“Find a way to keep alive and write. There is nothing else to say.”
— James Baldwin, “The Art of Fiction No. 78,” Paris Review
“Sometimes the only choice is to flee or to merge. To flee is to dissociate. To merge is a kind of possession.”
— Amanda Ngoho Reavey, “Emigrant Notes on Possession,” Construction
Since my mother pushed me out into the world, I felt I have always been running away.
In so many ways, I followed after my mother, who left me a year or two after I was born. When I was a young girl, unable to understand or control the surge of emotions barreling through my tiny body, I would act like “I was running away from home,” hide in the shoe closet beneath my grandmother’s clothes, bend into fetal position, and throw my wet face between my knees. Sometimes I would escape the house instead, pack a Minnie Mouse backpack with Filipino salty crackers, and get as far as the neighboring liquor store, unsure of where to turn to. After hours, when the sun finally touched the horizon, sunk beneath the wall of cacti that covered one side of my house, I would, eventually, turn back. I always returned home.
It is ironic, then, that years later, when I am finally an adult, when I am old enough to understand that my girlhood runaway stories were not born out of cute, childish impulses but the need to escape the trauma that barreled and festered in our home, I run away from my family a few months after I eloped—I run away for good, I run away for a full five years, refusing to look back—until I turn twenty-seven, when despite having every bone in my body needing to flee, I return back home because of the same reasons I had in my youth. It is simply what I have always done: when I had nowhere else to go, I always returned to my family.
Maybe this is what Dr. Edith Tiempo, one of the mother poets in Philippine literature, calls tangential divagation.
Its definition is best contextualized in the craft of short story. Gina Apostol, another seminal Philippine writer I am obsessed with, introduced me to Dr. Tiempo’s concept of tangential divagation in her essay, “Narration and History.” She says: “Irony and epiphany seem to be the modern devices from which the form of the New Critical–realist short story hangs on to Aristotle for dear life. Dr. Tiempo distinctly favored carefully plotted ironies and deftly built epiphanies, so that a gun on page one should go off (or at least misfire) by the end” (59).
For me, as a daughter of poor Filipino immigrants and who can only speak one language—English, the language of her colonizers—I am obsessed by this word. Maybe because it defines for me why I returned home. Or maybe because its Latin roots signify my irrational but insatiable attraction to what is primordial to my body, to my subconscious, to my desire/desperation for love.
Tangent’s etymology in Latin is “tangere,” as in “touching,” which harkens to Rizal’s nation-birthing novel, Noli Me Tangere, or “touch me not” (which is based upon a verse in the Book of John, where Jesus admonishes a bewildered Mary Madagalene: “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father”). And divagation, which is another verb, comes from “divagari”—the “di” meaning “widely” and the “vagari” meaning “to wander.”
To wander and to touch, to intersect, to connect, to never wander too far from one’s dawn.
There is another word I am drawn to, but it’s in Tagalog, my ancestors’ mother tongue: dalaga. It means “a woman on the brink of an awakening.” More intrinsically, it means an “in-between moment when a girl is no longer a girl and yet, she is not quite a woman.” This is why, because of the Spanish, we celebrate a woman’s blossoming with lavish parties called debuts. In colonial times, a debut signified that a daughter was old enough to be married, and many suitors and their families would be in attendance, vying for the young woman’s attentions. And after the woman is married, her life was cemented for her—next came the children, taking care of the household, attending church, teaching Sunday school, always acting as the good wife.
Because of my birth mother, I think my father never thought I would make a good wife. I was always wild and emotional, so much like her. At least, he knew since I was young I wouldn’t follow the traditional demands that were expected for a good Filipino wife. Maybe he knew I would always be a perpetual dalaga, even if I got hitched—just like my absent mother was. Though she gave birth to five children with three different men, she never raised one of us; she always left us with the care of the father’s family. For my sister and I, it was my paternal grandmother who raised us.
Sometimes, I think my father is surprised I even got married, and tethered myself to a Filipino American man who resembles his kind of laughter and nuances, like how they share an affinity for playing poker or shooting billiards. Maybe this is why every day since I’ve returned home, he never fails to ask me: “Anak! So, child, when are you going to finally have a baby? Don’t you want children? You’re not getting any younger.”
