Book Expo Talk on Insurrecto

IMG_0590.JPG

I was invited to speak at LibraryReads this year to talk about my book, Insurrecto, to a roomful of librarians (my FAVORITE people!). I know I teared up a bit being in a room with just READERS, but I was also so happy—and just so honored to be invited. This was the talk.

[13 minutes]

First of all I want to say how happy I am to be here, how honored to be among you,
the People of the Book—my compatriots in this country of books for which the
passport above all is passion—I’m so glad and honored to be here among you.
I grew up on an island, in a city called Tacloban in Leyte. It’s the easternmost island
in central Philippines, facing the Pacific, and Ferdinand Magellan the Portuguese
explorer landed on it in 1521, after his legendary naming of that ocean the Pacific, in
the process so-called discovering the Philippines in the name of Spain. In 1944
Douglas MacArthur landed on my island, fulfilling his promise to the Philippines in
1941, when as the commander of the US forces in the Far East, he had left Manila,
saying, “I shall return.” He returned to my town’s beach, Red Beach in Leyte. I grew
up dancing as a child every year on October 20 for soldiers who would return, to
remember their war—they would come as guests of another famous person—my
curse as a kid apart from staring at Douglas MacArthur for so long was that Imelda
Marcos is from my hometown, and as kids from her school we had to dance for her
every time she visited.

So I grew up with tales of grand personages landing on my little beachfront city with
great consequences—but that did not keep me from being bored in it.
I was always being punished for my indifference to my environment—I’d go to
school—it was a Catholic school, I had a uniform—forgetting my necktie, not
bringing my handkerchief, and so on—but the trick to this was, whenever I did not
obey the rules, so bored with the facts of my existence—I would be punished by
being sent to the library. It was like a bee being punished with a bouquet of flowers.

I read everything, and for me, the library in fact was where history begins.

Of course the books I read when I was a kid were pretty haphazard—I was indiscriminate—I read the entire set of Bible Stories for Children—one story in that series about a sick boy named David reading Bible stories turned out to be about Dwight David Eisenhower, for some reason—and I remember my favorite volume in the World Book Encyclopedia was the letter M, because it had all the tales of Greek and Roman and Norse mythology in it—and I gobbled up this series of books about creatures on Cape Cod, it turns out, because I found the Thornton W Burgess Museum on Cape Cod when I first came to America, and among the group of Americans, I was the only one who knew who the writer was—I loved his stories of otters, and buzzards, and minks, and foxes—they’re called The Old Mother West Wind stories—and I loved the tales of these creatures that I never saw in Tacloban.

Doing research on my novel, Insurrecto, which is about the Philippine-American War—1899-1913—I realized much later how that library must have come together.

As part of the pacification of the islands, the United States sent teachers on a boat called USS Thomas, and my school library must have still had the kinds of
books deposited in it from those Thomasites, as the teachers were called, who
arrived in the 1910s and the 1920s. I memorized the poems of Christina Rossetti
and Emily Dickinson and knew the Gettysburg Address and the Song of Hiawatha by
heart and became very comfortable with first names like Waldo or Wadsworth or
Fennimore. In the 1970s, I had a great American 1920s-era education, thanks to my wearing the wrong neckties.

And oddly because of war. It’s odd to me now, having done all this research on the
Philippine-American war—how vestiges of that war hang over my growing up. The
fact is, the Philippine war against America is unremembered in the Philippines, just
as it is unremembered in America. I never studied it as a child. Americans study it, if
they do, only as a sidelight of the Spanish-American war of 1898—in the Philippines,
we call it our war of independence. But the history Filipinos learn is really our revolution against Spain—we barely talk about the war that followed it, when our allies the Americans decided to occupy us when we mistakenly believed we would be given
freedom after helping to wage war against America’s enemy, also our enemy, Spain.

That era of peacetime, as the Philippines oddly calls the period of the American
occupation, 1902 to 1946, is one long era of forgetting. We forgot the brutality of
how we were occupied. And so has America. I think such gaps have consequences.
What I have come to see is that Philippine history is part of America, and American
history is part of the Philippines. In my experience, this twinning of the two is so
weird that for a long time, honest to God, I thought Elvis was Filipino. No, really, I
only learned a few years ago that all the songs my uncles used to sing during their
long guitar-strumming nights were not, in fact, Filipino kundiman, or love songs, but
Elvis. Are You Lonesome Tonight? Love Me Tender—I had no idea they were Elvis. It was a very odd recognition, and to be honest it was a pretty staggering, let’s say, misapprehension on my part—and so let me say this—I put Elvis in my novel of the Philippine-American war.

