Based in Oakland, Barbara Jane Reyes was born in Manila, Philippines, and is the author of six full length poetry collections: Gravities of Center (2003), Poeta en San Francisco (2005), Diwata (2010), To Love as Aswang (2015), Invocation to Daughters (2017) and forthcoming later this month from BOA Editions, Letters to a Young Brown Girl.
I first encountered Reyes’s work a decade ago. I can’t remember exactly how Diwata found its way to me, but I distinctly remember the fierce wonder I felt in the first few pages. I got my poet-brother’s attention and we spent the next few hours taking turns reading the entire book out loud. The beauty and intensity of the language and imagery as well as the emotional resonance and ambitious historical/mythical vision convinced me that this was a poet whose work I needed to read for the rest of my life.
Some poets may be described as “vulnerable” and others as “unflinching,” but poets are rarely both ferociously vulnerable and tenderly unflinching the way Reyes is on the page. Her latest book, Letters to a Young Brown Girl, is a powerhouse articulation of rage, power, and radical self-love―creating and demanding a space for justice and the value of one’s body, one’s stories, and one’s joy.
The Rumpus: As a treat to myself and in preparation for this interview, I decided to reread all of your books in chronological order. While it was fascinating to me to see the first iterations of the themes that span your body of work and the rhythms and language that are so uniquely yours in your first book, Gravities of Center, it was actually something else that stopped me in my tracks—the author photo. There is something so alarmingly tender and brave and vulnerable about the photo of a young poet, a young woman of color poet. As much as Letters to a Young Brown Girl is a gift offering the hard-won wisdom of a poet, it is also a love letter to young brown girls everywhere and especially to the young brown girl in that photo. How did your understanding of who you wrote Letters to a Young Brown Girl for develop and more broadly, how did ideas of your intended audience change from your first book to your sixth?
Barbara Jane Reyes: Thank you for reading my books! One thing I’ve been hearing from other women of color is that Letters to a Young Brown Girl is the book they did not know they needed in their lives, which is such an important thing to articulate—when have we ever read books that centered us as speakers, narrators, protagonists with agency, navigating real-world shit women of color deal with daily. Could we have grown up differently if we’d had those books with people like us as real people, active agents in their own narratives? I bring middle-grade author Erin Entrada Kelly’s The Land of Forgotten Girls with its scrappy, fallible Pinay heroines into my Pinay Lit classes at University of San Francisco, and undergraduate Pinays see themselves in a work of literature for the first time in their lives. I think Letters to a Young Brown Girl could be one of these works, as Invocation to Daughters has been.
This romantic notion we grew up with, of putting our work out there and being discovered by big heavies as the next hot thing, writing as if that is the goal—it’s been a relief to reject this outright, in favor of addressing who I’ve been meaning to address: my younger self, a young woman of color who is so angry, looking for herself out there in books, films, and art, and finding minor characters afflicted by white love. It is not a new idea by any means, to stay ground-level in the community and create art centering the community, speaking in the languages of the community. My poetic forebears have done this for decades.
Rumpus: I hear some people talk about how tired they are of poetry about “the body.” My first reaction is to think that it is a luxury given to few to think they exist in the world without having to consider the body. That it is a luxury to not be a body whose identity, history, class, education, and nationality are not assumed on sight. Your work has been consistently shaped by an insistence on the physicality of body and how that body moves and is allowed to move through the world.
Reyes: Yeah, I don’t know who those people are who are tired of poetry about the body. What a privilege it is, not to have to worry about your body being taken from you, harmed, violated, not to have to walk through the world with very real fear at the front of our thoughts every single time we step outside (and for many, living with that fear in their own private homes). Many of us do not know that privilege. So, if there are people tired of poetry on and about the body, I don’t write for them. I write for the rest of us.
In Letters to a Young Brown Girl, as in all my previous books, I do write about traditional, patriarchal impediments to our bodily agency and safety. In the past, readers in my community would recoil from my work, for writing about brutalities done upon brown women’s and girls’ bodies. I don’t know what’s changed, why more readers in the community are receptive to my work today. Maybe we’ve realized all the wishful thinking has not lessened these violences. I think also, the focus of my work has shifted towards the kind of sanctuaries we fight for, and actively create for ourselves.
Rumpus: Many years ago, I heard Li-Young Lee discussing what readers perceived to be a lack of rage in his poetry. From what I remember, he said that he felt his work focused on grief because grief was the result of his cultivated rage. I would say that the opposite happens in your work—that rage is the result of your cultivated grief, your cultivated love, your cultivated desire for freedom and wholeness. Particularly in To Love as Aswang and Invocation to Daughters, rage functions as medicine and as a way to claim space. Medicine because the narrator’s rage gives the speaker choices beyond internalizing hatred and prejudice. And that rage claims space because it combats the customary identification of the brown woman body as victim and allows for narratives beyond grief, powerlessness, and hopelessness.
