INTERVIEW WITH LUISA IGLORIA
WRITE A BIO ABOUT YOURSELF.
(previously published as Maria Luisa Aguilar-Cariño)
The "official" bio stuff can be looked up (also on my website, www.luisaigloria.com) so I'll talk about
what you won't necessarily find there unless you know me. J I grew up in Baguio, a city in the northern part
of the Philippines, designed in the early 1900s by the Chicago architect Daniel Burnham as a hill station for
the American colonial government. It's beautiful, temperate all year round; the city is part of the Cordillera
region - fog in the early mornings and late afternoons, craggy mountains, pine trees, limestone rocks; rice
terraces even further north. Because of its history as a hill station, Baguio is a place that bears many traces
of the complex encounter between the Philippines and America. Before I even become aware of the subject of
postcoloniality, I think just growing up in Baguio influenced and predisposed me toward the subjects dear to
me in poetry-the relationships between language, place, and history.
My father was a lawyer, and in the last fifteen or so years of his life in public service, he became a judge;
my mother started out as a stay at home mom, but when I was in college she decided to go back to school and
finish her degrees. She kept going, and received her doctorate even before I got my own. I was raised as an
only child and my parents were completely invested in my education. They taught me to read when I was 3, and
also signed me up for piano lessons at around the same time. We weren't poor, but we weren't exactly wealthy;
we got our first television set when I was nearly 10 years old, our first car (a used vehicle) when I was nearly
out of high school. I went to school at Holy Family Academy in our parish, a private, Catholic school at first
only for girls, but by the time I was in 4th grade it had become co-ed. I think back then, "private school" had
a different connotation from the way we understand it now- for example, our classmates included the daughter of
the school janitor, as well as the daughters of city councilmen and governors. It was a fifteen minute walk from
our home to school, and I walked everyday to and from except during the rainy season (6 months of monsoons, and
typhoons or hurricanes), when my parents signed me up for jeepney service along with around 9 other kids in the
immediate neighborhood (kind of like busing, but with door to door service). My parents clearly wanted me to have
a liberal arts education-they had hoped I would become a lawyer like my father, or a concert pianist (they used to
tell me I was in part named after a Filipina pianist, Maria Luisa Lopez Vito-though I really don't know anything
else about her). I did have about 12 years of piano lessons, culminating in what they called a "premiere recital"
just before I graduated from high school; I suppose I could have gone on to a conservatory, but by that time I had
fallen more in love with language and literature.
My early childhood life at home, and even when I was in my teens, was at least to me filled with a sense of
high drama. Someone in the family was always quarrelling with someone else; I'd wake up to the sounds of
cutlery being hurled across a room, or people screaming at each other, or my mother in hysterics. Sometimes
it was because she and my paternal grandmother (who lived with us for a number of years until she died at the
age of 93) were having a go at it. My grandmother, I'm told, did not really approve of my parents' marriage;
class may have had something to do with it (my mother was a farmer's daughter). Anyway, the story is that to
show her disapproval of the match, she slept between my father and mother on their wedding night (I've written
about this in a poem called "Secrets," in my book Encanto). Much, much later (I was 28 and had three daughters
by then), I also learned that my mother was not really my biological mother-it was her younger sister, who also
lived with us, along with her own family, in the same extended household for many many years. So I have
When there wasn't this sort of unfolding drama around me, there'd be a lot of physical activity.
My mothers are both talented seamstresses, and they took in sewing for money sometimes. My biological mother
is also an excellent cook. They were always constantly at work on something, doing something with their hands.
They were in the kitchen a lot of the time. As a toddler, I was often plunked down in one corner while they worked.
They would often push a winnowing basket filled with lima beans in front of me, and very seriously tell me that
my task was to peel them. I believe this is where I first learned to nurture my love for stories-as it was a
great vantage point to soak up all the talk. All the attitudes I have toward work and craft, I learned as well
from them: attention to detail, the excitement at watching something emerge from your ministrations and labors,
the ability to keep all the senses open, to improvise; my love for textures, smells, tastes, and sounds, and
especially the appetite and curiosity for the new. They were never afraid to taste, and they never for a
moment thought that a young child should be protected from that kind of experience.
