Holding a Flower Out in Front of You: A Conversation with M. Evalina Galang

By Dmitra Gideon


M. Evelina Galang is the author of Lolas' House, a work of nonfiction documenting the stories of sixteen Filipina women who were kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during WWII.  Her other works include the short story collection Her Wild American Self, and novels One Tribe and Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery. She is also a co-editor of the anthology Screaming Monkeys: critiques of Asian American Images. She is the recipient of the 2004 Association of Writers & Writing Programs Prize for the Novel, the 2007 Global Filipino Literary Award, the 2004 Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Awards Advancing Human Rights, and a 2002 Senior Research Fellowship from Fulbright. Galang directs the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Miami and is core faculty and board member of Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation.


Galang spoke with The Fourth River during her participation in Chatham University's fall 2018 event, Dialogues: Writing from the Global South.


The Fourth River: In Lolas' House, the landscape plays an integral role as a keeper of the Lolas' stories. This is particularly striking when you take the Lolas to their abduction sites. I'm thinking especially of Lola Cristita Alcober. When you take her to Tacloban, you note that she is “not the same Lola Cristita as in Manila.” Then, as she tells her story, and as you move through the spaces her story inhabited, her body and her words begin to become a part of the landscape.  Why was it important for you to revisit the sites of the Lolas' abductions? 


M. Evelina Galang: I was given the opportunity through my Fulbright grant to take some of the women back to their abduction sites. The women who are participating in Lolas' House in Manila are from all over the Philippines, so when they had the opportunity to go back home, they wanted to go home just to go home. But they were also bound and determined to give their testimony. I don't know if they always knew exactly what to expect once they got there; they just knew they were going home.


For me, the importance was to inhabit that landscape as a witness. It was important for me to go and stand in the space where their homes once stood as a way to say, “Yes. This happened. Yes, I have the evidence firsthand.” That's what the whole book is about. And, for me, firsthand means to stand in the spaces where their houses once stood, or to stand in the civic center where they were all held, and  to be able to look out at the landscape to see what they might have seen. It was such an interesting thing to walk with Lola Cristita down the path that they would have taken on their way from San Jose to her home. The house wasn't standing. There was a thing that looked like a house, but it was burned, and she said, “My house used to be there.” That was a way of gathering evidence.


TFR: In that scene, you write, “The story was in the trees, in the grasses, integrated in the sands on the beaches, but never spoken out loud.” How do you think violence and trauma, particularly during wartime, alters our relationship with nature, or alters nature itself?


MEG: I go back to Lola Carmencita, who was in Bulacan. She was held in that mansion surrounded by a beautiful landscape. I feel like the land bears witness to what happens in trauma, but also not in trauma – in the way we go back and forth on the street. There is a way that the land bears witness. For the Lolas, being back in that space automatically triggered all kinds of reliving. It's not triggering memories; it's reliving. It's like a re-enactment, especially in those spaces.


Space is really important. I remember when I was doing some of my research early on; I talked to a psychologist who had done some work with the women. Different Lolas responded differently post-war. Lola Narcisa was one of the ones who did really well, and her story was pretty horrific. The psychologist said that there are certain things you can do to heal, one of which is to take the person out of that space. When Lola Narcisa meets her husband over by her house, she's not herself yet, and her sister's not herself yet. He takes care of them because his own sister had the same experience. He nurtures them back to health. When he falls in love with her, he does many kind things for her. He takes her away from Abra and brings her to Manila, and they begin their life anew. So there's that, but at the same time, she wanted to go back. So, I think it was really important to visit those places when we could. It was interesting to see how different women responded once we were there. They weren't all the same.


TFR: When you said that the land bears witness when we walk back and forth on the street, I thought, “Yeah, every time you step on the ground, it changes a little.”


MEG: It does change a little. In pre-Colonial, pre-Spanish times, there was a strong feeling throughout [the Philippines] that the earth is inhabited by spirits, and even now you don't enter a space without asking permission from the spirits of the land. You are respectful because the ancestors are there; they are the earth. You don't take it for granted.


TFR: The way violence is held in the Lolas' bodies and, later, in your body, seems central to the reader's understanding of the long-term effects of trauma, the consequences of silence, and the power and burden of witnessing. It seems like the Lolas' stories have to enter your body so that they can move through your hand and onto the page. How much do you think writing or telling these stories helps to relieve that physical burden?


MEG: It's absolutely everything. They offer these stories, and the words and the stories enter you when you hear them, and you hold them there. I worked with several students throughout the time of this project, several young women, and I always told them, “You have to take care of yourself. You have to be cognizant and take care of yourself at every juncture.”


