‘sea level’ : the poem as miniature tornado – ‘bird of winter’ podcast no 2.

Like miniature tornados rising up off the page, poems move energy.  Working with words and sounds, they carry their readers, or listeners, into spaces which are new to us – hopefully without inflicting damage.   By involving us imaginatively, and creatively, they open our consciousnesses to transformative alchemies. Or that’s the aim. For those of us who work with difficult materials, the reader or listener can of course decide how far ‘in’ they want to go, and how much of the created world they allow to come alive.  When a poem has an element of catharsis, they can also choose if they want to become part of the shift this precipitates. 

Naples seen from above, with Vesuvius

To explore how this poem/tornado process might take place, my second bird of winter podcast rides the energy flow of ‘sea level’, which came together on a winter trip to Naples. Specifically, I engage with how the poem imagines worlds to generate forward and upward movement. In this case, it’s from a place of suppression and denial towards a place of comprehension and healing, and from underground darkness up towards the light of day.  If you’d like to listen to this as a podcast, with an optional prompt at the end for your own art-making, the link is here: https://youtu.be/pJLPHD5A2sE

If you’d prefer to check it out, developed for the page as an essay, please keep reading. The photographs are ones I took in Naples.  As a word of warning – this episode mentions sexual abuse briefly, in the context of the weight of silencing that can arise from this crime, and its potential for continued resonance in our adult lives.  I also explore how we can move beyond its heavy legacy towards reclamation. While I’ll be  tracking the energy flow through the individual lines of ‘sea level’, to hear the poem from start to finish please follow this link to my recording: 

sea level

Naples harbour at nightfall

For ‘sea level’s tornado to lift off, it needed both darkness and light. Real tornadoes require warm humid air, and cold dry air, to create the rotating updraft that leads to the formation of the funnel cloud.   In this case, I wanted readers to feel the oppressiveness of the silence and denial that abusers, including my own, force onto children.  These weights are carried by many of us whose experiences have been denied or dismissed.  Having encountered them within the physical landscape of the poem, we can enter into the relief that arises when they are released, collectively, into an act of witness and reclamation.

Back in December 2018, the day before I wrote the first draft of ‘sea level’,  (when I still had no idea it was coming to me), I’d visited the palatial Archaeological Museum, in the grimy heart of Naples. The city’s soundtrack is a symphony of car horns but the tight street grid in the old town dates back to Roman times.  Extraordinary finds, from statues, to frescoes, to objects from daily life including a charred cradle, were excavated from the volcanic rock that covered the ancient city of Herculaneum.  Key items are displayed in room after room, alongside equally dazzling, moving, and mundane, treasures from the neighbouring city of Pompeii.  They make you feel as if time is melting and you no longer know quite where you stand.

Wall painting of young woman from Archaeological Museum

While Pompeii was covered with ash that was relatively easy to shift when Vesuvius erupted, four metres of molten volcanic materials settled into solid rock over ancient Herculaneum.  To rediscover the city, the original excavators had to tunnel down, partly below the modern town of Ercolano, at great personal risk from poisonous gases and cave-ins, beginning during the eighteenth century.  Reading about them, and seeing old illustrations in my guide book, called to mind my own painful, stumbling, sometimes dangerous and destabilising, process of excavating my childhood memories. I embarked on this in my thirties, during the 1990s, with the support of a skilled psychotherapist.

Those same childhood memories were moving in the shadowed corners of my thoughts as I walked around the museum, trying to take in as much as possible, and then explored the tiny shops and tight backstreets of Naples while dusk came and people started to congregate in bars and cafes after work. While most people think of December in terms of holidays and celebrations, for me it marks the anniversary of when the penetrative sexual abuse began during my childhood, in 1972.  I was eight and a half. With my abuser, who was my mother, I’d just moved to a small village in Wiltshire following the death of my diplomat father.   Even decades later, whenever I can, I go abroad briefly at that time of year, to reset the light in England, which can intensify the return of flashbacks and nightmares. 

