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The first leap

A few days ago, Strange Horizons published my first poetry publication, Seeds. (This was my second acceptance; I’ll talk about that more later.) The nights leading up to when the poem went live, I found it difficult to sleep. Anticipation, terror’s edge, unalloyed excitement — I was charged with their electricity and a kind of disbelieving wonder. That’s how I deal with good things most of the time. I don’t think it will happen until it does.

It’s taken a while. I’ve wanted to submit to a zine and have poetry published for ten years. It took me four years to work up the courage to submit anything.

This is what it’s like. You are a young Filipina who grew up speaking English and Tagalog; you learned to read and write both languages at the same time. From the age of three, your mind is filled with stories in English: fairy tales and rhyming poetry, Lewis and L’Engle. You go to schools that fine you for speaking Tagalog outside of recess and lunch hour — one peso per word — and at the same time punish you for writing in English too well. Your tongue is forked. You live with that; it was always going to be this way.

Because English is a prestige language, the language of the academe and the elite and “true” literature, you read more of it, so much that by the time you are ten you struggle to make out Tagalog sentences on paper. But the rhythm of your tongue, its music, is still that of Pilipinas: cadence of passionate unfettered song, maya and tires’ screech and sunlight. So when you write, you write in that rhythm. Excess, abandon. It’s what feels natural, what you enjoy.

You make friends over the internet, many of them American. You are fifteen the first time someone tells you your English is wrong. You don’t understand. Your grammar is excellent, your vocabulary wide-ranging. No, your friend explains. We don’t use those terms to refer to those things. Change them, because people won’t understand.

You delete “comfort room” from your story of a student struggling with coming out in a Philippine high school, replace it with the appropriate term, “restroom”.

This isn’t anything. It doesn’t mean anything.

You’ve lost count of the number of times people tell you your English is good for a Filipino; they’re offset by the times your writing is referred to as exotic, strange. The times your friends (they, most of all) say it’s good because it’s so unusual. Because your English isn’t yours. Why? You use adverbs just like everyone else.

No. Not really.

You are twenty-two before you find the word for it: “Other”.

And then, just like that, a tumult of realization. They (this nebulous ‘they’, the outer world, the West that has always been the standard by which your right to exist has been measured) will not understand the way you shudder at torrents of rain, your bone-deep fear of flood; they do not know (and have no interest in knowing) the chaos of your streets, the dance of persistent vehicle and outrunning feet. They do not bear the weight you were born with, ghost-chains of colonizers long-dead and yet still living; they did not grow up marked with your grandparents’ blood, fugitives and rebels and shivering women fleeing a war. No enormity of debt resides in their bones. They have not heard of aswang. Most likely, they would think such things silly. They will not hear you.

You have stories welling up in your throat all the time. Oozing out your ears. You close your mouth and tamp down on the words. Your words are precious to you; faulty as they are, they are cracked mirror reflections of everything you’ve grown up seeing, they carry echoes of the songs you know.

But you’ve learned: there is a very subtle kind of hurt in being assigned strangeness. A small hurt, made with a quick, sharp blade.

Pilipinas has taught you that pain is better avoided.

You grow. You stop writing. You start again.

The words stay within you. Rain in barrels, to prepare for water outages.

It feels silly to say this; even now I’m warring with myself, telling myself I shouldn’t press that handy link, “move to trash”. I’ve been reading online zines for a long, long time. I used to dream of submitting to them. Then I learned that there were certain kinds of English that meant something, that were valid and legitimate, and yet others that were looked down on, degraded. I tried to fit my writing to the mold of the former. It would be respectable, then.

It didn’t work. Of course. There was no blood in it.

And then Racefail happened, and I met people who were like me — who lived on the margins, who struggled with issues of othering their whole lives, who knew imperialism’s weight, whose tongues were also split; people from everywhere, people struggling in the West, people from our neighbors, fellow Filipinos both diasporic and still at home. We did not agree on everything, of course, but look! People on the internet! Who heard me!

I first heard about Stone Telling through them. I devoured the poems on it with a kind of furtive, guilty enjoyment, willing myself not to hope.

One would say, well, then! You have found a venue. Certainly you would have submitted as soon as you could, no problem!

And yet, and yet, no. There is still a lot of will, so much courage, involved in doing that. Putting your words into another’s hands. Yourself, your heart, the heart of your country and your childhood stories and your mother and grandmother and the women who came before them, everything laid bare. I don’t know what it is like for others. I wonder at the kind of courage that’s like steel, determined and bladed; mine is more like closing my eyes and leaping, limbs flailing, into a soundless dark.

