Emily Yu Zong interviews Merlinda Bobis

‘I Have to Recuperate Love, and Grow it Back’—An Interview with Merlinda Bobis

Merlinda and EmilyMerlinda Bobis is an award-winning author and performer of four novels, five poetry books, a short story collection, seven performance works, and a monograph on creative research. She was born in the Philippines and now teaches creative writing at University of Wollongong. She writes across multiple languages and cultures and her works are notable for their transnational expansiveness. Her first novel Banana Heart Summer (2005) was short-listed for the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, and her novel Fish-Hair Woman (2012) won a 2014 Philippine National Book Award. She is also the winner of the Australian Writers’ Guild Award, the Steele Rudd Award for the Best Published Collection of Australian Short Stories, and the Philippine Balagtas Award (a lifetime award) for her poetry and fiction. This interview focuses on her fourth novel Locust Girl. A Love Song (Spinifex) launched in July 2015, with occasional reference to her third novel Fish-Hair Woman.

Emily Yu Zong (EZ): Locust Girl really challenges my expectations, especially if we consider your previous works. I mean, usually we get the impression of a combination of your Filipino sensibility with a focus on the Australian readership. Most of your works are set in the Philippines, including the first novel Banana Heart Summer (2005) and the second novel The Solemn Lantern Maker (2008) Fish-Hair Woman (2012) and White Turtle (1999) are set across the Philippines and Australia. But this one stands out distinctly and appeals to a wider audience in the world. Can you share with us the inspirations for this book? And what motivated you to jump out of that trapping/productive dialectic of Filipino/Australian to write this novel?

Merlinda Bobis (MB): When I write, and I think when anyone writes, it is towards a story in search of a form and a location, while responding to one’s own location in the world. I write about what worries me. Australian playwright Katherine Thomson says that we write about what we worry about. I started writing Locust Girl in 2004, when George Bush declared his global ‘War on Terror,’ and I worried no end. How do you respond to this worry? Back then the question was, ‘Are you with us or against us?’ The border was so clear-cut. I felt the air we were breathing was full of fear, hate, and the judgment of the other—anyone who is not like us, those who are outside of our border. I am talking here about anyone’s positioning from whatever side of a border, whatever politics. We have created very entrenched borders because of this fear of the other. This judgment of the other is made by all sides of the border about their own other in terms of race, culture, or gender. So to respond to this worry, as a writer, I could not just remain in my Filipino-Australian imaginary. I had to break out of it and dream globally. When you think about territory globally, you often think in terms of borders: physical borders, cultural borders, and political borders, etc. In this case, we are all thinking about (or worrying about) geopolitics externally. But my main worry in 2004, and what I was more afraid of, was the border within that cuts the heart. At the height of Bush’s global war on terror, we were worrying about that external explosion—but what about the internal corrosion or even implosion? We were so engrossed in looking out at the other that we forgot the internal impact of the fear, hatred, and the judgment of the other that we nurtured within. I thought that we had developed an ‘inner dry,’ which then became the main landscape of Locust Girl: the desert. This became the terrain of the human heart: dry, without water. And this is what should truly terrify us. In Fish-Hair Woman, there are these lines that evoke something similar: ‘In a while, dryness will slip into malice, where it will feel at home, because there is never any moisture in malice. Malice is always deprived.’ This dryness in the human heart is the state of lovelessness, an inner death, no vegetation—we become as dry as kindling, thus the possible implosion and self-destruction. But how do you respond to this worry, or one might say, this existential terror? Well, as a writer I have to recuperate love, and grow it back, and make it the major premise of this book. I have to write the outer and inner borders, and to interrogate both. But at the same time, I don’t want this framework to point to a specific culture, because this is what we’ve already done to the planet—we have made its geography, its resources, its worries/problems/blames so culturally/racially specific, when, in fact, all of these are shared, and must be shared for our survival as a species. So the novel is open to all cultures and differences, while also illuminating/interrogating our fixation on differences. This means I cannot be culturally specific. I have to set the novel in an allegorical place; I have to create a mythical space. So the story can be owned by anybody, even the names. I invented the names, from A to Z. There is no specific clue to the setting. The whole point is that this story is about all of us. I have to write outside of my culture/s, I have to imagine something that accommodates all: the heroes, the villains, the victims, the perpetrators. But everything (love-and-the plague) is shared. Everyone is us.

