Resistance Against Erasure: Talking with Marianne Chan

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I met Marianne Chan at the 2020 AWP conference in San Antonio. She was sitting at the Sarabande booth, waiting with a pen in her hand, ready to sell and sign her stack of newly released books. Her calm smile defied the disappointment I imagine the debut author must have been feeling then, in the oddly empty book fair where only one out of every three booths was occupied. COVID-19 was in the United States, San Antonio had declared a state of emergency, and most attendees had cancelled their tickets. The people who came despite weren’t quite a crowd but a group just big enough to heighten the echo of the cavernous convention hall. Ghost-like, I approached from the vacant hall and asked the woman staffing the booth for a recommendation. Chan looked up from her chair and laughed. “Is it awkward to answer that with me here?” The staffer shook her head: “I would have recommended All Heathens anyway.”

Back home and weeks later under lockdown, I would open All Heathens and read it three times in one sitting, the first source of comfort I’d found in weeks. Chan’s poetic world admits the confusion of her particular existence: for Chan, context, place, and placement have never been sure, or easy. Having grown up in Stuttgart, Germany, and Lansing, Michigan, the poet is as much European as she is American, as much American as she is Filipino. Or is she somewhere in between? Maybe it’s complicated, as Rick Barot suggests in his praise of All Heathens, but Chan’s poetry makes it all seem so clear; we’re going around in circles, but there’s always the surety of the ground beneath our feet.

In May, Chan and I corresponded over email. She wrote to me from her home in Cincinnati where she is currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati. Her poems have appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, The Cincinnati Review, West Branch, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Between 2017 and 2019, she served as poetry editor for Split Lip Magazine. All Heathens, her first book, is out now with Sarabande Books.

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The Rumpus: Heathens. What a word. The dictionary gives one definition, “a person who does not belong to a widely held religion and your book seems to address that ideation on several levels, with regards to Christianity and also the religious aspects of other concepts, like America or the hedonism of capitalism. I’m curious about the story of your relationship with the word, “heathen,” and how it evolved over the course of writing the book?

Marianne Chan: I’m a poet who makes decisions on instinct, and I often make choices because they feel right, without, sometimes, considering all the various ways a word or line can be read. Sometimes I learn from readers that the choices I’ve made produced different meanings for them, and that is one of the joys of being a writer.

I chose the title All Heathens while I was in the middle of writing these poems. I wanted to write a book about the beginnings of Spanish colonization in the Philippines and the narrative of Magellan’s voyage around the world, and I also wanted to write about my own religious ambivalence, my current relationship to Catholicism—which is a remnant of the Spanish colonization.

So, in thinking about these two themes, religion and colonialism, All Heathens was the appropriate title. In terms of colonialism, “heathen” is the way Europeans identified native people in various countries, including the Philippine islands, and the word is repeated again and again in the narrative of Magellan’s voyage written by Antonio Pigefetta.

I also wanted the term “heathen” to refer, specifically, to the words and poems in this collection. “Some Words of the Aforesaid Heathen Peoples” takes its title from a list of Cebuano words and their translations included in Pigafetta’s chronicle. Reading Pigafetta’s text, it was amazing to see all of the familiar words that my family still uses today, though some words have changed or been replaced by Spanish. I felt, finally, that I could see my family in this history. But as I examined the words more closely, it occurred to me that the list mostly consisted of products that could be exported. For example, the various words for fish, boats, silver, gold, etc. Pigafetta also includes the word for slave. In my poem, I note that he includes the word for mother-of-pearl, but not the word for mother. His list leaves out basic words that show the humanity of the Filipino people. And so, my poem, and the book in general, is a response to these absences. In these poems, I wanted to add my own “heathen words” to this narrative in which so many Filipino words and stories are missing.

Rumpus: That makes me wonder about how erasure played into your process. How did you move from Pigafetta’s document to the page?

Chan: I didn’t have a clear process. I read Magellan’s Voyage, and when something spoke to me, I underlined it or I wrote a poem about it. I consider my Magellan poems extended marginalia of Pigafetta’s text.

Rumpus: Almost like you’re engaging in a conversation, albeit centuries later. To me, conversation is the spirit of your book, with history, with self, with place, developing as the book traverses its three parts; the first section is, essentially, a search for origin and the first poem in the collection, “Momotaro in the Philippines,” is, quite literally, a birth story, the Japanese legend of the hero Momotaro. I’m so drawn in by the way the speaker invokes Momotaro’s heroic tale but also resists it, how she refuses to make her own story simple, or easy. What is the role of the hero in All Heathens?