My father and memories of my father occupy an equally important position. He took me with him a
lot-often walking as well-to his office after he happened to pick me up from school, where I got to observe
what he did for a living, and got to meet the people he worked with at all levels. He was a very social person,
and was well liked. He liked stopping at a Chinese restaurant called The Star Café to chat with friends-other
lawyers, or bankers, police officers; the air would be thick with smoke and the clatter of porcelain dishes.
I'd be in heaven, esconced in my own chair, oblivious to their talk and banter, reading a comic book procured
from the newsstand in the corner, a glass of coke or cold chocolate milk in front of me, sometimes a slice of
egg pie or a small saucer of French fries and ketchup. He took very good care of his appearance even though
we had a limited household budget. Both my parents were involved in many things, and so I think that growing
up I may have spent more time with them and their friends rather than with people my own age. My mother,
in her mostly stay at home years, was a member of several civic organizations-the YWCA, the Women's Club,
even one of the first chapters of the Family Planning Association of the Philippines in our city. Through
connections at work, my father always managed to get tickets to some kind of cultural show or other-one time
it was tickets to see a tour group from the Bolshoi ballet with the legendary Dame Margot Fonteyn, another
time perhaps to a Van Cliburn concert, a local theatre production of "Hansel and Gretel," a traveling production
of "Jesus Christ Superstar," the chess matches between Fischer and Kasparov. I also remember my mother taking
me out of school early when I was in first grade, so we could go to the local cinema and together watch the
first run of "Showboat" or "The King and I." My father was even more of a movie buff than my mother; he'd
take me even as a very young girl to westerns, musicals, Fred Astaire or Charlie Chaplin movies, you name it;
when any salacious scenes came on, he'd say "cover your eyes with your fingers."
Barely a month after my college graduation-I was 18-I got married. Because there is an aspect to my
childhood that seemed very sheltered to me, I felt like my real life must be waiting after I did the school
thing; and that marriage, creating a family of my own, would induct me into this "real life". The man I
married then was 9 years my senior, and had very different life experiences from mine, though I would say
not so very different class experiences. Shortly after that I also started teaching university
(October 2005 marked my 25th year as a teacher of writing and literature!). I have three daughters by that
previous marriage (their ages are 24, 22, and 17). I remarried in 1999, in Illinois; my husband and I live
and work in Norfolk, VA with my 22 year old and 17 year old; the eldest, the 24 year old, continues to live
and work in Baguio with her partner-she is also a writer, a visual artist, and musician. We also have a new
"baby"-she is 4 years old. When I remarried I decided to publish under the name Luisa Igloria; I think it's
shorter than the name I used in previous publications, and easier to remember.
DESCRIBE THE ROOM YOU WRITE IN.
About a year and a half ago we moved into the second floor of a home built in the early 1900s, which has
been converted by the owner into two apartments. Immediately to the left of our front door is a little 5 ' x 5 '
recess, with about 8 brass coat hooks riveted to the wall. I suppose this was originally meant to be a sort of
mud room or foyer- but when we first inspected this apartment I took one look at the space and claimed it as my
writing nook. What I like about it is that it is a corner space, and there are two windows that let in a lot
of light. The west-facing window looks out onto the more busy Hampton Boulevard, and so there is often quite
a bit of noise from traffic; the north-facing window looks out onto the middle of our street in a relatively
quiet residential area-- the Ghent neighborhood in Norfolk. I have a wooden computer desk in here, two makeshift
corner bookshelves, a computer chair, and another small two-shelf bookcase behind me. There isn't much room
to move, but that's fine. There's no door or partition to separate this space from the rest of our home.
In fact I don't think I can ever remember a time when I had the luxury of "a room of my own" to write in.
Growing up in an extended family/household, there was hardly any real privacy for anybody. Now, too, as a
full time mom with a toddler all over again, at the same time that I'm a full time academic, I'm always
juggling responsibilities. I've learned to write even when ostensibly I'm not writing, so when I can actually
get to pen and paper or the computer I can get into it. I like to be surrounded by books when I write; and so,
many of my favorite poetry books are in this part of the apartment. I write mostly on the computer now, though
I still very much relish the feel of writing in notebooks and journals. I stow several of these in my purse and
book bags especially when I go on a trip. Lately I've become partial to those Moleskines-lined or unlined.