EZ: Does this mean you would rather be known as a writer, instead of a ‘Filipino-Australian’ or ‘Asian-Australian’ writer?

MB: Well, even if I write this ‘global vision,’ the imaginary that drives it still originates from the Philippines, because I came to Australia when I was 31 and my sensibility was fully formed then. I write my memories (both stories and modes of storytelling), and wherever I go, I carry them. When I write, it feels like I’m going home. Writing is a literary homecoming. When I was writing Fish-Hair Woman, I’d close my eyes and would be back instantly in my grandmother’s house—which incidentally became the ancestral house of the novel’s protagonist. I think that even if I write about other things or places, this is the base, my Filipino sensibility: my ‘ancestral house.’ Even in Locust Girl, even in this mythical space, its ‘once upon a time’ mode of storytelling is, I believe, evocative of how my grandparents used to tell stories. Until now, I still introduce myself as a Filipino-Australian writer, because of that pull of the ancestral home. It’s like gravity, it pulls you back—but I will not be trapped by it. I can do other things; dream up other spaces. The world is bigger than one’s culture!

EZ: This gives rise to cognitive transformations in the readers too. When we interpret Asian-Australian literature, we are forced to go beyond this dialectic: Asia/Australia.

MB: Exactly. I don’t want you to think of the work or of me in binary terms. Of course, I could be as guilty of this dialectic, but I can also break out of it and hopefully be as multiple as anyone else. I don’t want to be trapped in the framework ‘Asia/Australia’ or ‘Filipino/Australia.’ Sometimes I find I am also trapping myself in binaries—because if you’re producing that binary all the time, you have a problem. I think Locust Girl attempts to address this problem. But the premise of Locust Girl is already embedded in Fish-Hair Woman, a transnational novel that escapes the trap by crossing cultures and professing a reciprocal love between cultures. Locust Girl goes further, though. In fact, here, I am questioning that reciprocal act (or expectation) of love: must love be reciprocal, for it to be love? In all my books, even in my poetry, there is a continuum of thinking and questioning of myself as well. The following book could be an argument against the previous book. For instance, in Fish-Hair Woman, I set up the idea of accommodating both self and other: ‘… how much can the heart accommodate? Only four chambers, but with infinite space like memory, where there is room even for those whom we do not love.’ This is echoed in Locust Girl, which adds reciprocity to the accommodation, but in the end, I argue against the expectation of reciprocity. You won’t give me water, even if I’m dying of thirst, because I can’t pay for it—but I have no resources to pay for it! Or you won’t give me water because you believe I haven’t cared for it according to your idea of caring—but isn’t that the same water that you siphoned from our wells a long time ago? Reciprocity is more complex than simple give and take. These are some of the questions and arguments in Locust Girl. So this is what I mean by continuum: you could build upon an idea/theme/vision in a previous book, or you could argue against it, or you could do both—because you keep learning new ways of knowing, thinking through, and articulating the world, as you ‘grow up’ as a storyteller.

EZ: Considering the book’s allegorical frame, would you call Locust Girl a dystopian, post-apocalyptic novel about the global challenges of our age?

MB: It is definitely a post-apocalyptic novel set in this futuristic nightmare, but not without hope. However, it is also very much about the present times. It is about the colonisation and control of resources, sometimes in the pretext of preserving them—but who are you preserving them for? Who are you conserving the earth for—only for your people? These realities of colonisation (and globalisation) have been happening through the ages. In the novel you have ‘the familiar’ Minister of Mouth and Minister of Legs—what are they doing here? They are controlling resources and the movements of peoples, and preventing them from crossing the border to the last green haven on earth. Then you have the Minister of Arms, the defence force. You have these Ministers controlling the seeds, the oil, and the water. They’re making sure that the earth’s last resources are preserved only for the elite, ‘the Kingdom builders.’ It’s happening now. Yes, Locust Girl is post-apocalyptic, but what I am saying is that we are already experiencing the post-apocalyptic. The post-apocalyptic is already in us. It is part of our reality now.

EZ: By depicting another take on our society, our culture, and the world, do you think fiction can influence people in ways that politics and newspaper headlines cannot do in our times?