What my misrecognition of Elvis led me to think about was — how do we really
know the things that make us? We put ourselves in categories— and above all,
others put us in categories— Filipino, islander, woman—when we know very well
we are fragments and fractures and parts of so many others. We are named by our
mothers, for instance, in acts of misrecognition—we carry our mothers’ unknown
desires in our names that we did not choose. We call ourselves American—but the
richness of Americanness lies in its multiplicity, including not only the known
worlds it has occupied but, in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, including also the
unknown unknowns —the things we don’t know we don’t know about ourselves.
And I call myself Filipino—but I have multiple cultures in me—Elvis, Frank Sinatra,
Douglas MacArthur—I claim Warhol’s Double Elvis as irreparably part of my
imaginary—my world of images.

And what I must do is figure out how to include all my worlds as part of my sense of
self and find sense in my fragmentation—in the traumas and the wars and the
violences that have made me.

Of course, as opposed to the colonizer, the world of the colonized is visibly and
thus irreparably multiple—because included in the world of the colonized IS the
world of the colonizer.

Whereas the colonizer is so-called privileged in thinking his world is exceptional and singular. Unfortunately he is mistaken— “privileged” is not the correct word for such a world view—ignorant, or poor, is more correct—because of course such exceptionalism impoverishes and diminishes his reality. And with such a misperception, considering only the known knowns—if he persists in his misperception, he is unable to see himself clearly.

It is only when the world of the colonizer includes the world of the colonized as part
of his reality that such a world can heal itself.

On the other hand, I must inevitably read that world of the colonizer in which I live
with at least two gazes—it’s simply a daily part of how I exist: the colonizer’s world
is in fact also my reality—it is part of me—but I must simultaneously see this world
awry, in an inverse gaze, in order to see myself whole—

This is why libraries have been such a refuge for me, from the time I was a child. It is a place of multiple worlds, it offers multiple identities, and because it is so, in a
library paradoxically one can always be oneself.

I could be part of the world of otters in Cape Cod even as I left the streets and found myself facing the dictator’s bazookas.

By the time I was sixteen, I was going on marches, against the dictatorship—we called it the U.S. Marcos dictatorship because the man’s murderous rule was propped up by the United States during the Cold War as a hedge against communism in Asia—but when the march would pass by the business district, which was also where the US embassy’s cultural center—The Thomas Jefferson library was—I had no qualms about leaving the march in a kind of recess to read Harper’s magazine in their library. And that’s where I learned that this writer that I loved—I loved his book called Chimera and The Sotweed FactorThe Sotweed Factor is an extremely beautifully crafted book about early American history that’s practically footnoted—I love that novel—and I loved the novelist John Barth—anyway, he wrote an article in Harper’s called “Teacher”—and I learned that
this great writer—taught—so the next time the march passed by the American
library, I checked the address of Johns Hopkins, his school, and I wrote John Barth at
Hopkins.

And in those days of the marches and the bazookas, miraculously I got this letter
back—it was like getting a letter from Andromeda Galaxy to be honest—there I was,
marching amid rubble, and I had had the temerity—or let’s say ignorance—to send
Barth my novel and asked him what he thought—I thought that is what you did with
writers—and what Jack said was, thank you for your novel, but you need to send an
application. And he included the forms in his reply. So I got into Hopkins, because I
took a detour from being in the revolution, and that is how I came to America, and
what I’ve ended up doing—coming from that island I grew up in—is that I ended up
thinking a lot about history.

The vestiges of the two histories, Filipino and American, exist like a haunting—a
trace that is both invisible and unknown yet whenever I look up around me now, at
this world of Trump and Duterte, for instance, twin fascists who now lead my two
countries—it is relentlessly present.

