Filipinx American Spotlight: Interview with Elsa Valmidiano
Philippine-born and LA-raised, Elsa Valmidiano is a writer and poet who calls Oakland home. For several years, Elsa was a women’s reproductive rights activist, and incorporates much of that activism into her writing. Her works have appeared or are forthcoming in various literary journals such as TAYO, make/shift, Burner, As/Us, Literature for Life, Mud Season Review, Yes Poetry, Northridge Review, Memoir Magazine, Cosmonauts Avenue, Anomaly, and Cherry Tree, as well as various anthologies such as Field of Mirrors, Walang Hiya, Circe’s Lament, Precipice, Loon Magic and Other Night Sounds, and What God Is Honored Here. Elsa is an alum of the DISQUIET International Literary Program in Lisbon and Summer Literary Seminars hosted in Tbilisi. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College and has performed numerous readings such as at Artists Against Rape, Kearny Street Workshop’s APATURE, Scriptorium, Litquake, Lark Poetry Series, and has been a poetry guest speaker and panelist at several NorCal colleges and universities. She is a Best of the Net and Pushcart Prize nominee.
A recipient of the Editors’ Choice selection from the 2018 Many Voices Project competition in Prose sponsored by New Rivers Press at Minnesota State University Moorhead, Elsa’s debut essay collection, We Are No Longer Babaylan, is slated for publication in Fall 2020/Spring 2021.
Last, but not least, she would really like it if you pronounced her last name as her ancestors intended: /väl-mĭ-jänō/.
You are an activist for women’s reproductive rights. Can you tell us, how does your activism nourish your writing?
I have to correct this question as I don’t want to be misleading and say that I’m a current women’s reproductive rights activist. In my bios, I’ve been careful to use “was” versus “is.” While I have done extensive work with Planned Parenthood, Exhale (a post-abortion counseling talkline), and Likhaan (a women’s health organization in the Philippines), I have a hard time attaching the term, “activist” to myself these days as I don’t protest nor attend or organize mass mobilization events anymore. I suppose I am an activist on a literary level as I do write about pregnancy, abortion, contraception, fertility, and sexual violence, but when I think of the term, “activist,” I think of the physical work of marching, attending political events, doing legislative work, and grassroots organizing, something I sadly haven’t been involved with in a while. This is why I choose to use the past tense regarding my reproductive rights activism versus present tense.
As far as how my past activism has figured into my writing, I do write a lot about my personal experience with pregnancy, abortion, contraception, fertility, and sexual violence. But I also don’t want to be cubby-holed in that I only write about those subjects, as I want to believe that I have the bandwidth to write about anything that interests me. I still so fiercely believe in the right to choose that it naturally figures into my writing. Rather than taking an outward political stance when I write, I look at all sides of the discourse as I believe compassion and understanding are so important when talking about how the politics affects us personally, or rather, how the personal experience can feel so outside the political arena. When it comes to reproductive rights, it’s not some issue to simply argue in the courts or in the great halls of government, but at its core are women, men, and nonbinary individuals with very lived experiences, who shouldn’t be judged, but should be listened to. At the crux of anything I write, it starts off with a story. If the subject matter veers into the area of reproductive rights, I can assure you, it’s usually pure coincidence. One of the only exceptions to this was my article, “Bad Pro-Choicer” published in Anomaly last year that had the specific goal of discussing the abortion experience while providing a critical analysis within the context of the pro-choice, pro-life debate.
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?
When it comes to poetry, fiction, memoir, or personal essay, if something inherently Filipinx comes to mind, i.e. a word or emotion I can’t convey in English, I go ahead and use that word without an English translation. I let it be part of the text without feeling the need to explain it as I believe the context of the word carries itself, just as it would in my everyday life. I’ll often interchange between Tagalog and Ilocano, but I usually defer to Ilocano more in my writing when an English word won’t suffice.
You hold an MFA degree from Mills College. Do you think that MFA programs could change a poet/writer’s perspective on literature? How do these programs function if you do not have a talent at all? Is it just about the will to write and discipline?
