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

By and | 1 May 2020

WD: You call yourself a ‘grandmother girl’ in your essay, ‘Border Lover’. Why is this intergenerational relationship important to you in your writing?

MB: My body, sensibility, worldview, and arts practice have been informed and shaped by grandmother, grandfather, and all those who came before me. I’m forever grateful to them. I wouldn’t be here writing the way I do without them. My grandparents were very good storytellers – again, the orality of literature. To ‘say or sing the world’ is probably the best way to put it. My grandmother and I had an especial bond. I was the first of her more than 30 grandchildren, and she called me ‘the orig’, ‘the original.’ She was intelligent, brave, tough, and quite formidable. We wrote each other letters in Bikol (which I keep to this day) when she was living in the US (brought there by my uncle’s family) and I was coping with my early years in Australia. When she returned to the Philippines, I used to visit her each time I came home, and we spent hours storytelling. Many of my works have been inspired by Grandmother Clotilde.

WD: In your poem, ‘Grandmother and the Border’, you talk about a fight between two neighbours about ‘their land’ and the grandmother’s position of ‘kindly listen and listen kindly’. In our current border security obsessed world, what does kindly listening and listening kindly mean?

MB: ‘Kindly listen’ is an appeal at the outset – Please listen – when the ear is not yet open to listening. ‘Listen kindly’ is also an appeal, this time about how the ear listens – Please listen kindly. Sadly we are so wanting in kind listening and listening kindly. It seems everyone’s project is to speak or shout about oneself, to declare oneself to the world. And if we listen to the other at all, often we’re not really hearing the other but ourselves talking about the other. We need to shut up sometimes, be silent, and train the self-obsessed ear in the art and joy of listening to others who are unlike us, the ones across the border. Many wars would have been averted by kind listening and listening kindly. In ‘Grandmother and the Border’, Grandmother includes a watching bird (‘Birds know things, know how to listen’) and a jackfruit tree (‘its fruit knows no fence’) in the settling of dispute over land. These are my conscious inclusions in the poem. There is the urgent need to cross the even more hard-line border between the human and the non-human in our imaginaries and in the real world where the planet’s flora and fauna are so compromised by the actions of human beings. Being with others is not just being with other human beings but being with the whole planet. Kind listening and listening kindly must extend to all the inhabitants of this planet, if we are to survive together. I’d like to think there is room for all in the human heart, and ‘Love is Planetary’ – have a look at this final poem in Accidents of Composition (2017). And may I add: after the devastating drought, bushfires, and now with this global pandemic, I’m hoping that our ears get more tuned in to each other’s needs and suffering, and of course to a shared hope. We are in this together. Perhaps one way to hurdle COVID-19 is through a KV-20: a ‘Kindness Virus 2020.’ Kindness (like unkindness unfortunately) is infectious. It multiplies and it can be passed on to sustain each of us in these difficult times. It can teach us a lesson on how to navigate borders without leaving our humanity behind, now and in the future.

WD: Again, in your essay ‘Border Lover’, you also suggest poetry as being incantation. Why must poetry be incantatory?

MB: Poetry is about making magic and magic-making needs to be incantatory, made with and by the body. Back in my first home, we believe in magic spells and potions. A poem is a magic spell, a potion that holds us to listen and it makes things happen – it holds us to account.

WD: As a Tongan-Australian who grew up in Rooty Hill and Plumpton, Western Sydney suburbs with a majority of Filipino-Australians, I am interested in the intercultural dynamics Pacific Islanders and Filipinos have with each other. As a reader of your work, I have found much of your writing incredibly familiar to me in terms of food and intergenerational, familial relationships. I feel Pacific Islanders and Filipinos have a lot in common culturally. Is there something uniquely similar between Filipinos and Pacific Islanders?

MB: People and culture are shaped by place. The Philippines is an archipelago in the Pacific. The worldview and belief systems of Filipinos have been shaped by this geographical reality. If we follow this line of thinking, then Filipinos are, in a way, also Pacific Islanders. As for the food, intergenerational and familial relationships, I suppose these come from still being a developing country reliant on interdependence and co-survival in a community – unlike in the first world where one can be as economically and socially independent and individualistic in a flat, in a building where one does not need to speak to or know one’s neighbours. In the Philippines, there is the social practice of pangapitbahay – going neighbouring. You can visit each other even without previous appointment (unlike here in Australia), and eat and tell stories at each other’s table or simply ‘borrow’ some salt. So, it was such a pleasurable surprise when, once in Wollongong, I tried to buy salt from the shop of a Turkish woman. Her shop did not have it, so from her own supply, she gave me a small bag of salt for free. I felt I was home!

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