MB: I am not the ‘art for art’s sake’ type, or someone that privileges text above all things. What I really believe in, paraphrasing novelist Alexis Wright, is the seeing-and-acting. You cannot divorce the two. In fact, for me, apprehending and acting form an organic whole. I believe in feeling-thinking-doing. You can’t just feel and think and do nothing. Writing is a doing process. When I read, I like books that make me actively do something. I remember being in a panel at the Sydney Writers Festival, and we were talking about war and trauma in literature, and there was this question from the audience (I’m paraphrasing this from memory): We’ve been talking and telling stories about these for a long time, but humanity never learns. We keep repeating history, so do these literature still matter? My answer was: When you read a book that affects you, if the next day you are a little kinder to your wife or your husband, or your neighbour, that is something. It is action, even if it’s small. Something happened within the reader, so something concrete happens from and outside the reader—because of that story. And I wish that this happens for all ages. These days, when I write I really want to write something that an adult and a child can ‘get,’ in their respective ways. I want a twelve-year-old and a fifty-year-old to be able to read Locust Girl, albeit in different ways. I want a twelve-year-old to be able to read Locust Girl as a fairytale about friendship between two girls lost in this strange desert, and somehow learn about love and the other. And I want the fifty- or the ninety-year old to be able to go beyond the fairytale and appreciate the novel as political allegory. I like writing layered texts. The style and aesthetics of Fish-Hair Woman are complex, it’s densely layered and a difficult read—but with Locust Girl, while also layered, I wanted even a child to ‘hear’ the simple storytelling, the singing. I’d like you to hear it when you read, and to listen to the musicality of this lovesong, because the novel is indeed my lovesong to the reader. I am not a composer, but the songs of Locust Girl just came as I wrote. I even sing them now.

EZ: The novel reminds me of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, particularly on the parts of authoritarian rules. In the Orwellian authoritarian rule, there is ‘thoughtcrime,’ but here you carry that further to ‘singingcrime.’ Were these Orwellian texts paratextual points of reference for Locust Girl?

MB: I haven’t read 1984, a shameful confession, but I read Animal Farm a long time ago. After finishing Locust Girl, I thought people would read it as Orwellian. If there is anything I borrowed from Orwell, it’s the idea of the ‘political fairytale’ or ‘political fable.’ In fact, I also describe Locust Girl as a political fairytale/fable in its use of allegory and the fantastical in narrating the political exigencies of our times. But I do not want to describe my novel as Orwellian, because this is such a masculine brand. I think Locust Girl does something else. It’s mythical and proudly wears the ‘once upon a time’ tone, and its protagonists are two girls. Initially I was a bit worried that the novel won’t be taken seriously by Australian critics, as it’s too strange compared to what’s being published here. Then my publisher Susan Hawthorne assured me that Locust Girl reminds her of a number of South American and European (with links to Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian tradition) novels written by women. She mentioned some names: Cristina Peri Rossi, Luisa Valenzuela, Marta Traba, Claribel Alegria. I’m comforted that I’m not alone, and that I’m in a good company of women! I hope critics/readers do not just reference the masculine model, the Orwellian tradition, when they read Locust Girl.

EZ: Again our imagination is pushed to the fore here. In Fish-Hair Woman there is Estrella with her twelve-metre-long, ever-growing hair that functions as a tool for salvation. In Locust Girl, there is a locust buried in the brow of the protagonist Amedea. It is ‘a sensing compass’ that copies sounds, reveals interior landscapes, but also at times betrays her, mocks her, and argues with her. How to make of the locust? Does it allude to our human ego, or the ability to love that we don’t know about ourselves, in the sense that we all have a locust in our forehead, waiting to be released?

