-by-women): “Women are prepared to read books by men, but many fewer men are prepared to read books by women. And the female author in the top 10 who had the biggest male readership – the thriller writer LJ Ross – uses her initials, so it’s possible the guys thought she was one of them. What does this tell us about how reluctant men are to accord equal authority – intellectual, artistic, cultural – to women and men?”

Now you might be thinking why am I so bothered by this? Why can’t I just let men read more about men. I honestly wished I do not care at all. But I do care about it because I believe in the importance of literature and how it can help anyone understand different experiences. When men refuse to read books by women they deny the opportunity to learn and understand women’s perspectives and experiences. MA Sieghart puts it well in her article previously mentioned:“If men don’t read books by and about women, they will fail to understand our psyches and our lived experience. They will continue to see the world through an almost entirely male lens, with the male experience as the default. And this narrow focus will affect our relationships with them, as colleagues, as friends and as partners. But it also impoverishes female writers, whose work is seen as niche rather than mainstream if it is consumed mainly by other women. They will earn less respect, less status and less money.”

When men refuse to read books by women they deny the opportunity to learn and understand women’s perspectives and experiences.

I still read books written by male authors of course, I am not doing this for some misplaced feminist anger. I choose to read good books and whether we accept it or not a lot of good literature today are penned by women. For centuries, women are made to feel the inferior sex and it is time for us to dismantle this patriarchal bullshit. In that note, I shall not stop writing to honour the women before me. I owe it to them to tell my story and I hope you tell yours too. Our stories matter.