Tangential divagation. He has hope. He wants to deny that I am my mother’s child. A dalaga always wanting to run away.
Let me translate again, revise how I start this essay, begin with a story instead, in narrative, realist form:
I sit in Tribal Café, a quaint, vegan coffee shop on the edge of L.A.’s small district of Historic Filipinotown, a coffee shop I used to frequent in my undergraduate days at USC, and I marvel at how much it has and hasn’t changed. I didn’t grow up on these sun beaten streets—I grew up down the 110 toward the beach, in the suburb called Carson, which has been a burgeoning Filipinotown for decades.
It is strange to be back.
I want to understand how becoming a writer led me away from L.A. and back again. It was like the ghosts of Los Angeles couldn’t let me fully leave.
After five years of moving back and forth from one side of the country to the other, I finally moved back home for good after I won a fellowship at Poets & Writers. The plan was this: being home meant I could take the time to write, settle before my nuclear machinist husband gets out of the Navy in early 2016, and, really, because my husband was deploying and I no longer wanted to be alone in Virginia, I returned home because I had no other place to go.
It’s been a week and already I experienced the manic highs and desperate lows that manifested in my infancy, because my parents were children when they had me, because trauma, especially for Filipinos, is intergenerational, colonial, compounding.
Returning home means the following—
One: walking past, over and over again, the apartment where the uncle who molested me died, alone, by a heart attack. His body lay there for days until my father knocked on his door, opened it, and there he was, facedown, and again, alone.
Two: having heated, mine-like conversations with my father, who dusted the molestation under the rug, who acted like it never happened, a patriarchal kind of erasure. When I finally told him years ago, a few months after I left, his response was: I don’t know why he would do this, your uncle, I don’t know why, I don’t, I don’t, I don’t.
Three: I wrote about this uncle’s death. Returning home meant having my aunt, a woman my uncle abused until she finally divorced him, barrage me with accusations on the Internet, asking: why did you write this, you shameful girl, you hurt me, you’re hurting me for writing this, until I had to block her.
There are many reasons why I left L.A., and these are only a few. I don’t know what pushed me to believe I was a writer when I was young, when I used to escape to the library during recess and read Greek mythology until the class bell rang, but it was a natural tendency for me to turn to words for salvation, to mark down what happened, to lay out the fractured conscience history and family havocked. It worked sometimes; other times it didn’t. These days, this unsure salvation comes slow, just like my writing, unraveling like the muggy heat.
But in the world we live, the rules of tangential divagation often do not apply—life is more messy, memory is more fluid, a gun doesn’t always go off. For Gina Apostol—and, in many ways, for me—the demands of tangential divagation could not work for her when she began to pen her novels, because her novels’ focus was the Philippine citizen’s psyche, and the Philippines’s birth and fractured, collective identity complex has always been in constant flux, in repeated translation, defined and molded by colonial and intergenerational trauma. Apostol says it better:
Here is an example: the notion of the Philippines, in a sense, was produced by a novel. The national hero Jose Rizal’s first work, called Noli Me Tangere, inspired the mass movement that launched revolution against Spain. That novel was written in Spanish. At this point in history, Filipinos do not read that language. Because the Philippines was occupied by America in 1899 and ruled by it until 1945, we were taught to read in English (at least I was); at the same time we speak at least 50 different other languages. Thus, we read in translation the novel that begot us. The essence of a country like the Philippines is that it seems to exist in translation—series of textual mediations must be unraveled in order to reveal who or what it is. (60)
For the Filipino American, tangential divagation could only describe our fluid, constantly translating identities if it were used in negation. We do not live tangential divagation, in such a logical context—if there is a gun on the table, it does not have to go off. In actuality, it may have went off years ago, already having murdered someone we loved. The fragmented, amnesic conscience I share with other children of disenfranchised diasporas is cemented in our non-tangential divagation, as if our “touching” but not intersecting identities and racial experiences cannot interweave with the mother country, and we are doomed to constantly wander this earth searching for anything that resembles or mirrors those imaginary homelands our parents or ancestors abandoned because of war or oppression. Again, Apostol says it better in her dizzying, visceral novel, The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata:
Fil–Am: Filipino American. Note: it is easier for a rich man to go through the eye of a camel than it is for a Fil–Am to understand his parents’ country. […] See also Nora/Vilma Complex. […] Nora/Vilma Complex: The tendency to think in binaries. As in: if you are not for Nora, you are for Vilma. […] If you praise Aguinaldo, you are defaming the memory of Andres Bonifacio. If you like Bonifacio, you are a patriot. If you don’t know who he is, you are probably Fil–Am. (39–41)
So what I am trying to say?
