Eileen R. Tabios has developed a
following as a writer, blogger, book collector, artist, and reviewer. Here is an
interview with her, and scroll down for a review of her book PAGPAG by Neil
Leadbeater. I first heard her name from my poetry friends and then saw her poetry
review online journal GALATEA RESURRECTS (A POETRY ENGAGEMENT), an important commentary
on contemporary verse. After relocating to northern California, I looked her
up, and we have enjoyed an ongoing dialogue about our writing, her small book
library, her fostered dogs, and
more. We exchanged questions and answers for this interview in early October, 2020, as she and her family were displaced by the Glass Fire.
ERT That is a good question, because this book is an interruption of the writing styles I was exploring. These stories (except for one I added to cohere the collection) were published from 1995-2000; they represent me as a newbie creative writer, and I do not write the way I wrote back then. But I decided to re-issue them as a book in protest against the cruel policies of current Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte as well as his complicity in rehabilitating the reputation of the family of Martial Law dictator Ferdinand Marcos. I thought it important to remind people that Martial Law occurred, was damaging, and offers a legacy wherein junior-Marcos-type politicians undeservedly thrive to the detriment of the Filipino people they are supposed to serve.
Having said that, I am calling *interruption* only as regards writing style. PAGPAG’s stories are not that far from a consistent root cause to my poetry, which is addressing injustice. In my case, injustice helped create me as a diasporic. But it’s okay that I present from the diaspora because, as I say in my introduction, the effects of a dictatorship go beyond the obvious killings and torture of political rebels; the effect continues for generations and beyond national borders, and one result is the growth of diaspora. The growth in diasporic movement is not just from opposition politicians fleeing the dictator but also the population going overseas for work and other opportunities not available domestically, due to insufficient domestic development policies.
One aggravating—though not the most important—result of injustice is how it interrupts Beauty. I am very interested in exploring the many facets of Beauty (much of my poetry attests to that), but addressing injustice is of course a worthy diversion. For PAGPAG, the proverbial straw that caused me to release this book—and it was a very swift process from that decision to publication, thanks to Paloma Press publisher Aileen Cassinetto, who empathized and saw exactly what I was trying to do—was when I learned how the word “pagpag” had turned from its original definition of “dusting off” objects to be one of when poor people recover food dumped into trash landfills before attempting to clean them for re-cooking into new meals (you can see, and be offended as I was by, this video: ).
While PAGPAG is a short story collection, it also offers poems (inevitably so since I am a poet), including its ending poem from which I excerpt about the choice-that-is-a-non-choice faced by the poor:
How to choose between malnutrition versus Hepatitis A
malnutrition versus typhoid
malnutrition versus diarrhea
malnutrition versus cholera
A Filipino scholar I respect noted that the pagpag practice can exemplify the resilience of a people who otherwise might starve. Far be it for me to criticize actions by the hungry and malnourished, but all of those diseases mentioned in my poem can result from eating food scavenged from trash. So I was enraged at how the political leadership allowed this fate for poor people. I truly feel a nation must be judged, too, by how well (or not) it treats its weakest constituents. The poor are not given enough support, so the least I can do is remind with a book, even though inevitably I must write from the position of one who was able to leave and is outside the country. I do say in my Introduction:
"The aftermath [of a dictator’s actions] is not always obvious like the imprisoned, the tortured, or the salvaged (murdered); the aftermath goes deep to affect even future generations in a diaspora facilitated by corruption, incompetence, and venality."
DL What did you hope to accomplish with writing this book?
ERT My voice from the diaspora is not as important as those (in the Philippines) directly helping the poor and working for political change. But I suppose I just wanted to add my voice, which perhaps can add another element to illustrating the effects of a dictatorship, as I describe above. The stories all maintain a “from the diaspora” point of view but they are from the fictionalized children of the anti-Marcos opposition that had to leave the Philippines while Marcos was in power. I am just adding a modest voice to the clamor protesting against those failing in their public duties.
DL What differences do you find between writing poetry and writing fiction? Any similarities?
ERT I find I am more didactic when writing fictional prose—that the about-ness is more privileged than if I was writing a poem. This, by the way, is why I feel that in terms of effectiveness, the poems in PAGPAG are not as good as the short stories. The poems elide too much of the specifics that need to be shared full-frontally about the nature of political abuse and dictatorship. The poems, thus, are in support of the fiction which do a better job in communication because of their didacticism that offers specifics.
This is not to say that political poems cannot do justice to what they are addressing. I am only talking about me, and how I prefer in poetry to address Beauty than non-Beauty, knowing I can go to other forms like fiction when I want to do something else.
DL Often people note that United States poets fail to write many good lyric poems that are political statements overtly, as the didacticism detracts from the lyricism. Perhaps here you say the elision of lyric poetry also makes political poetry more difficult. Thank you for that insight. You and I have talked about my good fortune in meeting Bienvenido Santos when he was a professor in my MFA program. He first made me aware of the political and personal tragedies in his and your homeland. What else would you like to share about your book or its impetus?
ERT I would not go so far as to say lyricism makes political poetry more difficult. I only know that part of my position is not having to be constrained by only writing poems. I can write prose, too.