To submit to a place I must have at least a little trust in it. Rejection is fine. Having my language labelled strange, being questioned yet again about the reality and reasonableness of my experiences, being asked to explain the specificity of Pilipinas (all the versions of it I hold in my head), being asked to water it down for the comprehension of a Western majority– that is something I did not think I could bear. (When I first posted the drafts of my poems on my locked journal, to a very small filter of trusted friends, I had to put a disclaimer for my own peace of mind — something like: please respect my English, for all that it is not yours.)

So I read, and read, and watched Stone Telling carefully to see if it would publish words that did not apologize for what they were, and did not pander to distances in experience, and carried the voices of the marginalized and unheard and forgotten of victors’ histories in their music, in their swells. If it would hear someone who was very small and nameless and unknown.

This year Stone Telling put out a call for submissions from writers they had not published before. I had the submission date and several alerts (a week before, three days before) saved on my phone. I sent in two poems.

It’s funny, because even now I feel apologetic. I want to say, sorry, I shouldn’t be making such a huge deal over this, they’re just submissions. Sorry, I shouldn’t have been afraid to try for so long. Sorry, I shouldn’t have assumed that including Tagalog words and not wanting to italicize them would mean an auto-rejection. Sorry, sorry.

I don’t know. Is it just me? Even growing up in the Philippines, I knew to be excruciatingly polite to white foreigners, felt that odd desire to please them, impress them, not make any mistakes in their presence, not show any weakness, coiling in my spine.

I want to say: here comes the turning point. The truth is, even that decision to send the submission email wasn’t so much a turning point — a conscious watershed act — but me being brought to the point of breaking, bursting, wanting something so much I won’t be stopped… and saying, maybe, maybe, this will work.

I’ve seen editors discussing diversity lately. How does one get more diverse writers submitting? I don’t think it’s enough to say, hey, we’re open to people from all backgrounds, especially if you’re POC, queer, etc. That means little to me.

Rather, I would say– what have you done in the past? What are you doing now? Do you care about the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the oppressed? Those who have felt, for years and years, that they cannot speak, and even if they did, they would not be heard.

These may sound like vague high-minded things. Really, they’re not. When I tell you that a lolo of mine survived the Death March and was wracked with illness for the rest of his life I want to know that you’re hearing what I’m saying: he was someone, he lived, he had his story. Even though you may not have heard these histories before, I want you to hear: we all have stories too.

So: I first submitted to Stone Telling because I thought that if I made that leap into darkness, even if I fell I would not end up impaled on kind, well-meaning blades (could you take those words out? replace them with their English versions? can you explain this? that?). That’s really all I wanted. It’s not much. But it’s a lot.

But yes — I didn’t. The editor wrote back to me with a wonderfully encouraging letter. They could take just one poem, but this editor at Strange Horizons was reading for the month — I should send the other poem there!

That was my first acceptance.

I did what Stone Telling’s editor had suggested, and Strange Horizons accepted the other poem — my second acceptance! — and to my disbelief and wonder and surprise, both my poems had found a home, and all this without any requests that I water down my words to make them intelligible, nothing that directed me to silence.

The thing is, I didn’t think that could happen. The poems were encoded with too much of Pilipinas. I wrote them without caring about what the white people reading them would think. They didn’t conform to those high ideals of standard respectable perfectly legitimate English. They were too me.

I think– look, I won’t say, “that just goes to show you never know until you try!” –I’m not that optimistic, and submitting pieces is especially fraught coming from marginalized experiences and histories of ruin. No outcome is guaranteed; it could very well just have been me being reminded yet again of otherness (quickly, kindly, sorry, that piece is just too strange and might discomfit people, put them off). But I think it does go to show that what editors do with the pieces they’re given, with the venues they curate — it means a lot. It means a lot to see editors making efforts to reach out to the margins, to say welcome, you are welcome here, to see them making clear that they believe in hearing these stories, want to hear these voices. To see editors publishing pieces that are outside the majority experience. To see them making room for all this richness and difference — for multitudes.

And, I think, to make it clear that one can trust them with all the vulnerability of writing on the margins. That, even if they do not accept the work (because this isn’t about rejection) it will not be because of the strangeness or unfamiliarity or otherness or one’s words, the lack of legitimacy of language. That, in the end, there will be enough space to listen and take the writing as it is.

You see: I write poetry because there are songs inside me that must be heard. I’m glad that there are editors who will hear me. I’m glad I can say, to those of the majority whose histories have silenced our voices: no, enough. Listen. I’m glad I can be part of saying to my kababayan, kapatid: here I am, here you are. We are here.

With thanks to Rose Lemberg, Shweta Narayan, and Sonya Taaffe.

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