Simply this: I am a writer who was born within a narrative of erasure. All my life, I was taught that my voice, my history, my people were irrelevant; that we had no history; that Filipinos were bred to either become nurses or nannies or maids, and only the rich could become doctors or businessmen but never artists; that English, my colonizer’s tongue, was a thing to master (to survive) and to be feared. Gina once remarked at UniPro’s Pilipino American Literary Festival in New York that the root of our immigration’s trauma begins with the Philippine–American War. When, during our fight for freedom, for independence from colonial Spain, the United States invaded, massacring over 200,000 to one million Filipinos by famine, disease, concentration camps, and, the most popular method, water torture—where two soldiers pin a man to the ground like a cross, open his mouth, and force water down his throat until his belly engorges, swells and swells unto death.
It is easy to see why so many Filipinos consider language a weapon, a tool of mass erasure. This massacre is not taught in American schools, though it is American colonial history. This massacre is not taught in Philippine schools, though it unravels the birth of our nation, why America’s shadows are deeply engrained in the Philippines, why, when white people would probe my father’s origins, his unaccented, perfect tongue, they would ask him: Why do you speak English so well? An erasure of history on each side of the master narrative’s binary.
Unlike my father, I wasn’t born in the Philippines. But just like him, I was born in a city of perpetual summer—Los Angeles—in the outskirts where the sun met the beaches populated by other brown and black bodies like ours. For me, home is Los Angeles, and my migrant narrative primarily functions in America (which is why I am so enamored by the Great Migration, except that my Fil–Am navy husband and I did something a bit opposite: we moved from the West to the South). When I escaped L.A. for Charleston, South Carolina, my husband’s first joint base station, it was only then that I came to metamorphose my own “tangential divagation.” I had to leave L.A., wander for years, then return to its perpetual summers to learn who I was in translation and why, despite the varying claims that writing about myself and my family’s experiences was steeped in narcissism or boxed in ethnic, immigrant literature, to struggle with this conflicted, untranslatable, racial, and gendered identity was a necessary and political act of visibility.
I write against tangential divagation, I write autofiction, a literary tradition many Black artists have been doing for decades, as a means to say not only that I exist, but that my familia, and that I have survived.
Tangential divagation: what can I say about my return? I sit in this hipster coffee shop feeling utterly broken. When I left this sprawling city of cyclical sultriness and palm trees five years ago, I swore I would never look back.
I told myself repeatedly: there was no home to return to.