The book Insurrecto is a trace of that relationship between the Philippines and the
United States, that history that haunts me. Insurrecto is a story of valiant women, starring actors in their own dramas, trying to become whole, some in very ordinary ways—by taking a road trip, by sharing stories and space in a car—and there is of course one mother haunted by Elvis. And there is one actual historical figure in the book, Casiana Nacionales, who becomes an insurrecto, a revolutionary, simply by being a woman in her time and place.

The novel’s structure follows my sense of a self—open to multiple identities,
synchronic, that is, inhabiting multiple eras and stories simultaneously—so that in
my novel the world of the current dictator, Rodrigo Duterte, is linked to the world of
Marcos’s martial law, the world of Trump, and the world of the American invaders
in 1901—that is, the novel grapples with my synchronic sense of history, the way I
think we exist in simultaneous times—of horror but also of resistance—in which by
recognizing the limitations of our human gazes, maybe we will heal. Thank you so
much for including me in your event today. Once again, I am so honored.
END

 

 

Summer Forum speech: “A country like the Philippines haunts America. But it is a trace, a ghost unseen. I think sometimes I write novels to conjure that trace, to make that trace visible.”

Out of the blue last winter, I was invited to speak in the California desert, at the Institute of Mentalphysics (a great, seventies name!) by a wonderful young woman I did not know, Sara Hunter, who created Summer Forum with her husband Michael Hunter, when she was frustrated with the way grad school conceived of education in only one way, it seemed—through lectures and so on. She preferred conversations.

I had never been to the California desert anyhow, and I had never met Sara, but the proposition was intriguing—like nomads of the modern world, people came to Summer Forum to converse and so think ideas through. Sara and Michael gathered people interested in the experience of ideas to have a dialogue about issues that mattered to them. How did they get people? One simply applied. Many were friends of theirs from Chicago Art Institute, but many just read about Summer Forum online and applied because it was a way to converse about ideas in real time with real people. Participants at Summer Forum read collectively a syllabus of readings, listen to speakers, and then create a “trace” of their interactions, most obviously in a booklet called Dilettante. This year’s theme was “Networks of Belonging: Geographies, Citizenries, and the Masses.” Here’s a section of the speech. I interrupted readings of my novel with comments that related to Summer Forum’s syllabus; the rest of the speech was patches from other speeches and articles I have done (on English and the Super-Spy Lacanian Baby, and on the Philippines as a Borgesian Tlon).

SUMMER FORUM, 2014

….As I said, I have read a few of the readings for the conference. I have, in fact, taken the test for citizenship that appears in the packet, with its 100 questions about America. I remember one of the questions I had to answer was—where does the President of the United States live? It remains one of the most banal, insipid moments of my life, becoming a citizen of America. Basically, they asked me ten questions, then I answered them; then they made me write three sentences on a piece of paper—the lady officer dictated the sentences, and I wrote them down. One of them went something like—a kitten jumps onto the windowsill. Something like that.

I keep thinking that the banality of it was what made it surreal. My experience of becoming a citizen of America was a practical, not ontological, matter anyhow. I remember I was going to go on vacation in Europe—to Spain—in the summer of 2001, and it was extremely annoying to have to go to the Spanish embassy in NYC again with my friend David, who would be my host once again in Spain, and have him vouch for me as his guest, one more time. These small irritants for a middle class Filipino in America were part and parcel of holding a Filipino passport.

And then 9/11 happened.

An immigration lawyer friend of mine called me up to ask me if I were a citizen. I said no, though I had been a resident alien, as a green card holder is called, since 1989, when I married my husband, an American novelist I met in grad school at Johns Hopkins. “Get citizenship now,” my friend the immigration lawyer told me after 9/11. “The laws are changing for immigrants as we speak—I’ve seen even green card holders deported, for the smallest thing—a speeding ticket, a moving violation.” That call made me do it, but really, there was also that recent memory of the annoying trip to the Spanish embassy that summer of 2001 that made me finally apply for citizenship—a practical issue that I had been stalling about since the early nineties—mainly because I am lazy. And my identity is not tied, I think, to passports. Or I’d be happy to have forty passports, forty so-called identities. [I’ve been thinking about getting citizenship with Spain, since recently they have declared they are opening their borders to people with certain surnames—one of which includes my mother’s—they are trying to attract Jewish people to invest in Spain. I guess, I have a Spanish surname linked to the expulsion of the Jews. But then I realize I’m not really Jewish, so I don’t think that’ll work.] And anyway, Filipinos can get dual citizenship (which I have). So I did not stop being Filipino, even in that legal sense. And as I said, getting U.S. citizenship was an entirely banal, routine, insipid event—like getting my driver’s license, except that someone dictated to me some sentences about kittens.

