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 Personal Essays

Lockdown in a rich country

Ever since this pandemic started and everyone around the world (except for the people on the frontlines) were forced to stay inside their houses, we have seen two major personas online:

  1. “I sleep, eat and sleep again.”
  2. “I am making the most out of this situation by learning a new skill/ working out.”

Of course, as someone who has prided herself in being a ‘productive’ human being I decided early on that I will be part of that second group. I took an online class in World Literature and got my certificate. I Marie-Kondo’d my room. I read books and wrote reviews. I took another online class on Sociology. I learned how to bake muffins. I worked out and went jogging. I started this blog.

my lockdown photo collage

For two months, I was successful in convincing myself that I am totally fine, that my unemployment does not bother me that much because I can do so many things in my free time. But alas! You cannot sway yourself for far too long. My bills did not care that I learned a new skill. It barged on my door like some uninvited neighbour. Then, a realization hit me. I am broke. Broke AF.

When you are rich person who lives in a mansion, this pandemic is a minor inconvenience. You cry a little bit inside thinking of those cancelled vacation plans. Then you see photos of clean streets, bluer skies, and you can’t help but think “Oh, the world is healing.” So, you post something stupid online like: This pandemic is a blessing in disguise.

I am not a rich person and most certainly I do not live in a mansion but I almost had the same epiphany. Every time I finish a book or a new TV show I think to myself, “I will not be able to do this on a normal workday.” I went out for a walk and saw our neighbour’s pretty flowers and the lovely autumn trees and I caught myself thinking, “Probably, this pandemic is really a blessing in disguise.”

I was appalled that I even thought of that. I was mad at celebrities for posting tone-deaf content. I talked about how to not let your privilege blind you on social media but here is my hypocritical brain tinkling like an ignorant Instagram influencer. All along I was wrapped in a privilege bubble.

Yes, I check the news a lot to keep myself updated. I get angry reading news about my home country and I post about wanting to join protests on social media but that’s about it. I turn my internet off, drink my tea and go back to my bubble… because to be honest even if I had the chance I probably would still not go out to march. And I hate myself for saying that.

Being in a rich country has blinded me. Now, I understand why it is easy for many OFWs to say that Filipinos back home are just lazy and do not know how to save money that’s why they are struggling during the lockdown. The comfort that a country like Australia can give will hug you tight like a blanket, so tight that you do not want to wake up to the reality. But you have to.

My bubble popped when I checked my bank account. It is scarier than a Stephen King book. My unemployment days no matter how productive they may be, they still hurt my finances. I will not be able to adhere to my annual financial pan. I am not able to pay bills and my tuition fees on time. I was such a clown for thinking this was a blessing in disguise. Only the ultra-rich are able to benefit from this (American billionaires got $434 billion richer during the pandemic).

 As I was about to wallow in self-pity, I thought of how I am still much more fortunate than many of my fellow Filipinos who lost their jobs during the lockdown. I can cry about being broke inside my air-conditioned room and have a hot shower after. However, being broke in the Philippines does not give you the luxury to be this melodramatic. You have to get your job back as soon as possible even if it means walking for hours (because public transport is not allowed). Being broke in the Philippines means you can die from starvation and it is not because you did not work hard enough but it is because the system has failed you.

Nothing is certain for me after this lockdown. I do not know when I can be financially stable again. For weeks, I have tried looking for casual jobs on Indeed, Seek, and even on Craigslist. None of them has helped me get the money I need. I honestly do not know what to do. As of now, I will follow the number six advice of Psychology Today on ‘What to do when you don’t know what to do’: Sleep on it.

I will drink my Twinning’s Sleep tea and go to sleep.

Posted in Personal Essays

“Sorry for My Bad English”

When an interviewer tells you that your résumé is very impressive but they cannot give you the job because of your accent, you can’t help but ask yourself, “Is my English that bad?”

I never liked the way I speak English. I hate how my vowels are never as smooth as they sound in my head. My tongue sometimes does not know how to position itself in my mouth. I always clear my throat before I speak as if there is a solidified saliva stuck in my larynx. Six years of studying the English language and I still do not sound like a native speaker, not even close. I am aware of that. However, the truth hits differently when someone else throws it at you.