There is a This American Life episode, “Three Miles,” that expresses this desperate need to escape in ways better than I can. The arc involves an investigative journalist interviewing three brilliant students part of a high school exchange program between an urban, inner-city, and poor public school, University Heights, and the ultra-rich, $43,000-a-year private school Fieldston. Both are located in the Bronx, just three miles apart. The first student, a fierce, intellectual Puerto Rican, was broken by that fateful first visit on Fieldston’s campus. She witnessed the gravity of what her and her peers from University Heights did not have—their school was a prison, just like how my school, Carson Senior High School, operated. Fieldston was a paradise protected by tall, looming gates, right in the middle of an urban ghetto. After failing to win the full-ride scholarship to Middlebury College, she disappeared. Erased herself completely. She was nowhere to be found on social media, refused to call back her doting, hopeful, but idealistic teachers for years. Like so many of my own circle of friends in Carson, she ended up never leaving the Bronx, couldn’t get out of the vicious cycle of community college and low-paying, part-time jobs, and is now working at grocery store a few blocks from University Heights. The second student, who did win the full-ride scholarship to the university of his choice, couldn’t handle the pressures of university life. No one told him he could borrow the books he couldn’t afford at the school library. He came from an abusive foster home, believed his foster mother who told him he didn’t belong there, and ended up flunking out after the first semester of college. His beloved high school sweetheart, who didn’t win the full-ride scholarship either, but who through sheer willpower got into Bard College, sought help when the university life entrenched on her sense of self. She is the rare success story, the idealistic American Dream immigrant daughter success student—got out of the Bronx, went to law school, became a lawyer. But throughout her segment, she kept repeating my father’s refrain—no matter where I go, I always feel like I don’t deserve this, like I just don’t belong here—and if you went to a school that treated you like a criminal, just like mine did, just like hers did, you start believing it. At Carson High, we never could go off campus grounds for lunch, and if we did, if we got out of school early and were caught walking anywhere near the school, a cop car would pull up, and an officer would demand that you prove you got off school early, and if you couldn’t, that officer would force you into the back seat and drive to juvenile hall just to issue a truancy ticket, and scare the living hell out of you. Remind you where you come from. Put you in your place.
This is a truth: in order to “get out,” you have to have a gladiator-like, stubborn, unrelenting, desperate need to claw and claw yourself out of where you came from.
And if you did this, did everything you could, sacrificed all you could, just to “get out”—why, then, would you ever return? There is no tangential divagation here. It is like what my aunt once said to me—we survived a dictatorship. We survived a war. We survived. So why would we ever go back there, anak? Even if it’s home?
It is question I constantly I ask myself now: what made me return? But like the third student, no matter where I went, there was nowhere to return to; I felt like I belonged everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Physically, however, there wasn’t anything to return to: the blue-powdered house on Neptune Avenue was foreclosed, and I was a poor, in-debt, fresh and idealistic USC graduate who eloped with her high school sweetheart to make ends meet. I packed up a U-Haul with all my grandmother’s hand-me-down furniture and kitchen supplies and this old leather, wore-down couch my familia had owned for years and shipped it to South Carolina, my husband’s first duty station. I wrote relentlessly. I applied to conferences. I sent my work out. I was rejected hundreds of times. I was published at other times, was able to snag small awards here and there, and applied to an MFA program in Oakland, California, 195 miles away from home. I won a full-ride, I taught in inner-city communities that resembled the diverse and poor city I grew up in, where my brown and black students mirrored my own chaotic and turbulent upbringing, and I kept forward.
My thesis advisor, friends, colleagues, cohort members always looked at me with that questionable look, this breaking question: Tell me, Melissa, why are you so ambitious?
In their voices, I could hear my father’s concern, his refrain: Anak. Missy, why do you try so hard? Is your familia not enough for you?
My ambition, when it came to a young, petite femme woman of color who married young to a military cis-male man of color always was suspect. When I was vulnerable, honest, I would look them back in the eye and tell them squarely: Because I had no place else to go. There was no returning home for me.
There was only forward.
This relentless drive eventually broke me over the course of these five years. It happened gradually: a splinter in glass that spreads across a windshield like a disease.
When did it start? This ambition? This drive?
Was it when I was 16, when my father was taken to four different hospitals, only to end up at the USC University Cardiac Ward, where his ribs were broken and his chest sliced open for a new heart? His heart transplant was drug induced. Back then, my sister and cousins and I had no idea our fathers were addicted to meth. Meth, called shabu in the Phlippines, was the chosen, cheap drug that became an epidemic, only because the poor had to work every waking hour and the meth highs helped them stay berserk, helped them keep working despite the devouring sun or the balmy nights or the crooked landlords or the greedy drug dealers.
When my father almost died, I swore I would attend the university that saved his life. My father used to joke they gave him “a woman’s heart.” But from then on, I believed because my father had a woman’s heart, that him and his charm and his jokes, despite his negligence, were enough to fill the void my mother left after she abandoned us, my sister and me, to my grandmother’s care. I was wrong. The void only exponentially grew after my grandmother died.
