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  • Keana A. Labra

"The Sea That Beckoned" by Filipina Poet Angela Gabrielle Fabunan

Updated: Jun 11, 2020

Immigration is now a controversial topic, whether it’s regarding the legality to which groups are “allowed” or “welcome.” The Sea That Beckoned by poet Angela Gabrielle Fabunan illustrates her personal experience immigrating from the Philippines to New York, USA as she learns more about her new culture and herself as well.

Sharing this narrative is vital in illustrating this particular struggle to anti-immigration audiences, especially when so much time and sacrifice is asked of immigrants. This collection not only allows Filipino Americans to see themselves in the literary canon, but it also makes their voices known in the widespread diaspora.

With her story, Fabunan asserts that it is important to remind the public that immigrants are people and not just statistics or caricatures of what is portrayed in the media. With a fusion of experience and language, Fabunan echoes hers as a stance in reclamation of her power as a Filipino American.

She begins this disorienting journey as she maneuvers through the chatter in a language [she] half understands. When she arrives in New York in First Day, she attempts to hide her newness, foreshadowing the insidious reflex to assimilate. And while events in our lives can help shape our identity for the better; unfortunately, what we imagine can sometimes be greatly disappointed by reality. What was once America the beautiful, a vision of invitation, greets Fabunan with fear. When one is faced with fear, one may seek to hide, to diminish themselves in the hopes of removing a target, so she learned to unroll her r’s on a fumbling tongue softening into an identity engraved by foreignness. Because of the nature of intolerance behind difference, these individuals who are labeled as “other” or un-American, often as young as grade-school children, revert to survival mode. Fabunan counters in Model Minority: we are more than just language, more than accent; however, to white Americans, these minorities remain unseen and become ghosts as they’re silenced.

While silence can be an act of survival and a choice made by the individual, silencing can be done by those in power as well. With grim foreboding, the mention of a single event summarizes the trials ahead. The State of Nations is an experience shared by many who were in New York when the twin towers fell. While the rest of the world began to question the ‘trustworthiness’ of a non-white individual, Fabunan questioned the motives of men in power, looking for answers in the eyes of men.

And so it begins with the xenophobic slurs and insults. In Vacating, Fabunan uses a line so heartbreaking, soul-crushing, and painful for any person to hear: go back to where you belong. This line has the insidious ability to bring pause to non-white immigrants. It makes them think, ‘maybe I don’t belong here?’ With bravery and softness, she responds as if belonging is a place. She precedes this line with a memory; it is the flashback before a death: the death of innocence. As a reader, I recoiled, as this line brought forth the submerged traumas of my past. Despite living in a ‘progressive’ community, this command was still spewed back at me. I didn’t think I would still be affected by it; however, I had to take a pause.

But Fabunan doesn’t use this hateful command to relive this trauma, she demands to subvert it, to question it, to transform it. How can one ‘go back to where they belong’, if the sense of belonging is not a place? She gives us (and herself) permission to exist and remain because America is where she feels she belongs.

This assertion of belonging is not without its doubts. In Fair Game, she ‘argues’ with America about to whom she belongs: the continent or the archipelago. However, she absorbed both [her] countries; each a nation of difference. With Migration Story, she places America, specifically New York, and the Zambales country of the Philippines next to each other. The stanzas transition naturally creating a whole, as if to personify Fabunan. She is both New York and the Philippines, and she is still whole. With the poem’s tone quieting, Fabunan introduces readers to her father, whom she felt connected her to her family in New York and back in the Philippines. With her father’s passing, she is stuck recalling the past with the lack of his talents in bridging the two worlds together.

External and internal forces bring about a change in the individual affected. Fabunan likens this to the native fruit of the Philippines peeling its layers and blossoming. However, change can also indicate regression, and there are no great metaphors for reversal. Bitter and resentful, maturing is defined as a simple truth, one which everyone undergoes, a decaying then falling. Fabunan can no longer entertain the naivete of childhood. She keeps her mouth sealed in her heart, partaking in a migration within self into self. This is the same act of survival as detailed in Model Minority. Innocence and hope are exchanged for a coping mechanism for the hurt. Visually, his transformation is broken into two parts, and each line is disjointed, as if they are seeking to fit in, too.

