Leny Strobel

A New Twist to Filipino American Decolonization:
Eileen Tabios's Poetry

We journey Home, whatever or wherever that Home draws us to, in order that we may wander out again into the world giving away our gifts because we are full and overflowing.

Coming home to one's roots — to an imagined homeland, to a cultural and ethnic heritage, to a native tongue, to an indigenous imagination — is made necessary when we find ourselves feeling displaced, alienated, not properly belonging to a place. In my academic research work I have called this the process of decolonization for Filipino Americans. My writings have dealt with the issue of how Filipino ethnic and cultural identity is always tied to history. In the case of Filipino Americans this refers to the colonial/neocolonial/postcolonial relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines; and to another degree, it includes the colonial history of the Philippines with Spain. However, in decolonization, we realize that our sense of history must not begin and end with this colonial history; it is more important to reclaim and rediscover those parts of ourselves that still bear the mark of the indigenous Filipino.

The journey of decolonization allows me to embrace every Filipino in the diaspora. To come to our sense of loob/soul which roots and connects us to other Filipinos wherever we are, whoever we've become because and/or in spite of our history and now our diaspora. This contemporary diaspora finds Filipino men and women in almost every corner of the world — as immigrants, professionals, skilled workers, domestic helpers, entertainers, mail-order brides, and other contract workers — driven away from the homeland by poverty. Because it is an involuntary sojourn, poet-scholar E. San Juan, Jr. writes that Filipinos have an incurable ache to return to the homeland or to stay connected even symbolically with Filipinoness.

The key concept of loob, according to Filipino philosopher/theologian Fr. Bert Alejo, has the same meaning as the Greek word Aletheia (truth revealed), Chinese Tao (the Way), or the Japanese Zen (the Unnameable). Loob has the power to shape our reality, to unite, link and connect us to our Kapwa (our fellow human being). Our loob is in a dialectical relationship with the loob of our others/kapwa through pakikiramdam (the capacity for compassion, empathy, and sympathy). The deeper our experience of our loob the more we know and feel our interconnectedness with each other, with the world, and with Nature and its Creator.

In our diaspora, what keeps us connected to each other as members of the same Filipino family, has much to do with our capacity to experience our Loob deeply. Notwithstanding all kinds of differences (class, geography, generations, education, and temperaments) amongst us, there remains that part of the self — our Loob — that is capable of the recognition: We are Filipinos, Anytime, Anywhere. I recognize this as the potential of decolonization.

In the search for my Filipino loob, I sojourned into academia and there found a way of making sense of myself as a Filipino American, as a racialized, gendered, politicized, and historicized being. This enabled me to meditate on and then write about Filipino American identity and cultural issues. In most of my research and writings, I assert that decolonization is a necessary phase in the formation of a Filipino American cultural and ethnic identity. As a beginning phase in the process of identity development, we begin by learning how to name our experiences; learning to open the doors to the cultural and ethnic memory that has been repressed under the pressure to assimilate; and frame this new consciousness within the context of our historical past as well as today's political context in the U.S. wherein Filipino Americans still struggle with other ethnic groups for equality and justice.

Today I find myself drawn to those spaces outside of academic rhetoric, to the 'real' world, as my students put it. Where does it lead but to Poetry, Art, Literature; these beckon and I am drawn to those voices that express this Filipinoness. That's how I met Eileen Tabios' poetry, through her book: Beyond Life Sentences (BLS) which recently received the Philippines’ National Book Award.

But I couldn't at first access her prose poems. I didn't recognize them as Filipino poems because there were little references to Filipino images or narratives that I was familiar with. But the poems were magical. Powerful. They resonated with me emotionally but I kept looking for "what the poem is about". Except for a section in BLS called "My Grandmother's Country" - which contained references to 'immigrant', 'carabao', 'archipelago' — there were very few Filipino images I can relate to. So what about her abstract prose poems — poems that I would come to learn were ekphrasis exercises, many inspired by the American art movement of abstract expressionism? How do I connect with this poetry by a Filipino American poet when that Filipino connection is not obvious?

