The Poems of Ruth Mabanglo

Introduction
by
Roderick Niro Labrador 
 
Ruth Mabanglo is both a poet and scholar. She has been publishing poetry for over 30 years and has received numerous literary awards and honors, most recently the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature Hall of Fame Award, the 1992 Commission on Filipino Language "Makata ng Taon" (Poet of the Year) for the poem "Gahasa" (Rape), and the Manila Critics Circle 1990 National Book Award for Poetry for Mga Liham ni Pinay (The Letters of Pinay). Mabanglo has also published many academic works and currently is a professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, where she teaches Tagalog Language and Literature in the Department of Hawaiian and Indo-Pacific Languages and Literature.

Many of the poems included in this collection have appeared elsewhere, but most have never been accompanied with an English translation. Although translating these poems into English can be perceived as a capitulation to American hegemony, a submission to the domination of the former colonizer’s language, they reflect the poet’s attempts to negotiate the realities of a Filipina exiled in a post-colonial diasporic space. And for more practical purposes, these English translations enable a wider audience, providing access to those who may not be able to fluently read, write, and think in Tagalog, especially those who link their cultural patrimony to the Philippines. For this new readership, these translations offer a glimpse into the cultures, histories, and peoples embedded in the original language (although in the process of translation they have been "Americanized" to a certain extent). However as a word of precaution, the reader must not be fully satisfied with the translations for they are unable to completely capture the cultural, historical, political, and linguistic (and literary) nuances; for a fuller understanding, the reader must immerse herself in the language in which it was originally presented. Thus, the translations, in various ways, are unsatisfactory, inadequate re-presentations of a Tagalog original (and in this way, one can argue they are new poems). In many instances, Tagalog words remain in the English translations and are attached with footnotes and explanations. This was done in an attempt to facilitate reading and interpretation and at the same time, remain faithful to the Tagalog original so that the metaphors and meanings would not be completely lost.

The project of translating the poems in Invitation of the Imperialist has been arduous and rewarding and fortunately, not an individual effort. I cannot claim sole responsibility for the translations. This would be totally inaccurate. The translations are products of collaborative efforts between Mabanglo and myself, a process marked by interactive communication and compromise. This cooperative partnership was largely a result of my discomfort with being the primary translator of Mabanglo’s poetry. As a non-native Tagalog speaker, 1.5 generation Filipino American man, how could I possibly capture the flow, rhythm, tone, metaphors, literary devices (such as alliteration and playing with words like in "mga tao/n"), rhyme scheme, and mood of poems written in a language I had only studied for a few years (under Mabanglo’s tutelage), whose voice is a woman’s voice, whose themes are specific to women’s experiences, and whose subjects address feminist issues? I could not and cannot. Thankfully, Mabanglo agreed to a cooperative partnership where for many of the poems, she provided the basic framework and I offered suggestions or made adjustments. For the other poems, the translations proceeded in the other direction. Thus, Invitation of the Imperialist is the fruit of our collective labor---more than a year of meetings, conversations, and discussions over word choices, meanings, and the socio-cultural and politico-historical contexts of the poems. In this sense, the English translations in this collection must be conceived as collaborative translations.

Invitation of the Imperialist was a challenge to translate but it also issues a challenge to its readers. It simultaneously invites the reader to languish in the beauty and passion of Mabanglo’s poetry and engage in political action that contests the structures of domination which are integral themes of the poems. In this sense, Invitation of the Imperialist reminds us of the emancipatory potential of literature, that art and politics are interconnected, and that each of us must participate in the struggles to disrupt and displace the various structures, systems, and practices of domination and oppression.

The poems that appear in Invitation of the Imperialist span a vast period of Mabanglo’s writing and many have been published elsewhere. Although some poems were written over a decade ago, they continue to be highly relevant, serving as critiques of imperialism, the Philippine-U.S. (neo)colonial relationship, postcoloniality, nationalism, patriarchy, and issues relating to identity. The poems in this collection are organized around various central themes. The first section of the book addresses colonization and its effects: the Philippine-American and Philippine-Japanese colonial encounters. The second section is concerned with the Philippine condition of (post)coloniality. The third section deals with Filipina/os in diasporic postcolonial spaces and is divided into two subsections: Filipina overseas contract workers (OCWs) and the postcolonial scholar/poet in diaspora.

