Filipinx American Spotlight: Interview with Hannah Keziah Agustin
Hannah Keziah Agustin is a Filipina writer and photographer from the Midwest. She is the Milwaukee Zine Fest Scholar for 2020. She currently studies film studies and creative writing at UW-Whitewater.
How do you define being Filipinx American for yourself?
Being Filipinx American means knowing one’s roots and being in touch with one’s ancestry. I also think it’s being able to navigate through different identities within different social contexts, and also loving music!
What would you change about the mainstream perception of Filipinx Americans?
I would change our invisibility. The media hasn’t given justice to the nuances of Filipinx culture. It has always represented us by putting us in the background, as maids to rich families. It has slowly gotten better through the years through characters like Josh Chan in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and artists like Ruby Ibarra and Jessica Sanchez, but I think that there’s still a lot of work to be done to show who Filipinx Americans truly are.
How would you encourage more involvement of Filipinx American with politics/events in the Philippines?
Aside from intentionally educating oneself about Philippine politics, being involved with grassroots organizations like Anakbayan, Gabriela, Migrante, and Bayan will be a good start in increasing involvement with events in the Philippines.
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?
As someone who grew up in the Philippines, I’ve seen how much Filipinx Americans have been gatekept because of how “whitewashed” they are just because they do not speak the language or do not practice Filipino practices. But since I grew up in the Philippines, I think my struggle in being Filipinx American is not being American enough. I feel like I’m too Filipino to be Filipinx American. There are times when I feel “othered” by the twisting of my tongue in front of other Filipinx Americans who grew up here, as if being whitewashed should be an ideal. Nonetheless, I’ve taught myself to be unapologetic about this. I believe it’s a part of decolonization! I shouldn’t be ashamed.
Did you always embrace your culture? If so, who taught you? If not, what inspired this change?
No. Even when I grew up in Manila for most of my life, I never truly embraced my culture until I learned to decolonize myself from colonial ideologies that have always made me feel less than. These include not just wanting to have fair skin and blue eyes but also wanting to go to America because it’s a greener pasture. It was only until when I saw myself in the light of my ancestry that I learned to genuinely appreciate the culture of my people. As an immigrant, this keeps me grounded!
What do you know about your family history?
I know that my grandfather fled into the mountains during the second world war. I know that he was almost captured by Japanese soldiers. I know that my aunt used to learn Spanish while studying in the Philippines. I know that my visa was denied when I was two years old. I know that my mother went to California when I was six for her nurse licensure exam. I know that my father has always wanted to come to America. I know that my older sister came here as an unborn baby. I know that we will all eventually come home.
Do you speak a Filipinx language? If so, which one? Does this knowledge influence your work?
Yes! I speak both Tagalog and Ilocano. These languages definitely shape my understanding of the world. In writing fiction, I’ve learned to not translate myself to be understood. This is quite difficult to do inside the academe but I’m slowly navigating explaining my Tagalog/Ilocano through the English text without overtly doing it.
What are your thoughts on learning a Filipinx language as a Filipinx American? Is it necessary to you? Why or why not?
Language is necessary in learning a part of Filipinx culture but I don’t think it’s a requirement for being Filipinx American. Growing up bilingual, I’ve seen how much words get lost in translation. I, myself, have struggled with this in my writing because some Filipinx words just do not carry the same weight when translated into English.
Do you feel obligated to talk about the Filipinx American experience because you are Fil-Am? Why or why not?
Yes. As an immigrant, writing about the Filipinx American experience makes sense of my otherness.
How in your writing do you express being Filipinx, whether implicitly or explicitly? Being American?
I’ve been loud and explicit about the Filipinx-ness of the characters I write. Most of my characters have been Filipino, if not people of color. I think it comes naturally because this narrative is one that I know the most. I simply couldn’t give life to a white, male character because I feel like I wouldn’t be able to give it justice. Because I mostly write what I know, I express my being Filipinx in my writing in every way possible. I’ve written essays on my family’s immigration, my friendships in the Philippines, and even my obsession with thrifting imported clothes. I think it comes organically.
What parts of your identity do you feel conflict? How do you reconcile these differences?
I think that the part of my identity which feels most conflicted is my faith in God, which historically has been birthed through the Spanish and American colonization, bloodshed, and war inflicted in the name of the church. I’ve reconciled with these differences by realizing the balance between native cultural customs and Christianity, and how they do not cancel out one another but instead further deepen my understanding of spirituality and divinity.
Who are you, and how do you want the Filipinx American community to know you?
I’m a writer, musician, and aspiring filmmaker and activist who wants to increase the visibility of Filipinx Americans in all forms of media.
Interview conducted by Keana Aguila Labra.