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

Princess Fernandez: Inktober/Fil-Am History Month Mash-up: Days 1-4

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DAY 1: Rise

Dawn Mabalon sits herself at the seemingly impossible Great American Dinner Table. She put us back into the conversation, sa mga salas, the ones we claimed as ours long ago. Without her, there would be no “Bebot: Generation One” music video.

Ruby Ibarra weaves herself a tapestry of hardcore Pinayhood. Circa91 exposes the brutality and beauty of being a diasporic brown woman through language and collaboration. Each echoing “someday” claims our place in the generations to come.

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DAY 2: NO.

Barbara Jane Reyes constantly tinkers at the real-as-day concept of Pinayist poetics. She sharply examines our struggles, value systems, and capabilities as Pinays. Her words supply readers with armor, and we fortify our boundaries.

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DAY 3: Home

Nora is in search of “home”. Lou bravely builds and claims hers. Nora is an orphan living among the dead in the Philippines. Lou can’t imagine living anywhere but San Francisco. What if they met? I’ve always imagined Nora meeting other Fil-Am Middle Grade protags like Lou, or Sab, or Apple, or Virgil, or Alex, or Ming and Sol. They’re growing in numbers. They’re all searching for a safe place to belong even when their circumstances don’t want them too. And in them, is a home for young, brown readers.

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DAY 4: Human [Zoo]

“It’s a performance…” Aimee Suzara writes. Dark kids in cages, humans in cages doing what they’re told and whom they are told to be. Souvenir puts voices back into this forgotten community. It matters who controls the narrative—who’s doing the gazing, the directing, the performing, the curating. It matters when a girl wants to trade her dark skin, dark hair, dark eyes, to sculpt her face and hips and disappear. It matters to know we are enough and not for everyone, that they aren’t worthy of our fullness.

Princess Fernandez is a Pinay writer from San Diego with a B.A. in Creative Writing from the University of California, Riverside. Her poetry has appeared in MOSAIC Art & Literary Journal #55, Ano Ba Zine #3, and Hay(na)ku Anthology 15, with an upcoming publication in The New Generation Fil-Am Community by Dwight Ong. Fernandez also does creative and community work S.T.R.O.N.G. Edutainment (Stories That Root Our Next Generation), a 501c3 non-profit based in Riverside that creates diverse literature and media to inspire young readers to protect the people and the planet.

Maiana Minahal: College Girl

You had to admit that she was cute, with her white baseball cap turned backwards over the black bangs that framed her face, standing at the doorway of the apartment that you shared with your boyfriend. You had a class with her at the university, but her chair had been empty for at least a month now, the chair you sat behind in the lecture room in Dwinelle Hall.

You’d seen “Philippines” embroidered on the back of her jacket, so you struck up a conversation, and she told you she’d moved to California three years ago. You listened to her more intently than you intended, drawn to her brown eyes that shyly evaded yours. Others might have found her accent difficult, but not you, since your parents spoke in the same familiar way. In spite of yourself, your words spilled out, how you’d also immigrated as a child, fifteen years ago, how your family struggled when you first moved. You wanted to ask what her life had been like in the Philippines, growing up as a butch, but she’d already turned around, and the professor was about to start.

You were disappointed the first time you returned and saw her chair empty, and you looked around to see if she was in another seat, but after a couple of weeks, you stopped noticing. So when you heard the knock on the door, you were surprised that it was her. You wondered how she’d found your building on Dwight Avenue, your apartment on the second floor. Did you tell her during class? You didn’t think she remembered you, but somehow she’d tracked you down, and here she was, at your door. Confused, you blurted out, “Hi.” “Hi,” she replied.

“What are you doing here?” you asked, hoping it didn’t sound rude. You cracked the door open just enough to see her, just enough for her to see you. She was wearing blue jeans and a navy blue windbreaker, checkered backpack over one shoulder. Fall in the Bay Area was chilly outside. You felt self-conscious about your baggy shorts and faded T-shirt, but you were doing laundry at home and studying, not expecting any visitors.

“I was in the neighborhood,” she said. “I just need to talk to someone.”

That didn’t make sense. “What do you want to talk about?”

She turned to face the hallway, and you wondered if your neighbors could hear the two of you talking. Those same neighbors who might also be able to hear you and your boyfriend at night.

“I…” she paused. “I need a place to stay,” she finished. “Can I come inside to talk?” She turned her brown eyes back to you, leaning slightly into the doorway.

“My boyfriend’s not home,” you heard yourself say, thinking that was enough. Then you added, “So you can’t come in.” You didn’t know her well enough to ask what happened, if there were other friends she could stay with.

“But,” she responded, “he’s not here. So can’t you let me in? I need to talk to you.” There was a note of pleading.

She was right, he was gone. You hesitated. What was the harm in letting her in? Maybe you were confused by how she found your apartment, maybe you were embarrassed by your clothes. Or maybe, you sensed some risk in opening the door to her. If you led her to the living room, offered her a glass of water. Sitting alone with her on the couch, and what that could lead to.

It was a lot, what she was asking. “I can talk to you here,” you said, not moving.

Suddenly she grunted, and pounded her fist on the wall next to the door in frustration. The quick motion made you flinch, even if she wasn’t that much bigger than you. Unconsciously, you shrank back from the doorway a little.

“But I need to talk to you,” she insisted, looking at you now, “I don’t have a place to stay.”

You wanted to give her a chance. You didn’t know anything about her life, or what had happened during those weeks of her absence from class, but you remembered that you’d connected. You liked her a little. And her finding you seemed like a compliment. But you didn’t open the door any wider. Your boyfriend, he was safe. Safer. Your boyfriend who would come back soon.

“I can’t let you in, if my boyfriend’s not here,” you repeated. You tried to explain. “It’s not just me who lives here.” She was looking at you, standing in the small space of the open doorway. You were just a girl from class who’d been nice to her once. You shared some similar experiences. If there was something else, something more, she wasn’t saying.

“I can talk to you here,” you said again. She looked at you for a long time, with her brown eyes, silent. Then she was looking past you, towards the apartment behind you. She turned back towards the hallway.

“It’s OK,” she said finally. You couldn’t read her eyes. She started to walk down the carpeted hallway.

You stepped forward from the doorway to watch her leave. “Goodbye,” you called out. No answer. Her stride didn’t break, and at the end of the hallway, she turned the knob to pull the door open. You saw her checkered backpack and white baseball cap, as the door swung shut behind her.

Maiana Minahal is a queer femme who was born in Manila and grew up in the Los Angeles area. She lived and worked in the Bay Area for 25 years, and is currently based in Honolulu, where she teaches at Kapi‘olani Community College. She is an interdisciplinary performing artist and the author of the poetry collection Legend Sondayo.