As mentioned earlier, Invitation of the Imperialist is situated in feminist critiques which challenge the patriarchal hierarchy and order whose manifestations appear in various socio-political discourses. And further, these poems must be read within the context of Tagalog protest literature, as part of a long tradition of anti-imperial and anti-colonial writings which date back to the Spanish colonial period. Throughout the collection we see that imperialism/colonialism and the projects to displace their residues are central themes, with the title poem as exemplary. Thus, the poems in this collection not only protest imperialism/colonialism but also resist and seek to eliminate sexist oppression. In this way, Mabanglo points to the necessary interconnectedness of nationalist and feminist discourses, the requisite re-inscription of women’s agency into discourses on national liberation. A brief reading of "Invitation of the Imperialist" can elucidate this point and also serve as a guide for interpreting the other poems in this collection.

"Invitation of the Imperialist" outlines the colonial and neo-colonial relationship between the Philippines and the United States and is situated within a gendered anti-imperialist nationalism which centered on the debates over the retention of U.S. military bases during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The poem challenges the gendered discourse of the nationalism by problematizing the patriarchal hierarchy and order, as practiced in the social sphere and in the project of national liberation. In briefly analyzing "Invitation of the Imperialist" I ask two basic questions: (1) How are the relations between the U.S. and the Philippines characterized, that is, how does the poem articulate U.S. imperial domination in the Philippines? and (2) Does the author challenge or reconfigure the social differences, gender in particular (as manifested in patriarchy), constructed, practiced and embedded in society and in projects of national emancipation? I begin by first providing a brief summary of the narrative, followed by an interpretation and critique.

The poem begins with an insistent and persistent invitation to a dinner party from a nameless "you," a wealthy prospective male patron, to a nameless "I," a poor woman writer who will be the sole guest to this important meeting. The guest accepts and revels in anxious anticipation, but we see that she is a poor writer who attempts to make herself beautiful and presentable (through stereotypical activities) to her host in order to impress and enchant him, her prospective benefactor. Upon arrival at the dinner, the host and his home do not disappoint; his home is exorbitantly decorated with Filipino art and expensive flowers, while the host wears a tuxedo, greets her instantly, and acts like a true gentleman. It is within this extravagance that she realizes and recognizes their social differences, identifying with the dirt that accumulates in the corners of rooms rather than with her host or his home. It is also here that she begins to question the reason for the dinner and where her enthusiasm begins to lose its intensity, marking a moment of emergent doubt, where simultaneously she feels out of place and is awed. The guest's discovery of the duplicity of the dinner invitation signals a significant shift in the language and signification. The "you" or "host", though continuing to represent the patron, begins to clearly signify the male U.S. imperialist, while "I" signifies the female Philippine colony. The style of this section moves away from the earlier narrative form into that of a dialogue between patron and artist, antagonist and protagonist, colonizer and colonized.

The host then proceeds to compliment his guest, validating the beauty of her writing, even though they are words of protest. The tone of his monologue quickly shifts to embody the anger, the accusation of non-reciprocation for his patronage and benevolence. She responds by acknowledging her transformation and assimilation, but refuses further incorporation. It is here the intention of the dinner invitation is unveiled: she is what is to be consumed.

The guest's ultimate realization of the dinner's purpose, her "awakening" to the truth, marks another significant shift in language and metaphor. This section is described through the metaphor of torture, electrocution, and food consumption, where the guest finally realizes that she is the food her host devours; she, as the colonized, feeds the unrelenting hunger of her colonizer. Her epiphanic moment appears to be too late, at a time when oppression has been fixed into place and her resistance seems futile. He begins to eat her piece by piece, starting with the stomach, then her insides, and proceeding to her womb, until she is only head and digits. He attempts to chew off her right hand, but new fingers continually re-emerge after he has bitten them off. But as a writer, she pleads for only her right hand to be spared because this hand (that constantly and stubbornly reappears after being gnawed on and bitten off) will serve as the voice of the oppressed, producing words of protest and resistance. Her words, the protest literature she writes will help to subvert the colonial relationship and end the period of domination, subjugation and subordination. But for now she must endure the suffering, presuming that with the progression of a purposeful history her sacrifices eventually will be redeemed and emancipation will be achieved in the near future. Although the current situation remains unresolved, we are left with a promise of a future rupture that will result in national liberation and redemption.