And yet, as I know, getting US citizenship was also a demarcation, a borderline, that I had crossed, a crossing for which people have died—and which, if I pressed myself, I in fact had not wished to cross, until I had to.

In this novel, Gun Dealers’ Daughter, the girl at the start moves from country to country as if she has no boundaries. She is a fantastical Filipino in some ways—a Filipino who does not seem bound by the restrictions on migration that the ordinary Filipino feels. And yet she is entirely real—Sol lives among a corrupt upper-class that lives lives that Filipinos are currently trying to prosecute, in fact—with varying degrees of failure.

[3 senators are in prison right now for a several-billion peso pork barrel scam—one of whom is the former defense minister, an incredibly malevolent guy who outlasted the dictator—his milieu is also the narrator Sol’s milieu]

During a reading of this novel once, an audience member, a Filipino woman, afterwards came up to talk to me. And what she said to me was: I am so glad your narrator is not a maid.

I was stumped by that. I did not know how to answer.

It’s true that the narrator I chose, Sol, is atypical perhaps. She is an extremely wealthy young woman who, in the beginning of this novel, goes from border to border—the Riviera, to New York, and so on, in what seems a fantasy world of migration—she feels bound by no restrictions that the ordinary Filipino feels. And what the Filipino woman at the reading was telling me was—there is the trope of the Filipino as desperate migrant—maid, caregiver, so on—that the rest of the world, including Filipinos, expects. To be honest, it is a trope that the publishing world also expects—but that is a topic for a different conference—the narrowness within which a person of color in fiction must be framed.

The Filipino is framed narrowly in that trope as a [possibly illegal] desperado who is a victim of neoliberal forces—in the words of the Metahaven reading, a figure like Moussa K who, quote, seems to understand border crossing as a process of extreme desubjectification, unquote—that process by which, quote, as soon as the border is passed, engineers become cleaners, academics turns into sex workers, and brain surgeons become taxi-drivers—ready-made for exploitation on the informal labor markets of late capitalism, unquote.

So you have these, at least, three experiences or notions of migration and citizenship—one, my banal passing of a stupid test so I could go to Spain untroubled; two, the figure of the Filipino maid, who is both a trope and a reality, a figure of tragic economic desperation, in some cases, and basic ordinary human striving, in too many others; and three, this figure in this novel, Sol, whose status both embodies the forces of imperial capitalism that victimize the mass, her countrymen, as well as illuminates the tragedy her own status has wrought—because the horror she tells is self-implicating: it is her horror, her self that her story of nightmare contemplates.

As the novelist Chimimanda Adichie has famously said about the dangers of the stereotype—what is problematic is not that the stereotype is untrue—it is that it is incomplete.

I have always wondered about this—how to speak about the multiple realities of the world that I know. I use Sol, I think, as a kind of inverse character of the victim of capitalism, because her world is the world of the perpetrator, the enemy that the masses fight—perhaps I do this in order to see that system from a self-implicating lens: the reader, like Sol, is part of the problem.

Perspective in this novel was a struggle for me—I had begun in the 3rd person, but I found myself editorializing and pontificating about this class of people, Sol’s people—and it was a very thin, unsatisfying way to tell the story—to me. But when I shifted to first, and I took on the voice of Sol, took on her memory—the novel became more complex—because I, too, was implicated in Sol’s troubling world.

So this, I suppose, is an m.o. for a novelist—to keep seeing through other lenses—I think it is a useful m.o. for any citizen.

In the novel, in turn, Sol is desperately desiring to belong to someone else’s world, the world of her classmate, the activist Soli, and of course you’ll note the mirroring in the naming. The issue of twinhood, of being double, recurs in this talk, and in the novel. …

…Any trace of our world in the post-Anthropocene might always have that hidden perspective, that is, might pose the problem of power: in any phenomenal trace it might be good to ask—who suffered and who conquered? But it is interesting to think in terms of duality also, or beyond the binary, when we think about the traces left behind. When we imagine how the conqueror also suffers from his rapacity, and recognize also how the victim has agency—and that if we shift our lenses and try to view a figure in multiple ways, what happens?