The irony is that I can barely write about my grandmother. No matter how hard I try, my old methods of salvation go astray, divulge into a tangent, a circular tangential divagation. Where is the gun that goes off from page one? There is no gun, just a path of brokenness, felt across space, across time, and grief, this grief, I replay it over and over, like old videotapes, like that rupture on the glass, the windshield, these replaying, fractured, erasure memories.
I remember her smile: always crooked, ready to say an innuendo, despite her fanatical commitment to her religious faith.
I remember her last words to me: you left me. It was a matter-of-fact statement without guilt or hiya, shame, and her face almost half laughed, half smiled at the guilt she knew that rose from my belly to the throat.
I became a writer because I wanted to keep her memory alive. The irony of not being able to write about her never escapes me.
On the Eleventh of September, in 2012, when my grandmother passed away from a second heart attack in a crowded hospital room, I was not there. Instead, I was 195 miles away, heading to my first MFA fiction workshop, on a campus with colonial-styled buildings that lit up at night as if I were back in the South and not on a rich campus centered in the middle of one of Oakland’s ghettos.
I remember my father’s broken voice on the phone. The whole room wailing hundreds of miles away, through the white noise. She is gone. He repeats: Anak, she is gone. In many ways, she raised me and my sister more than she raised my father; he the youngest of ten children, a charming gigolo chasing too many women and who eventually married an even more broken child he knocked up from a family of twenty-two children. In many ways, this is why my birth mother abandoned my sister and me—she was a hungry ghost, always chasing other men’s affections, anyone that would make her feel valued, loved. After she left when I was one or two years old, my grandmother, my lola, ended up raising us instead, as if we were her own children, to the detriment of her relations with my aunt, who was wildly jealous that my grandmother took us in. She raised us better than she ever raised her own children, loved us more than she loved them. She, too, was a gambler in her youth. She, too, experienced trauma—she lived through the war, was captured by the Japanese, was tortured, possibly raped repeatedly as a Comfort Woman.
It was after my father called to confess his mother’s passing that I realized he felt more like a brother to me than a parent. It was one of his jokes he repeated to all the grocers and shopkeepers when I was teenager—don’t I look young enough to be her brother and not her dad?
He loved this idea: that we were his siblings not his children. This is why my grandmother continues to be my difficult muse, and my father is a complexity I could always break into: I never saw him in binaries. But with my grandmother, I could only see her as either fierce caretaker or vindictive tyrant. Mother or oppressor. Raging parent or loving foundation.
When I was fourteen, I had short, messy hair I used to spike up like a member of a Japanese boy band. I wore Converse sneakers, breakdanced every day after school at a place called Beat Science, which was behind an In-and-Out and sushi restaurant on Carson Street and the 110 Freeway. I was your typical, ghetto, ratchet, spunky pinay, dressed always in thrift shop shirts I cut up to fall off my shoulders. I was boy-crazy—just like my desperate mother—constantly looking for affection from any young, dashing Filipino boy who noticed me. I was insatiable, I felt invisible, something my grandmother hated. But because I was her apo, her anak—I would have carried you in my womb if I could, she always said—she reminded me that I was smart. I don’t know if I ever believed her until after she passed. She would protect me by walking me to school with a bamboo broomstick in one hand, and once, when she caught me kissing a boy outside our duplex (who is, ironically, my husband now), she shooed him away with that very broomstick, hitting him and screaming: get away from my daughter! Afterward, she did interrogate me: do you want to be a whore? Afterward, she did place chained locks on the outside of my door, in fear of strangers, in hopes of keeping me inside her realm, her makeshift womb.