Articulating and constructing the history of U.S. imperial domination in the Philippines, "Invitation of the Imperialist" describes the colonial relationship in terms of patron-client relations (the dichotomy, based on traditional "Filipino" values, which is often applied to characterize interactions and relations---whether they be political, economic, social, and/or otherwise), and in this case the ties between the poor artist/guest and her wealthy patron/host. The patron-client dichotomy assumes a reciprocal relationship and reciprocal obligations. It assumes a relationship of mutual benefits and mutual understanding, including the recognition and acceptance of asymmetrical power relations and couched in terms of U.S.-Philippine "special relations," with the parties involved participating in a type of collaborative imperial domination. As San Juan discusses, the patron-client dichotomy is able to

 

reconceptualize the experience of U.S. imperial domination as an equal partnership of Filipinos and Americans...the notion of reciprocal obligations entailed by it would arguably serve as the theoretical framework within which one can then exorcise the burden of U.S. responsibility for what happened in the Philippines from 1898 to 1946 by shifting the cause of the failure of American tutelage to the putative shrewdness of Filipinos in "manipulating" their masters (San Juan, 95).

 

To this end, in the narrative we hear the host speak of his initial admiration for his guest and the many benefits she has reaped from their relationship. Yet we also hear of obligations unmet, the absence of reciprocity, uncompensated junkets, and ingratitude. According to the host, the collaborative imperialism has become lopsided; he feels used, his benevolence has been taken advantage of, she is ungrateful. Because she has "manipulated" the colonial situation, he now assumes the role of victim in the exploitative relationship, as the colonizer oppressed by the colonized.

In response to his tirade, the guest replies, "Should I be grateful for my change?" This reaction demonstrates the colonized’s feeling of alienation and her attempts to resist the colonial relationship and U.S. imperial domination, to challenge the residues of colonialism, and to effectively disrupt the patron-client relationship. However, this resistance takes place only after her "change" has occurred. The guest articulates this change as a process centered on language, the process of establishing U.S. imperial hegemony through the educational system and use of English in place of local vernaculars. This is the root of what Renato Constantino has called "the miseducation of the Filipino":

 

The first and perhaps the master stroke in the plan to use education as an instrument of colonial policy was the decision to use English as the medium of instruction. English became the wedge that separated the Filipinos from their past and later was to separate educated Filipinos from the masses of their countrymen. English introduced the Filipinos to a strange, new world. With American textbooks, Filipinos started learning not only a new language but also a new way of life, alien to their traditions and yet a caricature of their model. This was the beginning of their miseducation, for they learned no longer as Filipinos but as colonials" (Constantino, 1987: 47).

 

Similar to Frantz Fanon, Constantino recognizes the centrality of language in the colonial encounter and its power to insure colonial subjugation and the inferiority of the colonized. For both Fanon and Constantino, the use of language is not merely the use of words. As Fanon explains, the use of language "means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization...A man who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language" (Fanon 1967: 18-19). Therefore, when in the poem the guest states, "I went home not as myself. Your literature is now what I write. My tongue searches for your food. Once I was even fluent in my own language where your words are now inextricably intertwined," she describes her process of Americanization. She has begun to assume the culture and values implied by English, to be absorbed by the U.S. and take her place as the client, the colonized.

Yet something further is implied in these lines. Fanon writes that the colonial encounter is a linguistic-cultural encounter:

 

Every colonized people---in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality---finds itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation; that is with the culture of the mother country. The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards" (Fanon 1967: 19).

 

In these lines, we see the consequences of this encounter. Mabanglo alludes to the common practice of code-switching, of integrating English words into Tagalog, what is often referred to as Taglish or Engalog. The hybridity of the language serves the dual purpose of signifying acculturation/assimilation to U.S. culture and serving as an allegory of national degeneration dependency, and subjugation. Accepting English as a "grace granted" by the Americans, as part of their benevolence and tutelage of Filipinos, adeptness in English marked those Filipinos of high status. English became the language of those in government, academia, business and the media. On the other hand, the creolization of language marks the presence of foreign oppressors. The intermixing of English and Tagalog disrupts the dominance of the native vernacular and insures its subjugation. In this brief verse, Mabanglo recognizes the significance of language in establishing U.S. imperial hegemony and Americanizing/colonizing Filipinos. As San Juan explains further,

 

"it was the English language that forged the chains of acquiescence to the superior racial power...English displaced both Spanish and the vernaculars as the primary symbolic system through which Filipinos represented themselves, that is, constituted themselves as colonial subjects within specific positions or functions in the given social order...this instrumentality of language acted as the synthesizing force that unified an ensemble of social practices through which the public and private identity of the Filipino as colonial subject was constituted and subsequently valorized" (96).