MB: We are afraid of the song of the locust, because the moment the farmers hear it, we know we’ll suffer the plague and then, possibly, hunger. But I am subverting this locust stereotype. The songs of the locust in Locust Girl are the compass helping us find water, find our journey out of devastation, find each other, find love, and find redemption. But it’s also a warning. We all have a locust (both plague and redemption) inside us, and it is trapped, snug and hidden. Amedea’s singing locust gets buried in her brow, after the bombing of her village, but the realisation comes in the end that, in fact, we all have it: small, snug, and hidden. I think of the locust as the doubleness of humanity. We have a capacity for the plague and destruction that we do to the environment and to each other, but we also have the capacity for love and the capacity to redeem ourselves and our environment. We are all a plague to each other, but we are also each other’s lovers and beloved. That’s why the locust sings to Amedea, gives her hope, but also mocks her. It’s an alter ego, yes, but then the real point, as the locust sings, is this:

What greater plague is there
Than what we do to each other
What greater love is there
Than what we do for each other (175)

It’s this doubleness that matters. Remember, as far as Amedea’s hungry village is concerned, the locust is no longer disgusting or a source of fear, but a source of protein when their food rations from the Kingdoms never arrive. This employment of a subverted/subversive image is similar to what I have done in Fish-Hair Woman: when people go through trauma, their hair grows grey overnight or they lose their hair, but I subverted this expectation. Instead of losing her hair, the opposite happens to the protagonist Estrella: her hair grows longer.

EZ: Furthering this point, when you start writing, how do you employ the aesthetic tools of magic realism and the uncanny?

MB: The word ‘magic realism’ was initially coined by the German art critic Franz Roh. In Latin America, they call it ‘lo real maravilloso,’ ‘the marvelous real’ conceptualised and developed by French-Russian Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier. It’s a literary genre that’s often related to the uncanny, which has also been theorised in literary studies. But in the Philippines, we’ve had the tradition of magic realism since pre-colonial times, long before it became a literary genre. We have beliefs in which the magical and the real are one, organically explaining daily life. And we have always known the uncanny and believed it. As a writer, I am informed by my Filipino traditions of magical realism and the uncanny, but I am living and writing in the West now, and I am also equipped with Western aesthetics to write for my Western audience. So I can play with magical realism and the uncanny as aesthetic tools familiar to the West, using both as a means to create metaphor and allegory that engender political critique and subversion, and, let’s not forget, the layered story that produces literary delight and magic. However, I think what drives the creative urge to put something on paper the moment I visualise and imagine it, is very much the magical and the uncanny from my first home. Everything originates from that tradition: the seamless connection among cultural beliefs, environment, and daily life.

EZ: Is the singing in Locust Girl also related to the Filipino tradition of singing, weeping, and telling stories?

MB: Where does the singing come from? Again, it comes from my own culture, because we sing stories. Even if I am writing about another place, the story grows out of the pull of gravity: the pull of the ancestral home, which I mentioned earlier. The orality of the telling is very much a Filipino tradition. My early works of poetry in Australia, particularly Cantata of the Warrior Woman Daragang Magayon, the epic poem that I did for my doctorate, is also performance. I’ve performed it in various countries as a one-woman show, as I’ve performed River, River, my one-woman play adaptation of Fish-Hair Woman. You see, even if I’m working with text for the page, I’m already singing it in my head, in my body. It is easy for me to chant it, to sing it, because it is inevitably returning to the tradition that my body and my sensibility know. The musicality of Locust Girl also returns to that storytelling-singing tradition. I remember that when my grandparents told stories, they took on an almost singsong tone, with a particular rhythm: ‘Kaidtong enot na panahon—Once upon a time . . . ’

EZ: Are the magical and the uncanny also part of the ‘survival mechanism’ of the people of a particular locality?

MB: In fact, that’s what I touched on in Fish-Hair Woman. When you are in the village of Iraya during a Total War, a village locked in with no resources, no food supply, and the river (the main source of water), is contaminated by corpses, what helps you survive? The beliefs in the magical, the uncanny, the salvation of the dead, and the redemption of the living. You believe you can have a ‘fish-hair woman’ to save you. Every culture, including Western cultures, have or used to have their own magical-survival beliefs. But we are becoming enslaved by rationalism. We have just shrugged off these survival beliefs and we have created a rational and distinct border between the magical and the real worlds. I remember being told by a publisher (to whom I was pitching Locust Girl initially) that they’re not interested in the novel because they publish literature about ‘the real world.’ What is the real world, and who defines/demarcates realness? Remember, there are many things that we still don’t understand about the earth, the planet/s, our brain, and our bodies. How are indigenous people’s beliefs explained through theory? Not possible; you just believe, and this very belief helps you survive natural catastrophes that no science, technology or the rational brain can hold back, even if they can explain most of these phenomena though not all of them, not completely or perfectly. The magical and the uncanny are sources of strength that we can draw from. And also, how boring would the world be if we’re reduced to this: I believe this is a table because there is a corporeal table before me, and I can see and touch it!

