Friday, September 28, 2018

Invocation to Daughters: An Interview with Barbara Jane Reyes

Invocation to Daughters

an interview with Barbara Jane Reyes
conducted by Therese Marie Konopelski

Invocation to Daughters is an intimate account of the Pinay woman experience. Reyes invites the reader to gain an understanding of the female identity in Philippine culture, from a religious, economic and familial context. The invocation to daughters could be understood as a prayer for these women, part of the third-largest Catholic population in the world. The mythos of liturgy with its manifold purposes of contrition, thanksgiving, adoration, and petition are reshaped into human psalms, gospels, and even apocryphal poetry. 

In her diction, Reyes uses stylistic conventions from scripture. It offers a deeper spiritual reflection on the feminine spiritual identity and the call to action from the New Testament. Echoing Christian theology, words dwell among us in the flesh for Reyes, a living testament itself to the multicolored, nuanced, anti patriarchal and deeply joyous celebration of feminine will.
-Therese Konopelski, University of Notre Dame (class of 2020)

[Therese Konopelski]: Invocation to Daughters invites Pinay women to meditate on their relationship with their fathers, the patriarchy, and ultimately their colonialist heritage. What distinctive qualities or personalities do you believe Tagalog, Spanish, and English bring to writing?

[Barbara Jane Reyes]: Tagalog brings Filipino Core Values into the work -- concerns and practices of reciprocity, collectivity, community, and collaboration, over the individual, what I like to call, “we” culture. There is the term, kapwa, which means shared humanity, shared self. Tagalog brings gender-neutral language. Tagalog also brings what I think of as an emphasis on root words, upon which you can build meaning and connection. 

Spanish and English are languages of conquest, but they also very deeply communicate what I think of as contemporary Filipino identities. They bring patriarchal structures and white supremacy into the mix. They also bring cosmopolitanism. Spanish brings Lorca’s duende. Spanish and English bring my ambivalence to the forefront. For example, Filipino reverence for the Virgin Mary recalls the pre-colonial babaylan -- the “poet-priestess” figure, as Filipina author Marjorie Evasco calls her. It also brings the virgin/whore dichotomy, the dutiful daughter, the product of Spanish rape, the cloistered, the ghostly María Clara of José Rizal’s Noli Mi Tángere. Spanish also brings the Nuyorican, Xicanx, Latinx, poetics of dissent and resistance. 

English is the language in which I am most proficient. Yes, it is colonially imposed, and therefore, a marker of social status. And as an American, as an immigrant aligned with other marginalized groups, my English is not just standard or institutional. My English is hybrid, incorporating urban vernacular, code switching, and “Tag-lish.” This hybridity is also a kind of resistance.    

[TK]: The Philippines has a very strong Roman Catholic presence and you reframe many religious ideas in your poetry. You speak of a woman Jesus, and reimagine many patron saints as more feisty females. What is your position on female role models in the Catholic Church?    

[BJR]: Are you referring to my Juana de la Cruz? For Filipinos, Juan de la Cruz is the “everyman.” Juana de la Cruz is therefore the “everywoman.” This is an acknowledgment of the Filipina who is ubiquitous but invisible in the world, working and hustling thanklessly. The poem, “The Gospel of Juana de la Cruz,” is modeled after the beginning of the Gospel of Saint John, poetic writings of the word made flesh. So then I’m poetically inserting my Filipina “everywoman” into canonical space, as opposed to apocryphal space, to which she is regularly relegated (see my poem, “Apocryphal”). 

As for other female role models in Catholicism, one thing I go back to is Filipino syncretic ideas about the Virgin Mary. Do the status of and respect for pre-colonial women, the babaylanes, inform how we regard women today. 

I do have a poem, “To the Patron Saint of Encumbered Wives,” which I wrote after reading an article, “Paying Tribute to Saint Wilgefortis,” in Paris Review: “Wilgefortis is the patron of tribulations, with a special focus on those women who wish to be disencumbered from abusive spouses.” There was -- and is -- a need for a saint to represent the needs of wives with abusive spouses. There is a need to pray. There is a need to come together and name the harm aloud -- in other words, to resist the silence which perpetuates patriarchal violence.  