I think MFA programs can enhance a poet and writer’s perspective on Literature, but I also do not feel MFA programs are absolutely necessary to be a good writer. There’s a privilege attached to MFA programs, especially given how some MFA programs can be egregiously expensive, as well as not being very diverse with student and faculty demographics. In lieu of MFA programs, I do think writing seminars, workshops, and residencies, particularly workshops whether they are personally organized or community-run, can be great ways to encourage writers to hone their craft. Even after receiving my MFA degree, I still attend literary programs and workshops when I can, as I believe there is still so much to learn and play with when it comes to stretching the boundaries of writing. I’ve always been fascinated and in love with what writers come up with, making me rethink my own approach to writing. I’ve found fresh, amazing, brilliant storytelling with a wide array of voices.
I believe most MFA programs require talent. Since MFA programs can be fairly competitive, I don’t think it accepts just anyone. As with any passion and gift, writers still have to work hard –– write, edit, play, edit, write some more, hopefully finish –– where this process usually happens a million times in some semblance of whatever order. I also know writers in my MFA program who just gave up on writing. Sometimes that can be unfortunate, but I also know some writers who have moved onto other artistic endeavors such as drawing and painting. Absolutely nothing wrong with that.
I also don’t think it’s simply will and discipline. Once you’ve gotten yourself to write, I believe there’s also a careful nurturing and self-awareness required to develop and grow one’s writing into something beautiful and aesthetic, even when writing about the most ugly, tragic things. I feel that ugly, tragic things are usually found in news clips, whereas Literature is so much more than what a news clip can offer. No offense to the news, but I believe Literature beautifully brings to life what the news doesn’t always cover – the thoughts, feelings, hidden meanings, symbols, and circumstances of what makes us feel for others and ourselves. Literature steps us into the shoes of those we might not ordinarily think of, making us relate to a story on a much deeper level, maybe because of shared experiences or feelings. Literature can also stretch our imagination to a world we wouldn’t ordinarily consider.
Do you think that magazines play an important role in a poet’s/artist’s publishing career? Do you have a dream journal?
I think magazines play an important role in a poet/writer’s publishing career, but I’ve also known writers who do just fine without a CV and publish their work on their own websites and blogs. I say: do whatever makes you feel comfortable. I do both. I publish my work on my website but I also still submit to literary journals and anthologies. I think as a writer and poet, we shouldn’t lose sight of why we write in the first place despite what our publishing CV reveals.
With regards to publishing specifically, it really depends what you want your writing to accomplish. There’s a particular blogger I know who has thousands of followers and he doesn’t have one lick of writing published in a journal. I’ve read his stuff as he follows me back on my website. Some of his writing is actually quite gorgeous and poignant as he chronicles life as a queer white homeless man, living out of his car, and traveling all over the US, posting pictures he’s taken to document his (mis)adventures. Other subject matter he writes about is on the humorous but also NC-17 side. Reader discretion is definitely advised. He covers the whole gamut of subject matter.
While money, fame, and the Pulitzer Prize are nice, it’s not what writing is about. Writing is about the self at the end of the day. Maybe our writing will influence community and society, and maybe even the world as a whole eventually, but writing is such an intimate practice that starts with the self. Also, who are you are writing for? Who is your audience? These are important questions to ask oneself because I don’t necessarily think having a career in writing excludes those writers who write for themselves. You either are or aren’t a writer, and I don’t think an extensive CV is proof of a writer. A writer writes. Period.
When and if you do decide to make the publishing leap, it’s important to remember that you will carry great accountability where your writing will influence, inspire, or offend others. You can’t please everyone. I’ve seen a few writers think they could get away with plagiarism or appropriation, claiming their ideas are theirs because they’ve shaped them in an entirely new way. Cue my eye roll. Especially with social media, prepare for a literary reckoning.
I used to have a dream journal, and I won’t say what it is, but there is so much politics in the publishing industry, shifting politics too, that I’m a little cautious to speak so highly of a particular journal. As a writer of color, there is still so much discrimination targeted against writers of color where white gatekeepers will silence our voices, simply based on their hegemonic thinking that our stories aren’t mainstream enough and therefore aren’t “interesting” enough to sell to, what they believe is, an overwhelming white market. That has changed my perspective on what a dream journal is. Where all the gatekeepers are white at maybe the country’s most top-notch journal, then no, that wouldn’t make me interested in it, despite it being a dream journal for another writer. This is not to say that I won’t apply to that journal as I believe in breaking ceilings in the literary industry, but I wouldn’t call it a dream journal. More like an obstacle to conquer.