While I was working, a friend of mine in Miami said, “When you are listening to these stories and transcribing, you should imagine that you are holding out a flower in front of you, and that the stories pass through the filter of the petals so that you don't take them on.” You're not actually experiencing what they're experiencing; they're filtered. And you in your body understand that they are filtered. They are painful, and you can feel that pain, but it is not your pain. There's always that understanding that this is not you. That was a really helpful thing, and it's also why the book is structured the way it is structured – with constant moments for reflection, or taking a break, or maybe meditation – a little distance away from the stories, a breath. You need to be able to have those filters. Otherwise, it can be a negative thing. I can sit down for an entire weekend and write fiction and never get up. I will forget to eat, forget to shower, and just be in that world continuously with all kinds of energy. But, when I was writing this book, I would write for an hour and then feel fatigued. My eyelids would get heavy and I would have to stop. And that's why it took so long for the book to happen, because I had to take these breaks, I had to listen to my body.


You can even see it in the way I was interviewing. The second time around I was trying to keep my distance. After the last one, I had a fever and I was throwing up. It was like I was expelling and expelling, and I think the writing was the final expulsion. Writing the story, writing trauma, releasing the narrative, vocally or on the page – in a poem, in a song, in a dance – becomes a way of healing.


TFR: Vocalizing trauma is a release, but it also requires you to re-live it, and once you've told your story, there can still be shame I think. I'm wondering if any of the Lolas ever wanted to take it back or felt regretful that they'd spoken.


MEG: I can't speak for them, but I know them pretty well. Each of them thought carefully before they came forward. And once they committed to coming forward they were going to fight to the end, and they did. All the women except for Lola Narcisa have now passed away, and their children and their grandchildren have now taken up the fight for justice. I would say, knowing them and having spent so much time with them, that they are not regretful. In fact, they are defiant. I remember Rechie Madura, their coordinator, said the Lolas went from being victims (that's how I met them, as victims) to survivors. Through the years of working on this campaign for justice, they went from being survivors to heroines – these superheroes, these models for feminism. They're  in the crowd, holding up placards, and they are not backing down. To this day, they are not backing down. They are somewhere in the other world, and they are not backing down.


At some point they actually became people who were saying to volunteers, who were also survivors, “This is not your fault. What happened to you is not your fault. You should not be ashamed. You should be strong. You deserve justice.” I witnessed them saying these things to young survivors, and they believe it with all their heart. It's just how it is. So, knowing what I know, I can't speak for them, but I can safely, almost positively, say that there's not a single one who regrets it. What they regret is that they weren't alive to see justice.


TFR: I mentioned that your physical experience as a witness is part of the book, and one question I've heard from others is why you chose to put yourself and your experiences in the book.


MEG: I didn't want to put myself in at all. But you couldn't have sixteen trauma stories in a row. That just re-traumatizes everybody. Also, it diminishes the singularity of the experience for each woman, because each woman's experience was different. So, the structure of the book was another thing that kept me from getting the book out faster. A friend of mine, a writer, said, “You need to be in this book more, because you are the witness, you are the narrator who is actually there in our stead.”


As these things are happening to the Lolas, and as they are giving their testimonies, and as I am sitting in the room reacting, the question becomes: “How is somebody going to imbibe these stories one after the other?”  So you have this person, this guide, this narrator, who will stop action and say, “Okay time to take a breath.” And I was trying to figure out how to do that. During that Fulbright year in the Philippines, I had learned from the last time that I had to take care of myself. So I would go to church, I would go to meditation centers, and I would see my family. Those were the moments when I re-calibrated, so that I could enter the stories again. When I remembered that, I realized, “That's the way you structure the book.”


I was hesitant at first, but I was told, “You need to do it more, you need to do it more, because people need the breath, and they need to know the context of the stories and how they were given.” That's why I did it that way.


TFR: Judy Grahn was telling us that she uses lines as anchors when writing about something difficult, and in this case you are the anchor. And you're also the vessel through which the reader can enter the stories.


MEG: Right.


TFR: In your role of vessel, you discuss the difficulty of translating the Lolas' stories, especially because they tend to slip into local dialects when they describe their most painful and horrific experiences. Language becomes almost another character in the story. You talk about having to use a lot of non-verbal language to comprehend the full weight of what they're saying, and about the need to couch their words in context, because straight translation does not convey enough. Do you think the language barrier allowed you to experience each other on a more visceral level? What might have changed, for instance, had the Lolas been native English speakers?


