the Displaced, or a History of Maritime Advances, or a Discussion of my Personal Identity in the Context of the Americas
- The first thing I wanted to blog about:
I read recently that Roberto Bolaño, who was both Chilean and Mexican felt that because he was a child of both, he was a child of no nation. We Americans, of current generations, well, no, Americans of certain circles, understand such things. I completely related to this, though I am, I would guess, more American than he is Mexican. He immigrated as a youth, I was born and raised here, and in this multi-cultural era, all of us, of all faces, all tones, are to be named American (and that we use the name of two continents, that is a whole nother matter).
I related to this feeling of being nationless, as, because I love my mother’s culture, the warm lessons I learned from it (the Philippines), my sweet aunts and uncles, my most darling cousins, the friends who believe foremost in friendship, and puns, and because it is an absolute foreignness to this country where I sit and type, there is a disjunction. By law, I am an American citizen, by accent, by knowledge of sit-coms, mid-eighties radio, but there is just something that presses to the side. And of course—I am even more lost and groping in my mother’s country, know only words and phrases in her language, know of only one sit-com, no mid-eighties radio (but one mid-seventies song). I wonder if this inability to look back through my ancestors, past my grandparents, through to Ireland and the Philippines (but more the Philippines) is something like being adopted, a feeling of the severing of the threads of time. My grandparents, sure, but my islands? They wouldn’t know me. They would say: what is this freakishness?
And so, don’t let me whine. There is beauty in this too, there is a freedom, and life brings much worse sufferings. I feel a slight bit allowed to feel connected to so many places on earth. But then, let me go on, in this introduction to Savage Detectives by the translator Natasha Wimmer, after Bolaño, we are told, expresses that he is a foreigner wherever he goes, he says, that his homeland is the Spanish language. And I was jealous of this. I held the book down and stared, blinking.
I am not a child of the English language. I identify more with themestizo nations of Latin America, though I speak Spanish badly. Spanish speakers of the Americas have always claimed me as much as Filipinos because mestizo is what they understand themselves to be. When I tell them, they point at my eyes, I swear, and say, “Oh that’s why you have eyes like that.” And I like that; it’s calling my experience natural, something they’ve seen before through their own squinky eyes. I suspect it’s what my fellow citizens want to say but don’t. Fuentes wrote that Valenzuela has a “baroque crown, but her feet are naked;” this is what he meant.
And so I had to think, if I’m not a child of the English language, then what am I? And it took months, fuck, thinking, asking: is there something that I can crystalize, that belongs to the history of the world? English is not mine, though I revel in it. Spain colonized us (but not us) too, but Spanish is not mine. Tagalog, Filipino, is both the mother tongue and a great mystery.
And I thought, eventually, it came to me: I am the child of miscegenation. This is not a good word, it sounds like a scientific experiment, and an anthropology Phd candidate I once knew didn’t know what it meant. The next option is race-mixing, but that just doesn’t sound good. There should be something more poetic, but it escapes me. I like the idea of a Creole: which has meant, in various points, Africans born in the Americas, Europeans born in the Americas, mixed-race people, a bastardized version of a European language spoken by conquered peoples.…I relate to its disjointedness, its birth in the New World, a word for children of the New World. And by this, I don’t mean Europe’s next branch (as they think it means) but I mean the whole new thing born of the apocalypse, holocaust, and beauty that was the birth of the Americas. But Creole is also not quite right.
So let me attempt the poetic. Whole nations in this hemisphere, all but two (maybe three) really, would admit themselves the children of miscegenation, literally and/or figuratively. Of those two, one is in a ridiculous amount of denial. I am in good company in my history as the child of maritime advances, in the company of the almond, the hazel-eyed bastards of rapists and wayward winds. In the Philippines, they call me amestiza but artists and intellectuals find this pretentious, it’s a way people of old money assert their white blood. In the Americas, people use the word to claim their indigenous blood.
A Dominican woman I once met, very assimilated, WASPy, summers on the island, school years in the Northeast, prep-school, Amherst, told me that just looking at me she could tell I was “displaced.” It hurt a little bit to hear that, like I was marked, but I liked it too, a word for my experience, a woman who had gone down a very different route from me, but still identified, the not-quite-being-like-anyone else in the most general way, the yank from time, the rip from the continuum.
People continually argue with me about what color I am. When people say I look white, they sound irritated with my more complicated version, but onlookers just as often, or perhaps more, insist they’d never call me white. It makes no difference the race of the onlooker; I’ve gotten it from all sides, but I think whites and people of color get mad at me for different reasons: whites because I should want to be white— black, brown and yellow people because I shouldn’t complicate the color line so much, as I may receive white privilege. Just this week, a couple, an old friend and her new boyfriend, both black, she American, he a Londoner of Nigerian descent, argued with each other about how to perceive me. He insisted I was white, she said she would never see me as white. They both said, how could you think that? Welcome to me. But that’s not the most important part of the story. I should mention I often hear secrets not intended for people of color, and I hate that, these are some of the worst moments I experience. And thus and so on. Here is my staking my claim on this giant island, in the history of the scheme of things, first essay in my blog telling you where I don’t come from. It doesn’t feel as grand and eloquent as Bolaño, nor even as I’d hoped, but it feels pretty good. I feel like I am telling some truth I’ve fought long and hard to discover, hidden in plain sight. Hidden in plain sight is the history of our hemisphere.
And what of my hemisphere? (for I am a child of this hemisphere more than this nation, though I have another of which I am not a child, kind of). Let me go to a simple trope of American culture to make my point, forgive its obviousness: Elvis. He wasn’t fully white, no, he wasn’t, and he was “the King,” and I have no need, for my intended audience, to comment on the source of his music, but maybe I should say a forbidden truth outright (for we are a society of hidden-in-plain-sight taboos): the rhythms of this country are African. And Elvis was a symbol of our contribution to the world, our aesthetic that has traveled the globe via messengers like Charlie Parker, Mick Jagger, even, I hate to say it, people like Bruce Willis: cool, the province of the anti-hero, the underdog, and I can’t help saying this has something to do with the ideas of democracy. That this position as the underdog is so often performed, a fantasy of being both king and cunning serf, is again a whole nother monster. We are an empire wishing to be an underdog, jealous of the underdog.
There was a second musician we called the King whose race-switching was also at the center of his identity, hmmm. Charles Mann, in his great history of the pre-Colombian Americas, 1491, credits the Native Americans with the birth of democracy. He was not the originator of this idea. Benjamin Franklin, who wrote with respect of the indigenous cultures around him, might have admitted it himself. But I have great respect for Mann’s deft articulation of these ideas. We are, on two continents, no, in all countries that were the booty of Western Europe, no, in all countries that were deeply influenced by the cultures of this collision, this, all of us, the bastards of rapists and wayward winds. This, the terror and the glory that cannot be undone.