When did you first realize your affinity for poetry? What is your “origin” story?
My first affinity for poetry was probably born at age 8 when I wrote my first limerick. I actually want to say I started writing as soon as I learned the alphabet. Age 14 is when I officially dove into poetry, as passionately and obsessively as I do today. The teen years were very difficult where poetry saved me from doing great physical harm to myself. I had a solid group of very close friends who remain my friends today, but none of whom I felt I could articulate the emotional turmoil I was feeling, and so I wrote poems just to get through the day. I continued to write through college, which dwindled greatly through law school. After law school is when I picked it up with a ferocity after speaking with the late acclaimed artist Papo de Asis. I’d say my origin story is more like several incarnations from babyhood to age 28. Since age 28, I pretty much have soared and have yet to land.
What is your ‘process’ for writing poetry?
My process for writing poetry usually takes place in bed, when I’m either falling asleep or first waking up. Another place is the shower or washing dishes. There’s something about the sound and feeling of running water that makes my mind race. If in bed, I jot down lines of a simmering poem first on my phone. In the past I had a journal I kept wherever I went, but I find that jotting down lines on my phone and then transferring them onto a Word doc has been much easier. I also jot down notes on an old typewriter my husband gifted to me. It’s a vintage 1940s Royal whose keys are exquisite. Since my typewriter is just sitting on my desk, it’s always ready and waiting for me. I also have my dad’s 1970 Smith-Corona manual typewriter that remains in the other bedroom on another desk. It’s nice to have options so I can hit keys in whichever room I’m in. Sometimes electronics can fail, so my typewriters are pretty handy. Once all the notes (from my phone, typewriters, or cash receipts) have been transcribed into a Word doc, the work begins to refine and sculpt the lines. That can take a month or 24 hours. It really depends. Some of my best poems were drafted in 24 hours, while others took 5 years. I can’t stress enough how it all depends.
Right now, I’m not working on poetry but working on a fairy tale/fantasy that’s about 12,000 words but also simultaneously working on a CNF flash horror piece that’s about 750 words. I suppose both are done. It’s sometimes hard to tell because when I feel pieces are done, a morning shower will somehow throw a monkey wrench into my peace of mind where I will then think of something else to add and I go ahead and add another 500-1000 words.
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?
This remains an in-progress answer as I do see myself struggling with marketing myself. At the same time, I also hope my work in past literary journals and public readings will help me get noticed. That probably sounds naïve. With my book coming out later this year, I have this fear that ten people will read it in spite of all the marketing I do for it. It is nice though when I receive random messages from people who say lovely things about my pieces and provide insightful comments. It’s always a surprise that I never take for granted. I honestly think that despite all of the marketing one does, there’s also luck involved. I know a writer who tried her best at marketing her book, and she was published with one of the big houses, and even still, she didn’t feel her book was getting any attention. While I go through this process, I can only tell you how it will go. I had been trying for the past 10 years to get a book published and while it’s finally happening now after a decade, I also feel lukewarm about the whole process. I kind of had a feeling that this would happen. It seems when you don’t want something so very badly, it kind of just miraculously happens on its own. Not sure why the Universe works that way, but it just does.
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?
I think social media has helped poets. I think social media has actually catapulted some poets into the mainstream that’s not so elitist or esoteric to the everyday reader. I’m not a big fan of Facebook and have deactivated my account recently. It had been a battle as I oftentimes felt like certain posts were shouting at me with their politics and news, and it became mentally exhausting. No offense to those who can still maneuver Facebook. I still use Twitter and Instagram, but I find them more amusing and enjoyable than to provide a platform for my writing. I do occasionally promote my writing on these platforms, but I think starting my own website was what really helped in marketing myself. Also, I have so much freedom on my website to make it exactly the way I want it to look, and I have absolute freedom to post whatever subject matters to me.