She was vigilant whenever she emphasized my intellect, my creative spurts whenever I did something that pleased her—perfect grades in school, winning scholarships at the local community college, being awarded a Elito Santarina Scholarship from the local mayor, who happened to be Filipino and, of course, my grandmother’s good friend. Once, I wrote down little silly poems about the Philippines and Jesus Christ when I was in the fifth grade, poems that my grandmother really loved. When I fell asleep, she stole my sheet of poems from my folder, walked across the street to the liquor store, and photocopied the poems to pass them out at church the very next morning. All my aunties and uncles loved it, only because the childlike poems were about God, the center of their worldviews. Even my father was proud. It wasn’t until much later that he became afraid of my writing, of what I would write, of who I would socialize with, people so far from our class and our humble origins that he felt they were enemies, people who were out there to make him feel smaller, people who did make him feel smaller—so much that when I won a big tuition scholarship at USC, during the award’s dinner, my father sat at the classy banquet table rubbing his hands over and over again, unsure of what fork to eat with, eyeing others with scared eyes, asking me with his twitched mouth—anak, we don’t belong here… Why are we here, child?
But beauty, not intellect, was more enforced in my youth by my grandmother—the need to be light skinned, to be fair, have long, lush, jet-black hair, was demanded of me, so much that I rebelled at that tender age of independence, so much that the one day I chose to wear jelly ballet shoes instead of my usual sneakers, my grandmother grabbed them from their hidden spot underneath my twin-sized bed and threw them in the garbage outside. She was so vindictive. When I returned home, I searched for them high and low, my beloved dirty sneakers, and she stood above me, wagging her finger: child, what did I tell you about those ugly shoes? You’re too beautiful to wear them. Here, wear these, see, these heels? They make you taller. No longer are you small.
The irony is that despite both standing at four foot nine, we never thought of us as small. She nicknamed me batitot, small but terrible, an Ilocano nickname after her.
I am now twenty-seven, and it is several weeks later, I am already miles away from my family after having moved back home and from that hipster coffee shop in central L.A. Instead, I sit at a desk in a cottage on the Tuscan countryside for a two-week writing residency. This is my first, ever, time in Europe, a feat I never thought would come true. Once, in undergrad at USC, I was accepted into the University of East Anglia’s creative writing exchange program, and for my last semester, I was to study abroad, just like my other classmates. But then my father was sentenced to be deported for his past crimes; then the house on Neptune Avenue was foreclosed; then my father drove me around apartments in the South Bay, telling me to jot down “For Rent” phone numbers, when all of this could have been done online; then I eloped with my navy husband for money, to get away from my father, from my family. I couldn’t study abroad and see Europe then, a selfish thing, my father once said, when there was barely any food on the table. The poor girl I once was and the woman I am now could not be farther apart from each other. And yet, we are the same. And yet, as I look at my window and gaze at the rolling hills with lined grapevines and picturesque trees, I barrage myself with questions: How did I get here? How far have I traveled? Who was I before; who am I now?
And yes, I try to write about my grandmother, but to no avail.
As a brown-skinned, impoverished girl who used to sleep on the floor of her relatives’ apartments, who once drank powdered milk and would cut out coupons and carry food-stamps for grocery runs with her grandmother, there is a voice within me that repeats: I was not meant to see these foothills or taste this wine or walk between these hedges or witness these purple, pink, and vividly blue sunsets. And yet, I am here, somehow like the ilustrados before me, decades ago when the children of the Filipino elite would educate themselves in Europe and return to colonial Philippines to rule.
But I was not born into a family of ilustrados.
I was born in America to a family of balikbayans, to a broken father with a penchant for meth in his youth; to a mother with twenty-one siblings, who was born always lost and in so many ways I manifested my loneliness after hers, even in her absence; to a grandmother who survived a war, a dictatorship, and came to California to work in the canneries and to teach Sunday school classes, reviving the degree she worked so hard on in Manila; to a grandfather who fought as a guerrilla major and refused to lie for Marcos’s fake war medals, who never received his veteran benefits because President Truman signed the 1946 Recession Act, who died after two years of living in the States, poor and destitute, his bones facing the Pacific and buried within green, rolling hills; to a family who survived and maneuvered through this world together, without ever breaking their nucleus, their bonds sealed by blood.
So, I think of this girl, the one with the cut-up, over the shoulder shirt and the dirty Converse sneakers, and I imagine what makes us the same, imagine what had to happen to make her leave, imagine what had to happen to make her return.
