‘A way of breathing together’: Winnie Dunn Interviews Merlinda Bobis

By and | 1 May 2020

Merlinda Bobis is a poet first and foremost but her extensive body of work has transpired across novels, plays, performances, essays, and works for radio. A single dialogue between us can in no way capture her incredible writing, which is able to transcend borders in all their myriad and sometimes devastating forms. Yet, what I have aimed for in this interview is to showcase the mind of one of Australia’s most brilliant writers to date writing through her Filipino-Australian heritage in a time where the Filipino-Australian community has been vastly ignored and undervalued. As we live, love, and strive to survive together in a time of a global pandemic, I hope this dialogue reminds us how poetry moves through us and can be used as a tool to keep us together.

Winnie Dunn: What does poetry mean to you as a Filipino-Australian writer?

Merlinda Bobis: As a Filipino-Australian writer now, I regard poetry as a way of being, a way of breathing together. It is auditory art as much as it is literature that is not exclusive but shared among the community. I grew up in the Bikol region in the Philippines listening on radio to the tigsikan, an oral poetry joust that used to be done in the public park. Some say the tigsik originally meant ‘a toast’, a Bikol poetic form of three to four rhyming lines extemporaneously rendered at drinking sessions or community get-togethers under the full moon, or in ‘a courtship conversation’ between young men and women. Nowadays it’s used to praise, critique, have fun or have a contest of ideas. Thus, ingrained in me is ‘poetry as community practice’ – it has to do something more and beyond the interests of the poet or the writer. This is why, writing here in Australia about this new home or the Philippines and other parts of the world, I can’t work in an ivory tower. The ‘art for art’s sake’ poetics does not sit well with me. As I grow older, I believe writing has to be with the community of the planet, with bodies (human and non-human) engaging each other and the daily business of living, loving and dying, and jousting with issues that affect all of us as we relate to each other and our shared home, the planet. And one relates primarily with the body before anything else. Poetry is senses and limbs, muscle and bone, and all the tiny cells in them awake to the world we live in!

WD: You talk about your writing practice as ‘collision-collaboration’ and that the ‘space between two colliding elements actually emerges as a third element: hybrid, ambivalent, and constantly interrogating itself’. To what aspect do you use poetry to interrogate yourself? What parts of you need interrogating to produce a poem?

MB: It’s not so much that I consciously use poetry to interrogate myself but that the very process of writing poetry is underpinned by an intuitive self-interrogation. Who and what am I in relation to what I’m writing about in this given space and time, without discounting what came before and what is to come? It’s this interrogation of positionality that underpins the ethics of writing or any practice for that matter. Often, it’s unconscious, a little niggle at the back of my head: ‘you write about a Filipina domestic helper in Manhattan from the comfort of your Canberra study?’ Sometimes, it grows into a conscious querying, an unpacking after the fact: ‘what does this poem/story about a war or a typhoon in the Philippines do for the Filipinos you’ve left behind? Who gains and who loses out in your poetic enterprise?

Now, let me tackle that quote on ‘collision-collaboration’ of different elements. As a Filipino-Australian writing in three languages and across different forms (poetry, short story, novel, drama, and recently screenplay), and performing my own writing for different audiences, I am constantly working with diverse elements that collide and collaborate with each other. So, I find myself producing a hybrid piece that has been informed by diversity. And in this ‘finished piece’, these diverse elements constantly negotiate with each other, so it’s never fully finished as such, thus sometimes readers find it difficult to pigeonhole the writing or the writer. But who wants to be pigeonholed? The writing process is a continuous creating and catapulting outside of one’s creation/s, in order to create anew.

WD: What languages do you use in your poetry and why? Can you also tell us more about Bikol?

MB: My ‘incanting of the world’ is shaped by who I am, where I come from and where I’m at, all of which have ‘grown’ my body and sensibility. I have written poetry in my first tongue, Bikol, the language of the Bikol region where I’m originally from; Filipino, the national language of the Philippines; and English, which I learned at school when I was about six years old. English was originally the American colonisers’ (about 40 years of colonial rule) tongue, but I now ‘own’ it and use it in my own way informed by my original languages. English has primacy in my writing because of where I live now, Australia, and because I grew up at a time when education was primarily in English. But I love my first heart’s tongue: Bikol. It’s often spelled out as Bicol, but most Bikolano writers have opted to change the ‘c’ to ‘k’ to decolonise from the Spanish influence. The Philippines experienced nearly 400 years of Spanish colonial rule. When I was growing up, there was no ‘c’ in the Filipino alphabet but Bikol was very much Hispanised, so Bikolanos have been using the Spanish ‘c’ since the colonial times, except, currently, the local writers. Spanish words have also been adapted into the Bikol language, but I believe ‘owned’ and turned on its head by the local sensibility. Having said all these, I want to clarify that I also love the Spanish language as much as I love English – I tried to write poetry in Spanish at one time, but I’m not proficient in the language. Language is a beautiful gift, wherever it comes from. But while I love it, as writer from a colonised country (whether it’s the Philippines or Australia for that matter), I cannot erase its historical and especially colonial context. In an early essay, ‘Redreaming the Voice: From Translation to Bilingualism’ (Rubicon, 1995), I wrote about English, with its colonial roots, as the scourge and gift of tongue.

WD: Can language be shared in an ethical way?

MB: Sharing a language is about usage and reception, and ethical considerations apply to both. Language is not a disembodied artefact. Language is people and place. So, when one writes or reads about an/other people or place, one needs to listen to their language, their voice. When I’m writing about a Philippine village in English, I try to write the English line/sentence in a way that embodies the tone and cadence of the village tongue and the bodies speaking it. I use words in the language, not just for local colour, but because I want the reader to ‘hear’ this particular place or people. Now, it’s up to the reader whether s/he cares to listen and enjoy this new sonic experience. It’s the listening that is often ethically problematic, especially with the monolingual, English-speaking-listening ear that sticks to hearing a foreign place/people only in English (and its kind of English) and judges anything that sounds other as not as good. The insular ear forgets that the world (or Australia for that matter) is not monolingual nor is it English. I wrote about this in my essay, ‘Subversive Translation and Lexical Empathy: Pedagogies of Cortesia and Transnational Multilingual Poetics’ (in Narratives of Difference in Globalized Cultures: Reading Transnational Cultural Commodities, 2017).

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