Community as a space beyond struggle

Eunice Andrada


In the unholy hours of morning, when I lay awake replaying moments of shame and mortification, questions pour into me through the sieve of exhaustion. These questions often deal with the hows of my arts practice: how to do justice to a poem I want to write; how to survive until my next invoice is paid. But lingering unwelcome in my headspace are questions previously posed by interviewers and audience members. The kinds of questions that ask you to spell everything out, as though you hadn’t already answered the same questions countless times before. Perhaps what both haunts and frustrates me most is that there was always something more to be said, always more explaining that I could have done. 

Hours of precious time are wasted whenever an interviewer asks the question: “how do the personal and the political fit into your art?” My artist friends and I have agonised over the persistence of the question and the ignorance that belies it. For people of colour, the personal is the political. As a Filipina immigrant and a woman of colour, I don’t have the privilege of tuning out of discourses that affect my life—the converging issues of systemic racism, class inequality, and racialised sexuality are part of my everyday reality.

The question presupposes that I can fracture my whole experience into multiple selves in order to function in different spaces. But it is my whole self—Filipina, immigrant, settler, survivor of violence—that I carry to the page when I write, teach, and organise. As people of colour, we should not have to simplify our identities and our art for others. Nor should we be expected to endlessly explain our arts practice so others can comprehend the complex sociopolitical worlds we navigate. But what we come up against are spaces that do not accommodate this complexity. That which deviates from the mainstream understandings of nation, race, and gender is mangled in its translation into the framework of the elite. For example, in the Philippines, Tagalog-centric institutions either ignore the work of artists beyond Luzon or disregard the cultural specificity of artwork produced further south of the capital. In Australia, media outlets have presented me as an Australian or Filipino-Australian—both terms I reject. (1) My Ilonggo identity is rebranded by others as Filipino, followed by Filipino-Australian, then Asian-Australian, and then Australian. As a woman of colour, my art and identity are filtered and refracted through a colonial gaze to arrive at a distorted, palatable version.

We can no longer tolerate spaces that do not accept our whole selves. It is rare to be in spaces where there is no need to renegotiate the most vital parts of our identities, which is why I jumped at the opportunity to create new spaces for Filipino writers and their communities. This came in the form of an online literary festival program, The Digital Sala, which began in April 2020, at a time when conditions adjacent to the coronavirus pandemic worsened around the world. Established by a collective of Filipino writers in the United States, including Rachelle Cruz, Jason Magabo Perez, David Maduli, and Hari Alluri, the virtual literary festival was prompted by the need to remedy the social and artistic isolation many of us have continued to feel since pandemic restrictions were set in place. Decentralised in nature, the program was open to additional events from all over the world. I immediately linked up with the team and pitched my ideas, to which they responded with enthusiasm and support. 

In the middle of the pandemic, I blitzed through grant applications to make sure I could support the artists I would commission over a three-month program. With financial support from the Australia Council for the Arts, we were able to put on a line-up of events that featured the urgent discussions our communities needed to have, including what real solidarity with First Nations and Black communities means; what decoloniality means in contemporary Filipino poetics (2); and the various shapes Filipino community building can take. (3)

In my experience, the most meaningful events I’ve been part of have been those that are truly for the community and by the community—not those run by organisations trying to meet their cultural inclusion quotas. It is vital to decolonise and decentralise the creation of programs for our community. We cannot rely on others to provide us with the spaces we need because they do not understand what we need—only we do. We must be able to empower ourselves to create new spaces in our own image. And when we do this, we do not have to ascribe the labels of ‘diverse’ and ‘multicultural’ to our programs. In creating our own spaces, we divorce ourselves from the unfair default of our art being relational to whiteness as the centre of power. There have been too many instances where festival events featuring BIPOC artists have been treated as cultural sideshows instead of the main events that they should be. When we create our own spaces, we are putting our communities at the centre, where they belong. 