Overall, I think writers should use whatever platform they feel comfortable with. Because I write a lot of essay and memoir, I tend to limit my social media usage as I still like to maintain some semblance of privacy. Also, you can have the coolest-looking social media platform, but is your writing something that you’re proud of? It may feel at times like the literary world is a popularity contest where writers may be trying to outdo each other on social media, but I can tell you, it’s not. Or at least it shouldn’t be. I think despite all of the wonders and noise social media creates, social media is not going to create good writing. Good writing, great writing, is something that all writers must work tirelessly at, and usually alone in a quiet, uninterrupted space.
What are your methods for overcoming ‘writer’s block’? What do you do when you can’t seem to find inspiration?
I can’t say I’ve suffered writer’s block. There was a time when I didn’t write for a long time, and that was during law school because I oddly convinced myself that I wasn’t a writer, even though I wrote poems here and there. It’s a weird thing to tell yourself, “Oh, you’re not a poet because you’re meant to be an attorney.” That’s just silly talk. Luckily a quick accidental pep talk with the late acclaimed artist Papo de Asis, whom I bumped into at an arts festival, recognized that me just mentioning I wrote here and there actually meant, “Nah, you are a writer. Don’t stop.” Those words were my saving grace.
First tip: READ OTHERS’ WORK. I usually find inspiration in reading other people’s work. I could be in the middle of reading a beautiful line, which will trigger a thought or memory that I’ll write down. Most of these ideas are just random airplanes passing through my head that oftentimes don’t develop into anything else. It’ll be some coincidental moment where maybe 5 years down the line, that one random passing airplane thought will develop into a full-blown story or essay because I wrote it down.
Another tip: WALK. A good twenty-minute walk, not run, but walk, will usually clear one’s head and bring up some brilliant ideas, which is why I take my phone with me so I can jot down those thoughts. Just be sure that your phone is fully charged. I hate those moments when I have a brilliant thought and I don’t have anything to write it down. When I had a day job, most of my brilliant writing thoughts came during my morning walk to the office. Oh, the magic of walking 20 minutes to one’s office through the Financial District. I literally would stop at a corner and write down whatever came to me in that moment. Just remember to never stop in the middle of oncoming traffic.
Another tip: TALK WITH FRIENDS. Sometimes I’ll be in the middle of an amazing brunch date with one of my girlfriends which will totally spark an idea. I pause in that moment to write it down, but I don’t take more than 30 seconds to jot the thought down as I think it’s extremely rude to just start working on your phone. Really cuts out the fun of girlfriend time.
Last tip: GO TO READINGS. I usually go to readings to support my dear writer friends or my favorite literary people. Especially when the room is packed with so much creative energy, I end up feeling so inspired when I get home and want to start writing too.
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 write whenever I can. Sometimes that’s five minutes or five hours in a day. I don’t have children. I have a beautiful husband who has come to understand my writing fits. At first he wasn’t used to it as I could disappear in my room for hours writing, but I’ve also learned to stop and value quality time with him as our marriage has always been important to me. My husband and I are very independent individuals, so I usually write when he’s out doing some activity. Besides his own career, he’s also very athletic and social, and so when he’s out and about, I’m afforded a tremendous of time to myself to write without interruption, which is a blessing.
As two months ago, I used to have a day job for sixteen years, but these days I work as a legal consultant so I work when an assignment comes down the chute, but the way I write has always been pretty much the same. I write very late at night. Probably the earliest is about 10 PM, but I think my writing sessions usually start at 11 PM, and I’m either compiling my notes together for the first time in one cohesive draft (from my phone, typewriters, or cash receipts), or I’m editing a more refined piece that I’ve been working on for a few months. I usually work until 2 AM, though if I’m stubbornly in the thick of it, I’ll push to 3 AM. This is not to say that I write like this every night. I can definitely have a week of suffering complete sleep deprivation, and then I give my mind a rest the following week and get plenty of sleep. If something is done, I need to let it sit for two weeks. Any time less than that, I can become so googly-eyed staring at it too much that I start hallucinating on whether it sounds okay.
If and when my husband and I have children, I imagine I will have to change up my writing habits, but looking at how I’ve operated as a writer for so long, I imagine my writing sessions will remain at the midnight hour with probably a lot more sleep deprivation, but nothing I’m not already used to. I’m not going to lie, sleep deprivation hurts, but I always have an insane writing ethic to work on my craft as I can’t imagine life without writing.
