Filipinx American Spotlight: Interview with Dina Klarisse
Dina Klarisse is a writer from sleepy Pacifica just south of San Francisco. When she is not stuck in traffic or working at her full-time office job, she loves cooking and eating healthy and cheap vegetarian food, exploring the outdoors, reading just about anything, and crying over her manuscript. She is a huge fan of not hurting her wallet or the Earth, so a big objective of hers besides word vomiting all over readers' nice computer screen is to show readers suggestions on how to live and travel on a small budget while eating moderately healthy and staying environmentally conscious.
You are an enthusiastic traveler and also travel writer. Can you tell us, what inspires you before you decide to go on a travel?
I love learning about the history and geography about the places I travel to; before going on trips my partner and I usually look up historic or cultural sites, as well as natural landmarks and trails that we can explore. We recently took a road trip around Rajasthan, India, where we visited historic forts, palaces, and temples that we had read and watched movies about beforehand. Standing in these spaces that held so much soul and history really moved me and reminded me why I love to travel. It’s not just about going to new places and checking landmarks off of your bucket list; it’s also about broadening your perspective and coming to terms with how large the universe is, and how long history has lasted and will continue to last after we’re gone.
In your works like “Utang na loob” in your blog, we see that you are using Filipino words. How is your relationship with English, Filipino and other languages when writing? How do you connect the languages, or should I ask, how do you feel them?
Tagalog was my first language, but I lost it early in my life when I immigrated to California and was encouraged to speak only English in order to shake off the accent. As I grew older, however, I’ve found that one does not truly lose their mother language, rather it sits in the backs of their throats and ears, waiting for a cue to come back. Now I speak with my family in Taglish, a compromise between my two worlds.
I’ve always loved languages and dialects so I’ve also studied and become fluent in Italian and German, and am casually learning Spanish, Hindi, and Mandarin. I think language is not only a fun way to connect with people, but also a useful tool in learning about their culture and history because these three things are intermeshed with one another.
Do you think that world literature is missing Filipino works because of lack of translation/marketing?
Yes! Although there are so many Filipinx in the US and we have been here since at least the 1500s, we don’t see representation in literature or TV and movies. It’s definitely because of lack of translation/marketing; I think further than that it’s also a lack of understanding of our heritage and racial markup. Filipinx are made up of so many different racial groups. We don’t fit in with the typical “oriental” asian group that is often stereotyped in Western media, and we’re also not quite there with Pacific Islander groups. Really Filipinx are in the middle, the islands having been a center of cultural and lingual trade between China, Malaysia, Polynesia, India, Spain, and the US during our ancient and recent history.
When did you first realize your affinity for poetry? What is your “origin” story?
I’ve been reciting and making my own stories since I first started talking, but I remember my first real stab at poetry was during early middle school. I was deep in the depths of pubescent angst and had started listening to bands like System of a Down and My Chemical Romance, and was inspired by their lyrics and the woes and tragedies of being 12-years-old to write my own songs and poems.
Later on, I studied poets like Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, e.e. cummings, and Charles Bukowski, and was inspired to start writing poetry and framing my ideas in a distinctive tone and style. My poetry is still pretty angsty and sad, but I’m learning how to use happiness as an inspiration as well, so I think I’m still in my origin story?
Which is your favorite genre to read? Which is your favorite to write?
I love reading any genres (last month I read a self-help book, a memoir, literary fiction, and Russian classic), but I am usually drawn to speculative fiction and cross-cultural literary fiction. My favorite authors are Ursula Le Guin, Jhumpa Lahiri, and John Steinbeck.
In terms of writing, I tend to write “literary fiction” (I use quotes because I don’t really like the pretentious connotation usually associated with the genre) and cross-cultural narratives inspired by my own experiences as a Filipinx-American. Lately I’ve been having more fun with my writing and am working on a fantasy adventure novel inspired by Filipinx mythology and colonialism.
Do you feel like your poetry falls under a certain category, such as experimental, contemporary, etc.? If you could have your work associated with another poet, who would it be and why?
I would say my poetry falls under contemporary and cultural identity. I am working on writing about the happy times too, but usually my poems are inspired by identity crises regarding being Filipinx-American, being an ex-Catholic, reluctancy in growing up, etc.
In terms of theme and structure I can’t honestly say if my poetry resembles that of established poets, but I am inspired by Emily Dickinson, William Butler, Mary Oliver, and Merlie Alunan.
Do you participate in spoken word/slam poetry? If so, where can we find your performances? How is writing spoken word different from ‘traditional’ poetry?
I’ve never performed spoken word, but it’s something I’d love to try one day (when I’m more confident in my structure and rhythm. I don’t think spoken word is that much different from “traditional poetry.” Actually I think it’s very similar to traditional poems we study because of the importance of structure and rhythm. I think perhaps the poetry we know from earlier centuries has evolved away from very strict rhyming patterns and themes.
What is your ‘process’ for writing poetry?
