Jen Soriano: Melissa Sipin’s “What Comes from Silence”

I have a special place in my heart for Pina/xys who are fierce in their tenderness. This is what Melissa Sipin’s writing represents to me. How strong do you have to be to tear your heart out then stake it to your sleeve? Pretty damn strong; that’s a lot of flesh and bone to tear through just to bare the source of your pulse.

What Comes from Silence” is an essay that tears through silence to expose the tenderness of what Sipin calls saudade. Saudade: “a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing,” a “deep emptiness that does not want to be spilled.” “What Comes from Silence” is an ambivalent ode to saudade, a testament to both the suffering and the gifts that come from grief.

Sipin shows the reader the source of her saudade through her fragmented memories as an unmothered child. She writes of scant photos of her as a baby, snapshots of her mother holding her with anxiety and a crinkled nose that suggests disgust. Of the scant visits after her mother leaves. Of the condoms thrown at Sipin and her sister when they are only eight and ten years old.

Enmeshed in Sipin’s longing for motherly love is the young adult trauma of being molested by her uncle. In contrast to the story of her mother’s abandonment, this memory does not come in fragments, rather we’re confronted with it in the opening line of the essay: “I sit in the backseat, across from the uncle who molested me at nineteen.”

This opening is a clear signal to the reader of what’s to come in the rest of the essay—an exercise in, as Sipin writes, using her voice “like a machine gun, like bullets” like a weapon against silence that has been forced into flesh.

Sipin describes silence as “something given almost at birth to Filipina women, ingrained within our bodies like the womb.” Silence about her mother’s past. Silence about her uncle’s abuse. Silence reinforced by words that only form walls of denial: “I don’t understand why he would do that, anak. I don’t I don’t I don’t.”

Sipin uses repetition like this throughout the essay to mimic the walls of denial that reinforce silence, and also to mimic the repetition of traumatic flashbacks. Her craft also recreates the uncertainty of traumatic memory, and the pace of desperation to find islands of love and safety within the drowning effects of PTSD.

This is an example of what Bhanu Kapil calls somatic writing—writing from the body and of the body, writing that constitutes a body with the strength, and the vulnerability, to break silence.

Sipin writes of her body transforming from the dismembered Aswang of Philippine lore to a re-assembled whole of fallen child and adult who is still here. This is a body that not only can break silence with the machine gun of her mouth, but that can also communicate without words.

This is the irony of the gift that comes from silence—a heightened understanding that can break cycles of trauma through intuition, through no words at all. Lucky for us, Sipin has the words to show us how this feels, and to remind us that the longing for love is an emotion so tender and so strong that it demands to be either finally extinguished or ultimately fulfilled.   

Jen Soriano’s writing blurs the boundaries between nonfiction and poetry. Her essays have appeared in Waxwing, Pleiades, TAYO Literary Magazine and other journals, and her lyric essay “A Brief History of her Pain” was nominated for a 2018 Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Jen holds an MFA from Rainier Writing Workshop and wants to eat whatever you are eating right now. Connect with her on instagram @jensorianowrites