Eighteenth century anonymous illustration of visiting the excavations at Herculaneum

Despite the Southern Italian location, the night after I visited the Archaeological Museum, I woke in the early hours from a dream of being held down in the darkness, as had happened when I was a child.  Lying in the dark hotel room, cold and scared, the feeling the dream left me with,  after a day of imagining  the still largely buried ancient city of Herculaneum, and then walking Naples’ shadowy, narrow twisting back streets, somehow led to the phrase “there will always be the city/ beneath this city charted by no one” dictating itself. This became the first two lines of ‘sea level’. I was thinking of Herculaneum. I was also articulating my own underground memories, nestled beneath the surface  of my daily life, but swimming up to its surface again in the crack in time that the December anniversary had opened.

Jotting the words down, on a bedside scrap of paper, but also opening myself to the energy I could feel rising up, I next heard “where column of stone tears/ cling to the ceilings.” As a child, I could neither cry, nor cry out, in bed beside my abuser. When you visit underground cave systems, the stalactites and stalagmites can seem like frozen ghosts, caught momentarily in the electric lights of the present.   I knew these stone columns were my own emotions, unarticulated and unacknowledged, until my thirties – when I first started to thaw and allow myself to re-experience them with professional support.  Brittle and dangerous until that point,  they had hung within me like unwieldy stone daggers, triggering panic attacks and flashbacks, as is the case for many peoples who have experienced trauma.   But the image was by no means exclusively sad. Stalactites are also objects of great beauty. Crystalline structures, created from dripping water, they sparkle when illuminated, and make visible the accretions of time. 

Seeing the lines on the hotel notepad,  I felt again that tornado of energy rising within them, driving the narrative forwards.  What came to me next was an image that called back the lost inhabitants of my imagined underground city “whose people were once/ lost or vaporised/ their houses and temples/ buried and forgotten”.  This of course happened historically to the citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum – whose lives we now know in considerable detail thanks to the works of recovery undertaken by archeologists, and scholars. Within the carbonised cradle, the feather-light residue of a baby testified to his or her former presence. In Pompeii, archeologists pour plaster into voids left in the ash where bodies decomposed, to cast out the shapes of the people who fell trying to escape Vesuvius.

Figures cast from hollows left in the ash at Pompeii photo Wikipedia

By the end of 2018, when I visited Naples, I had begun to share the poems which were my own creative acts of recovery. I was also being mentored by Pascale Petit under the Jerwood Arvon scheme.  Through the responses I was receiving from her and other people, I knew that by writing about my childhood, the spell of denial thrown over my own life was being undone.  This also happens when other denied and buried histories – including those of enslavement, persecution, and genocide – are recovered and documented.

Writers including Primo Levi, who recorded his experience of Auschwitz, and the long journey home, and Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, who make work in response to the histories of enslavement and racism, and the impacts of colonisation, were integral to my own process of giving creative testimony, as was Pascale Petit. Also crucial to my ongoing sense of possibility have been works of exploratory witness from contemporaries writing alongside me including Bhanu Kapil, Sandeep Parmar, Isabelle Baafi, Romalyn Ante, Jenny Mitchell, Rachael Allen, Rachel Long, Caleb Femi, Will Harris, Nina Mingya Powles, Troy Cabida, Arji Manuelpillai, Karen Smith, Natalie Linh Bolderston, Holly Pester, Ralph Webb and Cynthia Miller – to name only a very few. 

Carried forward by so many powerful examples, scribbling in bad handwriting by the streetlight coming through the gap in the curtains, I felt myself caught up into the process of collective reclamation and voicing. This was the journey of the poem, from darkness to light, from silence to noise.  As it took hold of me, with the Bay of Naples moving as a wash of liquid blackness beyond the town, I heard “let these people  who are my people/ enter your lives again”.  What had been denied and pushed down was rising up now in a way that made me think of a different set of tunnels altogether. 

Oritigia, showing temple columns in the wall of the church.