I think of hungry ghosts, of how they follow me no matter where I travel. I imagine their bellies swelling with water, their skeletal bodies embodying the erasure of my ancestors’ deaths. At dinner, with a group of lovely women writers also attending the residency, another writer looks at me with a deep gaze and wonders aloud if I channel when I write. I almost immediately say yes. She continues: it’s as if ghosts are following you. It is nighttime and I still peer outside my window, hearing the rustle of the grass, the hoot of the large owls, and the seething grunts of those wild boars that roam the property.
I think of the time after my grandmother’s death, when I was alone in my Oakland apartment, writing at another desk with candlelight blazing beside me. It exploded when I was away in the bathroom. A painting by my sister magically fell off its hook and landed on the wooden floor. I stood under the archway of my little room and wondered aloud if my grandmother were with me. I don’t think she answered. I like to imagine that she did.
There is a story about hungry ghosts I love in Buddhist cosmology—their understanding of human life. The hungry ghosts are spirits with narrow limbs; enormously distended, engorged bellies; hollowed, mummified skin; and long, thin necks. Their mouths are insatiable. They wander the realm of Petras, and their appearance embodies, acts a metaphor for, their psyche: they have enormous appetites, signified by their colossal bellies, but they can never satiate their hunger because of their slender, skeletal necks.
I wonder if these hungry ghosts were ever water tortured, just like my ancestors one hundred years ago.
In the mirror attached to the impeccably painted walls of my Italian cottage, I imagine that girl I used be, transform my face into hers, shift the short hair to that boyish, rock band cut, my make-up done perfectly with black wings for eyes, alluring, spunky, raw. She was such an insatiable girl, a girl who existed in the hungry ghost realm more frequently than others, who needed to be seen, to be loved, to no longer be invisible. I once thought writing could be that light I needed, a light to the darkness I found myself wandering through, always, no matter how far I travelled from home, from Los Angeles, from the Philippines.
I think back to the exhausting trip I took to come here: a five-hour flight from LAX to New York, a seven-hour flight from New York to Düsseldorf, and a two-hour flight to Rome, the Eternal City. After a night of no sleep in a female-only hostel, I went on a one-day tour of Rome and stepped into the Pantheon, that ancient dome building made in the illusion of a circle, the symbol of divinity, eternity. Our tour guide pushed past the hordes of people and showed us the great Raphael’s tomb, shoved underneath a winged creature in mid-flight. The tour guide reminded us that Raphael died at the tender age of thirty-seven on the Sixth of April, his birthday, an ironic symbolism embodying the synchronicity and fullness of life—coming back to one’s origins. He pointed to the marble ground, a circular design enclosed by a square: this is the symbol of eternity, he stated.
I whispered aloud: tangential divagation.
Then I smiled at this tall Italian, with his long, golden hair, keeping to myself yet another literary irony: my father’s name is Raphael, but spelled the Spanish way—Rafael. My birth mother’s name is Mercedita, mercy. Two names that were meant to be etched on marble floors forever. Then, the tour guide pushed aside the growing crowd once more, and outside, in the balmy, breathless, Roman heat, I smiled again at the tour guide and said that William Shakespeare also died on his birthday, but on the Twenty-Third of April.
We share the same birthday, I continued, laughing. I added: I always had a weird obsession to die on my birthday, too.
He laughed along with me, bemused at my audacity.
But is that not what we writers yearn for, a shot at eternity, a hope to be remembered forever, to be loved and revered and finally seen for doing what we love, what we have sacrificed so much for? I laugh at that notion now, at my silly, girlish wish to be satiated by affection from complete strangers, from ghosts who follow me from the Philippines to America to Europe. I think instead of what Papa Baldwin said, so long ago in his humble abode in Paris: Find a way to keep alive and write. There is nothing else to say.