I usually write in stream of consciousness and let out whatever I’m feeling at the time, letting the rhythm take form based on the words. After I get all of my ideas and feelings out, I go back through the poem and play with diction and structure to have somewhat of a coherent flow.
Which do you prefer more: writing poetry or reading poetry?
Both! I love poetry, and I think any writer (and anyone else, for that matter) should try to read or write poetry at least once. It’s a wonderful way of expressing oneself while playing with the means of communicating to the audience.
When writing poetry, do you write from emotion? What usually inspires you? When putting together a chapbook/collection of poetry, what do you keep in mind? How do you keep it a cohesive piece of work?
I touched upon this in an earlier question, but I do start with an emotion or theme when writing a poem. The structure and rhythm of the poem tends to shape itself once the words start flowing, and then I like to go back afterwards to tighten things up in a more cohesive structure.
I know a lot of poets/novelists, writers in general, struggle with marketing themselves and their services. Have you ever encountered this feeling? If so, how did you overcome it?
I’ve just recently started transitioning into freelance work, so I’m starting with the network I already have (friends and family on different social media.) I’ve always hated the feeling that I’m trying too hard and it feels like that when I’m posting about my work and adding hashtags to get more traffic, but I just swallow my pride and remind myself that it’s important to do these things to get the word out.
Do you feel that social media has helped poets? Why or why not? If so, what platform do you believe has helped you the most with marketing yourself?
Definitely! I think social media has democratized writing and publishing and writing. I love sharing poetry on Facebook and Instagram to my friends and family, and I love connecting with other writers through social media.
What are your methods for overcoming ‘writer’s block’? What do you do when you can’t seem to find inspiration?
This is a constant struggle for me. When I’m feeling writer’s block I like to read books and poetry, especially by writers with which I identify and look up to.
A lot of writers struggle with time management. Do you have a day job? If so, how do you balance work, writing (poetry and your novel), family, and personal time?
I currently work a 9-5, and write in the evenings and weekends. Currently I’m trying to get into freelancing so that I can be more free to manage my time.
What do you want the readers to know about you?
I am constantly learning and growing, and I know that my writing will never be perfect. The pressure to write perfectly always made it hard for me to start projects, but very recently I’ve learned to accept that the first draft is supposed to be messy and ugly--it’s a place for the writer to play and experiment. I’d love readers to know that as a writer, I am just a kindergartner with some fingerpaints and paper, splashing some color and not worrying about being perfect. (That comes later.)
What change would you like to see within the writing community and why?
I’d love to see more people who are “not creative” or “left-brained” getting into the writing
community, whether it entail writing or reading poetry. I think poetry is such a wonderful
expression of one’s self, and a big myth about it is that it’s artsy fartsy and always abstract.
In reality, poetry can be very structured and scientific when you play with rhythm and
form, so I think it can appeal to different audiences.
Where do you expect to see yourself (as a writer) in the next five years? The next ten years?
In the next five years, I hope to be writing and publishing my first fantasy series, as well as other works in fiction and poetry that will strengthen the Filipinx-American voice in the literary canon. In ten years (oh god, I’ll be 34) I hope that other Filipinx writers and I will have established ourselves in the mainstream canon.
Are there any immediate events or publications that you have coming up that you want the readers to know about?
I just discovered the community of indie online magazines on instagram like Marias at Sampaguitas, and I’m obsessed! I recommend readers to follow different magazines on Instagram so they can also join this amazing community of writers and readers.
How do you define being Filipinx American for yourself?
In my experience, being Filipinx American means finding a balance between the values and traditions between two cultures. I was born in the Philippines and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area; I find myself struggling most days to uphold the family-focused values that my parents taught me while still maintaining my individuality and personal freedom.
What would you change about the mainstream perception of Filipinx Americans?
I want to bring awareness to the rich history Filipinx Americans have in this country, as well as further the discussions of colonization of the islands by Spain and US. I think Filipinx Americans exist in the public eye mostly in comedy or sports, and while I am always happy with more representation, I don’t think there is enough public awareness of the historic labor, class, and cultural struggles of Filipinx Americans.
How would you encourage more involvement of Filipinx American with politics/events in the Philippines?
At the risk of sounding very millennial, I think Twitter is a great tool for grassroots movement and spreading news. While it’s not a place for completely reliable news sources, it’s a means of building communities and starting discussions. I’ve discovered movements such as the ALCADEV Lumad School through Twitter; I hope to use my writing and presence on social media to share the knowledge about environmental and cultural issues and activism.
Being Filipinx enough is a concern shared with many Filipinx Americans. Do you feel this? If so, how do you combat this feeling of inadequacy?
I struggle with this every day. I am the youngest of my siblings and am often told that I’m too American because I was so young when we immigrated; I find myself wanting to prove my Filipinx-ness to my brothers and family because I want to be included in discussions about our heritage and the current issues in our country. As someone who is an atheist and bisexual, I sometimes feel further isolated from my identity. I combat these feelings by writing about my experience and reading Filipinx-American literature; these help me reflect on what it truly means to be Filipinx and help me gain more knowledge about my heritage.