These were the tunnels under the Sicilian town of Ortigia, that I had previously visited with Pen, the younger of my two adult sons. The town has existed since classical times, and its main church is made from a former Greek temple, whose columns are still visible within the walls.  Ortigia’s deep network of tunnels were used over the centuries for rituals, burials and shelter, including from bombing during the second world war.  They formed places of safety, as we discovered during a guided tour.  Going underground in the town square, the musty, twisting passages emerge from darkness into the light of day at sea level, where the white gold rock of the island meets the turquoise waves. It was this memory which informed the next lines – “and hope will shaft passages/ up through the bedrock”. The photograph I chose for the YouTube podcast was taken on that holiday.  Being with my own son, by the iridescent waters of the Mediterranean, was in my mind as the last lines of the poem came to me, as you will be able to hear again. 

sea level

alice hiller emerging from the tunnels in Ortigia, photo by Pendragon Stuart.

‘sea level’ moves from suppression and denial, into life and community, ending “until we swim free/ within the breathing harbour of morning”.   The double sound meaning of its final word – morning – holds within it an echo of the sorrow and loss which is also part of the process of the poem.  It gives the journey into the light an element of circularity, echoing the circling of energy which is also integral to the formation of a tornado.  Those of us who have known difficult times will recognise how this circling can be manifested in the return of memories and anniversaries of the sort which kicked off the poem for me. While such a legacy is not easy to carry, I understand that it forms the foundation of who I am as a person, and as an artist, and has become one of the deep energy sources that fuel my work and my political consciousness.

Sunrise over the harbour in Naples

If anything in this blog has been difficult, the Mind website has valuable links.

If you would like to read more about bird of winter please go to the page in this blog, where I explain its background, or follow this link to Pavilion Poetry’s website: http://bit.ly/birdhiller.

If you would like to try out putting your own journey poem or artwork together, the following prompt may give you a few ideas. 

The first stage of putting your own journey poem or artwork together will be to think of an experience, feeling or memory which will be your starting point. It doesn’t have to be taken from your own life, but it should be something that you can potentially travel beyond to a new place, physically, emotionally,  geographically or conceptually.  This is what will give your work its forward motion and form its primary energy source.

In my case, the journey was from my child to my adult self, from a crime taking place to its anniversary many decades later, and from an individual, silenced position, to a collective act of witness. Be careful if your explorations start to feel upsetting for any reason, and plan beforehand how to stay emotionally safe.  You might want to have a friend you can connect with, or a helpline you can call, or another form of support. 

The next stage is to select your recording materials.  You might want to write on a sheet of paper or in a notebook, or type into a new document on your computer, or speak into your phone using a voice memo app.  All are equally good.   Once you’re ready, set a timer for five minutes, and then write, or speak freely, and without censuring yourself, about the starting point of your experience. What you’re looking to capture is the emotional mood and colour of the subject, rather than any formal description. Rough jottings, phrases, and images are great. 

Naples from the island of Capri

The next step will be to repeat this writing or recording process for another five minutes, envisaging and describing the place where the journey travels to.   You could do this straight after, or you might want to leave it until another day, week, or even month.  Sometimes poems and artworks come quickly, but other times they reveal themselves to us more slowly and gradually.    When you’ve got the two sets of material, combine them into a single document, so you can see how they sit together.

Beyond this, or alongside the process, you want to start thinking about a physical terrain across which the emotional journey of your poem or artwork can realise itself.  In my case, it was the double set of tunnels in Herculaneum and Ortigia, which became a single joined underground landscape. They could be landscapes you know personally, or ones you have experienced either online or via film or television or books. They could be from the past, or the present.  

The sea off Ortigia in Sicily.

Once you have identified your landscape, or landscapes, you want to generate some words around them.  If they are nearby, maybe visit them with your phone to speak into, or paper to write on. Otherwise, spend some time just looking at them online or in books. As you’re engaging with the landscapes, notice the feelings and ideas that come up, and again jot down phrases and images.  Do it as a timed session if that’s feasible and helpful.  As before, be careful if this starts to feel upsetting for any reason, and plan beforehand how to stay emotionally safe.

Land travelling into water

The final step will be to bring together your two sets of words and images – about the experience, and the landscape – in a way that makes the journey of your poem or artwork travel forward through time and across geography to its place of arrival. 

