Few artists have been as politically engaged, committed to community-building, and generous with their talents as Filipina American poet Barbara Jane Reyes. In addition to her writing, she sits on the Board of Philippine American Writers and Artists (PAWA), which holds events to promote Filipino literature, teaches at San Francisco State University and Mills College, works on additional editorial projects, mentors new writers, and maintains her own person blog.
Reyes has published three full-length poetry collections: Gravities of Center (2003), Poeta en San Francisco (2005), and Diwata (2010). Her chapbooks include For the City that Nearly Broke Me (2012), Easter Sunday (2008), and Cherry (2008).
In a word, her poetry is relentless. It continually interrogates the power structures, hierarchies, and assumptions modeled by the legacies of Spanish and American imperialism and colonization. Consider, for example, the stanzas below from the award-winning Poeta en San Francisco that question the ascription of valor and heroism to military conquest:
Aquí, en mi ciudad de sueños,
I missed the parades this week.
Maré, forgive me, for
I closed my eyes instead.
Under the weight of Old Glory,
stooped old men stooping lower
than I thought possible.
Between the decreed days of honor,
you think of their faces, twisting,
blood clots in the brain. Today,
you pretend they are your heroes.
El valiente, el nómada.
Le sangre, las venas, la ruptura.
In her multilingual writing, Reyes breaks down and pushes the limits of the boundaries of genres. From such subversive acts, she re-creates verse that is potent with transformative powers and forcefully rooted in knowledge of the cultures and histories of both her native Philippines and U.S. homeland.
In this interview, we focus on the influence of Latino culture and writing on her work.
Hyphen: You've been researching lately in preparation for a comparative course in Filipino and Latino literatures. Can you tell us more about the course?
Barbara Jane Reyes: I was approached by the director of the Critical Diversity Studies Department on my campus, someone who is well acquainted with my work, and she was the one who presented me with the idea of proposing a Comparative Filipino Latino Literatures course. This intersection of Filipinos and Latinos is something that the students are already interested in. They took the initiative and had organized a Filipino Latino cultural event where they could talk about our intersections.
Right now, I am at the very beginning stages of creating a syllabus, drafting course objectives and learning outcomes. My wish list for required texts is unrealistically extensive and I need to pare it down. I’m thinking of direct pairings -- for example, what Pinay authored work would pair well with Sandra Cisneros’s House on Mango Street. What Pinay or Pinoy authored work would pair well with Jimmy Santiago Baca’s Martín and Meditations on the South Valley. Flips and Nuyoricans? Flips and Floricanto?
Where are the literary works (not sociology texts, not history texts) covering multiethnic Filipino Latino narratives, and do Alfredo Véa, Tomás Riley, Kristin Naca, Jayne Cortez, Randall Mann, and Scott Inguito count, if they do not specifically address their Filipino Latino heritage in their work?
Also, as a teacher of literature, one of my major concerns is maintaining the balance between literary study, and covering social, cultural, historical matters in the works. There is a lot we learn about culture and history, from discussing genre, form, and various narrative strategies and literary techniques.
Hyphen: As a Filipino American, do you feel an affinity with other poets and artists of Latino descent who share a history of Spanish colonization? If so, what are some ways that we can foster solidarity and work together to overcome racial hierarchies, misogyny, etc.?
BJR: Yes. The Latino writers and authors in my inner and expanded social circles, including my husband who is a Latino writer, have become part of my circles not necessarily out of deliberate political bloc formation. We have gravitated towards one another because the substance of our works, lived experiences, and use of languages resonate with one another.
So then, the solidarity is in recognizing and acting upon these resonances, rather than allowing the set political or academic parameters determine who comprise our communities and families.
Also, it isn’t just Spanish colonization that brings us together, though the power of language and Catholicism is undeniable. It’s the Spanish-American War, American colonization and occupation, labor, and class struggle, so let’s add Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, Samoans, and Chamorro folks into the mix as well. And really, if we are really finding solidarity in resistances against these structures of power, then we really should be mindful of where, how, and why we wield power against one another.
Hyphen: Your work is often multilingual, drawing from English, Tagalog, Spanish, and indigenous Filipino languages. You have also stated in an interview that "it would be dishonest, or an act of denial, not to write in multiple languages" given the increased multiculturalism in the world and especially in the San Francisco Bay Area where you live. How has your use of the Spanish language shaped or changed your perceptions about relationships, overlaps, or intersections between Filipino and Latino cultures?
BJR: Something important to bear in mind is that Spanish language verse and prose are a part of centuries-long Philippine literary tradition; remember that Jose Rizal’s major works -- novels and verse -- were written in proper Iberian Spanish. How many of our elders who participated in declamation contests can still recite Rizal’s poem ‘Mi Último Adiós,” which he composed on the eve of his execution in 1896, entirely from memory. “¡Adiós, Patria adorada, región del sol querida, / Perla del mar de oriente, nuestro perdido Edén!” And so on.
Our oral and literary traditions include writings in native languages as well, and then English since the beginning of the twentieth century. In precolonial times, verse was written in baybayin on banana leaf and other similar natural materials.
Nothing then, that I am doing in my own work is really new or novel, except that I blend the languages, because I am not fluent in Spanish, or Ilocano, or Tagalog, or written baybayin, and because the lingua franca of my family is a hybrid of these spoken languages.
Extending this linguistic hybridity to include San Francisco Chicano Spanish, and my husband’s Ecuadorian Nuyorican Spanish is not a far stretch by any means.
Hyphen: Your 2012 chapbook For the City That Nearly Broke Me, was published by Aztlan Libre Press in San Antonio as part of the Indigenous Series. How did this publishing through a Latino press come about? Does it differ in any way from your other publishing experiences?
BJR: Anisa Onofre, who co-edits the press with Juan Tejeda, actually approached me after I mentioned on social media that I had a chapbook manuscript ready to submit to prospective publishers. Anisa and I had a great conversation over the telephone about whether or not I identified as “indigenous,” to which I responded that indigeneity was something that I as a feminist and a Filipino American, coming from a history of colonization and centuries of patriarchal tradition, have been working to understand.
A number of Latino editors and reading series curators have very generously included me in their anthologies and literary series. Francisco Aragón interviewed me for Letras Latinas, the literary program for University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies. Editors Carmen Giménez Smith and John Chávez included my poems in the Counterparth Press anthology, Angels of the Americlypse: New Latin@ Writing. Alejandro Murguía included me in a recent San Francisco Flor y Canto en el Barrio: A Celebration of Latino Poetry. And before we married, Oscar Bermeo included me in the Bronx-based louderARTS reading series, Acentos.
Hyphen: You've spoken at length about Filipino writers who have influenced you. Can you discuss any Latino influences on your writing?
BJR: In fact, I have written or spoken a good deal about Latino authors who have influenced me -- Chicano authors Gloria Anzaldúa, Juan Felipe Herrera, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Alejandro Murguía; Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano. From my husband, Oscar Bermeo, I learned about Cuban American poet Adrian Castro, Puerto Rican poets Jack Agüeros and Julia de Burgos, and the Nuyoricans -- Pedro Pietri, Miguel Piñero are the ones whose work I’ve appreciated most.
Barbara Jane Reyes was born in Manila and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. She studied for her B.A. in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley, and her MFA at San Francisco State University. She currently lives in Oakland, California with her husband, the Ecuador-born poet Oscar Bermeo.