One of the stories which lingers in my mind long after the reading of it is Ken Liu's "Cutting," which appears in issue 24 of Electric Velocipede.
I was thinking of it again as I sat down to write this column and had to reflect on poetics and the value of white or negative space. In this story, Liu's use of white space is particularly effective and speaks to the part of me that knows what it is to struggle with erasure and the impositions of a culture that is not my own.
It is a struggle encountered by all of us who live in the diaspora, by those of us who have known what it means to be colonized, and by all of us who understand that there are not enough words in the English language to express the pain and the sorrow of loss.
In the prologue to Filipino Women Writers in English, Their Story: 1905–2002, Edna Manlapaz-Zapanta reprints a poem entitled "Muted Cry." This poem was written in the 1930s by a young Filipina, Trinidad Tarrosa-Subido. In this poem, Tarrosa-Subido mourns the loss of "the language of my blood" and speaks of being given one "more widely understood." It is particularly poignant because the poet is able to convey so very eloquently the sense of loss through the use of the imposed language, which in this case is English.
Like Manlapaz-Zapanta, I find myself wondering whether the poem speaks of the literal loss of language or whether it speaks of something that goes deeper than that. Poets and poems rarely speak only of what is on the surface. There is always a layer beneath that, and just as in Ken Liu's evocative short story I find myself wondering:
What has been lost? What do we want to recover and what do we want to remember?
"Get a pen and a paper and write this down."
My mother tells me that I was four years old when I dictated my first story to her. When I read those scraps, I find myself wondering what it was that I wanted to preserve. Looking at them with an adult eye, I find myself thinking of how a child's world is filled with light and how, as long as they are surrounded and protected by love, children are shielded from the darker colors of the world around them.
I was a child in the mountains during the Martial Law Era. As a child, I was made to believe that Martial Law had been declared for the safety and protection of the people. The true story is more complex and I understand why no one spoke about it openly. Looking back, I see just how problematic Martial Law was and there is no way to justify the atrocities that took place under the guise of protection.
In the mountains, we were constantly aware of the ongoing clashes between the Philippine Constabulary (PC) and the New People's Army (NPA).
Back then, my father was the only doctor in the only hospital in town. I have memories of men in military fatigues coming to visit us. They sat in our living room, they chatted with my parents, and when they left, they gave us a copy of the PC songbook.
My father tells me that one of the NPA leaders approached him and said, "Doctor, you must never ride in an army vehicle because if you do we cannot guarantee your safety."
Both the military as well as the NPA brought him their wounded. When he was made to choose, my father said: "I am a doctor. I do not see military or NPA. I only see patients who need to be tended to."
There are other things I remember such as waking up in the morning to find that the hospital compound had been taken over by both sides of the fighting forces. A temporary truce had been declared while my father took care of their wounded. The left side of the compound was occupied by men in civilian clothing and the right side was occupied by men in uniform.
They stared at each other across an invisible line, in various positions of rest. I don't remember if they had guns. I just remember men sitting or standing and waiting. By noontime, only those who had been gravely wounded were left behind and all of the men had vanished. This is a memory that persists against the backdrop of a peaceful and idyllic childhood. In my mind this memory is frozen in the heat of tension that shimmers beneath the surface. It is as if the blazing sun is directed onto that tableau and I am hidden in the shadows, watching and waiting for something to erupt.
There is a part that I remember and there is a part that I forget. I don't remember if I was afraid or if my mother was afraid. I see the men outside and I see that the door of our house is shut and we are in shadow.
When my family moved to Manila, the shadows of childhood were left behind. I forgot—or maybe I chose to forget, and for a very long time, we resisted the longing to return to the mountains.
During a visit to Utrecht, I met a Filipino historian who spoke of the importance of tracing our history.
"I agree," I said. "I think it's important for young people to know and to understand the history of our nation."
"Yes," the historian said. "That is also important. But it is necessary for you to delve into your own personal history and to use that as a reference point."
He went on to trace his own genealogy and the line of his origin which could be traced back to a family of revolutionaries.
I can't help but think of erasures and impositions and how remembrance and forgetting are like sisters who live back to back.
Writing about this reminds me of Abducted by Aliens by Claire Light. (If you haven't read Claire Light's Slightly Behind and to the Left: Four Stories and Three Drabbles, then it's about time you did.)
Long after I read Abducted by Aliens, I kept thinking about it, and I remember taking that chapbook along with me to Eastercon because I felt I simply had to share it with someone who would understand the ache in that story.
In her afterword, Claire Light writes of the devastating consequences of the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII.
[T]he community itself collaborated in partially blotting out its own history by not talking about it openly with their own children.
These stories tell lost history. What is often missing is the experience of losing history and growing up only half knowing why your family is the way it is, what the context of the stories they tell so reluctantly might be.
There is a popular science fiction trope that speaks of venturing out into the great unexplored. Those who venture out are pictured as heroes. They go out and find new civilizations, they expand earth territories, they discover aliens, they subdue or befriend, they are hailed as saviors, and many times the worlds they enter into are very different from the hero's homeworld.
While this trope appeals to a part of myself that desires to see and experience other places and other cultures, it does not speak to the true experience of migration and colonization. This popular narrative belongs to the dominant culture, to cultures that have conquered and colonized without regard for the consequences to the culture that gets trampled underfoot.
One of the most memorable stories from 2012 is Aliette de Bodard's "Immersion." Told from the points of view of people who struggle under the impositions of a dominant culture, "Immersion" speaks to the true experience of the colonized and to the experience of what it means to live under the rule of a conquering culture.
The dominant narrative often speaks of gratefulness on the part of the natives—it is a narrative that mirrors the expectation of the conqueror and fails to look beneath the surface layer. The narrative of gratefulness is one that is fed to the colonized. We must be grateful for the invader who saved us from oppression and for the outsider who brings us enlightenment and civilization.
It is more comfortable to forget that the colonized have their own stories, that in the narratives of alien worlds the hero of the popular trope is the invader, the enemy, and the oppressor.