Good creating – and thank you for reading. Please sign up to the blog if you would like to be notified of other bird of winter podcasts and materials, and writing and interviews more generally on the topic of working creatively and transformatively with difficult materials.          

                                             

Naples underground

‘Unfamiliarity, the state of being unknown, is not the same as non-existence. Migrant nurses exist. We do exist in this world. But somehow we are not known.’ –Romalyn Ante and Pascale Petit perform and speak with alice hiller about the work witness in their new collections, Antiemetic for Homesickness and Tiger Girl.

Romalyn Ante by S. Chadawong.

Poet Andrea Gorman spoke out at Joe Biden’s inauguration against the force in America that would rather ‘shatter our nation rather than share it’.  In her stunning poem, ‘The Hill We Climb’, she stated instead ‘there is always light…./If only we’re brave enough to be it.’ Anyone listening will have felt the restitutionary power of her words, written and delivered, as she stated, by “a skinny Black girl, descended from slaves and raised by a single mother.’ 

Globally, one of the most necessary questions today is around who gets heard – and who does not.  It has been at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement.  It is equally central to the legacies of empires round the world, as Satham Sanghera argues in his powerful new study, Empireland, and to our relationship to our environment and the fair distribution of its resources.

Being heard is also crucial in poetry, as two new collections by Pascale Petit and Romalyn Ante remind us. Pascale Petit’s Tiger Girl draws the life of her half-Indian grandmother, born in secret to her great-grandfather’s serving maid, together with conditions in and around the Tiger reserves of Central India.  Romalyn Ante’s Antiemetic for Homesickness explores more recent experiences of migration to the UK, and working within the NHS, against the healing, nurturing background of the Filipino culture which her family brought with them, and which continues to shape their understanding of themselves in the world. 

I had the great privilege of hosting a performance and conversation between Pascale Petit and Romalyn Ante, towards the end of 2021, with a very enthusiastic live audience.  Immediately afterwards, coming up to the holiday period, with infection levels rising steeply, and restrictions changing all the time, was not the right time to share the recording.

But now, with the UK, Europe, and much of the rest of the world, in varying degrees of lockdown, and everyone still separated in physical terms from each other, co-experiencing resources such as this conversation seem to be of the utmost importance in maintaining our sense of connectedness with each other as fellow human beings, and as creative artists. 

To maximise accessibility, I have transcribed both my own introduction, and the conversation between the three of us.  To experience the full event, specifically and crucially, Pascale Petit’s and Romalyn Ante’s readings of their poems, please click on either the video or audio links below.  The video link has close captions enabled via Youtube, although you will need to turn these on in the control bar at the bottom right of the screen. Apologies for the occasional surreal spellings.

If you would like to see the texts of the poems, they are available in Tiger Girl and Antiemetic for Homesickness through the buy buttons below. There are also links to some of the published poems on Romalyn Ante’s and Pascale Petit’s websites.

Photo by Brian Fraser

Romalyn Ante Antiemetic for Homesickness

Pascale Petit Tiger Girl

https://youtu.be/V57ZxGbGAQc

Audio Link

alice hiller’s introduction to Pascale Petit and Romalyn Ante, 26 November 2020:

After a rough year and a tough November, it’s a real pleasure to welcome you to this act of creative community.  We’re here to celebrate the deep, healing play of Pascale Petit’s and Romalyn Ante’s brilliant new collections, Tiger Girl and Antiemetic for Homesickness.  Both Pascale and Romalyn are poets of courage, as well as of distinction.  

In a week when we learnt that the UK’s foreign aid budget commitment will be broken, and while so many vulnerable voices are being excluded from the global conversation, Pascale and Romalyn give witness to a wider range of experiences than many poets.  They also help us ask ourselves and our governments, whose foot is being kept on whose head?

Writing about life in the Philippines, Welsh gardens, and the stunning nature reserves of central India, Pascale and Romalyn move our minds to places of delight – even as they remind us that the world is still far from being a fair or kind place for many human and creaturely lives, and the fragile ecosystems and economies which sustain them. 