What change would you like to see within the writing community and why?
Because so many writers of color are marginalized in the writing community, I want more writers of color to declare war on the publishing industry, which means sharing and creating our work in spaces that feel comfortable to us, and not under the purview of a white gatekeeper. Social media in some ways has accomplished that, but I think good ol’ fashioned events and person-to-person spaces are what is going to drive the community to make us feel seen and heard, and also provide meaning to why we write in the first place.
Are there any immediate events or publications that you have coming up that you want readers to know about?
First and foremost, my debut essay collection, We Are No Longer Babaylan, will be released sometime at the end of this year or early Spring 2021. New Rivers Press at Minnesota State University Moorhead will be publishing it. Right now it is in the midst of being edited.
As of February 15, 2020, my CNF flash essay, “Giving Birth in a Time of War” will appear in Cherry Tree, Issue 6. The piece is dedicated to my fierce grandmother who literally gave birth in the midst of warfare. Issue 6 can be purchased here: https://www.washcoll.edu/centers/lithouse/cherry-tree/subscriptions.php
Sometime in the next few months, an excerpt from my novel-in-progress, “Room,” will be printed in the galley, Literature for Life: Selected Writings.
I don’t have any readings lined up just yet, but you can usually find my upcoming events on my website, slicingtomatoes.com, or follow me on Twitter @evalmidiano or Instagram @elsavalmidiano.
How do you define being Filipinx American for yourself?
A Filipinx-American is a multi-faceted identity, one that embraces the ancestral ties to our Motherland while embracing the ties to our adopted homeland. We are completely part of our Motherland while also American. I don’t see us being split between these two countries but exist as a whole of both.
What would you change about the mainstream perception of Filipinx Americans?
What I’d change is our invisibility to visibility. Too many times I see that we are not seen. If we are seen, we’re horribly stereotyped or caricatured to a mail order bride, emasculated male, hypersexualized-passive female, or we’re all aspiring to be the next Manny Pacquiao or Beauty Pageant Queen. No, just no. That’s not who we all are.
How would you encourage more involvement of Filipinx American with politics/events in the Philippines?
I would encourage Filipinx-Americans to join organizations that not only teach them about their culture, but actually influence change in the Philippines. As a young activist, I had joined the Gabriela Network where I was able to mobilize people to think about US military presence in the Philippines. The work I did with Gabriela ultimately led me to do work in the Philippines where I worked with a reproductive justice organization and with victims of domestic violence.
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?
Have absolutely felt this. I think we as Filipinxs can be very protective about where we came from, where our parents and grandparents came from, that I feel there’s this expectation that whatever I write is supposed to reflect other Filipinxs’ experience when I can only tell my own story and to stand in my own truth. I think that’s the most difficult thing. For example, I’m writing a fairy tale about witches where two of the witches come from pre-colonial Philippine lands.
One witch is from Samtoy, the pre-colonial Ilocos, and the other is from Dansalan, the pre-colonial Marawi in Mindanao. In that alone, I already hold this great fear that I’m misrepresenting how each region feels about their witches, like they own their witches, when the heart of the story is to show the diversity, solidarity, and sisterhood of our overall archipelago, but maybe Filipinxs will get stuck in obsessing on whether I am characterizing their manggagamod or gagamoten right.
Believe me, I’ve done so much research to try and get it just right, but it also makes me fear how much creative space Filipinx writers are given to tell a meaningful story. Basically, I have this fear that another Filipinx is going to try and tell me that my imagination sucks and that I’m not allowed to write about such things. To combat that feeling, there’s a joy, excitement, and pride in creating a story where I want myself and my experiences to be somehow reflected. I can’t speak for everyone when I write, but I think being a Filipina writer and writing about my own experience makes me proud to own it and overcome that feeling of inadequacy.
Did you always embrace your culture? If so, who taught you? If not, what inspired this change?
