Whenever I’ve been asked the question, ‘How do you make your Filipino identity come through in your writing?’ or ‘How do you ensure the Filipino voice is authentic in your poems?’ I always wonder about how to respond. This isn’t because I haven’t thought about this. I’ve grappled with this question ever since I began seriously writing and have read up on the idea of identity for the last two few years. When I get asked this question, I appreciate it; but I feel that answering it needs hours of good conversation.
Having grown up with English as my first language, having lived in the U.S. for a year as a child, having had a best friend who is American, and having particularly fair skin and small eyes, I never really fit in to the traditional picture of what a Filipino is ‘supposed to’ be. Now, living in Iloilo, looking the way I look and being married to a Brit, I always get mistaken for being of a different nationality. One can see why my interest in the concept of ‘identity’ or ‘voice’ or ‘culture’ would inevitably arise.
Questioning whether one’s writing is ‘authentic’ or ‘representative of one’s culture’ can lead a person toward a whole spectrum of self-doubt, not just in writing but in asking oneself, ‘Where do I belong?’ or ‘Do I need to change?” and “Do I need to write differently?”
I read a few books on the topic; my favorite being Amin Maalouf’s ‘On Identity.’
Maalouf himself examines his own unique background: living in one place but coming from another, being half this or a quarter that, speaking the language of one faith but growing up with the rituals of a different faith, and so on. He drives home the point that everyone is made up of a huge number of elements that make them who they uniquely are, and there is very little chance one would find another person in the world with the exact composition of elements. If that is the case, what identity does one have? Which allegiance, culture, voice does one represent?
I loved how he explained the urgent need to redefine the concept of identity, how if we change the usual compartmentalizing, ‘tribal’ concept of identity then we will have fewer wars and less ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ To say that specific qualities have to be ticked off a long list for one to be considered as belonging to a specific culture or identity will exclude so many people and create more and more division.
This leads me to ask a further, more controversial question: What is Filipino identity? What is the authentic Filipino voice? Is it the one who speaks Tagalog or the local language of their specific town? Is it the one who is adept in local history or can deeply discuss indigenous culture? Is it someone who is geographically located within the country’s borders? If so, how about everyone else? By putting such limiting qualifications on cultural identity and voice, we alienate so many people, remove them from the equation, and say ‘you are not one of us.’ I love my country, so much so that I refuse to leave it even when its future appears bleak. I avoid, however, a nationalism that in itself can breed xenophobia, racism, and hubris.
Clearly, however, language has a lot to do with the culture of a place. As Gemino Abad said in his introduction to the ‘Achieve of, The Mastery’ (a 2-volume collection of poems in English by Filipinos), “In one’s own community―say, our country or a particular region of it―the language there already shapes our consciousness as we begin to communicate in/with it; since its words already interpret our experience, they bear our culture, the way our people feel and think about their world.” This spoke to me deeply, in a sense that language in a specific place truly does matter a lot, that the language carries culture by the very use of it by the people who live there. Being in a country with so many languages, and most of us being bilingual or multi-lingual, one can experience how certain languages affect different parts of our being. How beautiful that is and how lucky we are!
Looking back into one’s past and where one came from has so many benefits and is highly enriching. I am all for the revival and preservation of local languages, indigenous crafts and wisdom, and (re)learning the stories of our ancestors. But I do not believe there are strict prerequisites for authentically representing a so-called identity or voice, whether for a nationality, religion, gender, and other affiliations, in the present day.
Today, what I write and who I am — this is authentic. And it includes being Filipino, being female, a sister, a daughter, being in my forties, speaking English, speaking Filipino and (some) Hiligaynon, writing in English, living on a farm, and everything else that contributes to who I am. Sometimes, my writing comes from the part of me specific to common experiences of Filipinos. Other times, it is my identity as a woman that shines through. Often, it is who I am as a teacher, or a nature-lover. But all the time, as a human that encompasses all of those things and so much more.
I have poems about snails. About my grandmother’s clinking rosary. About falling leaves that glitter at the corner of my eye as I stare at a stranger. About death. About hardboiled eggs and horses galloping in my chest.
May my poems reach whomever they may reach. May they speak to whomever will listen, and I shall be grateful.
“Poetry is a conversation between my personas,
a recognition of how identities are multiple,
fluid and sometimes contentious.”
– Sandra L. Faulkner