Our format tonight will be that Romalyn will read from Antiemetic for Homesickness, published by Chatto, followed by Pascale from Tiger Girl, published by Bloodaxe. Afterwards, I’ll open  a conversation between them.  

Before the readings, I’d like to say a few words about Pascale and Romalyn. Winner of the Ondaatje Prize, and inaugural Laurel Prize for Mama Amazonica, amongst very many other distinguished awards, Pascale Petit is also a radically empowering supporter of new voices in poetry  through her mentoring, teaching and judging, as Romalyn and I can both testify.  

Over eight collections, Pascale’s poems have brought an artist’s eye to the Amazon river and its rainforest, the arid landscapes of the Languedoc, and the markets and historic sites of Paris including her beloved Jardin des Plantes.  Tiger Girl, from which she’ll be reading shortly, gives us one of the most life-filled portraits of a woman of colour, and of mature years, that I have read in a long time.  It should be bought for that reason alone, aside from its many other treasures. 

Moving between between continents, Tiger Girl documents Pascale’s time growing up in Wales with her fierce half-Indian grandmother – who took in washing, told fortunes and made her garden a canvas equal to any artist’s.   The poems also respond to Pascale’s experiences on recent trips to nature reserves in Central India.  Celebrating the magnificent wild creatures who inhabit those parks, Pascale also registers the damage to them by poverty-stricken poachers, from whose social class her Indian great-grandmother, her great-grandfather’s maid, would have come. 

Mentored like me by Pascale under the Jerwood Arvon scheme, which brought the three of us together, Romalyn shares with Pascale an intuitive sense of the mythic residing within the everyday.  She is similarly the recipient of many distinguished awards, including the Poetry London Prize, the Manchester Poetry Prize, the Primers Prize, and the Creative Futures Platinum Award. 

Having grown up in the Philippines until she was sixteen, before coming to Wolverhampton, and subsequently training as a NHS nurse and then counsellor, Romalyn conveys how “the wind has the ears of a wild boar” and explains why you have to turn your shirt inside out to find your way home, whether that home is warmed by the “smoke of a Brummie accent”, or cooled by the night breeze.  

Antiemetic for Homesickness moves compellingly between the landscapes, and foods, and folklore of the Philippines – and life as a nurse within the NHS, while living in the Black Country.  Exploring what it can mean to make the UK your home,  Romalyn also witnesses the racism to which so many people who come here have been subjected, and how they have made strong, creative lives notwithstanding the challenges faced. 

The co-founder of  the wonderful harana poetry, for poets working with English as a parallel or additional language, like Pascale, Romalyn is both an outstanding poet, and  a key figure for the expansion of the possible in poetry, both through her own work, and her support for others.  She also gives us life from a nurse’s point of view, as never before, another reason to buy her essential Antiemetic for Homesickness. It’s my great pleasure now to hand over to Romalyn Ante.

[Romalyn Ante and Pascale Petit introduce and read their poems, available via the Youtube or Audio links.]

AH: That was fantastic Pascale.  Thank you so much.  It’s amazing to hear the two of you reading together. I’m going to ask you a few questions because I’ve lived with, loved and thought about your collections since they were published.   The first question is about making  worlds visible that are known to you, but not to your readers?  Pascale, I’m thinking both about your poems about wildlife in Indian National Parks, but also about your poems about life in rural Wales? Romalyn, I’m thinking about your poems about rural life in the Philippines, but also about the day to day life of a nurse in the NHS?  We can really feel the worlds you both have made in your poems.  I wondered if that was an  important part of making them?

RA: Thank you Alice. That’s a very important question. In the UK Filipinos are the second highest immigrant NHS staff, next to Indians. In the US the highest number of immigrant nurses are Filipinos. Most recently, specially during this pandemic, the West has been really dependent on migrant nurses but little is known about us, our own narratives, our own lives.  I feel that mostly people only see us on the surface without knowing our pasts and our own tales, why we came here.   I have people commenting to me ‘So you’re Filipino.  If you’re Filipino, where are you from?  Are you from Korea then?’  They don’t even know what a Filipino is.  There are also some readers’ comments.  You shouldn’t really read GoodReads comments.  But I do.  I read my reviews because I want to improve. There are some comments, ‘I don’t know.  I can’t relate.’ But for me the truth is unfamiliarity, the state of being unknown, is not the same as non-existence.  Migrant nurses exist. We do exist in this world. But somehow we are not known and what puzzles me is why is the United Kingdom or the West so dependent on a sector of people that has so little voice, and that has never been heard of.  And this is the reason why I wrote this.  To really show them not only the physical place we came from, but also to show them our narrative, what propels us to do this. 

