Imagining rainbow voices
under the guava tree in San Andres
at the back of my parents’ timber home,
I picture my characters enlivened
by many tongues — a make-believe world
from a child’s inner eye.
Outside, the open wild tropical field beckoned
and I ran carefree chasing dragonflies.
With my thumb and forefinger, I caught the fragile wings
of one then let it fly with my spirit to the unknown.
Many decades later, I looked up to
the blackest of sky glittering with diamonds
across the wide turquoise sea of the Kimberleys.
With two Aboriginal women elders,
I watched speechless and in awe.
That glorious moment, time stopped —
a pause after a camping trip on the night
when I was introduced to Country,
a pristine red pindan landscape
full of natural artefacts of speaking rocks
and ancient burial sacred sites of flint tools
and ancestors. Li-yan, the locals call the intimate link
after being summoned by the land
and blessed for protection: no crocodiles
nor sharks dare harm the visitor.
My surprise ‘Welcome to Country’ emerged
when a giant swordfish got entangled
in my bait, and I was made to realize
that I am on a bridge between worlds
of a fast, crazy wound-up economic machine,
an age of unbelief, and an unseen paradise waiting
to be unveiled. With a rustic stick on hand,
my elder friend untangled the string
to let the beautiful creature
return to her domain.
I wonder if the dragonfly,
the Swordfish and I in our spirit of one-ness
may one day help level the field of humanity’s
Sometimes coming home is as shocking a hand to the face.
Although I do sometimes identify as Filipino Australian, when it seems meaningful to do so, I am very conscious that I have a variable and not terribly “Filipino” take on that way of identifying myself. I mean, I don’t speak Tagalog, I’ve never lived in the Philippines, I’m not close to my Filipino family, my own mother describes me as “a terrible Filipino daughter”. Despite this, I rate “okay” on the “You Know You’re Filipino When” quizzes that are available on the internet, a kind of cultural proxy for citizenship, at least at some strange level.
And still, the two interviews that I have held with Filipino writers as a part of this project, Ivy Alvarez and Deborah Ruiz Wall, have so genuinely connected with me as to feel almost clichéd. Both poets are very different in their styles and in their motivations as writers. Yet somehow there is something intuitively familiar for me in their stories and experiences. I doubt my connection to this “Filipino-ness”, and yet cannot help oddly crave it. I feel like I’m hearing stories of Aunties I didn’t realise I knew. There’s something “different, different but same” that piques my curiosity.
Deborah Ruiz Wall, began writing poems for a school magazine at Paco Catholic School when she was 12. At that age, she also took photographs with an old box camera of beggars in the streets and of landscapes, unsure at that time why she was drawn to this kind of visual imagery. She left Manila when she was 23 in 1972 during the time when the country was in the grip of martial law, around the same period as my own mother and many others of our social network. In the years leading up to her departure, she was a journalism student at the University of the Philippines, in undeniably turbulent times for that country. She worked briefly as a journalist and in social science research at the university and was involved in student protests. She recollects, “some of my friends active in political struggle had lost their lives. The future looked bleak. My experience of martial law, loss of lives and of freedom will always be with me.”
Deborah married an Australian man who was a public servant in Papua New Guinea. A few months after living in Angoram (a sub-district place in the East Sepik), she had an offer to work as Press Secretary for the Opposition Leader in Port Moresby and she accepted the offer. Afterwards when her husband’s work was over, they left Papua New Guinea, a country that was on a pathway to political independence of its own and moved to Sydney in 1974 where they raised two children. Against that background of change, migration, independence, and politics, it is no surprise that Deborah says:
“‘Who I am’ is always unfolding. If I were mindful of being ‘judged’ by my self-categorisation, I might have second thoughts on responding to the question of how I self-identify. I prefer to say that I write poems in Tagalog and English, some of which have been published.”
Politics and spirituality continue to be subjects of interest in her writing practice. She constantly reflects “about what matters — substantively.” Deborah’s mother was brought up a Methodist; her father, a Catholic; she and her two sisters were sent to a Catholic school managed by Belgian priests and nuns around the mid 1950s and1960s – this strongly spiritual upbringing meant that she has “intuitively thought about what religion means ‘at heart’, and how one can ‘live’ by inner precepts […] I see the church institution as ‘institutional’, and I seek to transcend what I see as church ‘culture.’”