In many ways, my job as a novelist has been to figure out how to narrate the story of the migrant as a person whose story we know very well is one of overdetermined forces—overdetermined being a term from psychoanalysis, meaning, “having more determining factors than the minimum necessary; having more than one cause; giving expression to more than one need or desire.” In short, the migrant is like everyone else. Issues of class, economy, race, gender, all constitute the migrant’s subjectivity, just as it does everyone else’s.

There is not only one type of Filipino migrant, that goes without saying. When I joined rallies and activist calls against the Marcos regime as a kid in university in Manila, my friends, upper-class women destined to become academics, used to make fun of me. I have often joked that the best way to make a Filipino Marxist is to send an upper-class Filipino to America to study—the Filipino sees that in this new country, she is under-class because of race and it turns the tide of ideology in her. So that is one good thing America has done. It has made Filipino Marxists. Good. Place can change your lens.

We all recognize, as this novel does, that these capitalist forces, the imperial economy that subjugates the border crosser like Moussa K, or the Filipino maid that the woman at my reading did not want to hear about anymore, those terrible economic forces also subjugate us—it subjugates you and me. My banal citizenship experience is not separate from the experience of Moussa K, the border crosser in the city of Ceuta in the Metahaven reading, just as it is tied irrevocably, of course, to the lives of Filipino maids, for whom in many people’s eyes I am interchangeable. My experience, and Moussa K’s experience, is tied to yours. Because that economic force subjugates us when we look upon someone and wonder how that person came into the country, though the person might have grown up quite innocuously in Des Moines, it subjugates us when we find we understand completely what the woman means when she talks about not wanting to hear anymore about the Filipino maid. As the readings in the Summer Forum packet are telling us, we all live with and enact the ideological gaze of the economic imperium: no one escapes it.

Despite the banality of my experience before the Immigration Officer the day I took my test for citizenship, I understand how the insipidity of the phenomenon is also what makes it violent, thus its surreality—it was an event of splitting, of division, and not an event of communing, of entering into a pact, a oneness with others. Taking the oath of citizenship to America seemed mainly to separate me from them, the border crossers, instead of uniting me with something, with “America.”

After all, I became a citizen after 9/11.

And though we cannot escape that imperium, maybe the trick is somehow to be inside and outside and figure out how to see from multiple lenses, from different class or race or gender lenses, as much as we can, all the time. But that is very difficult.

In my case, novel writing requires that of me. I have to be inside and outside, see a character from all perspectives possible, keep refracting the position by which to write a scene. And then I have to make a choice. Just as I made a choice when I applied for citizenship. The choice directs the novel—the choice of point of view constructs the possibility for action and detail in the novel. When I chose the first person, I had to cut off more than half of the novel, I think—parts that an amnesiac person would not be able to retell. Point of view dictates the text. [And if someone had told me that the minute I got into writing school, I’d have been so grateful, it would have saved me a lot of paper.]

But my choice to apply for citizenship, oddly enough, did not, in my mind, define me in one way or another. And this is the thing about citizenship versus novel—citizenship is more of a mirage than the choice of a first person perspective—it is less real, less definitive, more phantasmal than an artistic choice. Yet of course the consequences of having this type of citizenship or not are acute. Citizenship to me is not a real thing, but art is. But it’s the mirage that kills.

I will say this—I have absolutely no trouble now whenever I leave the country. Every time I use that miracle passport, I find myself marveling at it—at the ease with which I now travel, when I have not changed at all, not one whit, from the person I had been. My relationship with America is just as fraught as it was before I took that oath of citizenship. I have to say, I would not say it is a relationship I struggle with: instead I see it as a form of existence, a relationship we all have with history—the terrible history of our worlds that also constitutes us (which does not mean that I do not wish to change it, to change that dynamic that history constructs for us). That is, my fraught relationship with America is another banality, perhaps, another mundanity, that is, a surreality, a violence, one more sign of the split self that constitutes us all.

