Poet Barbara Jane Reyes responds to diaCRITICS editor Viet Thanh Nguyen’s diaCRITICIZE post on the use of rage and anger through the life and experiences of a Fil Am/Pinay woman poet. While Viet Thanh Nguyen speaks about how the expression of anger and rage are necessary, Barbara Jane Reyes underlines how (out)rage comes out in her own creative work and how being (out)raged is being brave and speaking out.
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[Some edits for clarity below.]
I have recently written here that I am struggling with my current manuscript, now titled She is a Picture of Magnificence, after Estrella D. Alfon’s short story, “Magnificence.” The crux of my struggle is that while I have fashioned some very lovely poetry from approximately 20 different Fil Am women/Pinays who responded to a set of very open ended questions, I found that the anger, rage, and outrage with which I have been accustomed to writing has been absent.
Surely, much of this has to do with how each of us individually expresses rage and outrage, no doubt. These differences in expression have to do with aesthetics, with life experience, with how one prioritizes.
Viet Thanh Nguyen has just written on the uses of rage and anger in our work, over at the diacritics website. He asks, “What’s the proper proportion of art to anger?” He acknowledges that we have a lot to be angry about/enraged at, as writers and artists from Southeast Asia,
“whether it’s on the vast geopolitical/historical scale of countries and warfare and colonialism or whether it’s on the much more intimate scale of families and love or the lack of love or the loss of love and so many other things. Even on the intimate scale, though, the horizon lines go directly to the macro-history of all the screwed up decisions and events that shaped us.”
Still, I can see why anyone would not want to prioritize anger, rage, outrage in their own work. There’s so much ugly shit out there in our own backyards, in our cushy suburbs, before we even get looking at the rest of the world. It can be overwhelming, and perhaps even paralyzing. I understand the logic behind wanting to write the opposite of those ugly things, and while I understand, I don’t necessarily agree. I believe we must continually write through the ugliness and horror; I also believe it will not realistically pass like a kidney stone anytime soon.
For myself, one of the major driving forces in my writing Poeta en San Francisco was (out)rage, and the process of writing that book was not just unpleasant, it was dark, it was intense, it was emotionally draining, it was a prolonged pit in the stomach. As M. Evelina Galang discusses in her continued hearing and writing of the Lolas’ (Filipina Comfort Women) narratives, I too had to learn to take care of myself. I then thought I would “take it easy” in writing Diwata, a celebration of the woman storyteller voice/persona and its historical persistence, but those glimmers of horror — immolation, dismemberment, abduction, rape, gang rape — came creeping into the text. I didn’t stop it. I became more disturbed by my ability to write these things in such lovely poems. I also wrote war and porn, and the conflation of the two, in a series of poems, many of which became the chapbook Cherry. I wrote those poems until I was sick.
Sexual violence, especially when compounded by race, by religion, by foreign policy, remains a major fixture in my work.
I understand why many Pinays want some safe distance between me and them.
But I also have to say, when I hear other Pinays express self-doubt, wonder aloud whether what they have to say is important enough to write down, I want to ask, what are you not doing enough of to think what you have to say is not important? What are you not risking — is what you are writing not eating you up or perhaps not frightening you? Why aren’t you writing stuff that if you don’t get it out of your body, you will be so sick with it, you won’t be able to stand it?
Or have you been led to believe (and by whom) that beautiful and clever language and turns of phrase and well-constructed narrative arcs suffice?
I want to say, you have to be brave, and braver still. I return to Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Diaries, in which she writes about her own mortality, and the fact that if she did not speak her piece now, if she continued to wait to speak, then she would die having never spoken. She asks, must we all wait until we are dying to feel the urgency to speak? I ask that as well, because I don’t want to wait until I am dying, to speak my mind.
So, I don’t have an answer to Viet’s question, ”What’s the proper proportion of art to anger?” I want to respond by asking more questions. Why is being angry looked upon disdainfully, with shame? Is this our proper Filipina upbringing as las dalagas, as Maria Claras, that has disabled us from speaking our anger, or that has sanitized our ability to communicate that anger effectively, honestly? If so, then we need to throw that upbringing in the basura; it doesn’t serve us. I would argue it has served to perpetuate Pinay victimhood — helplessness, silence, dependence, passivity. We Pinays cannot live in this world without (out)rage. Too much very real horrific shit happens to Pinay/WOC bodies to think we are ever truly safe from harm. To pretend we are safe does not make us safe, but more vulnerable.
So I return again to Alfon’s beautiful story, “Magnificence,” in which a Filipina mother handles with efficiency the sexual predator that has been welcomed into her own home, that a has invaded her and her children’s safe space. (Remember the video from 1997, that a person on a whale watching tour to the Farallones took, of the mother orca thrashing the great white shark that came to prey upon the orca baby? It’s like that.).
Barbara Jane Reyes is the author of Diwata (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2010), recently noted as a finalist for the California Book Award. She was born in Manila, Philippines, raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is the author of two previous collections of poetry, Gravities of Center (Arkipelago Books, 2003) and Poeta en San Francisco (Tinfish Press, 2005), which received the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets. She is also the author of the chapbooks Easter Sunday (Ypolita Press, 2008), Cherry (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2008), and For the City that Nearly Broke Me (Aztlan Libre Press, 2012).
An Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow, she received her B.A. in Ethnic Studies at U.C. Berkeley and her M.F.A. at San Francisco State University. She is an adjunct professor at University of San Francisco’s Yuchengco Philippine Studies Program, where she teaches Filipino/a Literature in Diaspora, and Filipina Lives and Voices in Literature. She has also taught Filipino American Literature at San Francisco State University, and graduate poetry workshop at Mills College. She lives with her husband, poet Oscar Bermeo, in Oakland, where she is co-editor of Doveglion Press.
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