MEG: It would have been done sooner (laughs). I could have told the story simply for the Filipino people, in the Philippines. If I had been a fluent Tag-a-Log speaker writing in Tag-a-Log, or if had written completely in English (because English is the mode of education in the Philippines, so everyone speaks English there), that would have been one thing. In hindsight, I think the purpose of the book is to speak to non-Filipinos as well as Filipinos. My discoveries, as a Filipina American, of language and translating, and translating culture (because it's not just translating words; it's really translating culture) were an important aspect of the book. People outside of the Filipino community could understand and discover the stories in a very heartfelt way, a very visceral way. I think it has created a situation where you don't have to be of Filipino descent – you don't even have to be a woman – to get it. Because the act of the narrator in Lolas' House is to discover, and to make some of those cultural faux pas, or to miss a translation.


It's not in the book, but there was this moment when I was using a translator, a Filipino speaker. I asked a question of a Lola, he translated it, the Lola answered it, and I understood what everyone was saying. When he translated it back to me, I said, “That's not what she said. Ask the question again. Ask it this way.” I changed the question around, he asked the question of the Lola, the Lola answered the question, and he turned around and looked at me and was like, “Oh.” So I got it in a way that he didn't get it. That was when I realized I didn't need a translator. It's like subtitles for a movie. I'm watching and hearing in a different language, and I'm reading these subtitles, thinking, “That's not what they said.”

TFR: Another use of the body in both One Tribe and Lolas' House is in dramatic reenactments of history. In Lolas' House, you and the Lolas perform their histories in very visceral, violent role plays. In One Tribe, Isabel teaches Filipino history through creative dramatics. In these scenes, the lines between present and memory – or history – disappear. The characters' bodies become other bodies, or even sometimes the ocean or sky. Why do you choose to tell these stories this way?


MEG: Because it seemed right (laughs). The backstory for One Tribe is that I was a drama teacher at one point. I worked with children. I loved it. When we did these creative dramas, they owned the story. Children are so fresh; their imaginations have no limits. They become the story – they are the bird. They take liberties that we, as adults who have shoulds and should-nots in our heads, won't allow [ourselves] to do. I liked that whole practice. And then the question was: what if that practice were married to teaching Filipino American history? And it's Filipino American history month right now, by the way, so it's very appropriate that you asked me that question.


In that novel, the question is really: who is Filipino? Are you Filipino enough? Are you part of our tribe? I think the answer to that is: everyone who is of Filipino descent has their own way of being Filipino, whatever that is, and that is always Filipino enough. But sometimes the community has certain expectations of how you're supposed to be. Not just the Filipino community, obviously, but that's what I focused on in the book. [The main character] Isabel is really trying to figure out who her tribe is, and how to be in a tribe. The way she does it, and the way the Lolas express themselves in the dramas we do with them, releases the story and honors the experience.


It's a horrible thing that happened to [the Lolas], but it also happened to them. When they re-enact these stories, they are owning those stories, telling them from their perspective, which is a highly different version from the story the Japanese government tells. So I think it's a way of owning your story and telling it, just like those little kids.


There's that moment with Lola Prescila, when she becomes the Japanese soldier. It was so weird for me to see that transformation. I had no idea! There was a kind of release, and it was also a way to empathize. A way for her to actually be in the role of the soldier. For me to be in her role, and to imagine what that might have been like. When your body is on the ground and there is somebody on top of you like that, there's no imagining; it's happening. Even if it's play-acting, it's happening.


TFR: It's so powerful. And I love that you said, “owning your story,” because I have issues with the word “survivor.” I want it to become something like “author” or “owner.” It's your story now, and you can do whatever you want with it. You can turn it into a different story, you can tell it exactly as you remember it...


MEG: You can get revenge. The best thing about fiction is that you can write the same thing that happened to you, and then you can have a different outcome.


TFR: You can go in and rescue yourself!


MEG: Yeah.


TFR: So, you brought up empathy and taking on the role of the Japanese soldier, and I can't remember which Lola said, “We need these stories so the Japanese can heal...”


MEG: Lola Cristita.


TFR: ...Right. And I'm wondering if you ever considered looking at the other side?


MEG: Certain men in my life have suggested that. It's interesting. They're men I respect. But, you know, we've been hearing from men for a long time. They have occupied a lot of space on the page. And in the government. And in the world. And if they want to tell their story, they can tell their story, but my focus is on the women. There is another side to the story, I'm sure. But do I empathize with them? No.


I know a while back there was a soldier who came forward and apologized personally, and I'm sure he's not the only one. One would hope that, as we age, we kind of see who we were and who we are and who we can be, and we understand our humanity a little better. So I would hope that others could rise up to that. But as far as where my energies go as a writer and as an activist, I would say that I'm with women, I'm here to tell their stories. There are only so many hours in the day, and I want to spend them telling their stories, and the stories of other Filipina Americans, other women, other Americans. I have whole slew of nieces who are coming up, and I want them to be powerful young women. Their stories matter. Those are the ones I want to spend time with.