As for what else I would like to share about the book, the (abusive) effects due to the extremes of rich vs. poor and elite vs. disenfranchised are well-known and stretch back over much of human history. But as a person of my/our time, I notice what seems to me more drastic gulfs caused by wealth spurred by technology and financially leveraged products, among others. In the past, we certainly had the Rockefeller wealth due to oil and J.P. Morgan’s wealth due to finance, and these wealths, proportionately, may not be significantly different from those of today's Gates, Bezos, or Musk. But it seems to me that we have more such gazillionaires today. I speculate that the more you have of such people, the more they are able to create a culture such as a financial wealth-created bubble; such a bubble creates thicker borders because there are enough people with whom to socialize within that bubble.
Then, I suspect that from that bubble—and economic elite of course can translate to political
and other types of elitists—you start seeing politicians with decreasing empathy for the weakest among their constituencies. For they are not as in touch with them, or they recognize the suffering of other people as theoretical versus lived. In the Philippines, for example, there is a group of families that usually control economic and political standing. In the U.S., well, how much empathy has the President shown for people who live in various margins?
In my Introduction to PAGPAG, I insist that “it’s not okay. Pagpag is never okay—especially in a land where others spend ‛15 million pesos on a handbag’” when a serving of a pagpag meal can cost "as little as 20 pesos hard-earned by the poor.”
I do not know if my book PAGPAG offers any benefit. But as I write in PAGPAG, “A writer writes and here I write in protest—I know writing by itself is not adequate… But I do believe in the ultimate power of the written word and this book would be among those I’d send back from the diaspora to the Philippines.”
Consequently, too, I am glad to share that PAGPAG will have a Philippine edition released by the end of this year. It will be published and distributed in the Philippines by Wesleyan University Philippines. I could not have expected this result when I first put together the book. But I am glad because it is fitting that this facet of my writings return to the homeland. Not everything should remain in exile. And/or, I do not need to remain exiled.
DL This is almost a note of optimism. Thank you so much for your reflections.
NEIL LEADBEATER reviews Pagpag:
The Dictator’s Aftermath In The Diaspora by Eileen R. Tabios (Paloma Press, 2020, available at https://eileenrtabios.com/fiction/pagpag/)
“Pagpag” is a Tagalog word meaning “to shake off dust or dirt” in the sense of fluffing up bedding to get rid of dust or shaking off crumbs that have landed in your lap. More recently it has come to refer to the scavenging of leftover food from garbage cans. Beggars or scavengers shake the food to remove the dirt that may have become attached to it. People who scavenge for leftovers in the Philippines will frequently cook what they find to make it less dangerous to eat.
In this collection of eleven protest stories, written between 1995 and 2001, Eileen Tabios rakes through the debris of “the continuing past” of a ruthless dictatorship to register her offence at having been forced to join the Philippine diaspora. For her, “pagpag” “heart-wrenchingly symbolizes like no other the effects of a corrupt government unable to take care of – indeed, abusing – its people.”
In her introduction she says, “A writer writes, and here I write in protest – I know writing by itself is not adequate, even as I humbly offer this collection to readers. But I do believe in the ultimate power of the written word and this book would be among those I’d send back from the diaspora to the Philippines.”
Throughout this collection, poverty is described in all its forms and not just in terms of a lack of money. It is also seen with reference to a lack of opportunity and, more importantly, a lack of being able to make one’s voice heard and a lack of being able to do anything about it. There are old men and women sleeping on hard surfaces, small farmers forced out of business, companies stripped of their assets and a displaced population from Calauit who end up dying of starvation.
There are also many things that have been discarded, broken or inadvertently left behind: a diamond ring and a pair of earrings, halved coconut husks, the broken fragments of a crystal vase, the mountainous trash heaps of wasted food in the foothills of Manila. All of these have consequences for the poor.
There is plenty of variety too, ranging from the politically charged “Force Majeure” and “Redeeming Memory” to the politically correct “Homeland” and the comic “Pork” and “Tapey.” Ghosts are present in at least three of these stories, but there is a sense in which they haunt every one of them as Tabios confronts her past.
The cover image, Self-Contained (2009) by Rea Lynn de Guzman—an interdisciplinary artist working in painting, print media, and sculpture—is the perfect fit to this collection since, like Tabios, she also immigrated from the Philippines to the United States at an early age, sharing that common bond of displacement and exile. This is a powerful collection of stories that illustrates the extent to which the legacy of dictatorship is still being felt today within the Filipino diaspora.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet, and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014), Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017), Punching Cork Stoppers (Original Plus, 2018) and Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019). His work has been translated into several languages.
Eileen R. Tabios loves books and has released over 60 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in ten countries and cyberspace. Publications include form-based Selected Poems, The In(ter)vention of the Hay(na)ku: Selected Tercets (1996-2019), THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL: Selected Visual Poetry (2001-2019), INVENT(ST)ORY: Selected Catalog Poems & New (1996-2015), and THE THORN ROSARY: Selected Prose Poems & New (1998-2010); the first book-length haybun collection, 147 MILLION ORPHANS (MMXI-MML); a collection of 7-chapter novels, SILK EGG; an experimental autobiography AGAINST MISANTHROPY; as well as two bilingual and one trilingual editions involving English, Spanish, and Romanian. Her award-winning body of work includes invention of the hay(na)ku poetic form as well as a first poetry book, Beyond Life Sentences (1998), which received the Philippines’ National Book Award for Poetry (Manila Critics Circle). Her poems have been translated into 11 languages as well as computer-generated hybrid languages, paintings, video, drawings, visual poetry, mixed media collages, Kali martial arts, music, modern dance, sculpture and a sweatshirt. Additionally, she has edited, co-edited or conceptualized 15 anthologies of poetry, fiction and essays as well as exhibited visual art and visual poetry in the United States, Asia and Serbia.