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