This grassroots-level shift can also be seen through the work of other Filipino artists living in Australia. Visual artist, ceramicist, and organiser Eme Talastas-Dela Rosa has created the powerful program Usapan Sa La Mesa (4), a community gathering with food, art, and kwentuhan (storytelling). It is also heartening to see Filipino female and non-binary artists Miranda Aguilar, Annie Brockenhuus-Schack, Gloria Demillo, Rizcel Gagawanan, and Jules Orcullo come together to form The Filipinx Writers Room. I have long admired the arts practices of individual members of this collective, but I was unprepared for the incredible depth and imagination of the work they’ve made together

In June 2020, the Filipino writing community in Australia found themselves at the centre of a literary dispute when poet and Griffith University lecturer Stuart Cooke published About Lin, a ‘creative nonfiction’ piece about a white man’s sexual encounters with a disadvantaged Filipino woman. I could not stop shaking when I first read the piece. Cook’s overt fetishisation of Filipino women ignited protests across the literary world, with Filipino-Australian writer Likhain sharing a searing response (5) to his piece. 

The public response from the international Filipino community and our allies resulted in the removal of Cooke’s piece from Verity La,  the Australia-based arts website journal that published the pieceVerity La later made the announcement that it would enter a months-long hiatus to “reflect on the ways in which the journal has been complicit with systemic racism, sexism and disablism”. (6) It was a small success in a literary industry that often turns its back on the hurt of marginalised communities. Although the whole ordeal took an extreme emotional toll on the Filipino writers who spoke up, I’ve been told by others that it was heartening for them to be introduced to more Filipino writers and artists in Australia and beyond. They told me they had no idea there were so many other Filipino writers. I believe one of the most powerful things you can do for a person who feels alone in their struggle is to show them who is around them and ready to fight with them. When I started writing and performing poetry, I was one of four—yes, I counted—Filipino poets who were active in public performances in Australia. Now that this number has soared, I am bursting with hope knowing young Filipino writers have safe, supportive and kind communities to guide them as they explore what their art can do. We’re finally seeing each other, building community with one another, and fighting together.  

Our battle to fight dehumanising representations of our communities continues. Every day we deal with intersecting struggles of living in a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. But the ongoing fight of my communities in the Philippines and in diaspora is what gives me hope. I am privileged to have started my arts practice within caring and supportive communities. When I first started writing and performing at the age of 16, only a year after I migrated to Australia to join my family, I found immediate kinship with other young poets in Western Sydney. Throughout the years, I’ve had the privilege of building community with more writers and artists across the Philippines, Guam, Samoa, the Marshall Islands, and beyond. When I was 18, I was part of a delegation of poets who participated in the 2015 United Nations Climate talks in Paris. Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner, Isabella Borgeson, Terisa Siagatonu, John Meta Sarmiento and I were brought together by our experience of being from countries that disproportionately bear the brunt of the devastating effects of climate change. Five brown poets, who had never even been to Europe before, used their art and testimony to demand climate justice from world leaders at the UN Climate Talks. I didn’t realise the resounding significance of that at the time, or how it would affect my arts practice. In retrospect, I see how experiences like these have informed the way I gather with my communities in shared resistance.

Although the element that has often brought most of my communities together is the sharing of struggle, these communities have become opportunities to create a space beyond the struggle. My communities have not only taught me ways we can show up for one another, they have also shown me how we can nurture each other’s wellbeing, and how our shared joy and rest can, in themselves, be  acts of resistance. I remember the night before my last performance at the immensely intimidating Petit Palais, how I spent that night laughing and shivering with these poetswho were completely unaccustomed to the European coldas we wound through the Christmas market and found ourselves in queues for Halloween-themed carnival rides. I think moments like that were just as urgent and demanding as what we were there to do. We needed to be with each other as our whole selves, just as much as we needed to build with each other and fight together. 


Five protestors march arm in arm


Poets (L-R): Eunice Andrada, Isabella Borgeson, Terisa Siagatonu, John Meta Sarmiento, and Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner march to the UN Climate Talks in Paris,
2015; photo: Global Call for Climate Action

As an artist in diaspora, I am coming to terms with what it means to create art in the time of the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and his Anti-Terror Law (7), which has been weaponised to silence dissent against the government. This is an important time to be an artist, even more so to be an empathetic member of a community that organises with intention. My communities in diaspora are facing urgent questions: How do we use our art to amplify the voices of those less privileged? How do we use our social and economic mobility to benefit the communities we have left behind in the Philippines? What do we owe the peoples upon whose land we are settlers? 

