It Means “Poem” in Tagalog: Viet Thanh Nguyen Interviews Chris Santiago

CHRIS SANTIAGO is the author of Tula, winner of the 2016 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry, selected by A. Van Jordan. The book was published in December 2016 by Milkweed Editions.


VIET THANH NGUYEN: Your book opens with an exploration of the word tula, and its meanings in several different languages. Why “Tula,” and what does this word mean for you and the collection?

CHRIS SANTIAGO: Tula means poem in Tagalog. I didn’t know that when I started writing these poems; in fact I still don’t know much Tagalog at all. Even the most basic parts of the grammar are difficult for me to grasp. While English verbs are inflected with suffixes, or endings, Tagalog verbs are inflected with infixes, or with sounds inserted into the middle of words. Kain, for example, is the dictionary form of the verb to eat. When it gets conjugated, it takes forms like kinain or kumakain. One of these means eating and the other means ate, but I’m not sure which is which!

I actually had to look up the Tagalog word for poem online; later I double-checked with my mom and dad (you can never be too careful with the internet). At first, it became the title of the long poem that anchors the collection. After many, many drafts, I decided to break that long poem up into parts, and scatter those parts across the whole manuscript, with each individual poem called tula. The idea came from both Oliver de la Paz and David St. John. It becomes, I hope, a rondo or a refrain, but understated: each part of the long poem is basically called poem. It also becomes an aporia, since the title comes from a word that is not fully learned, but that describes it with a kind of accuracy. The fact that tula could mean so many different things in so many different languages — in Sanskrit, for example, tula is the name of the constellation Libra, the sign under which our first son was born — reinforces this, and that’s why I started the book with those “definitions.”

On a completely different level, Gina Apostol pointed out to me that it’s pretty cool — almost like getting away with breaking the rules — to have a book with a Filipino title!

What does Tagalog mean for you, since you don’t speak the language?

Even though Tagalog is still in a way so foreign to me, it is also familiar. My parents didn’t teach me the language — partly because my mother’s first language was Ilonggo, a different dialect altogether — but it was always spoken around and near me. When I hear my aunties or cousins speak Tagalog at funerals or weddings, or if I overhear strangers speaking it when I’m traveling through an unfamiliar city, there’s a recognition, like hearing a favorite song covered by a different band. It’s as familiar to me as a nursery rhyme, especially the pitch and rhythm of it, the language’s unique music. But in Tagalog, I can hardly count to 10.

Are there other Filipino-American poets who you are reading, or who are important to you and your work?

Absolutely. I think most of us think of Carlos Bulosan and Jessica Hagedorn first and foremost as writers of prose, but they are both poets as well; it shows in all of their writing. Bulosan’s empathy, and his commitment to his community — he wrote that “a writer is also a citizen; and as a citizen he must safeguard his civil rights and liberties” — are foundational. I love Hagedorn’s ear for the cacophony that is both the United States and the Philippines.

I’ve gotten so much support and inspiration from Oliver, Joseph Legaspi, Sarah Gambito, Barbara Jane Reyes, Aimee Nezhukumatathil. And I am absolutely in awe of two recent collections: Patrick Rosal’s Brooklyn Antediluvian and Rick Barot’s Chord. Rosal’s book reminds me of the energy and integrity that can be packed into each line. Each line is overflowing with chops and knuckles and swagger, and then his endings — they remind me of classical Indian music, how there’s this complex counterpoint of rhythm and imagery that somehow comes together on the final beat. Barot, on the other hand, is more of a soft-spoken wizard: you’re not sure how he’s devastated you, but he has, and somehow it’s both discursive, kind of like Levis going off on a glorious tangent, while also being intensely gorgeous and lyrical.

What kind of research did you do, both in terms of your family history, and the history of the Philippines? Did this research lead to some of the poems? I’m thinking particularly about the poems seem to address the Marcos regime and the Martial Law era.

In 2000, I started traveling back to Manila, to interview family members, and to find out more about our family history. The research intensified in 2013, though, when I got a grant to go and dig in the archives, such as the National Library of the Philippines and the American Historical Collection at Ateneo de Manila University. My uncle, Fluellen Ortigas, took me to the Bantayog ng mga Bayani Memorial, which commemorates the men and women who risked their lives resisting the Marcos Dictatorship. It’s a huge, dark stone wall, a bit like the Vietnam Memorial, and two of my uncles are on it. One was Virgil Ortigas, my mother’s youngest brother, who was a guerrilla and an organizer, and who was shot while resisting arrest by the secret police. The other uncle on there, Gaston Ortigas, was a business professor at the Asian Institute of Management and a Ford Foundation Fellow, and fled the country and continued his opposition from the United States.

The mother seems to plays an important part in the collection as well, especially with how she connects the speaker to his history.

Many of the stories in the book come from my mother, who died in 2015. You recently wrote an op-ed for The New York Times in which you exhorted writers and artists to be better storytellers in order to offer a different vision of the United States than the one promoted by Donald Trump, and I couldn’t agree with you more. My mother was a great storyteller. Even when I was a kid, she would tell me about my uncles and the part they played in resisting the Marcos dictatorship. Her middle brother, my uncle Fluellen, was an aide to Benigno Aquino, the senator who opposed and was assassinated by the Marcoses. When he was a student, Uncle Flu won a speech contest and was invited to the capital to speak. He used the occasion to ream the president. He had — and still has! — some serious stones. He spent a large part of the Martial Law era as a political prisoner, and much of that in solitary confinement. I met the literary critic E. San Juan Jr., once at Oberlin, and told him that I was related to Flu. San Juan Jr., who is a pretty orthodox Marxist, shook his head and said, “I know him. He’s very radical. Very radical.” I found that extremely gratifying!

She used to tell me stories from further back too, about the Japanese Occupation, and before that the uprising against the Spanish. One piece she never talked about, but which I learned about from mentors like Jeff Cabusao at Oberlin, was the Philippine-American War. Whenever I bring this up, most people say, “What Philippine-American War?”

I’ve been thinking a lot about these uncles, and the courage they had — I never wanted to live through the kind of era they lived through, and I certainly never wanted my own children to live through that kind of era, but all of us who write and teach and make art will need to be braver, for at least the next four years.

Many of your poems seem to speak across time, or even speak to the dead. How do ghosts figure into these poems?

You talk about this in your book of essays, Nothing Ever Dies. The chapter or essay titled “On Victims and Voices,” especially, helped me think about all this, after the fact: I guess my family has always felt haunted, because of these people who were larger than life in my mother’s stories, but who I never had the chance to meet. On one hand, I felt a certain responsibility — that I wanted these stories to be preserved, or told forward; on the other hand, that responsibility bites both ways, and that’s where your chapter really helped me. Most of the Asian-American literature that I teach is preoccupied with this concern, too; there are forgotten or misremembered histories that we feel compelled to tell, and retell. These letters to the Los Angeles Times that sought to justify Japanese Internment are a perfect example: that was a horrible episode in our country’s history, and because so few people know about it, opportunists are trying to rewrite it in order to justify the illegal registration of American citizens who happen to be Muslims.

But we can also be trapped and pigeonholed as these authors who write primarily autobiographical stories. And we can also Orientalize and exploit ourselves, our cultures, our backgrounds. It’s hard to negotiate all of these, but I think you are a wonderful example of how to do this ethically and eloquently.


Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer is a New York Times best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His short story collection, The Refugees, is just out from Grove Press.