Chan: I chose “Momotaro in the Philippines” as the first poem in the manuscript because it embodies the Philippines’ various colonial influences. Momotaro, as you said, is a hero from Japanese folklore, who occupied the Philippines during World War II. Europe and the United States are both mentioned in the poem as well, and of course, the Spanish colonized the Philippines for three centuries and the US took over after the Spanish-American War.

And, I agree with you! The speakers of these poems are not your traditional heroes. Writing from the diaspora, our stories are rarely simple. If this beginning is resisting anything, it is this idea of cultural purity. The Japanese Momotaro is purely Japanese. His story is rooted in Japanese culture and history. The speaker in my Momotaro, however, is brought to the Philippines and is an amalgamation of various national influences. She is the hero of this story, but her identity is not fixed to one particular cultural root. Moreover, she is much more emotionally complex than the Japanese Momotaro. What she is fighting against is much more nebulous and personal.

Rumpus: The word that begins the first poem in the book is “Here.” There are so many places that are specific and intimate to you—the Philippines, a country infused with so many cultures, and that has one of the largest diasporas in the world, as well as Germany, Michigan, Ohio—but the word “here” seems to slice through them all, to insist just as much on the page on which it appears. It’s almost like you began the book with a question of place.

Chan: Oh, thank you so much for noticing this! In my first draft of this collection, I hadn’t originally placed “Momotaro” at the beginning of the book. I wanted to start with “Lansing Sinulog Rehearsal, 2010” because I felt that that poem provided important historical information that could help the reader understand other poems focused on the narrative of Magellan’s voyage. However, I took a wonderful workshop in 2018, and several people felt that “Lansing Sinulog Rehearsal, 2010” was too lengthy and too packed with information to include at the very beginning. So “Momotaro” ended up moving to the front. I’m glad I made that change, in part because now the collection starts with “here,” a word that pulls the reader in and suggests the importance of space and time in the collection. I also love that you said that the poem seems to “insist just as much on the page on which it appears.” While the speaker in this poem is, of course, grounded in the Philippines, each of the speakers in this collection exist on the page and in the world of the poem.

Rumpus: To me, “Lansing Sinulog Rehearsal, 2010” is an anchor for the collection, the recounting of a rehearsal for the poem’s namesake holiday, which is also a “festival, a performance,” taking place at a community center in Michigan; the young speaker is the director of the play. While reading, I remarked at the burden the young director carries, to lead a reenactment of a history that she struggles to understand or embody, and yet wants to get right. The final word in the poem is “reckoning.” What does it look like to be reckoned with? How do you regard yourself then?

Chan: I have a terrible memory, so writing things down and recording conversations is how I survive in this world. My goal in writing this book was to remember and process my history and, in this particular poem, to call attention to the way remembering this history is its own act of resistance—resistance against erasure.

Reckoning, in this poem, is a moment of mental and emotional processing. When we tell our own stories, it allows us to come to terms with them, and what I’ve learned from therapy is that the stories we are told about ourselves often cause us to have false beliefs about who we are and what we’ve been through. Telling our own stories, our way, whether or not it is wacky or factually dubious, is empowering, and having the space to do it our way is its own revenge. At the “Lansing Sinulog Rehearsal, 2010,” the speaker and her community are able to perform their history, and they “get it right” by telling the story the way that they want to tell it. And even though this history is tragic, the performance is joyful and alive, and this community’s insistence on celebration is its own freedom from the oppressive past.

Rumpus: And what about pleasure’s role in the poem, and in the process? In “Lansing,” the speaker learns the Bisaya word for masturbation, “lulo.” She can’t stop saying it. “My Dad tells me / I should stop, for goodness’ sake, but why should I, when everyone / is laughing, and the word is perfect.” Why is it perfect? What’s the role of pleasure here?

Chan: I honestly just love the word “lulo.” I think it’s partly the glottal stop after the two vowels that makes it such a great word for masturbation. While the English word “masturbation” takes itself so seriously with its Latinate-ness and four syllables. “Lulo” is funny, evocative, and irreverent. And the experience of saying “lulo” to my parents’ friends during a religious celebration certainly makes the word even more pleasurable.