TFR: In One Tribe, Isabel wonders “why so many people related fixing a problem to dwelling on the past.” Those of us who write about collective trauma, racism, sexism, etc... often come up against this issue. Many people have difficulty understanding that past injustices and silences build upon each other to construct the current state of affairs, that the present cannot be understood without understanding the past, that in fact the past is alive and present for people who have been violated and dehumanized. You speak to this also in Screaming Monkeys, stating that we cannot move forward if we “ignore the need to scream.” Past silences must be redressed by speaking the truth not once, but repeatedly. Why do you think some people have difficulty understanding this, and how can we as writers help them to do so?


MEG: I think that has to do with people who come from a place of privilege, of not ever needing to empathize or see another perspective. It's not their fault – lucky them –  but they've never had the opportunity to experience the things that happen to people who don't have money, that happen to women, that happen to people of color. Did I just describe the white male? I might have (laughs). It's not their fault, but they have this way of acting in the world, and it's the only way they know. There's this lack of empathy, and this lack of understanding that the past creates the future, the present operates because of the past, and to change the things in the future, you have to understand the past.


This seems to most of us to be a natural way of thinking, but it's not. When your life experience has been one where you can just walk into a room where other people are standing in line, and right away it's, “Yes sir. What can I do for you sir?” (I've witnessed that); when you have not been the only woman at the table in a meeting, expressing what you think the next thing should be, or what the next choice should be, and it gets completely ignored until a man says the same exact thing; when you have not been in the place of the person who's being erased or unheard, it's hard to imagine that anyone would have a hard time in life. It's hard to imagine the things we are going through (see, this is me being empathetic).


So, how to address that, how to bring them over? I say, write really good fiction. Write really good poems. Make really good films. I say, give the microphone to a woman. Give the microphone to a person of color. Give the microphone to the Lolas. Let people start to tell their own stories, really good stories, or give them spaces in which to tell those stories, and then you catch them when they're not thinking. You catch them in their most human moments. You catch them in the act of watching a story unfold and getting interested in the characters and the choices the characters are making. You fool them into caring about characters and wanting the right things to happen for the right reasons.


Sometimes we have misconceptions and misinterpretations and, when we're caught in the spotlight, we would be the last people in the world to admit that we were wrong. But, when we are listening to a story, or watching a movie, it takes the onus off of us as observers. We might walk away from a movie, or a conversation, or whatever, and something someone said stays with us. We think about it, and then  come back and say, “Yeah, you know, back in the day when I was in high school and I pinned you down like that, that was bad.”


Art is such an integral part of how we become, how we change, and how we understand who we are. It's not the STEM whatever; it's art. It's when we can see people as people, and that happens in a good story. So my answer to that question would be to write. The trick is, you have to get them into theaters, you have to get the book in the hand, and that doesn't always happen. But, you know, the tide is changing. The votes matter. In the U.S., the population is changing. That's why there's so much fear. That's why there's so much resistance. That's why the white men are acting out these days, right? They're afraid. And with good reason, because they're not going to be in power much longer. And good.


Yeah, actually when you were saying, “This is how you make them understand,” I thought, “Well, or we don't care that you don't understand and now we're in control.”


Yeah, there is that. There's a lot of that in the way I operate on a day to day basis. Not everyone cares, and you can see it in our court system and on television every day.  Like, Christine Ford is our superstar. She's standing in for all of us. She's standing up and doing a very elegant and dignified thing in telling her story. She's not telling it because she wants to get anything back. That is abundantly clear. She's doing it so that we make the right choices, because the past matters. If this man can act in such a way back then, and then respond to it the way he is now, now you have the information to make a choice. You don't need an FBI investigation to figure that out, right? So we're seeing it every day. I think we're seeing that they don't care.


What I'm trying to say is that – and maybe it's because I'm getting older, I'm in a good place, and I now have earned privilege of my own – I don't give a flying f––  sometimes. You can get me or you can not get me. You can understand me or you can not understand me. But here are the people I'm working with; here are the people who are getting my attention. They know what's going on. Those small interactions that I have with young women, and especially young women of color, that's the thing that matters. When I see them out in the world, doing their thing, that's what matters.

Dmitra Gideon lives in Pittsburgh, PA, where she is actively involved in sex workers' rights and environmental justice advocacy. She is an MFA candidate in Chatham University's Creative Writing Program and a 2019-2020 Pittsburgh Schweitzer Fellow. She also has a dog.