(NOTE: this speech is much longer; it is cut here as the other sections of it are versions of two other talks/articles, one a speech Superhero Lacanian Baby and the other the article on Borges and post-colonialism)

The Superhero, Secret-Spy Lacanian Baby: a speech at the National Writers Union, NYC

The Superhero, Secret-Spy Lacanian Baby

 

(I was asked to speak about language and migration in the plenary session of the National Writers’ Union 2nd Annual International Writers Conference on ‘Writing Across Borders.’ I opened with a reading of a section of Gun Dealer and proceeded with the following)

 

I bring up this passage because I have an interesting encounter with the question of language, a question of the use of English, whenever I read my novels to an audience. Why do you write in English? That is a very common question. A corollary question is—wow, you speak English so well, how come?

 

And it is very clear that most Americans do not know their own history. The early imperial history of America is a blind spot both in American history classes as well as, I have to say, in Filipino history classes. The Filipino-American war that began with the so-called Battle of Manila Bay in May 1898 and, in my reading of it, is not quite yet done, as a new military agreement has just been signed between President Barack Obama and President Noynoy Aquino III a few weeks ago, which to my mind seems to extend a historical capitulation that is never-ending—the teaching of English was part of the articles of war that prosecuted this Filipino-American war, part of the counterinsurgency policy of the Americans against the Filipinos.

 

My response to those readers, therefore, might be the following: I write in English because your country raped mine. So you can already see the traumatic expression inherent in the use of English in the Philippines. It is a language of aggression and of capitulation. It is a language of collusion, of delusion, of expediency, of obscenity. It was for a very long time the only language of learning. I used to have to pay five centavos for each word of my own language that I spoke in the classroom. I was required to think and to learn in English. I learned to think critically in English.

 

It’s almost a weird Lacanian dilemma, the dilemma of the Filipino, the postcolonial. We gain our sense of the world through speech—and all speech declares is that we are split selves. Just as when the Lacanian baby learns to speak, all his speech tells him is loss—that he is not a whole self who exists silent and complete within the loving dyad of his mother’s milky gaze—but in fact is a split being who must use words to gain a foothold on himself, on reality—so growing up in the Philippines, we are, as in that Shakespeare myth, Calibans who have learned to speak reality through the language of the magician who has defined us, only to learn that this reality created by words has already betrayed us, made us “un-whole.”

 

I therefore have this double-backing, if I might use a word from picture-framing: I need to be looked at from several dimensions, on at least two sides, in order to recognize my split reality. I am not fully comprehensible without the world of English—the world of aggression and territorial occupation and cultural imperialism—and the world of my other languages. My portrait, the picture that frames me, encloses both—it is not one or the other. So this panel, on the Language of Migration, Adapting the Words of the Foreigner, puts me in an interesting bind—because for me, the language I needed to live here, English, was a language that had already violated me. It lives in me. It is vital to my history. But it is interesting that while a history of violence lies in my use of the language of English, it is with a marked sense of pleasure that I play with the language of English. Which may say something about pleasure, or say something about violence, or say something about me, who knows. So I’ll start here with that premise—the violent pleasure that lies in adapting the words of the foreigner is my fantastic reality. Why is it pleasurable? And in what does that pleasure lie?

 

I remember as a kid, when I lived for around four years with my parents in east Los Angeles—it was kind of a slum, as far as I can tell now, though to my mom it is was just “America”—my mom used to tell me, don’t go to that kid Maria’s house, and I would say, why, because I really liked Maria’s food, her mom’s tortillas, and my mother would say, don’t go there, because they’re not Filipino, and she used to explain to me the white couple next door, the Morses, were dirty, you could tell it on their skin—and because of my mom’s bigotry, there was always this weird pride in the Filipino that I had as a kid in Los Angeles, because no one else ate adobo, and no one else was as Catholic as us, with our too many statues of Virgins praying only for us, Filipinos (since my mom would not let me go into the Mexican Maria’s house), and no one else had a mom as beautiful as mine, and no one else had the power to survive only on rice and bagoong if the apocalypse ever arrived, and so on—and when I was given a fat, five-centavo copper coin by my father when we rode the airplane to return home to the Philippines for good, I remember feeling that five-centavo coin and thinking, wow, it’s so heavy, this Filipino coin, it’s so much more real and, you know, more coin-like, than any American coin. I grew up with this Filipino bigotry, that the one true world was my mom’s Filipino world. And yet, when we returned home to the Philippines, I was not allowed to let go of the language I had acquired in the foreign country, English. I in fact had to relearn my own languages, Waray and Tagalog—I thought I would instantly know the language of my mother, but to my horror, I did not—I was a split, alien being who looked like them but did not know the language, and my teachers and the kids would kind of torture me for not knowing. When I finally did learn Waray, I perversely did not tell the teachers or the kids that I understood their words. So I had this weird experience of feeling like a spy in my own country—everyone thought I spoke only English, but whenever they insulted me for not knowing Waray, I understood them. I have always thought that learning a language is like having the secret pleasure of a pervert—of having a peeping Tom’s thrill of looking in on a world from the vantage of the other, and yet you own it, it was my own kind of occupation, and thus your power has to do with this perversion, with the power of the taboo—your outsider’s gaze.