Reyes: Rage is not something women are allowed to express; we’re not even allowed to feel it, or to believe anything in this patriarchal world could compel us to rage. What happens to us if for every violation, we say nothing, swallow it, and smile—I could never wish that victimhood upon us brown girls. I think this expectation continues to fuel the rage you read in my writing. But I have also come to understand better how rage may be expressed even-toned, quietly, with sadness, grief, and wisdom, not just fire and bile. You see how the reader leans into the quiet, and starts to pay attention, and to ask.
Rage is complex, and it’s so powerful, for a brown girl to come into a self-knowledge that is not afraid of rage, that does not perpetuate victimhood and victim narrative, that allows them to imagine something else to bring into being. So, this is from Audre Lorde: “Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.”
Rumpus: I love that quote from Audre Lorde. Too often, the discussion of poetry focuses on publication, prestige, prizes, marketability—and we lose the soul and the potential of poetry to teach, transform, and create community. Letters to a Young Brown Girl feels like a demonstration of what poetry that does these things looks like, sounds like, feels like. It speaks to how—as women, as brown bodies, as poets—we reveal our vulnerable selves, share what is beautiful in us, and impart the wisdom of our experiences. Our educational systems focus so much on the Western canon that it’s difficult for students to find their own communities, languages, and histories in what they read.
Reyes: I tell this story all the time—the very first book I’d ever read, authored by a Filipino American woman was Jessica Hagedorn’s novel Dogeaters, which I read as an undergrad at Berkeley in 1990. When I learned she was once a young immigrant to San Francisco, that she wrote poetry and hung out at City Lights Books (she was mentored by Rexroth), that was my permission to pursue writing, not just quietly as a hobby. That was my permission, too, to reach beyond canonical literature. I remember walking to Walden Books in Downtown Berkeley, and buying a copy of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf and saying to myself, yes, poetry can be like this. Hagedorn, who performed as one of Shange’s original colored girls, inspired my generation of Pinay writers; a lot of us were so scrappy and raw, and so hungry for words by women of color, and energized to find empowered and fierce role models and new possibilities for ourselves.
When I see younger Filipina Americans encountering Filipina-authored texts for the first time, I can only hope and imagine they are going through a similar kind of amazing, life changing experience, dreaming something entirely different than what was circumscribed for them. And this can be scary; I’ve also met Filipina Americans who tell me they have actively avoided Filipina-authored books, exactly because the experience of being truly seen for the first time is intense and frightening. What kind of a life is that, though, to live entirely unseen.
Rumpus: The first book of yours I read was Diwata. I was so struck by the interplay between nature, myth, and history in that collection. In fact, in every collection—all three are always present, always interacting, always feeding the richness of your language and imagery. How did you come to develop this approach?
Reyes: I was raised in an American suburb, always viewed and addressed as a foreigner, and so in this lifelong process of raging and grieving disconnection from the homeland, language, culture, and selves, I started looking elsewhere for ways to reconnect. Relearning the names of flowers, plants, vegetables in Tagalog and Ilocano made my memories of my mother’s mother more vivid. She’d passed away long ago, so remembering her again was to remember her songs and stories, many of which came from Philippine mythologies and folkstory. When I was in my twenties, I went back to the old house in the town of Gattaran, in the province of Cagayan, where she and my grandfather raised their children. I saw the Cagayan River and asked some of the local folks about the mermaid that isn’t there anymore (which tells me she used to be there). My grandfather gave me old photos, flooded me with stories from back in the day, during WWII, martial law, and so on. How did my family live through these big historical events. You see these poems in Diwata.
What I learned there should be obvious: ask, listen, withhold judgment, commit to memory. And where there are gaps in the narratives, read and learn everything you can. From there, to the best of your knowledge, fill in those gaps in narrative. I was an Ethnic Studies major in college in the 1990s, so I knew those gaps in my knowledge were by design; therefore, I also knew I needed to take my education into my own hands. I went to University of the Philippines at Diliman, took Philippine Anthropology, Filipino Women’s Literature, and I learned about Sikolohiyang Pilipino (Indigenous Psychology), which have remained with me and my writing, and more importantly, in the ways I lay my groundwork for writing. In Letters to a Young Brown Girl, especially in the closing poem, you will see my speaker’s meditations on her family’s practices of kapwa/shared humanity/self in others, and loób/relational interiority.
Rumpus: While I do believe that poetry can be a liberatory practice—for an individual and a community—I think that colonialism and violence have affected our thinking and the thinking of our ancestors to such a degree that liberating ourselves and our psychologies is a multi-layered work. As products and victims of harsh histories, how will our minds and souls even recognize what liberation is? I think, in all our communities, there is such fierce judgment about what is and is not enough, what is authentic or traditional. But for me, I am adamant about the necessity of reclaiming what we can however we can and holding on to as much as we can. Given our histories, it’s a miracle we hold onto anything.