 

Understanding the participatory roles of colonizer and colonized in the establishment of U.S. imperial hegemony, how then is "the shadow," signifying American colonial oppression and hegemony to be "annihilated"? In other words, how does the nation begin to undergo the project of de-colonization? Using language as the metaphor for the nation, we see that emancipation involves a process of recovery and unfolds through a redemptive narrative. The nationalist project entails the resurrection of an uncontaminated language, an unadulterated national past that precedes the presence of alien oppression. It in this recovery that the "shadow," manifested in the patron-client relationship, will be subverted, suffocated, and smothered. In addition to this critique of Philippine-American colonial relations, another contribution of Mabanglo’s narrative is its critique of patriarchy and nationalism.

The gendered projects of paving the emancipatory path of national liberation, in their multiple forms, often involve narratives of redemption in which a presupposed and constructed linear history prescribes the logical progression of time. The articulation of this unitary, determinative history---which is often marked by an initial period characterized by an apparent peace and harmony, followed by its disruption, marked by violence and oppression (the period in which the nationalists live), and finally a period of emancipation, political and otherwise---has been typically a male-dominated enterprise, where the aspirations and desires for national independence have been mainly inscribed by men. For example, we are usually told that it was the likes of Rizal, Del Pilar, Bonifacio and Aguinaldo who gave birth to the idea of a sovereign Philippine nation by carving political and ideological spaces where we could begin to imagine an independent Philippine Republic. Thus, beyond offering other systems for higher-order collective identifications,

 

nations are not simply phantasmagoria of the mind; as systems of cultural representation whereby people come to imagine a shared experience of identification with an extended community, they are historical practices through which social difference is both invented and performed. Nationalism becomes in this way constitutive of people’s identities through social contests that are frequently violent and always gendered (McClintock, 1996: 260).

 

Nationalisms are thus gendered projects, usually elite male enterprises in which women are relegated to marginality, though central (if only symbolically) for their reproductivity. "Invitation of the Imperialist" locates itself within the context of Philippine anti-imperialist/anti-colonial nationalism and thus, in a traditionally non-participatory role in the construction of the narrative of national political emancipation. Yet Mabanglo asserts female historical and political agency and thus re-inscribes women into active, participatory roles in the struggle, helping to shape and articulate the form of the anti-imperialist project. In the poem, the woman, as protagonist, plays numerous roles, namely the artist, mother (of the nation), and subversive. The multiplicity of roles can both be seen as reaffirming and challenging traditional gender roles. By emphasizing the reproductive capacity of women, "Invitation of the Imperialist" seemingly upholds the traditional perception of woman as mother and in nationalist rhetoric, woman as mother of the nation. Yet while providing (metaphorically) multiple roles, Mabanglo disrupts traditional gender roles. In doing so, the poet affirms women's roles as mothers, but goes beyond this by eliminating the usual constrictive restrictions and offers a place (or places) for women in the emancipatory political struggle. Hence the woman is seen as the womb from which the masses ("the nation") emerge, yet she articulates and writes (and thus historicizes) the struggle of the masses. Although she must experience the current oppression and suffering, it is from her hand that the weapons against oppression will "sprout," and it is from her hand that the masses will find eventual emancipation. Nationalism, in this text, is thus a discourse of political struggle and a struggle to contest the patriarchal nature of this discourse. A closer reading of "Invitation of the Imperialist" will demonstrate how the poem problematizes the patriarchy entrenched in Philippine society and the project of national liberation.

Applying a somewhat structuralist reading, "Invitation of the Imperialist" involves the general oppositions of periphery and center, outside and inside. The center is represented by the male host/patron and his home which refer to wealth, success, power, patriarchal order, and U.S. imperialism. The periphery is represented by the female guest/writer who is associated with poverty, the dominated and colonized Filipinos, and resistance. The reconciliation of these dominant metaphorical dichotomies is situated in gendered discourses, in the mediation of the feminine and masculine, woman and man. Through these discourses, colonization is articulated through sexual metaphors where the male U.S. imperialist penetrates/violates the female Philippine colony. Colonization is associated with rape, an experience with which the guest is familiar; she defiantly asks, "Is this rape?...I am no longer a virgin! Many foreigners have preceded you!" Imperialism/colonialism is a type of violation and domination. The imperial project is a male activity that can also be articulated in terms of cannibalism, where the woman/colony is eaten, sexually and otherwise. It is in the struggle between the male cannibal and his woman meal where we can find the reconciliation of the woman/man opposition.