AH: That’s a fantastic answer. Thank you so much. 

PP. Thank you. Roma that was fantastic. With Tiger Girl, I wanted to honour my grandmother, and write a book almost of love poems, you know, and acknowledge that she was the daughter of a maid and she was taken in by her father’s white family and she was very poor when I lived with her in Wales.  We didn’t have indoor toilets or running water.  Really quite poor.  Children don’t notice that. What I did notice was an enormous garden and lots of animals, and the incredible world of the garden which she worked in all the time, and which I worked in for her as well. That’s one half of the book. The other is where she came from. The story of the tiger, and my wanting to see tigers, and to see this wildness that she came from, that she’d encountered as a baby, and the terrible realisation that that wildness is so so threatened and endangered.  Even the tigers that are safe are fighting each other. Daughters kill mothers and so on because the forests are too small for them. Even though the tourists are only allowed in 20% of the National Parks. There’s still not enough space. They have enormous territories.  Having seen the tigers, and seen how – I’ve seen wild jaguars as well in the Amazon rainforest – to see what they are like, in their territories in the wild, is so different from seeing them in zoos.  Of course there are far more tigers in zoos than there are in India.  There’s about 2,800 in India, and only a handful elsewhere. So that was the world I was trying to bring forward.  

AH:  Most of us never get to those reserves, to see them through someone’s eyes, to see them emotionally, rather than just on a wildlife documentary, is incredibly powerful. I really appreciated that. My next question is  you both work within your collections with a powerful and healing female figure.   For Pascale, it is your grandmother. For Romalyn, it is your nurse mother.  Did it feel important to honour the ways in which we as women can nurture each other?

RA: Yes, definitely.  In Antiemetic for Homesickness the mother is the one who leaves to provide a better life for her family.  So if you think about it, the mother is away from the very essence of being a mother, which is to take care of her own children. And I think by shedding light on that fact, I also needed to shed light on the fact that in leaving there could also be healing. So even though the mother has left, as a sacrifice almost, she still heals the socio-economic problems that her family has.  She still heals people abroad. She heals people where she works.  That’s incredibly important for me, not only as a nurse, but also as a daughter of a migrant nurse.  I feel very similar to Pascale, writing about the voicing of the poet is really healing the world that is full of annihilation.  

PP: When I wasn’t with my grandmother, I was in various homes and things in France.  If I was with my parents, it was a bad experience. I eventually went to live with my mother when I was a teenager, when my grandmother kind of threw me out, which she had to do, she was tired, she had a teenager on her hands.  But my mother was severely mentally ill, and couldn’t really look after me, and was a malevolent force for me. I had a malevolent maternal figure there, so it was wonderful for me to have a chance in this book to write about a really benevolent figure, who not only was benevolent, but was a very powerful person. She was known as the local witch where we lived. As a good witch, but she was. And she also had an extraordinary second sight. I did have the experience of being with her and her telling me about ghosts.  For example she saw the postman who lived down our lane.  For example she said ‘I’ve just seen him walking down our lane and he said hello to me as if everything was normal but his feet were floating off, weren’t touching the ground, so I knew he was a ghost.  I knew he had just died.’ And he had. So there were always those kind of experiences going on. She also used to tell fortunes.  People in the village used to come.  The vicar and the doctor would come to have their fortunes told. I would go with her as well to fairs to see her tell fortunes. 