Did you always embrace your culture? If so, who taught you? If not, what inspired this change?
I embrace many aspects of my culture but I’ve also learned how to appreciate values while acknowledging they may not apply to my personal lifestyle. My extended family was organized like a matriarchy, with my grandmother as the official head of the family. When she passed away, my eldest aunt and mother took over as caretakers and decision makers. While I love the women in my family for their resilience and ability to care for others, I don’t think the newer generation of our family will be adopting this hierarchical organization. I love my brothers and want them to succeed in life, but I’ve also learned to keep my distance when it comes to personal decisions (such as their finances, children, spouses, etc.) I think this is a step away from the traditional family structure that we grew up with, where everyone was involved with each others’ family and financial decisions, everyone went to church together, etc. We still care for each other but have grown away from being codependent.
What do you know about your family history?
Before becoming a father, my maternal grandpa had a beautiful and interesting life. He was born in a northern Luzon province, scouted for guerilla factions during World War II, and came to Manila to work as a Jeepney driver when he was 14 years old. He was the first to come to the US; he was an undocumented immigrant and worked odd jobs up and down California to scrape up the money to send to his wife and nine children. He eventually married an American woman (who my family, including my biological grandmother, adopted into the family) and worked and petitioned to bring the entire family to the US.
I am currently interviewing different members of my family to fill in the spaces of history that I don’t know, especially about my father’s side of the family who are still largely in Manila.
Do you speak a Filipinx language? If so, which one? Does this knowledge influence your work?
Tagalog was my first language, and although I’ve forgotten much of it I still incorporate words in my writing. I wrote a creative nonfiction piece on my grandfather’s immigration journey where I kept the dialogue in Tagalog and did not provide English translations. I did this as an experiment on contextual clues when it comes to intercultural writing.
What are your thoughts on learning a Filipinx language as a Filipinx American? Is it necessary to you? Why or why not?
Personally, I find it necessary as a Filipinx American writer to restrengthen my Tagalog because I want to dissolve the language and cultural barriers when interviewing subjects and researching history. My father has trouble speaking English so I usually speak to him in broken Tagalog; I find that we both speak halfway between the languages in order to communicate with each other.
Do you feel obligated to talk about the Filipinx American experience because you are Fil-Am? Why or why not?
I do feel obligated to speak about the Filipinx American experience because of my cultural background and heritage. As an adult, I’ve reflected on my personal values and mindset and I find that much of who I am is because of my experiences as a Filipinx American. I think cultural identity is an incredibly important aspect of my writing as it determines my drive and what I write for. I want to speak about postcolonialism, environmentalism, mental health advocacy, and so many more topics that I see through the lense of my experience as a Filipinx American woman.
How in your writing do you express being Filipinx, whether implicitly or explicitly? Being American?
In my nonfiction writing I am explicit about my identity and refer to specific aspects of having grown up in a Filipinx Roman Catholic family, I usually identify my topics directly and openly because my goal in these pieces is to open discussion with other Filipinx Americans. I also enjoy and find importance in critical discussions about literature and media from different perspectives that have been shaped by identity, such as postcolonial perspectives when reading about and discussing modern society.
In fiction and poetry, I use both implicit and explicit references to my identity as a Filipinx American. My personal exploration of identity and heritage helps me find what to speak and write about, but I like to change up my narrative to keep my work interesting and relevant.
What parts of your identity do you feel conflict? How do you reconcile these differences?
I am constantly struggling with my sense of filial duty to my parents and family and its conflict with my need for personal freedom. While I want to maintain strong emotional relationships with my parents, I often distance myself because of emotional traumas from my childhood and my conflicting values. This is a work in progress, but I found that it’s useful to find the balance between open communication and understanding that parents don’t necessarily need to know everything.
In coming to terms with my atheism and my conflicts with the Catholic church, I am also conflicted because I want to respect and honor my family’s religion while also opening up the discussion of our forced convergence as a people and how that has impacted collective Filipino mindsets even today in a postcolonial world.
Who are you, and how do you want the Filipinx American community to know you?
I am Dina Klarisse, a Pinay woman who wants to celebrate the rich history and culture of her homeland while tackling toxic social behaviors that are rampant within the Filipinx American community. As a writer and poet, I want to strengthen the Filipinx American voice that seems to still be silent in the mainstream literary canon, despite our strong and historic presence in the US.
Interview conducted by Nazlı Karabıyıkoğlu, who is the Interview Editor for Marías at Sampaguitas. She is an author from Turkey, enthusiastic traveler, Feminist activist, and Mother of four cats and countless animals all over the world. Full-time resident in Georgia, escaped from the oppression in Turkey. Has 5 published books in Turkish. For further information: www.nazlikarabiyikoglu.com.