Fitting into two worlds may seem all but impossible, and Fabunan draws a parallel between herself and mano, which is a commonly used gesture to bid hello to elders by bringing the elder’s hand to one’s forehead. It is rooted in Catholic tradition, as this is the elders’ way of saying, ‘bless you,’ to the individual. Mano is written more subjectively and open to more interpretations. The form of each stanza is repeated, emphasizing this anchoring of tradition. However, Fabunan seeks to get ahead, out of the crowd, and in an act of survival, she folds her Filipino side further into herself and feels small triumphs when this is accomplished.

Is it failure to have returned? Relieving herself of the pressures to withhold half of her self, Fabunan reclaims her place in the country of her birth, to the sea that beckoned. As she acknowledges that her continental home that she never grew accustomed to caused her pain which could only be healed on these islands. In her new home that was once her old home, she is reminded of her previous old home, Queens, New York. Mahal has various meanings; unlike English, there are a variety of words to connote love, whether romantic or platonic, in Tagalog. For example, mahal kita is a ubiquitous phrase associated with the language. She imagines she is similar to her father in this moment. At another point in time, her father is finding the similarities between his new home and old, and here she is doing the same. More than a reflection, this is a journey universally shared: the search for belonging.

This sense of comfort and belonging follows her as she re-explores her new home. Older and more experienced, the walled city looks nothing like [she] remembers and everything else is smaller. But, familiar sights emerge from the strange, and her memories are reinvigorated by her presence in these places. She references the Zambales countryside again, which is located in the Central Luzon area. In Tagalog, abó means ashes and her love erupts as though it were spewing from Mt. Pinatubo, a local volcano.

She navigates this assault of feelings and memories as she processes the amores in all the places she has been. She reaffirms her previously stated sentiment: as if belonging is a place. While having different homelands, whether Luzon, zambales, or Manila, the most important feeling is that of home. And, nothing is as sweet as one’s own bahay.

She continues to relish this return in the poems that follow, layering each with a familiarity to induce a homesickness in any diasporic Filipinx. It is almost lyrical as she waxes poetic of local specialities, like menudo, lechon kawali, and papaya. Childhood seeps back in its pure, tender form with her mother’s kind call for her anak as she plays and bathes in the sunlight of Paite.

As she reconnects with the happier times in her childhood, she finds herself becoming the bridge her father once was; however, sometimes wishes aren’t granted seeking refuge elsewhere, especially when the thought of everything left behind remains so vividly burned in one’s memory. And memory can transcend generations, and Fabunan attempts to recall an indigenous past prior to colonization. The Philippine people also have Malay ethnic connections, and this reclamation of selves once altered is reflected in a pantoum, which is a Malay in origin but has been changed by Western writers. In Western civilization, rhyming and brevity were deemed no longer important; but, Fabunan reimplements it into Threshold, whose content honors the memory of the past and the vicious cycle of forgoing, forgetting, and returning to your country.

This continuously evolving and migrating identity is described as an in-between space in Midway, where she is simultaneously an immigrant in NYC and a foreigner in Manila, neither one belonging. Opposing ideals in each culture, such as stoicism and outspokenness, both exist fully in her person, and she still doesn’t know the difference. She concludes the collection with personal traumas and dedications. OO leaves a bittersweet note, as we are shown that this conflict remains: Fabunan is still finding her footing in understanding her own identity and remaining true to herself and her desires and appeasing her family.

This search for self and belonging is continuous, and it is not without its trials. Fabunan oscillates between different stances and ideals within herself, and it further humanizes her journey. There is a saying: those who are not at the table are on the menu; and, Fabunan ensures that her story will not be for flagrant consumption. She bares herself as she was for scrutiny and empathy. This is how she wields her power: with the telling of her story. Filipinos (and Filipinxs) across the diaspora will having differing experiences; however, there is one statement that will forever ring true: as if belonging could be a place.

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Keana A. Labra - Milpitas, CA Co-Editor of Chopsticks Alley Pinoy

Utilizing her background in English Literature, Keana would like to learn more about Filipino literature and history to bring an understanding and awareness to the culture. As a Filipino American, she is interested in further researching the impact of the feminist movement and how it affects Filipino tradition. She would also like to uplift the Filipino Americans who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community. She hopes to encourage fellow Filipino Americans to participate and immerse themselves in the Filipino culture. Her hobbies include watching anime and reading manga. Follow Keana @KeanaLabra


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