I also usually have a small glue stick with me somewhere in my book bag, and, especially when I travel, I like
to paste odd little bits of memorabilia and found objects in my journals; or I draw. I love calligraphy pens
and fountain pens. I love sepia ink.
WHO ARE YOU READING NOW?
For school (I regularly teach three courses in the fall and two in the spring), it's a combination
of books I have loved and read/re-read before, as well as new discoveries; that try to address the mandate for
study sketched out in a course description, as well as some other shaping theme or focus that I like to
introduce to make the course "my own". This fall, for instance, I am teaching a graduate workshop in poetry;
a graduate colloquium course; and an undergraduate course in women's literature-the latter is not a survey,
and it serves a variety of students coming from different disciplines (not everyone in it is an English or
Literature major, in other words); therefore the challenge is for me to try to get in a sense of the breadth
and scope of the general area (in 15 weeks!), and also look at how these books can be brought into a closer
"dialogue" with each other. The theme I've crafted for our fall reading is "Visions of Women both Terrible
and Sublime"; we are reading/have read Kate Chopin's The Awakening, Carol Ann Duffy's The World's Wife,
Lan Samantha Chang's Inheritance, Toni Morrison's Beloved, Edwidge Danticat's The Farming of Bones,
Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee, Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran,
and Cecilia Vicuña's Instan; and watching films like Carl Theodor Dreyer's Passion of St. Joan of Arc and
Marleen Gorris' Antonia's Line. For the graduate workshop in poetry we are reading/have read B.H. Fairchild's
The Art of the Lathe, Rhina Espaillat's The Shadow I Dress In, Alison Hawthorne Deming's Genius Loci,
Denise Duhamel's Two and Two, Derek Walcott's The Prodigal, John Ashbery's long poem "Self-Portrait in a
Convex Mirror" and Susan Wheeler's "The Debtor in the Convex Mirror".
For myself (for my own enjoyment and instruction)-it's always hard to make a list because I'm a
voracious reader and re-reader; there are always a number of things I'm interested in and I often read
several books at the same time. Right now these include (not necessarily in any order) Claudia Rankine's
Don't Let Me Be Lonely, Amy Uyematsu's Stone Bow Prayer, Marianne Villanueva's Mayor of the Roses,
Billy Collins' The Trouble with Poetry, David S. Landes' The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, Barbara Jordan's
Trace Elements, Ahdaf Soueif's The Map of Love, Derek Walcott's What the Twilight Says, Dana Levin's
In the Surgical Theatre, Susan Wheeler's Ledger, Sandra Alcosser's Except by Nature, Susan Stewart's
On Longing, Rebecca Añonuevo's Talinghaga ng Gana (The Metaphor of Spirit), Leslie Adrienne Miller's
Eat Quite Everything You See, Tom Montgomery-Fate's Steady and Trembling, the latest issues of Poetry
(October and November), the J. Jill catalogue, the December Chocolate/Holiday Bliss issue of Food & Wine.
Oh- and trying to finish the last Harry Potter book because I took it up sometime last year, got busy and had
to put it down halfway through, and now that the movie is out my daughters are challenging me to finish before
we actually troop to the movie theatre to watch it.
YOU CURRENTLY TEACH AT OLD DOMINION UNIVERSITY. WHAT ARE A FEW IMPORTANT THINGS YOU WANT TO SHARE WITH YOUR STUDENTS ABOUT WRITING?
In the poetry workshops that I teach, I make it a point to integrate a significant reading component besides
the general workshop protocol that students have come to expect (swapping work in a roundtable setting to critique
each others' poems-in-progress); this is because I believe that anyone who seriously wants to write should immerse
him/herself in the work of as many writers as possible. Certainly one should be reading because the genre is
something exciting in the first place, something that one feels passionate about so that there is a desire to
learn as much about it as possible. I like to give students an ample range of material to read every semester,
partly to demonstrate that there are many ways to write. At the same time I refrain from imposing a single
style because what I think writers really want most, whatever it is they're writing about, is to work closer to
the sound of their own poetry, the sound of their own poetic voice.
I hope I can teach them too about the value of constant writing practice, as well as the value of perspective.
