Thursday, April 20, 2017

Exploring Ideas of Home in the Diaspora

This is Essay #15 (a little late) of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

As a brown child of immigrant parents, I live in a place called the diaspora. It’s this in-between space, neither here nor there, just in-between. I’m not at home in the US simply because I’m brown and I’ve got “exotic” looks. People are surprised I speak English so well. (Uh, I was born here, mutherfuckers.) I’m also not at home in the Philippines, the place from which my parents fled. (Aside: That last word “fled” is something I use to describe their arrival in the US because they left during Marcos’s martial law. This is how I see it. How my mother sees it is entirely different. But that’s for another essay.)

When I first visited the Philippines, I had this overwhelming sense of home. Everyone I saw looked like family. I welled up with tears before I even left the airport. But I knew better than to fall entirely for this romanticized feeling. They can smell American a mile away. And I stank.

All my life, I’ve tried to navigate the in-between spaces, to negotiate a place to call home that really had no fixed location. It’s like home exists in the ether. In a place that doesn’t have a physical existence. Over time, I’ve kinda gotten used to it and worked to be okay with it, to be neither here nor there. I think I’ve created my own space to call home.

Of course, the idea of home, the definition of home is complex. What is home? Is it a feeling? Is it a physical location? Is it people? Is it all of the above? Or none? Or something else?

I’m at a stage where I want to do a little more investigating, a little more inquiry. I’m working on a project that is trying to do just that.

The project is still developing but it involves water and bowls hand made from wood and the idea of memory being held and carried by water and how these things might represent what it is to live in the diaspora. What does it mean to hold water, to be the very bowl that gives it shape? The bowl can be seen as the thing in power because its depth and shape determines the water’s shape. But what does it mean when water spills over the bowl’s rim? Water wants to escape the bowl or perhaps the bowl is not large enough of a “home” for the water and water moves on.

But then consider water as memory, water as carrying memory. Memory creating identity and home. All of our lived experiences build upon each other to create this very moment that we’re in. Water can build, but it ebbs and flows. Does memory rise and fall, ebb and flow? How does this feed into the idea of home? Is home a raft on the current of memory?

What is it to map water? Is it to find one’s way through the unknown, like explorers heading West? Or is it to ensure a way back? Or both? Or something else?

What memories are carried in water? Which ones dissolve into the water and which ones simply wash away? And with whatever is left, what is made?

I don’t know. I only have more questions. Stay tuned for more exploration! 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Blob (as Creative Process)

This is Essay #14 (a little late) of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

While I hate disclaimers & always give my own students (and friends!) a hard time about them, I am making one now (hypocrite! haha!): this essay is bullshit. It's not an essay in earnest. It's really a journal entry disguised as a blog post (what's the difference, really?) (I know, I know: I'm being reductive.). But I haven't been able to really write this past week -- you're about to find out why...

I've been working at Vermont Studio Center this past week; I'll be working here all month. It sounds like a long time, but in the grand scheme of things --when it comes to writing-- it is not. It's a blip. Naomi Jackson is presently our visiting writer (she totally ROCKS!) and last night, after she read some work, she talked about her process. Her novels take years to write. Years, people, years. Which, I know is not unusual. This is why I'm a poet (haha -- I joke. Kinda.). Smaller number of words. Bite-sized pieces of literature. (Though, yes, there are those long-ass poems that tend to pop up from time to time.) But still, even poems take time. The writing process takes time. Today, during my conference with Naomi, she told me what I needed to hear: you can't rush the process. Honor that. And practice self-care. Despite me knowing this already, hearing it aloud from another person usually has greater impact.

I tend to forget these things. Because, you know, I write like I'm running out of time, like I need it to survive. ;)

Because I'm in a different space, literally, my writing process has morphed into something unfamiliar. To be honest, it feels like a big blob. As in: the pink jelly-goo from the movie "The Blob". I can see it now, oozing out the doors of that movie theater while people run for their lives. Yup. That sounds like my writing process right about now. Hah! But as with any kind of change, I am uncomfortable (which is to be expected) and I am trying to embrace that. The past week felt like --as my fellow resident, Pam, said: getting my sea legs. Which is not to say that I'm back (though, I might have said those very words earlier today). It just means that I'm remembering to honor the writing process for what it is in any given moment.

Right now? I feel like writing about the creative process, NOT a personal essay that has a narrative arc with some kind of emotional investment. And so here I am.

After my conference with Naomi, and after I digested some of her feedback, I spent some time visiting artists' studios, talking to them about their process. And I got some really fantastic stuff!!

I know nothing about creating visual art, so I wanted to find out how to an artist approaches her/his work. I talked to 2D and 3D artists and it was really cool to learn about their conversations with their work.

One said: Ask WHY. Why are you making this thing? What's the driving force?

Another said: Ask HOW. How does this continue the narrative of the work you're doing now? Of the work you've done in the past?

