Balikbayang Mahal: Passages from Exile

Reviewed by Charlie Samuya

E. San Juan, Jr. Balikbayang Mahal: Passages from Exile (Morrisville, NC:, 2007).

A book of translations, Balikbayang Mahal or Beloved Returnee is about making history in unexpected places. As dusk descends, for instance, on the Italian town of Punta Spartivento, the poet-exile is haunted by names of the dead — Juvy Magsino, Benjaline Hernandez, Eden Marcellana, Rafael Bangit, Alyce Claver. Or again, it is springtime in The Hague and memories of political detainees in Muntinlupa rise from the roof of the Christus Triumfator. The poet-exile remembers the Moslem insurgency in Mindanao as night falls in the land of the Pequot Indians. The poet-exile finds himself in unexpected places where he comes to grips with the gathering forces of history. Everywhere he goes, his country follows.

The 38 original poems, spanning more than five decades of creative labor, represent this journey. The book begins with a quiet poem called “Voyages.” A poem steeped in classical mythology, it starts with the memorable line, “To exile I ride on the bountiful surf.” Indeed, Balikbayang Mahal is about the transformations occasioned by passage into exile. These transformations are formal as well as political. If formal density and lyrical temper define the early poems in English like “Voyages,” long lines and everyday language mark the late poems in Filipino such as “Megamall sa Metro Manila” (Megamall in Metro Manila) and “Lagalag sa Makati” (Wanderlust in Makati). Taken together, these poems document not only the places, but also the languages that the poet-exile inhabits. To the poet-exile of Balikbayang Mahal, then, the vertigo of bilocation is a constant reality.

The African American thinker W.E.B. Du Bois has a similar concept; he calls it double-consciousness. The double-consciousness that an African American confronts for being not quite American and not quite Negro is the same enabling predicament that the poet-exile faces. That is, the poet-exile is of a particular country, but not fully from it because he lives elsewhere. For this poet-exile as for African Americans, all children of diaspora, the doubleness of location is the doubleness of consciousness. Implicit in this proposition is the intimate dialectic between place and consciousness; the historicity of consciousness informs the materiality of place.

Perhaps no other process captures this logic more than translation itself. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as the removal or conveyance from one person, place, or condition to another. And as the Latin origins of the term suggest, translation is transportation. To translate, in other words, is to transport. In Balikbayang Mahal the poet-exile transports the self from place to place and, accordingly, achieves the parallel transformation of consciousness. Thinking of America in Mindanao is, for this reason, not the same as thinking of Mindanao in America; the place shapes the production of consciousness.

For the poet-exile of Balikbayang Mahal, those two thoughts are complementary despite being dissimilar. The aspirations of Filipinos abroad and at home are the same: “Despite local differences and multiple languages, the submerged rallying cry of all Filipinos abroad, of all Filipinos overseas, is ‘Tomorrow, see you in Manila!’” (125) This return, however, is yet to come. Its prospect is more important to the poet-exile than arrival itself. But those who insist on being in the homeland are wont to denigrate the idea of future return. The poet-exile must work against this denigration; he must insist that the longing to return, however suspended, fulfills a function. Even as a promise to be broken, it is no less powerful, for it expands the domain of the possible. Take, for instance, the poem in which the poet-exile is standing on a lakeside wharf in Punta Spartivento. There he thinks of the insurgency in his distant homeland and says: “Everyone will meet here at the Punta Spartivento of the revolution” (68). The revolution in the homeland is transported to a different place with a different history; consequently, a new sense of place and history is imagined.

This leads us to the other meaning of translation. The OED states that translation also means transference as in movement of translation in physics, the transference of a body, or form of energy, from one point of space to another. The poet-exile accordingly translates the law of revolution into the law of physics; politics is made to recognize the workings of the material universe. If the poet-exile cannot be in Manila today, let him imagine the revolution wherever he may be. It is fitting that this poet-exile takes the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci as his “only mentor in the labyrinth of the garden of communism” (40). For in the language of Gramsci, place occupies an important role. It is prudent to distinguish between war of position and war of maneuver. And clearly, the poet-exile chooses the former in hopes of realizing the latter. Tomorrow, see you in Manila!

Thus, translation widens the terrain for the war of position. By transforming the revolution in the homeland into a consciousness that is recognizable anywhere on the planet, the book unifies the vernacular and international. As a book of translations, then, Balikbayang Mahal expands the domain of struggle and, consequently, makes the political work of translation visible. The majority of the poems in the collection were written in Filipino, but their translation into English, Russian, German, Italian, and French underscores the planetary dimension of the struggle in the homeland.

Translated and transformed, the vernacular becomes the international. In “Nine Love Songs and One Intervening Poem of Jealousy,” for instance, the poet-exile refers to the socialist leader Rosa Luxemburg and Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai in the same breath as the anti-colonial Tagalog poet Huseng Batute. This is the voice, at once particular and worldly, that informs the poems in the collection. Reading them, one understands the idiosyncrasies of making a planetary history and the possibilities for creating a common future for all. This understanding begins with knowing that no experience is ever separate. As the poet-exile writes: “Why divide two aspirations meant to be one / Like the twofold experience of fornication and breath breaking / World shall learn the dream of their oneness” (83).

If the poet-exile has chosen to engage in a planetary war of position, what, then, are the conditions of this engagement? The essay in the collection provides a chronology. From the mythical “Manillamen” who fled the Spanish galleons and resided in the bayous of Louisiana in the late 18th century, to the native intelligentsia in Europe who challenged the colonial authorities in the late 19th century, to the pensionados in American universities and laborers in Hawaii sugar plantations in the early 20th century, to the domestics, caregivers, entertainers, and professionals around the planet today, the Filipino as a subject shares the history of slaves, refugees, detainees, and immigrants. These are the constituencies in motion that the poet-exile is addressing on behalf of Filipinos everywhere.

This marks an important break in the Filipino literary tradition. From Francisco Balagtas to José Rízal to Amado V. Hernandez to Bienvenido Lumbera, the homeland has been imagined as a bounded territory. In the work of the poet-exile, a new conception of homeland is heralded. The poet-exile may be dreaming of returning to Manila, but the place is not a final destination for him. Instead, it is a portal to other places where homeland is without boundaries; it is not an essential place, but a set of affinities that Filipinos everywhere and other people with similar fates can embrace. This is the planet as homeland. And the poet-exile of Balikbayang Mahal is, in the best sense of the word, the translator of 10 million Filipinos in Amsterdam, London, Tokyo, Dubai, Rome, Hong Kong, Montreal, Sydney, and New York. His name is E. San Juan, Jr.

Reviewed by Charlie Samuya Veric Ph.D. Candidate in American Studies Yale University