Rumpus: And, as the book evolves, the irreverent pleasure of “lulo” does, too. In “Which Came First” the speaker tells about the first time she faked an orgasm, and then the first time she actually had one. The self-sexual moments of All Heathens felt so real to me, and even as I say that I don’t know what I mean by real, maybe revealing? Or maybe the way the body allowed for its own freedom?

Chan: There is something liberating about obscenity and irreverence. I’m realizing lately that irreverence is a part of my poetics. I think talking about sex and the body so directly does feel real to me. It’s something that I do all the time with my closest friends.

I think that was one reason I strayed from Catholicism. I resented the control that the Church wanted to have on not only the act of sex, but also the thoughts one has about sex. This frustrated me. It made me feel guilty about something I found so pleasurable and spiritual. I grew up thinking that the body and the spirit were at odds with one another, that the body is something that needs to be controlled or ignored, that the spirit should be prioritized. “Which Came First” explores the ways in which the body and the spirit are tied up with one another.

Rumpus: When I was in school in a white neighborhood in Colorado, learning about Magellan, he was wrongly credited as having made it all the way around the world, of making two points meet. But actually, he was killed in the Philippines, by resistors in Mactan, right?

Chan: Yes! This happens all the time. So many people think he was the first person to circumnavigate the world.

Rumpus: And it’s the insistence on that false history that’s so curious, and nefarious, to me. What is the goal there? I wonder about the kind of progress that’s possible by going in circles. But All Heathens seems to want for a way out, or a way forward, or beyond. I don’t know. Does it find one? We meet a speaker as she’s birthed from a can of someone else’s peaches. On the final page she’s offering a new mythology of her own making. She calls America “my America,” but she’s looking at it through a lens of Jell-O.

Chan: The collection doesn’t move in a linear fashion. It jumps around in time quite a bit, so the progression is somewhat hard to track. All of the book is about history, diaspora, and memory. However, the third section of the book, I think, is much more mournful than the first two. Death and forgetting are two important subjects at the end.

The final poem, “Counterargument that Goes All the Way Round,” is an abecedarian, a poetic form in which the first letter of each line moves sequentially through the alphabet from A to Z. However, in this abecedarian, after Z, the poem moves backwards through the alphabet, from Z to A. The poem is a direct address to Antonio Pigafetta, and the speaker wants Pigafetta to guide her as she travels backwards “against the current, against the present.” This poem is an acceptance of the way things are. In the final lines of the poem, “Around the world, we are the same people. We have merely moved our feet,” the speaker looks to the present and the future. She sees Filipino diasporic identity as being part of a core identity that remains the same, even through centuries of colonization and movement.

Rumpus: And so, doubling back, resistance, creates an opening where before there was none. And if I may linger on that grief and forgetting that you mentioned—in “Viewing Service” the speaker says, “All I can think of / is that I don’t remember the Bisaya word for head, for body.” Later, she tries to remember the word for “remember.” So to put it all together, what’s the relationship between circularity, progress, and forgetting?

Chan: “Elegy for Your Master”—which is the third poem in the collection—is written as a direct address to Enrique of Malacca, Magellan’s slave, who was able to escape from Magellan’s crew after Magellan’s death. Here, the speaker says that “in circumnavigation, the past is in front of you waiting to be refound, rediscovered.”

I love this idea of circumnavigation as a way to return to the past. Magellan’s crew moved west from Spain in 1519 and returned to Spain in 1522. They were moving forward in time, in a straight line, because that’s how we conceptualize time, but in space, even though they were technically moving forward, they were returning to the past, to where they came from. I think this speaks metaphorically to the ways in which our movements forward often lead us to the past. Often our questions about ourselves and our future are only answered by repeatedly looking at history.

As a child, I always wanted to hear my family’s stories again and again. I still do. I love tracking the relationships between ourselves, our histories, and the relatives that came before us. I even see my family’s love of telling stories as being an inheritance of pre-colonial Cebuano traditions of singing and chanting to pass down histories, and finding these lines of consistency are incredibly comforting to me. Hearing these stories again and again helps us to see ourselves better and it is an antidote to forgetting.

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Photograph of Marianne Chan by Clancy McGilligan. Book cover design by Alban Fischer.


Sarah Haas is a writer living in the mountains of northern New Mexico. Her work has appeared in Longreads, Tupelo Quarterly, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Entropy, and more. More from this author →