Today, her artistic practice includes poetry and photography and she continues to write articles about politics, which reflect her life-long advocacy work in multiculturalism and Aboriginal issues such as reconciliation. She acknowledges her Filipino-Australian background and past voluntary advocacy as shaping her work, with social justice, love and freedom as frequent themes. Yet none of these activities are part of Deborah’s formal livelihood and instead, her full time occupation of nearly 30 years was as a teacher of Communication and Social Sciences at various TAFE colleges, predominantly Sydney Institute.
But she is open about the overlap between these parts of her life:
“My political and poetic concerns emerge from the same source. I am a migrant from Asia. I am non-Indigenous. My roots are from the Philippines. Filipino, Chinese, Malay and Spanish are part of my ancestry. Wind-blown to Australia by marriage and family life has constituted my sense of Australian-ness. I seek the ‘soul’ of what Australian-ness means for me. The quest has led me to seek and get to know Aboriginal people personally and to link my relationship with them to a notion of the original face as a person Indigenous to the Philippines and as ‘spirit’. Place and land that interlink with spirituality — materially shape the calling that unfolds about the question of ‘why I am here’ and ‘who I am to become’.”
Her poem, ‘Rainbow Voice’, which features in the Peril map, connects her experience of childhood in the Philippines with her experience in later years in the Kimberley, Western Australia. In Broome, Deborah became friends with descendants of Filipino pearl divers who formed families with Aboriginal people and European settlers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She describes the cultural connection that has melded as ‘historical’ and it feeds her “feeling of belonging to Australia.” About Rainbow Voices, she says:
I had a happy childhood and was a nature-loving, playful, imaginative child. My soliloquy as a child under the guava tree, and chasing dragonflies punctuated my early memories of awakening in San Andres Bukid, a farm-like place not so built up a city in Manila as it is today. The belief of traditional people that it is the land that calls the person sits well with me. A huge Swordfish got caught in my bait. I associated the swordfish with ‘welcome to country’. Becoming entangled with my bait was probably fated. The elder who had a lifetime experience of fishing caught nothing that day. I had no experience of fishing. ‘Li-yan’ is a personalized feeling of connection to Country. I share Aboriginal people’s sensitivity and I feel that they trust me implicitly.
In Deborah’s work, I wonder about the question of poetry as a kind of ‘secular prayer’, at least a meditative reflection on the world around us. Sometimes, when I am able to be objective about my own work, I wonder if a deeply cultural and religious vocabulary set by my Filipino background hasn’t shaped the thoughts I have as a writer in very particular ways. Perhaps that is why I find such resonance with Deborah’s interest in “engaging with the ‘political’ and the ‘cultural’ [as] pathways that lead to a deeper meaning of the unfolding of the truth, the peace and love we seek, not so much inter- but intra-cultural place-making [that] helps us transcend socially constructed differences.”
As she says, the events alluded to in her poem include “a ‘revelatory’ mesmerizing experience of beauty and stillness [which] was a gift for the two elders and me when we were privileged to see the ‘stars’ after we stopped the car on our way back to Broome from our one-night camp in a remote area on the Dampier Peninsula.” Deborah identifies herself as a bridge between worlds but a bridge that in time will blur the separate categorisation of what we call ‘political’, ‘spiritual’, and ‘cultural’, a bridge that will “one day no longer be needed when we come to realize our integrated experience.”
Deborah was asked, in relation to a forthcoming photography exhibition, what inspired her collection and whether she works around a theme. Her response to that question seems equally relevant for her poetry, “I believe that everything that catches our eye is a mirror of something in ourselves”. She prefers to respond to a call from the subject of the photograph to find a “moment of engagement springs from a juxtaposition of space, time, opportunity and mutuality of interest.”
When Deborah explains that mutuality of interest, it is a beautiful reflection on some of the themes visited here Peril’s mapping of Asian Australian writers’ experiences, and provides a lovely insight into Deborah’s personal practices of advocacy, poetry and photography:
“What I mean by ‘mutuality of interest’ is that land is storied and we are mutually constituted. One may wonder if place-making is an accident of history or whether the land on which we stand is embedded in our own lifeforce and destiny. I feel that we have a continuing shared heritage with the land, and that link we discover if we dare scratch the metaphorical surface.”
When I was very small, I would ask older Filipinos if I could “make the blessing”, saying “mano po” – a gesture of raising their hand to my forehead as a mark of respect. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought of that gesture and I wonder if it has gone of fashion in contemporary Filipino Australian culture. Thank you, Deborah Ruiz Wall, for reminding me of it. Like I said, sometimes coming home is as shocking a hand to the face.
~ interview with Eleanor Jackson