Attended the WWU Bond Children's Lit Conference today. A single day event, but to say it was inspiring would be to understate the experience. Incredibly moving, would come closer to describing the event. I laughed, cried, scribbled notes, saw new things in my writing, remembered old things I wanted to see with my writing.
I remembered being in Hawaii and being asked by a book seller to tell the stories of FilAms, not the folktales and history books for kids, but the fiction stories so obliquitous in other cultures which filled shelf after shelf in bookstores and libraries. I didn't know any FilAm writers then. Didn't even know about Carlos Bulosan or Jessica Hagedorn. I just wanted to write and be read. But then the stories started coming, the possibilities of stories meant to reveal the history of plantation life in Hawaii, farm worker strikes in California, escaped slaves in Louisiana, Alaskeros in Seattle. Too many stories all at once, but at the same time, I wrote my first two picture books, one based on a folktale and the other on a boy coping with his grandfather's stroke.
That same year, I published my first poems and drafted the skeleton of a memoir. I dreamed of the Oprah Book Club, attended three writing conferences, each in different genres, and finished my BA by correspondence. It was about the writing - didn't matter what I was writing, just so I /was/ writing. And I survived one of the worst, one of the best years of my life.
Circling back on Children's Lit is sort of like coming home for me and at the same time walking toward a future I'd set aside to work on other projects. I used to see this as a flaw, the coming around, the never really settling, the always beginning and never finishing. Something shifted today, though, maybe not quite a healing, but definitely a stitching together of lost pieces. The drive to tell stories about surviving grief and betrayal, to give voice to lost/buried history, to find the humor and love that always surrounds us, and celebrate independence and belonging all at the same time.
Aileen Ibardaloza of the FLIPS listserve sent me the link to a collaborative song called Kaya Mong Maging Dakila! (You can be noble). It's a sort of "We are the World" piece featuring several Filipino artists, but the entire song is in Tagalog and I couldn't understand much of it.
Usually, I don't engage well with Tagalog or the other dialects my elder family speaks. I can respond in English usually to simple questions and conversations, but I usually feel a little less, a little outside, and more than a little lost when I'm around the dialects. These were the languages used to punish, hide, shame me as a child, leaving me confused, frustrated, and angry more often than not. I tried once to learn Tagalog, taking classes locally, but I lack my husband's ear, perfect mimicry, and unselfconscious ability to make language work for me. Speaking English can even be difficult as my thoughts run faster than my words.
What was different this time with Kaya Mong Maging Dakila! is that I kept listening, kept watching as the lyrics were held up for me to read. I could finally put what I heard with what I was reading and suddenly concepts were getting through. I didn't get all of the song, couldn't translate it if anyone asked, but it helped me feel connected to something I hadn't yet, something gapped even with all the research and writing I've done this past decade. Still working out the specifics, but in the meantime, here tis:
I think the themes I'm thinking about now are in the song. I can't be sure until I find the translated lyrics. Some of them I can see on the pages held up during the video - bata (children), pilipino (Filipino), kapwa-tao (people in community), isang (one or single), puso (heart), Rizal and Tandang Sora and Bonifacio (historic heroes).
Themes. I guess that's where I start with my writing, themes and character experiences. Sometimes it comes out as fiction, sometimes poetry, sometimes spec fic, sometimes YA, sometimes memoir, sometimes academic writing, sometimes performance storytelling. The /form/ doesn't matter, it's the themes, characters, and sense of place (location and/or time) that matters to me - whatever will serve the thing I'm trying to make meaning out of.
Writer/illustrator Eric Rohmann (Kitten Tale, My Friend Rabbit) talked about how children don't read illustrations left to right or top to bottom, they take in the whole image and then apply their experience to the image to make sense of what they are seeing. He urged us to look 'behold' the images in picture books, to /be/ with the images and see them as a child does, and to understand how our own experiences shape meanings for us.
All four speakers were incredibly funny, talented, and inspiring, but Christopher Paul Curtis (Bud, Not Buddy, Elijah Buxton) touched my heart the deepest. "Follow your heart," he said to me while he signed my books.
He echoed what Maurice Sendak said to writer/illustrator John Rocco (Wolf! Wolf!, Moonpowder) "Don't try to figure out what publishers want, or what readers want, or what Whoopie wants. Draw from your heart."
Maybe I'm finding my way to the same place as Kaya Mong Maging Dakila, the place I never had a name for, but only knew there was a path I had to follow to get there.