Last night, during my third day in Italy, I have a panicked dream where I stand in the Sistine Chapel alone, gazing at Michelangelo’s infamous ceiling, where Adam almost touches God’s hand. In this sequence, I see my father drawing a line with his finger beneath Michelangelo’s overarching painting, his face aghast, his stomach engorged, his neck as thin as hungry, tortured ghosts. He clutches his heart. The eyes become red. The face is erased. He collapses. I run to him, needing to catch him, I am confused, I witness his pain, I am his pain. I wake up in a panic, scared of my possible premonitions, deathly afraid I could lose him. Then I remember I am thousands of miles away and unable to phone him. I take out my phone, turn on the WiFi button, and message him immediately on Facebook. I tell him I miss you, ask him how are you, admitting that I need to know that he is okay. He laughs my anxiety off, a thing he has always done, even when he almost died before his heart transplant surgery, and asks, sincerely: how good is the pizza in Italy? I laugh back at him, type, ha-ha-ha, and tell him though it was delicious, it was a little sad to eat a huge pizza alone.
There is a devastating essay by Kai Cheng Thom, entitled, “Someone Tell Me That I’ll Live: On Murder, Media, and Being a Trans Woman in 2015.” In it, she describes how intergenerational trauma barrels through a family unit, a culture, through diasporic bodies that carry a legacy of erasure and loss. I am indebted to Kai Cheng Thom. She defined for me the very reason why I always returned home, back to my broken, painful family, both in my youth and my fractured adult life. She says:
The sociologist Kai Erickson once wrote that collective trauma is “a blow to the basic tissues of social life that damages the bonds attaching people together […] so that ‘I’ continue to exist, though damaged, and ‘you’ continue to exist, though distant and hard to relate to. But ‘we’ no longer exist as linked cells in a larger communal body.” Simply put, if a group of people is traumatized—terrorized—enough, they will cease to feel connected to one another. This disconnection is a defensive response, an attempt to shut off the pain of being associated with the group. As a result, we become withdrawn, isolated inside the story that we are alone and without hope.
When I say it is lonely and sad to eat pizza alone in Italy, I know my father understands it is a confession.
It is my way to confess: I am tired of being alone.
It is my way to confess: I want to return home, because, father, I no longer want to shut off the pain. I no longer want to flee. To disassociate. I want to live instead. I want heal it, the trauma. I want to carry it, even if it cannot be fixed. It can be carried.
It is my way to confess: I wish you were here with me, Dad. And I know he smiles at this.
He sends me back: ha-ha, I wish I was there anak, tc, which is his silly way of saying: take care.
I try to fall back to sleep, to an undisturbed slumber. But instead, I slip back into my demented dream: standing underneath that huge, heavenly, fearful ceiling, the immaculate men and women in the audience of God. Right behind God’s arm is Eve, her face shifted against Him, her gaze apprehensive, divulging. Tangential divagation. In every way in my brief life, I’ve lived so that I could write. I’ve done what my ancestors have done, fled so that I could live, loved so that I could laugh, returned so I could learn to love again. I repeat Papa Baldwin’s words in my head, keep alive and write; there is nothing else to say, and nod my head to this affirmation, this writer’s call, and I add only one last clause, say this aloud to the darkened room and the Tuscan sun slowly rising behind the hills of trees: and I will live because this is the only way I can live—to say everything I have to say.
Apostol, Gina and edited by Lara Stapleton. “Narration and History.” Thirdest World. Factory School, New York, 2007. Print. 24 September 2015.
Thom, Kai Cheng. “Someone Tell Me That I’ll Live: On Murder, Media, and Being a Trans Woman in 2015.” xoJane. 28 February 2015. Web. 26 October 2015.
Elgrably, Jordan. Interview with James Baldwin. The Art of Fiction No. 78. The Paris Review No. 91 (Spring 1984). Web. 24 September 2015.
MELISSA R. SIPIN is a writer from Carson, CA. She won Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open and the Washington Square Review’s Flash Fiction Prize. She co-edited Kuwento: Lost Things, an anthology on Philippine myths (Carayan Press 2014), and her work is in Guernica, Eleven Eleven, and Hyphen Magazine, among others. Cofounder of TAYO Literary Magazine, her fiction has won scholarships/fellowships from Kundiman, VONA/Voices, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and was shortlisted for the David Wong Fellowship at the University of East Anglia. As the Poets & Writers McCrindle Fellow in Los Angeles, she is hard at work on a short story collection and novel.