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  • Asela Lee Kemper

Sharing Her Words: An Interview with Keana Aguila Labra

From reading poetry submissions for Marías At Sampaguitas to publishing her own chapbook, Keana Aguila Labra is a force in the literary world. Labra’s passion for poetry led her to connect with writers around the world through an online literary magazine Marías At Sampaguitas, where it highlights BIPOC writers, especially Filipinx writers.

Today, Chopsticks Alley Pinoy sat down with Labra to learn about how she started writing, becoming an editor-in-chief, and the creation of No Saints.

Tell me about yourself! How did you get into writing?

I know this is different for all folks, but I was first a reader before I was a writer. I would devour multiple books in a day, and my trips to Borders with my dad and siblings were frequent. Being an avid reader coupled with being a sensitive, emotional child made me turn to writing as an outlet.

Again, all families are different, but I feel like folks who also come from an immigrant BIPOC family (and also being the eldest daughter) didn’t have the luxury of being a “kid” for long. These kids were given responsibilities, and quickly, to care in ways for their parents, younger siblings, and any other family member in the household (usually grandparents in multigenerational homes).

Being the eldest daughter, I felt like I wasn’t allowed to be myself since my primary function in the family was to serve them. Writing gave me a space to give my wants, thoughts, and desires a voice.

Not only are you part of various literary magazines as an editor, contributor, and reader, you have written and published poems including a micro chapbook titled Natalie. What motivated you to put together and release Natalie?

Natalie is a very personal micro-chapbook. It’s a small compilation of seven short poems dedicated to my friend, Natalie Nguyen. Originally, I didn’t have any intention of releasing or sharing these poems about her. I wrote each piece as a way to help me grieve and mourn losing her. But when I saw Nightingale & Sparrow’s call for micro-chap manuscripts, I thought that maybe others who lost a loved one might be able to heal and feel a sense of connection from reading these poems, so I sent it to them. The rest is history.

As an editor-in-chief of Marías At Sampaguitas, can you tell me about Marías and how it was created? What kind of submissions do you look for in the magazine?

Marías was born December 17, 2018. That was the same year I started submitting my own poetry and essays and applying for reader and columnist positions in the online literary world.

I was greatly inspired by Royal Rose Magazine spearheaded by Avery Campbell and Nightingale & Sparrow by Juliette Sebock. I wanted to be as inclusive and welcoming as these mags. I was inspired by the UC Berkeley magazine, maganda magazine, and wanted my mag to also focus on Pilipino/a/x or Filipinxao voices of the mainland and the diaspora. Marias at Sampaguitas, or girls and flowers, was the first name I thought of, and I stuck with it.

My co-editors and I are all looking for writing to match our slogan, ‘pagsulat sa mga bulaklak,’ which means, ‘when writing on flowers.’ This is on our “Story” tab on our website, and it still rings very true:

Flowers are gentle and fragile, yet convey certain emotions and messages, depending on its species. We want your coded words, your cries for attention. We want the soft and untouched, the broken and crumbling; we want voices to share their pain, so we may heal together. We want tender love stories and wrenching heartbreak; we want to be moved to tears.

Congratulations on publishing No Saints! This collection shares personal stories of your family and identity while incorporating Tagalog, English, and Cebuano into your poems. Can you tell me about the process of working for No Saints? How was this different from Natalie?

Thank you for the congratulations! I grew up around Tagalog culture: hearing it and speaking it. However, before my third visit to the Philippines, I had little-to-no exposure to Cebuano. It also irked me that my father and his siblings had no desire to retain it or pass it down to their children.

This isn’t too hard to believe with how much Tagalog supremacy is pushed onto Pilipino/a/x and Filipinxao folks. Even folks who aren’t ethno-linguistically Tagalog are encouraged to learn it more so than their heritage language (e.g. Ilokano, Bikol, Pangasinense, Cebuano) because it’s the “official” language of the Philippines.

I’m a strong advocate of dismantling Tagalog hegemony. Thinking that there is a unifying Filipino culture erases our diversity. It dismisses the existence of Indigenous People, who are not Filipino. For Aking Mga Pilipino/a/x and Filipinxao Kababayan interested in learning more, IKAT Voices is an excellent resource to learn about and learn how to support Indigenous Peoples.

I did not want to participate in this erasure in my own family. So, I took it upon myself to learn, to maintain Cebuano as a legacy language in honor of my lola and my future children.

Natalie was very emotion-driven. It was “I have all of this grief and pain and loss in me. How can I get it out? How can I memorialize my friend?” No Saints was different in that it was not only introspection, but reflection and analysis of not only my role, but my nay’s and my lola’s role in our family, in their immediate family (the nuclear family they were born into) and how their experiences inadvertently shaped and affected me. You have advocated for Filipinx American literature as well. Why do you think it’s important to support communities and Filipinx representation in literature?

I think communal support is much more important than representation. I like to think that literature is better as a vessel for empathy and activism. Once diaspora Pilipino/a/x and Filipinxao folks “get over'' the need for representation, we can then start the real work and ask the hard questions. How do we participate in colonialism and imperialism as settlers? How do we perpetuate anti-Blackness in our community? How do we uphold white supremacy? Only when we can ask these hard questions can we rally support for our kababayan in the mainland. We cannot romanticize hardship because we deserve a life without it.

What advice do you have for folks who are interested in becoming writers and editors?

Go for it! And, don’t be afraid to ask for help. A lot of the editors I know are so kind and friendly; I know they would help out budding writers who are interested in starting their own mags. The Twitter lit community is also very active, so you’ll be able to connect with so many writers all over the world. To my BIPOC/LGBTQIA+ writers: your stories deserve to be told. If you don’t see ‘space’ for your voice, be the one to make it.

What is next for you?

I didn’t write a lot in 2020 (outside of making edits for Natalie and No Saints), so I hope to keep my eye out for open submissions and send out more poems!

Where can readers find and support you?

My Twitter, Instagram, and Medium handle are @AguilaLabra. You can find my writing portfolio here.

If you’re interested in submitting work to Marias at Sampaguitas, you can find the general submissions page here (issue submissions are closed!)

If you like stories like this, subscribe to Chopsticks Alley.

Asela L. Kemper

Chopsticks Alley Pinoy Co-Editor

Asela holds a BFA in Creative Writing with a minor in Emerging Media & Digital Arts from Southern Oregon University. She holds many positions including poetry reader for Timberline Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Marías at Sampaguitas, Silk Club: QUIET!, Reclamation Mag and No Tender Fences. Asela uses her passion for creative writing to open conversations on diversity and identity in literature, engage and uplift underrepresented Asian American artists. She resides in Oregon, USA with her family.

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