I tell them that I didn't really cut my teeth on a creative writing program culture, so to speak; I had my
first honest to gosh creative writing workshop experience at the age of 30, when I first came to the US in
1992-at the University of Illinois in Chicago, where I studied for the Ph.D. in Creative Writing under the
poets Ralph J. Mills and Michael Anania. I think coming from this kind of a background has been liberating
for me, perhaps because I feel able to regard some of the expectations of writing in this culture
(including writing in the "academic context"), in a different manner. For instance, perhaps because
of this background I feel more immediately aware of how the current contexts of writing in America are
not necessarily the only ones which we can/should think about and draw from, when we invoke the idea of
Not too long ago I helped my friend, the singer and songwriter Grace Nono (she's based in Manila, but tours
widely in Asia, and just last month participated in a music festival in Berlin), work on a project to record
indigenous poems and epics under her Tao Music publishing label. She invited me to help on the album Marino
("Beautiful"), recordings of original Ambahan (a sung or chanted poetic form indigenous to the Mangyan tribe
on the island of Mindoro in southern Philippines); Grace, who is familiar with their spoken and written language,
translated the poems into Tagalog, and I would work from the Tagalog versions and prepare the English
translations for the libretto. She invited four Ambahan poet-chanters to travel to Manila from their home
village, and I had the opportunity to meet them at her home, where we worked for several nights on the translations.
Observing how they worked, listening (in translation) to the stories they told, and seeing how poetry came
to them in such a spontaneous and organic way was an immensely humbling experience. Ambahan are composed
and recited in response to everyday events, as well as to mark significant points in the life cycle; I thought
to myself, these poets did not have to attend workshops or take classes in order to incorporate poetry in their
lives in such an organic way. This to me is the ideal place of poetry-not separate, but intimately connected
to everything we do, so that everything becomes the occasion for poetry. How to learn to recover that same
sense of spontaneity and connectedness even within the structuredness of writing programs
(and our everyday routines), is to me the real challenge- to write from that sense of necessity,
not only or just because of the desire to publish or see the work in print.
WHO ARE SOME OF THE WRITERS THAT INSPIRE YOU?
I'll have to share an anecdote from my childhood. When I was about 6 or 7 years old- I suppose I was in
first grade-my mother bought a book from the old Ato Bookstore in Baguio City, and gave it to me as a present.
She liked to take me there and browse-I remember it was on the basement level of the building that also housed
the old Philippine Airlines branch office; there were also curios, Cordillera sculptures and artwork on display.
The book she gave me was Magnificence, a book of short stories by Estrella Alfon, one of the earliest
Filipina writers in English to come to prominence in the world of Philippine letters in the mid-30s and 40s.
I was a precocious reader (was reading by the age of 3), but to this day when I think of my mother giving me
such a gift at such an age, I can't help but wonder-what on earth was she thinking!? Of course it is an
understatement to say I loved Estrella Alfon's stories. They were spare but incredibly lucid, they told
of ordinary people and ordinary events but in such a way as to render them so newly precise and insightful-a
group of young people going on a picnic, a lonely washerwoman fantasizing that the cochero (carriage driver)
passing her street everyday is going to be her knight in shining armor, a young journalist spending a summer
with childless relatives on their farm. I've asked my mother about why she gave me the book and she has
said that it was from the hope that I might "also be a writer someday". Needless to say, this is one of
the books that I made sure I took with me when I came to Norfolk to accept the job offer from Old Dominion
University in 1998.
Another important writer to inspire me is the late Filipino poet Carlos Angeles, the first recipient of
the Palanca Award for Poetry (the Palanca is the highest national literary distinction in the Philippines).
I'd read and admired his work as a college undergraduate, so when I met him, at first via email in 1993 or 1994,
and then in person in 1995, it felt like going back to a primary literary resource. We developed a close
friendship until he died a few years ago, and to this day I maintain contact with one of his daughters and
her family. Carlos was perhaps my first reader in those years-you know, the person you show your work to
when you're in that first flush of excitement after having written a poem and you want someone to read it
and tell you what it's like. I mean, I would show poems to my family and they'd say things like wow yes
it's nice or very good, but Carlos would be my literary first reader-someone who would point out craft or
syntax issues, that sort of thing. He was very quick, very good at getting to the point, and also to the
heart of a poem. He had great intuition.