AH: Looking back, women have been disempowered for centuries. It’s really important that we make work than honours female power, female goodness.  It seems to me a very positive thing to do. But at the same time these healing figures work within very injurious and injured societies and you both show them as being capable of deeply wounding those who are dependent on their care and provision.    Pascale, you explore your grandmother returning you to your mother.    Romalyn, you look at the impacts on you of being separated from your mother when she goes to nurse abroad, and not seeing her for several years.   In each case, the wounding behaviour is driven by larger socio-economic pressures, and the vulnerable positions which these women occupy.  The fact that your mother left the Philippines to give you and your siblings a better life, Romalyn.  It was the only way she could materially improve your lives.  Your grandmother had very limited resources Pascale. We’re now talking in the pandemic about the impact of material strain, of poverty, on families.  Was it also important to show that in difficult circumstances even loving people can in injurious ways, through no real volition of their own.  Or does that feel too challenging?  

PP: It can’t be challenging. You need to write the truth.  For me, I was thirteen. So the injury wasn’t being moved from my grandmother. I was still a child.  She was still the best thing that ever happened.  The real wound was not being allowed to grieve her loss, when I lived with my mother.  That was the wound.  I never realised that I wasn’t allowed to grieve.  I just knew it was a subject that mustn’t be mentioned.  I wasn’t allowed to grieve for my grandmother, who I saw as my mother, because my mother couldn’t bear that. 

RA:  I think what you said a while ago Alice really resonated with me, when you said we left because we were propelled by socio-economic circumstances.  See, even though in Antiemetic for Homesickness, the left-behind-child was left by her nurse mother, this story is not unique to me. It happens to a lot of children, millions of children around the world. Your parents don’t even need to go abroad for you to be a left-behind-child.  In China, parents go to richer cities to help financially with the family.  My mother left because she really had no choice. But then again, she made a choice.  Her only choice was not having any choice.  She left knowing that the people she would leave behind would be hurt.  That knowledge hurt her, I’m sure, in return.  For me it’s not just me who is wounded, it’s the mother who is wounded. It’s very timely and relevant to this day, especially when I see my colleagues, or my mother even, who has been going all around the country helping in the pandemic front line, my other Filipino colleagues who could choose not to go home, as their homes across the street, so they don’t put their children at risk of Covid. So mothers have always been leaving their children, and this story has always been happening. But then again, it’s not the children who get hurt. The wounded one is also the mother.  And I think that’s what Antiemetic for Homesickness is also about. 

AH:  That really comes across. It’s very important.  I see we’re coming to the end of the time.  I have one final question.  While neither of you holds back from speaking about difficult subjects, both collections give the gift to their readers of being able to abide in beauty.   Romalyn, you let us glimpse the pre-colonised life, and warmth of community, in the Philippines.  Pascale, your work gives itself deeply to the natural world.  Was that an important thing to do, to give the gift of beauty, when the world is facing so much difficulty?

PP:  Absolutely.  You can’t write about the threats to the natural world without showing why, without trying to show – it’s a real challenge – the awe and the wonder of it. That’s something I’ve always felt.   You have to show what it is you’re trying to protect.  What the non-human world is.  I keep getting these flashes which are images of the planet without one human life on it, without animals, and that’s like hell.  I don’t want that to happen.  But I need to show the beauty and the awe. The wonder of tigers. 

AH: Absolutely.  Stay with the programme Pascale! Romalyn?

RA:  I echo what Pascale has said.  It’s very true to me.  It’s also one of the reasons, when Chatto asked me what kind of cover I wanted, I really wanted it to be colourful, with some kind of insignias of the Philippines, the sun bird, the abaniko flower.  For me these beautiful images serve as anchors, and guides, that will lead us back to healing, and perhaps to hope.  It’s very similar to what we hope for now. We look for that beauty. When we can go again to our favourite coffee shops again, or we can hug our parents again, or meet up with our friends.  I think that’s very important to look for beauty, because beauty gives hope. 

AH: I think that’s the perfect note on which to end.  I’m going to thank everyone who’s joined us. I’m going to especially thank Pascale and Romalyn for these two brilliant books. The season of gifting is coming upon us. These have to be top of your list. This has been a stunning evening.  Thank you so much.  Everybody, buy the books. Thank you so much. 

Romalyn Ante’s website is here.

Pascale Petit’s website is here.

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