 

FILIPINX POETS AGAINST FACISM, an anonymous global poetry protest against the Anti-Terror Law; shared on Facebook Live, 18 July 2020; via The Digital Sala.

When I write, it is a radical act of care for myself and for my communities. I write against erasure. I write to celebrate my joy, my love for my kin and communities. I write because I am tired of others writing about my body and my pleasure. I am tired of being studied and spoken for by white academics. Tired of being told, “My children’s nanny is Filipino, too.” When I write, I am re-writing the narratives others have made about me and my communities without our consent.

It is up to communities like mine to push against structural injustices until they shatter—through our art, our mobilisations, and our creation of spaces we once could only dream of. Through gathering with my kin and communities, in our shared struggles and our shared joys, we can exist without performing the labour of explanation. When we’re together, we do not have to agonise over the possibility of being misunderstood and misrepresented. This understanding is, in itself, a vital act of care in a world that asks us to explain, translate, and fracture who we are. With this understanding of ourselves as whole beings without negotiation, it becomes easy to imagine the kind of mutual care that can grow beyond our own social and political worlds; how leaders in the arts can listen, learn and follow the lead of communities; how we can inspire those different from us to fight alongside us. In our communities, we are paving the way for the decentralised structures needed for the genuine equity we are yet to see around us. We are looking to each other as allies and co-creators. And there are so many of us that we—and our work—cannot be erased.  



Notes:

(1) Liminal, Interview #125 – Eunice Andrada, 2020, accessed online 20 September  2020

(2) The Digital Sala, Decolonial Poetics: Panel with Merlinda Bobis and Rick Barot, 2020, accessed online 20 September 2020

(3)  The Digital Sala, Community Building Across Filipino Literary Diasporas: Panel Conversation, 2020, accessed online20 September 

(4) Usapan Sa La Mesa, organised by Eme Talastas-Dela Rosa and Soo-Min Shim, co-presented by Running Dog and Verge Gallery, 5 September 2020

(5) Verity La, Statement from Verity La, accessed online 1 November 2020

(6) Likhain, This is not a critique. This is a condemnation, 2020, accessed online 1 November 2020

(7) Amnesty International, Philippines: Dangerous anti-terror law yet another setback for human rights,  accessed online 2 November 2020

 

Editor’s Note:

  • The global poetry event FILIPINX POETS AGAINST FACISM was live-streamed on Facebook on 18 July 2020—the same day that the Anti-Terror Law took effect in the Philippines. To protect the identities of the event participants, they will remain unnamed in this essay. The online video is publicly accessible at the time of publication.

  • While 4A Papers generally follows a style that italicises non- English words, it has been agreed by the author and 4A that non-English words will not be italicised in this essay. 

About the author

A Filipina woman stands against a jungle backdrop filled with ferns

Eunice Andrada is a Filipina poet, educator, and organiser. Her debut poetry collection Flood Damages (Giramondo Publishing, 2018) won the Anne Elder Award and was a finalist for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry and the Dame Mary Gilmore Award. She has performed her poetry on diverse international stages, including the UN Climate Conference in Paris, Sydney Opera House, and Parliament of New South Wales. Her previous works have been awarded the John Marsden & Hachette Australia Prize (2014) and shortlisted for the Fair Australia Prize (2018). Through her work in ecopoetics, she was awarded the Australian Poetry & NAHR Eco-Poetry Fellowship in Northern Italy. Her poetry is currently exhibited in the Museum of Sydney to accompany the photography exhibition A Thousand Words. Of Ilonggo heritage, she was born in Quezon City and raised moving between Iloilo and Manila. She currently lives and writes on unceded Gadigal land. Follow Eunice Andrada on Instagram and Twitter.

Feature image: Eunice Andrada reads her poems at Anakbayan’s community fundraiser for the families of farmers murdered by the Philippine military, 2019; photo: Bryle Leaño


Read more from 4A Papers Issue 9

Commissioned for 4A Papers Issue 9. © Copyright 2020 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art and the authors, artists, photographers and other contributors. No part of this publication may be reproduced without permission from the Publisher. The opinions expressed in 4A Papers are those of the contributing authors and not necessarily those of the Editor or Publisher. Permission has been sought to reproduce all images with appropriate acknowledgement where possible.

4A acknowledges the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, the traditional custodians of the Land on which 4A Papers is published.