I didn’t always embrace our culture for reasons of being discriminated against by our own culture. I grew up as one of the few Ilocanos in a sea of Tagalog classmates in the LA suburbs. Filipinxs were the majority at my school. Because I wasn’t born in the US, pretty much ALL of my Tagalog classmates treated me as if I wasn’t American enough. More significantly, I was discriminated against because apparently Ilocanos are poor and don’t even deserve to be in the US because we aren’t Tagalog. This is how my Tagalog classmates treated me. So of course I grew up with a sense that I am not American enough, but I also grew up with a sense of tribalism that I feel is divisive among Filipinx-Americans and can be harmful in what your culture means to you. I grew up with a negative sense of what being Filipinx means as I didn’t feel acceptance or unity from my own classmates, and that was tough for me as a kid and teenager, especially when trying to fit in and make friends. Still, at home, my grandparents and parents had instilled a pride in me being Ilocano despite being ethnically connected to a dictator back Home.
Now as an adult and working professional, I oftentimes find myself the only Filipina in a sea of white people. I think I started to consciously embrace my culture when
I was surrounded by a sea of white people as I climbed the academic ladder all the way to law school. At my law school, I was one of three Filipinx law students in a graduating class of about 250 law students. Three! I went from being a majority to being nearly invisible. At law school, I always made sure to cook my mom’s Ilocano dishes as it made me feel home, particularly in a cold dreary place that was so far from home. After law school, I had become an activist with Filipina women’s organizations not just in California but in the Philippines. I would say being an activist, especially a reproductive rights activist in the Philippines, really drove it into me to embrace a culture that celebrates strong, resilient, badass women.
What do you know about your family history?
I know a bit of information dating all the way back to my great-grandparents. I am the great-niece of Manongs and Sakadas who worked on sugarcane plantations in Hawaii, as well as longshoremen and day laborers who were part of bachelor societies in Washington and California. I am the granddaughter of a soldier who died honorably while serving under the US military during WWII. I come from a long line of strong women who fought for a college education when their families didn’t even consider college an option for their daughters, except to be wives and mothers.
But besides that laundry list of greats, I wanted to share a tiny story about my great-great-grandmother, which is the oldest story I know in my family history. My mother never met her and yet my mother knows about her because her Lola told her. This would be my mother’s father’s mother’s mother. Unfortunately we don’t know her name. Only that she had two daughters, Isabella (my great-Lola) and Maria. Their mother had died young, when my great-grandmother was still a little girl, possibly five to six-years-old. Their father remarried and he would go on to have seven more children. I think it’s very poignant that my great-grandmother was able to tell my mother about her mother. It’s no secret that colonization silenced so many of our ancestors, and so knowing this piece of information about my great-great-grandmother provides an intimate piece of evidence of how oral tradition has helped us immortalize those we love, even the ones we never met, but we feel this love and longing toward them because they are mentioned and thus not forgotten. I imagine whatever memories my great-Lola had of her mother, she held onto them with a fierceness. My great-great-grandmother’s death at such an early age has also made me question the circumstances surrounding her death as she would’ve been alive during Spanish colonial times. She would’ve lived and died between the 1860’s to the 1880’s. I can only imagine all of the things that were denied to Filipina women back then, such as education and health care –– basic, necessary things we take for granted today, and yet these very things are still being denied depending on where you live and who your family is.
Though my great-great-grandmother’s name is forgotten, the essence of her is not. I feel her essence is echoed in my writing, that she is able to live forever wherever I write.
Do you speak a Filipinx language? If so, which one? Does this knowledge influence your work?
I understand Ilocano almost fluently but my tongue fails me when I actually try to speak the language. Words get mixed up and jumbled. My grandparents only spoke Ilocano to me, so it was a do or die situation. I either had to try and converse with them or not say anything at all. The sad thing is that I could understand them but I didn’t always have the words to respond. My grandfather actually did know how to speak English, and he spoke it rather eloquently, but he was determined that his grandchildren hold onto Ilocano, and so he refused to speak English with us. He actually spoke Ilocano, English, and a tiny bit of Spanish, but he didn’t know one lick of Tagalog, so if he were to come across another person of Filipinx descent and they weren’t Ilocano, they both had to speak English as they wouldn’t know each other’s dialect. This was pretty common as I was surrounded by a Tagalog community.
