06 September 2014
Dear Karen, Dear Nancy—
Oh your last two letters! One, on heart and mind; and on how important it is to not be afraid of the intimate and the “personal.”
http://nancypeacockbooks.com/wp/heart-and-mind/ The other, on passion and believing in the heart, and howling at the moon.
Karen, I know that when you write of intimacy, you refer to so much more than the circumstances that helped to make us and those that were handed down by family or genealogy. I often wonder: how much of all of this is visible from the outside, as we make our way in the world as writers, as women, as teachers (among all the other roles we have been given)? How does it all come to bear on every instance in which we believe we (should) have a choice? I too come from a people who for centuries it seems, have always had to “take it personally.” The Philippines was colonized twice over, and this history marks Filipinos indelibly, whether they are “at home” or in the diaspora. Yes, this is why I write so well in English, which I think I should also be able to claim as a first language, by the way.
Nancy, I too had a few English teachers that I can name who shone a light for me on this path. In the middle of third grade, after I had read everything on the small extra reading bookshelf she had at the back of her classroom, Miss Sifora Fang called my father in for a conference and told him I should be encouraged to read even more. And Nancy, I too believe in the heart, with all its faults and imperfections. It was this same heart that led me deeper into writing, even when, in the end days of my previous marriage, my ex-husband had once asked: “If I asked you to give up your writing for me, would you?”
My path to writing has never been clear or straightforward—not in the way a life might be imagined merely from reading its outlines on the pages of a resume. Somewhere along the way there were daughters (first three, then one more, to make now four of them); there was the great earthquake in 1990 that nearly leveled my home city in the Philippines, the newly built house that we eventually lost; the death of my beloved father a scant two weeks after, as we continued to sleep on the porch or in the yard on makeshift beds of plywood through months of aftershocks. English major that I was, I could not help but ask the universe: What coded insights are there in all of this? What metaphors are you throwing at me? How many times I’ve wanted to howl at the moon!
Like both of you, all my life I learned to pay close attention. And like you, I continue to study how we might use memory as our best guide back to those dense and difficult truths of who we are and who we are still learning to be. Karen wrote of how she remembers “the body’s flaws, the body’s folds and reaches, the rough edges of its skin…, the musky gingko scent of sex…. that moment where [her son] left [her] body, the blood-scent.” I remember my nights as a young mother, trying to write, trying to learn to be a scholar and academic; I remember getting up in the pre-dawn hours to breastfeed my daughter, and moving to the desk to work on poems as she suckled and I cradled her with my left hand. The memory still has an almost physical sensation, even after all these years.
Strictly speaking, I did not cut my teeth in an academic writing program. The first time I attended a writing program was when I was thirty, and had won a Fulbright fellowship to do a Ph.D. in Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago (I had already published three books before I received my doctorate). This seems a bit different from the experience of majority of the students I now teach in Old Dominion University’s MFA Creative Writing Program, who come to the MFA straight out of their undergraduate stint. They also seem at ease and familiar with the language and protocols of the workshop, with the expectations that would seem to accompany the public role of the writer in these times. It seems so easy for them to assert their right to choose: Why do I have to take this course? Don’t I have the right to shape my own education?
In April this year, The New York Times ran Junot Diaz’s article MFA Vs. POC. http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/mfa-vs-poc In it he wrote of his experiences as a student of color in his MFA program: “Simply put: I was a person of color in a workshop whose theory of reality did not include my most fundamental experiences as a person of color—that did not in other words include me.” I would hasten to add that faculty of color also experience this same kind of fundamental unease, as they struggle through the rituals of academic tenure and continually encounter those kinds of scrutiny that suggest their credentials and what they bring to the table are somehow wanting, even when they are not.
Nancy, you wrote in your letter: “What I don’t believe in is exclusivity. I don’t believe that some people are artists while others are not. Nor do I believe that some people are intelligent and others are not. We are all artists of some sort. We are all intelligent in some way.” This made me think of my maternal grandfather Lorenzo, who was a farmer most of his life; he was also a hotel cook at the old Vallejo Hotel in Baguio, and for a short time an entrepreneur who co-owned a little barbershop called Symphony tucked into Abanao Street. When I was a child between the ages of 5 and 10, when my lolo Lorenzo visited us (usually in September, near my birthday), he never failed to bring a basket of produce from his farm, some native rice cakes, and a couple of live chickens trussed at the feet, for a special birthday meal for me. He would arrive in his one good white suit and his Panama hat, and he carefully took off his shoes at the door in deference to my father, who was a lawyer. When I sat on his knee he smelled of the sun. But he never stayed long in the living room, and when my father arrived he took his meals in the kitchen. And he never stayed with us long. I also never really gave this a lot of thought back then, but later I realized that even within family, there were these unspoken protocols defined by class and gender; and that my mother, farmer’s daughter who was trying to put herself through school at the time she met my father, was conscripted to uphold.
But it was Lolo Lorenzo who invariably asked: Do you want to watch while I pluck the feathers from the chicken? He would take off his suit jacket and roll up his sleeves, then we would go into the kitchen where he placed an aluminum basin below one end of the counter by the sink. The first feathers to go were the ones around the neck, which he held directly above the basin as he made one swift cut. I watched the blood collect then congeal, as the animal’s spasms grew less fevered. In all things he was calm and deliberate. He cut up the parts, he cleaned them under running water. Into the iron pot on the stove they all went, to make a stew flavored with salt and ginger and onions, of which everyone would eat. I know how this is done.
Love and gratitude for your words,
Originally from Baguio City in the Philippines, Luisa Igloria has four daughters, and now makes her home in Virginia with most of her family. She is a Professor of Creative Writing and English, and Director of the MFA in Creative Program at Old Dominion University. Various national and international literary awards include the 2014 May Swenson Poetry Prize selected by Mark Doty, for Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser (Utah State University Press, summer 2014).