Reyes: “Authentic” is so problematic to me. Same with “traditional.” I have to examine these terms fed through so many filters, such as American and Spanish colonialisms (patriarchy, Catholicism, white supremacy), and immigration (which is also tied to colonialism). What’s left of who and what I grew up as? Well, that’s for me to excavate and learn, and write. This is the hard work of writing. I definitely hear you, when you say, “it’s a miracle we hold onto anything.” I write that in Letters to a Young Brown Girl, “others would tell me that nothing is mine.”
There’s always the thought that what I write will not “get it right,” but if I linger there, then I would not get any writing done. I can only decide on some starting questions, and see where those lead me, poetically, culturally, historically. But I also have to ask, “get it right” by whose standards? Who are the gatekeepers and arbiters of my writing’s correctness? Why am I giving them that power?
Additionally, as an educator, I tell my students that our cultural practices, the ways we think of and express our identities are not uniform throughout our diaspora, and are regional, generational, linguistic, socioeconomic, gendered, and so on; this is something to bear in mind when approaching diasporic Filipino literatures.
I know I am not writing a singular, “authentic” Filipino text. When I finally articulated that “authenticity” was not my goal, and that I would not allow my lack of “authenticity” to undermine my authorial voice, how liberating was this.
Rumpus: The first poem in Invocation to Daughters and the first poem in Letters to a Young Brown Girl both address the issue of language in your work. Both claim space in a world that finds multiple or non-English languages suspect—that is, if you inhabit a brown body. The real world and the literary world deny the reality that most people live in more than one language, have history and experiences in more than one language, interact with family and friends in more than one language. They would deny the reality that colonialism and war and immigration and migration have led to languages colliding and being braided into new ways of expression. You write mostly in English with some Tagalog, Ilocano, and a small bit of Spanish. Some might find this bewildering, but a lot of us recognize the necessity of words, phrases, sounds, and rhythms that don’t exist in English.
Reyes: Think of all the ways people in our families have been overpowered by English. So fluency in proper English is a weapon. I think of the speaker in the opening poem of Letters to a Young Brown Girl as one who knows she must wield the weapon of English, to demonstrate she will not be overpowered. But she also needs to present the evidence of those attempts to overpower her and her family. This is her American reality.
Yes, our multilingualism just is. My mother’s family speak Ilocano, Tagalog, and English. And as you say, inhabiting a brown body while coming from a multilingual family and community makes you a menace, a nuisance, a danger, always suspect, not “cultured,” “worldly,” “cosmopolitan,” which are words reserved for other people.
This is not to say my relationship with Philippine languages is easy. I’ve been told by other Filipinos that I’m not really Filipino, for my lack of fluency. I took a couple of semesters of Tagalog at UC Berkeley, after my study abroad at UP Diliman, where most of instruction was in English, which is colonial. What I know of Tagalog is that it is relational. Translating everything into English doesn’t do justice to these relations. Modern Tagalog has incorporated some Spanish, which is colonial, but I have found my relationship to Spanish complicated by solidarities with Chicano/a/x and Latino/a/x folks. I have also written some poems in baybayin, pre-hispanic Tagalog script, which you can see in Poeta en San Francisco and To Love as Aswang. I only know one reader who actually translated my baybayin into modern Tagalog (in Latin alphabet), and then read it back to me in English. So there’s a lot of work to be done with my use of languages in my poetry. It’s inconvenient for some readers. But it is my material and emotional reality, just another day with the family, navigating between language systems, learning who speaks and/or understands which languages (who is included, who is excluded) and then deciding which words to use/when to move back and forth between languages, and how much to translate. There is no reason why my poetry should not reflect this reality.
Rumpus: As I was reading your books, I suddenly had this odd sense of phantom books—all these unwritten books that existed between or alongside the ones you had written. This had me thinking about the white space in poems—how that space and silence and the not written words add tension and weight to the words that are on the page. It made me curious to ask you what you thought of these phantom books—the ones you could have written but chose not to, the ones that might still be written, the ones that hold what couldn’t be written, and the ones that hold space precisely because they don’t exist.
Reyes: I think this might be the space I’m currently inhabiting, with these books deep inside the lungs or gut, that I can’t get (or let) out. Right? Like in Diwata: “I can’t sleep. There is a poet stuck between the love lines of my palms. And I would tell her to get out if I could, but there is a poet stuck inside the cradle of my bones and tendons.”
I feel like I’ve only barely scratched the surface of writing about family history. I’m afraid I’ve written oversimplified versions of human beings who deserve more fleshing out. I think I feel this more acutely because many elders in my family are passing away; I’ve written about loss with a lot of immediacy. But years later, I realize the questions I would have been too afraid to ask them in life—well, these are still nagging at me. I didn’t become brave enough, fast enough. I’d thought of (re)writing my father mythically—re-mythologizing him, which sounds like an interesting poetic project. But I don’t want my father to be an interesting poetic project. So then, there’s that empty space. And this will continue to be the case, with more questions, and larger blank spaces.
Photograph of Barbara Jane Reyes by Peter Dressel.