[TK]: Purity culture introduces harmful concepts of ownership where the father and the daughter are both charged with guarding her virtue. In many ways, it is incompatible with consent, because the father is charged with controlling her sexuality. How is a daughter the fulcrum of her father in Philippine culture, as stated in Mythos? Why is this belief damaging? ” 

[BJR]: “The daughter is the leverage of the father,” would be another way of wording “fulcrum.” She is an asset, just as a water buffalo is an asset, one you can offer up as a bid for changing, improving your own social positioning. Sons carry the family name, inherit the land or the business, but if little or no land or business is to be had, the daughter may be offered up in marriage to other families, who have assets. In Angeles Monrayo’s Tomorrow’s Memories, we see a father promise his adolescent daughter in marriage to a much older man; in exchange, a brand new automobile is promised. 

In my mind, it should go without saying -- this belief is damaging, because these transactions are not contingent upon a girl’s or woman’s consent. This is violence.  

[TK]: Though the relationship between father and daughter is burdened by gendered dynamics, you care deeply about his health, a man with no sons. You thought of poetry on The Day he died, acknowledging that “Sometimes you are broken. Poetry won’t fix you. Poetry can’t fix you.” What relationship did poetry play in coming to terms with your upbringing?

[BJR]: Maybe my belief and insistence upon being creative, generative, are what “fix” me, should I ever feel as if I am broken. When I was young and inchoate, my private notebooks contained likewise inchoate poems. That was a young me, figuring out what I thought about the world, my place in it, and whether I had anything to say. I go back to Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” in which she writes, “It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.” 

To be clear, my upbringing was one of a suburban immigrant American family of all daughters, one in which the daughters were expected to attend top ranked universities, and to become high earning professionals. Poetry was where I figured out that kapwa, that empathy and cultural wisdom were the things I prioritized.  

[TK]: Many of the bilingual and trilingual poems retain the chant like quality of traditional Catholic prayers as in Orasyon. “Maria Santisima, maravillosa. She is a fissure, an excess.” Do you read poems like these in the same tone of voice you would read the Hail Mary?

[BJR]: I think of the tone of voice we would use to recite the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as a congregation, many voices as one. There is also the possibility of the call and response, the way a congregation recites the rosary. So those would be the traditional elements. I had always been taught that you pray for those in or with “need.” I think those are the folks who populate my prayer poems. I really don't know then, how divergent they are.  

[TK]: Some poems deal with instances of violence against women. Two psalms, especially, are written for Mary Jane Veloso and Jennifer Laude. Can you shed some light on the context in which their fate caught your attention and why you found them especially moving?

[BJR]: These “instances” of violence against Mary Jane Veloso and Jennifer Laude occurred within the larger continuum of violences perpetrated against Filipina bodies rendered powerless within a patriarchal order. In Veloso’s case, the context is an economy that requires the global movement of exploitable Filipina labor, and the absence of rights and protections for the Filipina laborer abroad. For Jennifer Laude, the context is American militarization and the associated sexualization of Filipinas, and then the status of transgender folks. 

I want to add that Laude was regularly mis-gendered in news stories following her murder. I also want to add that when the families of Veloso and Laude ceased to “play nice” with politicians and media, the public criticism was heartless. 

So we have many layers here. This is what moved me to write. 

These were major stories within our Filipino communities, for obvious reasons, and I was drowning in news stories shared on social media. But there are other Filipinas whose experiences with patriarchal violence do not result in international (or even local) activism.  

[TK]:Do you believe your work will be eye opening for Pinay women who read it? What advice do you have for women and girls who are not independent from their parents who are living in this culture? 

[BJR]: I can only hope for this work to be eye opening; I find that the Pinays who reach out to me after reading this work are the ones, not just whose eyes have been opened, but those who have been looking for the language, the voice to communicate, name the things they have known all their lives. 

There are also the Pinays who perhaps aren’t ready to read work that hits too close to home. It’s painful to revisit trauma, and seeing this ethnic and gendered violence in the pages of a book brings up questions of how much we are willing to see it, speak of it, and have others see of us. It’s frightening, to participate in the naming of the harm, to confront perpetrators of violence. 

There are real consequences. Families and communities break apart when violence is exposed. All shit breaks loose when a daughter says no, when she states her intention to break with centuries-long traditions of obedience and acquiescence. 

I suppose that would be my advice then -- all shit will break loose, as it should. Be prepared for this.


Barbara Jane Reyes is the author of Invocation to Daughters (City Lights Publishers, 2017). She is the author of four previous collections, including Poeta en San Francisco (TinFish Press), and Diwata (BOA Editions, Ltd). Her sixth book, Letters to a Young Brown Girl, is forthcoming from BOA Editions, Ltd.

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