Other writers that inspire me-they are so many it's hard to begin listing. Let me just say that I read a
lot and I learn from every single writer I encounter, even if he or she may not necessarily have a style or
sensibility that is close to my own. I try to read writers from other traditions unfamiliar to me, since I
want to guard against the danger of dwelling only in familiar territory. I like the idea of risk, or at least
of unsettlement, because it signals that I am alive and responsive at that gut level and therefore it may be
possible for me to continue to experience transformation.
TALK ABOUT YOUR NEW POETRY BOOK TRILL & MORDENT BY WORDTECH EDITIONS.
Trill & Mordent won a Runner-up position in the 2004 Editions Poetry Prize competition, from WordTech
Communications; the prize included a publication contract. The Editions imprint line is interested in publishing
work that highlights and furthers the connections between poetry and the world immediately around it.
I'm really happy with the book, and the careful attention that my publishers (Kevin Walzer and Lori Jareo)
have lavished on it; and proud to be part of the stellar list of authors they have published. The poems in
Trill & Mordent were written between 2002 and 2003, in that post-9/11 climate of anxiety and terror that I
think we have an increased awareness of as citizens of the 21st century. Now that I look back on the poems,
I think one of the threads connecting them is the response to the question: what is anyone to do, what can
people do, in the face of those things that would seem to deny the possibility of beauty or hope or comfort
if not faith? The title poem "Trill & Mordent" was partly triggered by reports on the sniper shootings in
the Baltimore-west Virginia area in 2002-a father and son driving around in a van, picking random targets in
a shooting spree that left so many dead. Should we lose our need to feel and have beauty, intimacy, or pleasure
in our lives, because of the things that inspire their opposite? For me the answer is a resounding no.
Many readers have by now said to me that they can see quite a number of musical references in the book-beginning
with the title, which of course refers to grace notes in music (appoggiatura)-trills and mordents.
Musically they might seem superfluous-an extra fillip or flourish, ornamentation that does not seem to add
very much to the basic melody. But they're also technically demanding to play because you have to
somehow fit them in seamlessly, not just as an afterthought.
I felt a great sense of urgency writing the poems in Trill & Mordent. Because I teach mostly evening
classes that end at 10 pm, I get home quite late. By the time I've had my supper, cleaned up, prepared my
little girl's lunch for school the next day, picked up the debris in the living room, it's midnight.
Ideally I should have been going to bed, but I couldn't-I sat down to write, and sometimes kept going until
early morning. I worked on the poems in Trill & Mordent like this, for about a year. If I couldn't leave a
poem I would pull an all-nighter. I can't understand it completely, but it is probably because as a family we
were also going through some real difficulties especially at that time; without getting too much into the
details I'll just say that it had something to do with the difficulty of immigrants trying to get the logistics
of their existence together.
YOU RECEIVED FELLOWSHIPS TO ATTEND THE SUMMER LITERARY SEMINARS IN ST. PETERSBERG,
RUSSIA AND TO HAWTHORNDEN CASTLE IN SCOTLAND. WHAT WAS THAT LIKE? TALK ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE THERE.
Retreats and writing conferences can be a lot of fun to go to. Because I teach full time all year, often
into the first summer session at my university as well (we have a large family and this is the only way we can
put aside a little extra for daycare tuition, music lessons for some of the kids, apartment moving expenses, etc.)
- going away to a retreat or writing conference is something I really look forward to because I know that time
spent there will be time focused on me and my writing. It also helps a lot if I get financial support to do this,
so I apply for tuition and related scholarship support-which is how I got to St. Petersburg, Russia, and into the
Summer Literary Seminars for two weeks in the summer of 2003. I entered some poems in their competition, and
received one of the partial fellowships. My family didn't have a lot of money (we still don't), and the air fare
and some other travel related expenses (visa processing, etc.) were a bit formidable. Undaunted, I knocked
on all the doors I could think of-asked my department and college if there was any extra travel money left for
faculty (I was told none, because it was the end of the academic year). A friend suggested writing up a letter
requesting for pledges of support, and sending it around to friends, relatives, organizations and groups I was
part of. I thought it was a little like going door to door and selling Girl Scout cookies, but with the promise
to deliver not pastries but poetry at the end of the program. On the letter I told everyone that if I did not
reach my target by a specified date, they would not have to actually write and send their pledged checks.