Another said: Art has the same language as music: composition, rhythm, tone. What is the sound of the painting? What do you hear? How do you translate that visually?

I just kept nodding -- yes, yes, yes!

What I'm noticing is that, generally, visual artists seem to have less attachment to their work. They can let go of it pretty easily. At least this has been my impression. If they are unhappy with what's emerging, they throw it out & start over. One artist gets physical & tears up her canvas. Literally takes a knife and cuts it in half. Some try to work with what they've got and see what emerges, as it veers away from their initial vision. They are more focused in the making of things, but not so much so that they are deeply emotionally invested and attached to what they create.

I talked to a few poets and writers about this over late-night wings. What we do is different in that we really invest a lot of emotional labor. So letting go is harder. And it looks different. What does it mean to let go of something in writing? What are we letting go?

For me, with this one particular piece, it's the letting go of a shield. Naomi told me that I was at the edge and I just needed to leap. I asked her: how? And she said: you know. And I thought: dammit! Because, of course, I know. Again, she said what I knew but needed to hear aloud. So I need to let go of the shield I've created in this one piece. To drop it off the cliff, the edge of where I stand. And then leap.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Dear Mother, Part 2

This is Essay #13 (a little late) of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

Rain raps against the window of my writing studio. Wind pushes trees into a rock-and-sway dance. I watch the Gihon River flow by, undisturbed. I’m listening for something.

(Also? If I’m being honest, I just re-read that first paragraph and I kinda want to barf. What is up with that preciousness? Gah! But to be fair, I’ve been struggling with putting pen to paper since I arrived here at Vermont Studio Center a couple of days ago. It’s a lot of work to mentally arrive and shed the guilt / pressure of having to write, to produce something. Thus, the stupid poetic language that feels totally –I don’t know— ugghhh! Dumb! I will say, though, I am listening for something.)


A few weeks ago, I wrote about being an unkind daughter. Or, at least that was what I set out to do. The unpolished essay ended up recounting moments throughout my life in which my mother and I tried to communicate. Or not. Or completely failed. There really wasn’t much about why I was unkind. Or why I thought I was unkind. But it was a starting point for something I’ve wanted to explore.

Soon after, my mother caught wind of it (I didn’t try to hide it, but I didn’t share it with her either) and had a sit-down with me. I ended up writing about that, too. It’s a big deal when your Asian immigrant mother wants to talk about feelings.

She asked me if my childhood was traumatic, if something happened to me. She told me that she did the best she could, given her circumstances, given what she knew. Of course, I assured her, this is what parents do. She went on to plead her case, as if my essay were some kind of accusation of her as a failed mother. As if she were on trial. I told her that this essay was about me, exploring my personal history to understand how I came to be where I am right now.

She didn’t understand.

She went on to ask me to stop writing about her. Without hesitation, I replied that it wasn’t possible. That she was asking me to compromise who I am and the work that I do. I told her that we don’t choose what we write about – as artists, the work chooses us. And we must comply. (Or be forever tormented within until there’s a release.)

I don’t remember how the conversation ended (how does one wrap up something like this without awkwardness?), but I was under the impression that we could all move on.

A week or so later, she asked me to take down the blog post.

“Can I ask you a favor?”
“Sure, Mom.”
“Can you take down that blog?”
“It’s still there.”
“I didn’t say I was going to take it down.”
“It really hurts me.”
“It’s not about you.”
“But it is about me.”
“No, it’s not. It’s about me and my experiences.”
“But it is about me. You make me look like a bad mother.”
“It’s not about you.” (In my head, I think about Anne Lamott’s oft-quoted line: If people didn’t want you to write badly about them, they should’ve behaved better. Haha! But, honestly, I’m not writing badly about her.)

Silence. Thirty long seconds of silence.

“Ma, I gotta go. I don’t know what you want me to say, but I can’t be on the phone all night.”

Two big questions here:

1. How do you get your mother to read with critical lenses? All she sees is the surface.

2. How do you navigate the tricky waters of memoir when writing about family?


Dear Mom,

How can I open your eyes to see?

You are hurt because you cannot see below the surface of words. You cannot see that I am trying to love you by unearthing you and the silences of our lives. You are buried so deep that you have forgotten what it feels like to have the sun warm your face. You see only darkness. I am digging for you. I want to bring light. I see you but only understand parts of you. I want to recognize you, all of you.

How do I write our silences into being? How to explore the spaces between words, and half-spoken sentences? Do you finish those sentences in your head in Tagalog? Or do you think I can read your mind? That anyone can? Or is that a reflex of you shrinking yourself? Making yourself small and invisible, not asserting yourself and taking up space; diminish yourself as woman, as Filipina immigrant.

How can I open your eyes to see?

In not seeing below the surface of words, you are not seeing me. And in not seeing me (not only does that hurt me as your daughter), you fail to see yourself.

How can I make you see there is love here?