I had a professor during my MFA program who didn’t believe that there was an actual condition, receptive bilingualism, that exists where you can understand a language fluently but can’t speak it. She was white by the way. She thought I was making it up as I inserted the linguistic condition in my novel. I’m still mad at that professor for not believing me. When I’m writing, I usually insert Ilocano words where I think English is inadequate in capturing the full weight of meaning. When I’m around babies and small children, my Ilocano tends to naturally come out. I’m wondering if it’s a psychological thing as children remind me of my own childhood which triggers me to remember words that I ordinarily wouldn’t spout out in regular conversation as an adult.
What are your thoughts on learning a Filipinx language as a Filipinx American? Is it necessary to you? Why or why not?
I support learning a Filipinx language as a Filipinx-American. Especially as we speak with the older generation, thoughts and feelings definitely get lost in translation. I’ve taken it upon myself to occasionally speak Ilocanglish or Taglish with my parents as I feel it bridges a gap of emotion and understanding that English leaves behind. I think every little bit helps.
Do you feel obligated to talk about the Filipinx American experience because you are Fil-Am? Why or why not?
This is a strange question as I feel like I simply write about my experience as my experience, as I can’t see my experience any other way. I don’t think any of us get up from bed in the morning, brush our teeth, and then look in the mirror and say, “I’m going to live a Filipinx-American life today and talk about it.” We are human with very lived experiences that I’m sure people of different cultures can relate. Filipinx-Americans also cover the entire economic spectrum, which shapes where we live, how we live, who we build intimate relationships and community with, and what stories we choose to tell.
How in your writing do you express being Filipinx, whether implicitly or explicitly? Being American?
Again, I simply write about my experience as my experience without overthinking it. It breaks my heart how many writers of Filipinx descent I’ve met who’ve felt insecure about being an adequate authority to write about things Filipinx. As a writer of Filipinx descent myself, no one can take away your blood and ancestry. It’s literally embedded in your bones. Also, that kind of second-guessing oneself just makes me relive the trauma of my childhood where because I was Ilocano and Philippine-born, and not Tagalog and American-born like the rest of my classmates, I was, at that time, relegated to not being American enough or I was deemed unworthy to even be an immigrant to the United States.
Also, I write what is true. As a Filipina-American who grew up in LA, I write about that, which in the end, is very American, and because I am a child of immigrant parents and was an infant immigrant myself, those stories tend to also come out of me quite naturally. I don’t write for a white audience, so it never feels like a conscious effort in expressing my Filipinx-ness. The reader will either get it or won’t, because at the end of the day, my writing is something any reader, Filipinx or non-Filipinx, either will or won’t relate to. And if a white reader doesn’t get it, I don’t think it’s our responsibility to explain every little nuance about ourselves.
What parts of your identity do you feel conflict? How do you reconcile these differences?
I think I’ve come to a point where I don’t feel conflict in my identity. That may sound arrogant, but honestly, I don’t see why it can’t be the other way around where someone feels entirely at peace with their identity. I’ve been discriminated by my own culture as well as by an overwhelming white majority in my academic and professional career. At this point in time, it’s enough to accept who I am. I realize that the conflict, if there ever was one, actually stemmed from other people’s judgment of who I was, when it never stemmed from my inner self.
Who are you, and how do you want the Filipinx American community to know you?
My name is Elsa Valmidiano. Despite being a dedicated writer and poet since early adolescence, I hid my literary talents. Strongly influenced by my immigrant parents, I pursued Law on what was regarded a sensible career choice after I earned a BA in Literature. Among my academically stellar siblings who pursued Business or Engineering degrees, I would be the only one to hold an Arts degree. As I would learn, where Law confined and argued, Poetry listened and played. I never did feel comfortable with the former. While I’m not entirely intrepid against my parents’ judgment, I prefer the freedom of writing than self-imploding in silence. I strongly believe in witches, fairies, and magic, as they are part of our Philippine historical fabric. I have recorded only some of these magical rites in my debut essay collection, We Are No Longer Babaylan, slated for publication in Fall 2020. From one Filipinx writer to another, I truly believe you hold the authority to tell your story and that you are an authentic voice among Filipinx-Americans.
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.