In pondering this question, I began to wonder how the poetry of Filipinos in the diaspora, of second and third generation U.S.-born Filipino Americans — poets/writers/artists whose sensibilities have been shaped by both western and Filipino influences (the latter perhaps always belatedly) — shape our will towards our collective self-discovery as Filipinos?

In my need to learn about what might come after one has decolonized, I felt the urgent desire to connect with Eileen's poetry. She claims that her poetics are inspired by visual arts, partly postmodern and yet also postcolonial because of her political intent to subvert the (English) language that has been used as a colonizing tool, i.e. English was introduced 100 years ago to the Philippines when it became an American colony. In particular, Eileen is inspired by abstract art because she considers abstraction to be synergistic with her desire to offer a space for the reader to engage emotionally with the poem without relying on narrative. By avoiding narrative, Eileen considers abstraction a way to obviate the historical use of the English narrative as the means for defining power and privilege during the U.S.-Philippine colonial period.

Consistent with her thoughts on abstraction, Eileen also uses surrealism and "found words" from other texts as ways to negate authorial intent. As a Filipino English-language poet, she says it was inevitable that she question how to express her-SELF through language. When the results of her search are abstract works, the result leaps over categories and boundaries of what has been labeled ethnic literature through its reliance on subject matter.

In her abstract prose poems, Eileen has challenged me to respond, to take issue, to stretch the limits of my own intellectual, emotional, and spiritual boundaries. I do believe that Art can transcend. But at some level, how do these poems address my need and desire for that connection called "Filipino"? Is this even important in the realm of the transcendent: in Art, Beauty, Love? I have been meditating on what indigenous Filipino psychology means when it asserts that our identity is based on the concept of Kapwa/my fellow human being; that our identities are all interconnected and interdependent like fried eggs on a frying pan, eggwhites touching, egg yolks whole. Unlike western identities which are like hardboiled eggs, insular and individualistic, according to a Filipino humanities professor, Felipe De Leon, Jr. Thus, I thought that all this postmodern talk about intertextuality and intersubjectivitiy is something we have always referred to as pakikipagkapwa-tao. No wonder a Filipino critic I once talked to brushed aside or scoffed at the postmodern jargon of the day. He said that the deconstruction of the great western "I" was necessary because it revealed itself as somewhat pathological and so now this "I" is in desperation seeking the embrace of its "others." To the Filipino, intersubjectivity or pakikipagkapwa-tao, is a given.

Is the poet/artist exempt from the labels of theorists? Eileen often refers to the writings of American abstact sculptor Anne Truitt in her reflections and here I borrow some of them:

"When we love one another the most delicate truth of that love is held in the spirit, but my body is the record of those I love."

"I have become alert to the frequency with which people tend to act only in the context of their own assumptions."
                                                        —(Anne Truitt, Daybreak, 12,16)

These statements make me wonder if I have merely assumed that the process of decolonization manifests itself only within my context and the context with which my Filipino American students found themselves with me. Northern California is a very unique site of decolonization for Filipino Americans; its diversity can mute or intensify the need for asserting a Filipino cultural and ethnic identity. My students agreed on the necessity of the latter and together we sought to flesh out this process. How would the decolonization process look like outside of the research parameters that I defined? And so now I must raise the question of how else our decolonization/our collective self-recovery might articulate itself. Is it even necessary? Am I assuming there was a loss incurred? Or is our experience no more unique or different than any other group in the world and therefore we must not harp so much on "recovery'?

I don't know exactly why Eileen's poetry raises these issues for me. What do these issues have to do with my initially finding her poetry abstract, distant and inaccessible? I believe it’s because I am a "narrative addict" — and she has withdrawn narratives in her work so that I am left to make sense of my own responses to her poetry.

Dialogic imagination and Bahktin. Postcolonial. Hybrid. Diasporic. Polyvocal. Multiply-located. Postmodern. I am looking for labels to attach to Eileen's poems. I feel that they resist labels but somehow acquiesce to the reader's whim for labels even only to indulge my addiction to narrativizing the Filipino American experience.