Suffice it to say that I got an overwhelming response and was able to go. I had sent one of the pledge request
letters to our university president (she's also a poet), and was so encouraged by her positive gesture; she
contributed out of her personal check book and said that she believed in junior faculty, especially women,
going after opportunities like this. Being in St. Petersburg and in the SLS that summer was wonderful on
so many different levels- the city was celebrating its tricentennial, and therefore it seemed to me that
the headiness of being in a new landscape was multiplied by the way that same place happened to be so
strongly foregrounding its relationship to history. I think that's the reason I found myself writing a set of
poems triggered by another historical event-this time in Philippine history, the 1904 World's Fair and Exposition
in St. Louis, Missouri, to which about 1100 indigenous Filipino bodies were transported to serve as live
exhibits-while I was in Russia. SLS participants were housed at an inn/hostel; we had communal breakfasts
(yogurt, coffee, brown bread) during a strictly regulated hour (kitchen/dining staff were there to enforce
it because of the fast turnover and high numbers of other tour groups also waiting for their breakfasts),
then walked to a nearby university for our workshops. There were plenty of opportunities to take in the sights,
stroll down Nevsky prospect, visit the Hermitage, go to the ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre, attend faculty
readings at the Theatrical Museum, visit a gallery of avant-garde art, make a run for postcards, icons, fur
caps and Matryoshka dolls behind the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, go to a banya or Russian bath house,
join crowds in the streets walking in the beautiful unearthly light of the famous "white nights", walk through
the old neighborhoods of Dostoyevsky, retrace the steps of Raskolnikov when he went to kill the moneylender in
Crime and Punishment. At some point I had to really hunker down and tell myself that I needed to stop going to
more events and sightseeing trips, because I was there to write.
The Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, which has affiliations with the Ecco Press, is
in Lasswade, in the Midlothian highlands of Scotland. It is a short bus ride away from the Edinburgh city center.
For many years, a number of Filipino and Filipina poets have been able to get fellowships to go to Hawthornden,
and it has sort of become a tradition for Filipino writers to send in applications for fellowships. They are of
course competitive (applicants need to have publications credits), and the retreats are seasonal. They only
take five writers a quarter; fellows can be in residence for 4-6 weeks. It was pure bliss to be there. The
castle motto is to write in peace and decent ease. That's certainly what every writer in residence can expect.
The five fellows in session can come from different genres. Each gets a room named after a famous writer
(I got the Bronte room. Which Bronte? Why, Luisa Bronte of course J ). Writers mingle with each other and the
Castle Administrator only during the breakfast and dinner hour. The kitchen staff brought lunch at noon and
left it beside each fellow's bedroom door: simple but hearty fare, usually a thermos flask of nourishing vegetable
soup, a sandwich, an apple or a banana. At 4:00 in the afternoon we would hear someone trundling up the narrow
stairs to the fellows' quarters, and the rattle of tea things on a tray. Everyone was free to help him/herself
to a cup of hot tea, and a saucer of whatever fresh-baked tea goodies there were: scones, shortbread cookies,
fingers of cake. In between these times no one was supposed to socialize with each other. Each one was supposed
to be communing with himself or herself and the writing, or whatever feeds the writing. Because I tend to
write mostly at night, I would either go to the castle library and read and take notes in the morning, crawl
out on the roof space just outside my window, spread a towel to sit on, and read in fitful sunlight; we could
take little hikes around the castle property, or take a bus and walk in Edinburgh to visit museums, bookstores
and the like. The enforced silence and working rules were very very good for my productivity in the spring of
1998 when I was there.
HOW BIG WAS THE ADJUSTMENT MOVING HERE FROM THE PHILIPPINES? DID THIS HAVE A BIG INFLUENCE ON YOUR WRITING?
