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  • Asela Lee Kemper

Thriving Through Poetry: Maria Bolaños

Updated: Apr 6, 2021

Whether she is finding new books by BIPOC writers or writing incredible poems, Maria Bolaños continues to thrive in her passion for literature. Bolaños spoke with Chopsticks Alley Pinoy about her journey to be a poet, book reviews on Instagram, and representation in literature.

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

I was born in the Philippines and immigrated to the U.S. when I was young. My parents were very active in my education, and I was reading even before I started school. My life has always revolved around writing in some capacity: I attended UC Berkeley and studied English Literature, Media Studies, and Creative Writing; I worked as a newspaper journalist while in college; I also interned at a HarperCollins imprint in San Francisco. Recently, I was a freelance copywriter. Now, I am a poet and book reviewer.

The earliest memory where I can recognize myself as being “into writing” was when I was around six, maybe seven, years old. My uncle had died. At his funeral, as I was watching the casket being lowered into the ground and trying to understand, I started writing a poem in my head. I don’t know why. It’s not like anyone said to me, “Try putting this big feeling into words, it’ll help.” I just felt like I wanted to, so I did. I put the poem to paper as soon as I got home, and gave it to my aunt. I think that day taught me that I can use writing to better understand the world, and share that new understanding with others.

Congratulations on being featured in Marías At Sampaguitas’s Mahal issue! What does being featured in a publication like Marías mean to you as a writer?

Thank you! I’m indebted to the dedicated MaS readers and of course the brilliant Editor-in-Chief, my friend Keana Aguila Labra, for welcoming me to this wonderful group of creators. The poem to be featured is actually the first poem I ever successfully submitted anywhere, because I was fighting to overcome a decade-long mental block to put myself out there. So you could say this poem took ten years to find its way out of me. I could never have imagined myself in the same magazine that has featured writers like Barbara Jane Reyes and Elsa Valmidiano, among so many talented others. I’ll always be thankful to Marías At Sampaguitas for being my first literary home.

You also have been writing book reviews. Can you tell me more about the process? Any challenges you’ve faced?

I prioritize feminist poetry, fiction, and nonfiction works by BIPOC writers on my bookstagram (the book community on Instagram). I don’t use star ratings, or any other type of rating system. While rating has its usefulness, I find it hard to quantify a book’s quality against the qualities of other books. My reviews aren’t so much opinions on the story, but rather analyses through a feminist and decolonized lens. So I won’t often write, “The ending felt too abrupt” or “The characters were unlikeable.” Instead I might say, “When this character decided to do X and Y, it perpetuated capitalist definitions of success.”

The challenges I’ve faced are similar to the challenges I would face in any other field: being at a relative disadvantage in comparison to white people who are in the same space. For example, on bookstagram, people of color who read authors of color tend to get fewer followers and less engagement than white people reading books by white authors. I have to keep everything in a relative perspective, otherwise it could easily lead to burn-out and insecurity.

Filipinx and Filipinx American representation in literature, or specifically in poetry, is difficult to find. Why is it important to get involved in the community and share your story?

Representation is one facet of activism. Groups in power can use misrepresentation in art and media to keep marginalized groups in a state of invisibility and disenfranchisement, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and oppression. If we’re not represented in something as low stakes as a poem, why would we be represented in something as high stakes as a law? We have to insist on our right to be represented in literature, to exist equally in all the small and big ways privileged groups get to exist.

This lack of representation translates into the real world. Filipinx non-profits continue to fight for labor rights. Our healthcare system relies on Filipinx nurses and caregivers, who must bear heavy safety risks on the front lines against Covid-19—so the Filipinx community suffers disproportionately more exposure to the virus. In recent events, the terrorist in Atlanta used his racist and sexist misconceptions of Asian women as his excuse to murder them. Invisibility makes it easier to dehumanize us, which leads to real harm: it leads to police using excessive force to suffocate Angelo Quinto to death; it leads to a man using a box cutter to slash Noel Quintana across the face as he was riding the train on his way to work.

And we’re just human, too—humans who want and need and love to celebrate. Representation is a beautiful form of celebration. It’s a joy to see so many Filipinx artists, of different appearances, ages, orientations, interests, languages, etc. My story is as valid and necessary as the stories of my mga kasama: we uplift and affirm one another through our shared experiences; we add nuance, complexity, and richness to our culture through our differences. There’s power in collective identity, and we’re nobody without our community.

What advice do you have for folkx who are interested in becoming a writer and book reviewer?

If you’re like me, one of your biggest hurdles is Impostor Syndrome, the obsession with legitimacy and being a “real writer.” I let all of that stop me in so many ways that I couldn’t even recognize (see my previous response about the ten-year mental block). I was waiting for others to call me a “writer” before I allowed myself to write, waiting for someone else to give me something that needed to come from myself. Now, every day that I write is a reminder that legitimacy is a construct. Art creation is becoming increasingly decentralized and accessible. Agency is in the hands of the individual more than ever before. Now is the best time to join in, and you don’t need anyone’s permission.

What is next for you?

I’ll be submitting my work to literary magazines for publication, but I’ll also continue to self-publish on my Instagram. I’m impressed with the literary scene thriving on bookstagram, and I’m grateful for my supportive followers who want to be in conversation with me. As interest grows, I look forward to building more Pina/o/xy literary spaces, by expanding my content to other platforms.

Where can readers find and support you?

Please find me on Instagram.

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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