 

At the same time, I had this magical advantage in school through no great virtue of my own—I was in 2nd grade then, and I already spoke and wrote in English—and because English was the coin of education, the fat, five-centavo copper coin of learning—that, too, made me feel like some kind of superhero, with some special power that I had achieved sadly through no great talent I could claim. All I had done was live in a slum in L.A.

 

So by the time I was seven, my ego was quite interesting. I had already experienced this weird double-backing from at least two delusional dimensions—I had this feeling from the time I was a child of being a double-agent, the weirdo spy who knows two worlds at once and feels superior though also ostracized or at least strange, in both. Of course, to my peers I was mainly strange—I was a schizophrenic person living under the delusion of a superhero complex.

 

This is the odd feeling I have as a foreigner in America. I have the advantage of being adept in at least two worlds, and though I am also a traumatized being coming as I do from two worlds, my double-backing remains an advantage. My existence as a speaker of multiple languages makes me a person of multiple beings—and that multiplicity gives me a vantage, a point of view, necessarily broader and sometimes richer than those of others without my double-agency. Double-agency, secret-spyhood is the advantage of the migrant. There are many ways in which I have already occupied English, made it my own; and there must be many ways in which English has stamped its power over me, making me in its image, in its surds and its slurs and its words.

 

I am as impatient with Filipinos who make fun of Filipinos who don’t speak “correct English” as I am with Americans who do not understand why I write in English. I remember someone who made fun of Manny Pacquiao the boxer’s English—and my response—why should Manny Pacquiao speak English like him, a person from southern California? It is completely rational that a guy from General Santos would speak English like Manny Pacquiao. And as for Americans who wonder about a Filipino who writes in English, those motherfuckers, as Junot Diaz might call them, just need to read their history. The scholar Neil Garcia has told me how NVM Gonzalez, the Filipino novelist, once retorted to an American poet who commented about Filipino writing in English—I notice there is not much irony in it, she said—and NVM Gonzalez said—is it not ironic enough that I am writing in English?

 

There is both a richness and a traumatic, endless loss in the fact that history has given me this choice—to adapt to the words of the foreigner. In a way, I believe that is why I became a novelist. From the time I was a child, I was always beset by the perils of language—of adapting myself to the language of the places in which I lived, whether the city of Los Angeles or the island of Leyte, where I grew up—and I am endlessly wondering how language becomes us—how the language we speak creates and transforms the reality we live. This is a writer’s dilemma, after all, this constant, bedeviling recognition that language is reality. That language is the coin, the currency that negotiates reality. And so in many ways, I imagine, the migrant is always thinking like a writer—beset by the traumas of words that transform her and thus her reality. I sometimes think it would be great if, instead of thinking or wondering about whether we are one thing or another, either a Filipino or a Filipino-American, or a Mexican or Chicano, a Caliban or why not a Prospero and so on and so forth, we can imagine ourselves as some superhero with a special power, this monstrous split self who because of language is, ultimately, both super- and simply human—in our case made adamantly, perhaps emblematically so through the power of our multiple, rich languages, though it’s perhaps a power sadly achieved through no great talent that we can claim, except perhaps for the genius of arrival, of survival, of finding our tongues somehow in some place we can call home.

Image

 

With Ninotchka Rosca, plenary speaker: superhero, secret-spy of Philippine literature.