The gift of Eileen's poetry to me is the glimpse of those places I haven't visited before — art-making, word-weaving. A sentence in her poem "The Empty Flagpole" — "What does it say about me when I ask for asylum in places where people wish to leave?" — resonates with me and reminds me of the many times I despise the sacrifices required of me as an immigrant, making me wish for the other shore of the homeland. Yet over there throngs wish to seek asylum in the U.S., and everyday hundreds of people line the streets outside the U.S. Embassy before daybreak for a minute chance of being granted a visa.

What Eileen's poetry makes me consider is this: When the sorrow of our colonial past is released and we come to know our Philippine history as the history of the world, Eileen's poetry becomes an act of rounding up the fragments of our narrative. And as she integrates these fragments (those parts of our identities forged by migration and citizenship elsewhere) into her own sense of Filipinoness, I still come away with the sense that the homeland is still the source of that inspiration. My sense would come to be affirmed by a conversation I later would have with Eileen when she reveals that, in BLS, she wanted to combine a section of abstract prose poems with older poems whose narrative style allowed her to overtly reference aspects of the Filipino culture through her childhood memories, e.g. incidents with her grandparents, and a goat that was a pet long ago. "There are also stories whose telling would be hindered by abstraction," she said, "and if I let those stories be silenced, I would de facto have become neocolonial when what I want to be is post-colonial."

I am glad I have persisted in engaging Eileen's prose poems. Moving beyond the habit of looking for authorial intent/narrative plot made me realize that if one is already decolonized then she can engage in other acts of creation which neither forgets, negates, narrates — and that by simply being herself as a poet, she gives back over and over again to the Filipino collective effort towards self-recovery or discovery.

I think it also worth noting that Eileen felt that it was important to her that her first poetry collection be published in the Philippines. As a private "performance act", she would explain, she considered it her way of "giving back" to the source; in turn, by publishing a (Filipino-)American, she considers BLS to have become an "act of recognition" on the part of the Philippine literary establishment which is also a metaphor for "homeland." In addition, she considered it significant for her book to combine a variety of topics and poetic styles; Eileen explains: "I wanted to show the messiness of my search because aesthetic development is more often messy than streamlined. I wished my book to reflect the history of my quest — this entailed featuring a rawer process and also because, to me, what's raw is more interesting than perfection."

It is this "messiness" that we must give permission to if Filipino Americans are to decolonize. This reminds me of the story from Filipino scholar Vince Rafael about 16th century Tagalog-speakers in the Philippines — forced to listen to the friar's sermon in Spanish, they would "fish" for words that they understood and later make up their own narratives using those words but with meanings quite unrelated to the friar's original intent. Thus, the indigenous Filipino never really believes in the catholic friar's concept of "Sin" for to "sin" in the indigenous language simply means "to miss the mark" — something that doesn't deserve penalty or requires penance. Thus, I like the way Eileen subverts the English language and how she then makes the language fresh, new and full of courage. Her poetry becomes a space of transgression while remaining a place of Beauty — what she once called in a poetics essay the "Rapture to be found in Rupture."

At first reading, I thought I "missed the mark" of Eileen's prose poems. After second (third and fourth readings) of the poems, the poems have begun to feel more approachable, accessible, more familiar. This, I think, results as much from the permission I give myself to project as much of my own imaginings onto the poems. I think I finally get what Eileen means when she withholds narrative plots. I have come to realize that there is no mark to miss, but that subsequent dialogic reflections between Eileen's poems and my own ideas created that deep connection with each other's loob. And I have come closer to the appreciation of ekphrasis and abstract expressionism. Nor will I ever be afraid of poetry again.


Leny Strobel is a writer who teaches at the Hutchings School of Liberal Studies and American Multicultural Studiest Department at Sonoma State University, California. She co-edited the anthology ENCOUNTERS: People of Asian Descent In The Americas (Rowman & Littlefield, 1999).

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