EZ: Let’s talk about the ending of the novel. I almost hoped there would be a revolt to overthrow the pseudo-democratic rule of the Kingdoms. But in the end, Locust Girl is consumed and burnt by the combustion of multiple voices inside her, the weight of multiplicity and history. She acts out that giving of love. How does that ending work, considering that redemption is a consistent theme in your fiction?

MB: Yes, the weight of multiplicity is such a burden. Amedea, the Locust Girl, literally implodes and is destroyed when she starts accommodating all the voices inside her, singing all of them. It is true that the accommodation of the other/s is difficult, even a burden, and entails self-sacrifice. Somehow the self cedes power as it accommodates the other/s. So, accommodating all, Locust Girl implodes. She has had a choice, and she could have denied that option of multiplicity, but instead she accommodates all voices. Because she wants to show everyone that regardless of borders, we are all in this together—in this love-and-plague or redemption-destruction of our world, or what we have reduced it to. But everyone around her in the Five Kingdoms is in search of a culprit, someone (an other) to blame, in order to save the self. And in a moment of doubleness (again), Locust Girl takes on the burden of both culprit and lover. She wants to save, an urge that is born of love. Hers is the greatest sacrifice: self-immolation. She accommodates everyone and she implodes. This time, the negative premise of implosion (because of the ‘inner dry’) at the beginning is turned on its head: it becomes the ultimate act of love. And from the ashes, she rises: both phoenix and female Christ. I think I have subconsciously employed the Christian ideal love called Agape. Agape is selfless and unconditional love, and is very much about the other. Agape is Christ’s love for humanity when he dies on the cross. It sounds ideal (or ‘magical’ for the doubting, hard-core realists?), but considering the fact that we manage to dream about it, the fact that we have an idea for it and have worded it—agape—then it is possible. In times of conflict, people do heroic things and they totally forget themselves to save, to extend compassion and to redeem the other. If we have the capacity to talk about Agape, we can possess part of it. In fact, we have it and we have to set it free. It should not remain small, snug, and hidden.

EZ: I am very interested in the character of Beenabe with whom I actually identify more than with Amedea. She achieves the awakening of love in the end, but she is also torn by hesitation and mixed allegiances. Can you talk about her as well?

MB: The protagonist Amedea is the transcendent one, but Beenabe is more like the rest of us, the ordinary. She is more real, and she is vain. There is her vanity, human frailty, jealousy, and the rejection of her friend Amedea’s monstrosity. But there are also moments when she rips off her own clothes to clothe Amedea. Beenabe is more like us. We have the burden of ambivalence and mixed loyalties. We get confused because we are always looking after Number One, and how we can remain Number One. Human beings are selfish and vain, but we also have the capacity to love, and love deeply. But ‘Love is clumsy, because it has so many hands’—Beenabe’s love is clumsy, because she has to deal with many exigencies for her own survival. Her love is not the Agape kind. She has become a trafficked sex worker in the Kingdoms, and she is there to service. But she says it’s love and that she is loved—she needs to trick herself into believing this in order to survive. She says she has crossed the border and has become a Kingdom builder, already accepted by the elite, but very clearly the Ministers declare that she is and will always be an outsider. But within this enslavement, she tries to muster some dignity, some humanity, and she does—but her love is clumsy. And can we fault her for this? Love is clumsy: such is our burden as human beings, whether or not we are in a difficult circumstance like Beenabe. Our love is clumsy, so we trick ourselves into believing that we are better than this, better than who we are, and sometimes, we do become better. Remember, we have a locust in our respective hearts or brows, this love-and-plague capacity—and while we plague each other and our earth, sometimes we surprise ourselves in moments of transcendence when we suddenly forget the self for the sake of the other. And we soar!

EZ: Thank you Merlinda, for sharing with us your creative ethics and the powerful songs of Locust Girl.
Emily Yu Zong is a PhD candidate at the School of Communication and Arts, the University of Queensland. She works on diasporic Asian women’s literatures and the transnational critique. She has published academic essays and book reviews on diasporic Asian identity, hybridity, female agency, and cosmopolitanism.