In some ways the adjustment was not a big deal, also because of the long history of Philippine-American
relations (for instance, I did not have any language issues to surmount); even before I left the Philippines
for the first time in 1992 I felt very familiar with American culture. Nevertheless 1992 was my first experience
of overseas travel. I had won a Fulbright fellowship to do my Ph.D. in Chicago. Accepting the grant meant leaving
behind my family-that was difficult. I think we've really had to redefine family and our relationships with each
other in the process. This also made me experience first hand that phenomenon we academics talk about so much
these days: living in exile, living in the diaspora. What transpired before my actual departure for America, is
also a very significant part of my story of relocation. So much happened in the 2 years before 1992, before I
left for Chicago. My marriage was beginning to fall apart. We had just moved into a house we'd built on a
government loan (house construction in the Philippines, or I suppose in any other developing country, is a
truly formidable challenge)-we had not even painted either the exterior or interior of our home yet, and we had
problems with the waterproofing of the firewall; we had cleaned out all our savings to speak of, and had many
debts owed to various relatives and friends. Then on the afternoon of July 16, 1990, two earthquakes
registering 8.8 on the Richter scale, struck in quick succession; their epicenter was very near Baguio City.
The sounds of breaking glass and crumbling concrete all around, I walked into my street that afternoon in a daze.
Our firewall had cracked open from the edge of the roof all the way to the first floor. Luckily no one in my
family was hurt. We slept in the car, or on plyboard sheets provided by a neighbor who was in construction.
It felt like the end of the world. There was no power, no water, for at least a week, possibly two or more.
Two weeks after, we had managed to move back into the livin room and one of the front rooms, but ran
out in a panic with every aftershock. Then my father, who had been doing poorly before this, went into a coma.
We rushed him to the hospital, or what remained of it, and he died there a few hours later. We took his body
home because there were no caskets to be had anymore, there were so many dead. All the funeral parlors in town
were filled to capacity. It took a couple of days before we could get him a coffin. The wake was in our
living room. We buried him while the city was still about 75% in ruins. I remember asking myself at that
time what the significance of all these events might be; perhaps it is the English major in me-I keep looking
to interpret and decode events for signs or metaphors. Nevertheless that was how it was-by the time I left
on my Fulbright, it felt like I had been brought to a crossroads. I felt like the home we'd just lost in the
earthquake-torn down, not quite sure how it would get rebuilt.
After my Fulbright stint I returned to the Philippines, and taught for nearly two years before being hired
by Old Dominion University. I had not really thought that I would be coming back to the US to relocate more
permanently, but this is what has happened. A writer in the Netherlands recently asked me in another interview,
if I felt like my writing chose me or if I chose to become a writer. I told her that I can always remember
writing, that the one constant through all my life experiences thus far has been the poetry- despite/during/in
the aftermath of events that have seemed to me so traumatic that it would seem inconceivable for me to continue
to write poetry (and instead attend only to matters of "survival"), I have been able to do so. To me that's one
of the strongest signs that poetry has chosen me.
Because of my personal and other histories--as a woman, as a daughter, as a mother, as a Filipina, a
postcolonial subject and diasporic individual, as a teacher still struggling to find a niche within the context
of American academia, I cannot help but bring these concerns to my writing. When I get phone calls from
colleagues asking me if I know where they might find some good housekeeping help, or when they express doubts
about whether I really publish in nationally refereed literary journals, likewise I cannot help but feel that my
accomplishments are being called into question because of the same histories I bring with me and that I've
On the other hand I have also had the privilege of meeting, working with, teaching, learning from,
and befriending many individuals who restore my hope in the possibility of transcendence.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW?
On the writing end I'm hard at work revising/putting finishing touches on another poetry manuscript I
started during my St. Petersburg summer, and that I completed in 2004; the working title is
Bodies Robed in Dusky Brown, and it is partly on Filipino concsciption in the 1904 World's Fair and Exposition in St. Louis,
Missouri; it's also about looking, acts of representation, making images. I also want to revisit a novel I
began writing a few years ago. This summer I took up painting again, after a hiatus of about ten years.
This is just for fun, completely for myself, and so it takes me a while to finish a picture-but I love getting
into that zone where it feels like I don't need to think in "structures" anymore. Other things I'm working on:
packing up my office at ODU! Faculty members from the 6th to the 9th floors, are being relocated over the
Christmas break because renovations are being made on our building. I also want to learn to play another
musical instrument, learn another language, and teach my 4 year old Tagalog and Ilokano-not
necessarily in that order!