“I am sorry for my bad English.”

This is a sentence I have heard a lot of times when I was teaching in an ESL academy. It has become part of every ESL student’s introduction. I heard it a couple of times from my non-native classmates here in Sydney. They apologize when they stutter during their presentations, when they pause to reach for that English word trapped at the tip of their tongues. Yet, I have never heard the British guy in the class apologize when his talk was all fillers and when grammatical errors jumped out at every corner of his sentences.

“Sorry, my English is very poor.”

An old Chinese woman said these exact words as she called her daughter to help her understand the nurse’s directions. She smiled apologetically the whole time. When they went out of the clinic, another patient remarked, “Ugh. These old Chinese people, they keep on coming here in Australia not knowing how to speak basic English. The government should not let them get in that easily.” That statement would have horrified me but I have heard them a lot from old white men that my ears have learned how to filter them out. Then, I think of the old white expats in the Philippines drinking their black coffee in Ayala terraces. They have stayed in the country for years but they still manage to butcher Cebuano words and most of them do not have an interest in learning the language at all. No one expects them to speak Tagalog or Bisaya. No one thinks they should go back to their countries for knowing only their native language. I think of my friends and former ESL students who cried when they failed their first IELTS examination whilst Western backpackers in Thailand beg for money in the streets.

I am in love with the language that has been used by colonizers to oppress my ancestors for almost five decades. The same language that subconsciously made me believe that Western books, movies, and songs are inherently superior. I love the language that has instilled in me the feeling of inferiority.

The interviewer who told me that my English isn’t good enough offered me another job and I was in no position to say no. He said that I should study English in an Australian university. He said that I can learn more about Shakespeare and other classical authors if I enrol in their university. I did not tell him that I have spent the last six years studying about Western literature. I did not tell him that I spent most of my free time reading classic novels. I just smiled, nodded, and shook his hand.

I got a cappuccino for free. I won.

Posted in Personal Essays

My Affair with Loneliness

“These days, loneliness is the new cancer–a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.”

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
tea, cookies, and a book: antidote to loneliness

Eleanor Rigby, a song about lonely people, is one of my favorite songs from The Beatles. Now, I am reading a book about another lonely woman but with the same first name, Eleanor Oliphant.

Loneliness is a theme often present in books that I have loved. I take delight in reading about the eccentricities of people who have chosen to be obscure. However, the delight of reading about loneliness vanishes when you realize the familiarity of silent days, talking to the walls, talking to no one but your brain, reading a book out loud to hear your voice and to remind yourself that you still exist. The joy of reading about loneliness disappears when you realize that you yourself is one of those lonely people The Beatles sang about. This joy turns into a dash of sadness, that will later turn into a tad of confusion about how you lived your life, and finally into a question: ‘Why am I so lonely?’

Before I moved here to Australia, a lot of people had warned me about the solitariness of living in a foreign land. I just shrugged off all their comments for I have always considered myself a master of isolation. With all the goals and confidence I packed in my luggage I came to Sydney feeling better than ever. And yes, I was in bliss for the first few months. I had no social obligations. I went to grocery shops disheveled with no fear of meeting a high school classmate. I stayed in my room all day to read books on my free days and no one would tell me to get out. I was living my dream life.

Then the lonely days crept in.

On New Year’s Eve while everyone at home was busy preparing for their festivities, I was alone at my new house. I was skimming through Netflix titles and wishing that there was someone else with me who could choose a movie in a heartbeat. I wished I had somebody to hug me that night. I had forgotten what it’s like to touch another human being.

Three days after, I found myself crying on the morning of my birthday. I woke up early expecting to smell my mother’s cooking and my father’s voice but then I remembered that they are 3, 540 miles away. I spent the whole morning sobbing and hugging myself.

Loneliness is not romantic. It isn’t always an image of you drinking wine in a tub surrounded by scented candles. Most of the times loneliness is staring at the ceiling all night or scrolling through all your social media accounts for hours waiting for a friend’s message.

Perhaps, John Donne was right when he said that ‘no man is an island’. Yes, there is beauty in solitude but we need each other in order to live and not just exist. I learned that the hard way.

I am still lonely now at times, but I have learned how to reach out. I hope Eleanor Oliphant learns that too.