The closing verses of the poem mark the guest’s refusal of her subalternity, the assertion of her agency, and the attempts to subvert, if not transcend, the masculinity of nationalism and the supremacy of the phallus. Although the cannibal imperialist continually attempts to satisfy his insatiable hunger, the woman’s fingers continue to reproduce. Here, we see that her fingers serve as a substitute phallus and thus, the subversion of her subordination. However, the appropriation of the power of the phallus does not merely indicate a subversion by inversion, the simple substitution of positions within the patriarchal hierarchy and order, in which oppressive structures and systems are reconfigured and reconstructed. Instead, by displacing the womb and phallus, the site of reproductive power is displaced onto the fingers (i.e., her hand becomes the medium for reproduction), effectively displacing the sites of reproductive power of both women and men. In this shrewd literary move, Mabanglo reinscribes the guest’s agency as a woman, nationalist and writer. From her hand, resistance will be produced and reproduced "on millions of paper" which will eventually subvert, suffocate, and smother her oppressor. Thus these final verses disrupt the supremacy of patriarchal hierarchy and order and illustrate the intertextuality of writing and the nationalist project, the connection between writing and national liberation; thus, it situates women and writers within sites of subversion, in struggles against subordination and subjugation. Although the imagined moment of rupture awaits in some utopian future, we are given a glimpse of an egalitarian Philippine society, one in which women are no longer restricted to marginal reproductive and domestic roles, but are also agentive.

Although "Invitation of the Imperialist" is an obvious critique of U.S.-Philippine colonial relations and the patriarchal order embedded in society and nationalist projects, the poem can be read further as a narrative of the poet’s own postcolonial condition. Even though the text itself was written amidst the political contestations over the retention of U.S. military bases, the poem can be interpreted as a personal account of a Filipina, woman, and writer in exile/diaspora. Using the invitation and the domestic space where the struggle takes place as the dominant metaphorical backdrop, the writer of the poem recognizes her position as one of the numerous "wandering proletariat" (to borrow a term from San Juan) who have flocked to the lands of their previous colonizer. She is the postcolonial scholar/intellectual, following the example of the pensionados that preceded her. She has accepted the invitation of the imperialist, making all of the preparations to venture to his home (i.e., her education), ready to make an impression. Upon arriving at the colonizer’s home she recognizes the duplicity of the invitation, the paradox of her postcoloniality: due to the transnational character and flow of capital combined with the hegemonic structures and systems of U.S. domination, she is unable to break completely free from colonial bondage even though the formal chains of imperial domination have been eliminated. She is thus subsumed into/consumed by the dominant culture. She is subordinated to the authority of the host, the male American figure, whose domestic space she has set foot. Will she be raped again (or is she being raped now?)? We know that she not a virgin, but will this end her reproductivity? Or will she be able to bear offspring, the rising hands and fists that can articulate and form the path of her liberation/de-colonization? Can she ever lose her shadow? The colonized poet/woman/Filipina remains confined at that moment where she resists being eaten. The liberatory potential of her postcoloniality is dependent on a historical periodicity in which time is perceived as redemptive, purposeful, and linear. She knows that with the progress of an evolutionary history, she will be eventually and inevitably redeemed and liberated. Yet for now, the struggles to reconcile the woman/man and colonized/colonizer oppositions proceed, their resolutions linger in the distance, promised in some de-colonized future. This is one of the more important messages of "Invitation of the Imperialist." By emphasizing the current struggles rather than a future utopia, Mabanglo points to the importance and immediacy of the present realities. Now, incessantly embedded in crises, is the time for radical politics, providing numerous opportunities to practice liberation. Emancipation is not merely a result to be attained, but is also strategy for political action. De-colonization is thus a processual reality, fixated more on the course of the struggle rather than on an end to achieve.

This cursory reading of "Invitation of the Imperialist" is, in many ways, incomplete. The above reading of the poem is neither definitive nor comprehensive. Instead, what I have tried to do in this brief analysis is to point towards possible directions in which closer readings/interpretations of the poem (and the other poems in the collection) can lead. As a result, I invite the reader to pursue further investigations and engage Mabanglo’s poetry in discursive conversations.
 
 

Works Cited

Constantino, Renato. "The Miseducation of the Filipino" in The Philippines Reader, Daniel B. Schirmer and Stephen Shalom (eds.). Boston: South End Press, 1987.
Fanon, Frantz. Translated by Charles Lam Markmann. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1967
McClintock, Anne. "No Longer in a Future Heaven: Gender, Race and Nationalism" in Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, and Postcolonial Perspectives, Anne McClintock, Aamir Mufti, and Ella Shohat (eds.). Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
San Juan, Jr. E. Writing and National Liberation: Essays in Critical Practice. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1991.