EXCHANGE WITH EILEEN R. TABIOS ON DOVELION: A FAIRY TALE FOR OUR TIMES (AC Books, 2021)

By Leny Mendoza Strobel

Leny Mendoza Strobel: Your novel DOVELION: A Fairy Tale for Our Times (AC Books, 2021) (https://www.spdbooks.org/Products/9781939901194/dovelion-a-fairy-tale-for-our-times.aspx ) is expansive—art, poetry, history, shadow material, colonial adventures, love, ideologies. How did you decide on what kind of character would best embody these vast themes?

Eileen R. Tabios: In a way, I didn’t decide; the novel itself did—I approached the novel as I do a poem and so, as with the poem, the work wrote itself. The novel’s initial impetus came from two artificial constraints: (1) a person—Elena, the primary protagonist—keeps visiting a stranger at the stranger’s apartment, and (2) every time Elena does so, she begins a new section that starts with a “Once upon a time…”. Constraints don’t often constrain, but instead end up becoming freeing. We see that effect through the tradition of constraint-based writing, though I think its effect can occur non-literarily as well (e.g. some of the erotic encounters in the novel). So I began by exploring how long I could write with these constraints. And then the novel itself took over with forays into all the areas you mention, with no prior intent on my part for most of the themes the novel ended up addressing. As such, it’s a “poet’s novel” (or my type of poet’s novel) in that it’s written like a poem where trust is placed in language and the writing process itself to determine how the novel will unfold. My role as author was to educate myself as much as possible about the diversity of the world before putting the first word on the page. Then, as I write a poem or, in this case, the novel DOVELION, stuff I’d learned previously will bubble to the surface with no conscious intent to write about them. If I’d done my job well, I would have learned enough to be a great root source for good writing.

For example, long before I began drafting this version of DOVELION, I was exposed years ago to indigenous Filipino culture through the first conference sponsored by the Center for Babaylan Studies (CfBS) which you founded. I certainly did not know during CfBS’s first conference in 2010 that what I learned then about Filipino indigenous culture and decolonialism would come to inform a novel I’d release in 2021.

Having said that, there’s an element of discovering what I wanted to write *after* I’d read what I’d written. That is, among all the matters I’d previously learned, what grabbed me deeply enough—what was deeply interesting—such that they’d make their way into what I was writing. This means I write what I want to read ahead of identifying it.

Strobel: How long has this story been incubating in your consciousness before you decided to write it? When you say the novel wrote itself, I’m reminded of the way some novelists say they wait for the characters to reveal themselves thru the process of writing.

Tabios: I agree about characters revealing themselves fully through the writing—there really is no shortcut to the writing itself. To the extent I had some intention, my original outline expected the novel to end at its second part; it was through the writing that Part 3 occurred. But I realize with hindsight that this novel was incubating as early as when I was a college student majoring in political science at Barnard College—so over three decades ago! During my college senior year, I wrote a paper on the Philippines—specifically the conflict of interest between the economic elite also being the political elite. It’s a conflict of interest because one wants to preserve or increase one’s own economic riches and yet a responsible politician would want to implement policies that enriches the wider population. As they say—and has been proven over and over—Power corrupts. This is seen in how the novel’s dictatorship is a dynastic regime, spanning three generations before it can become overthrown.

The country in DOVELION is not Philippines but the fictional Pacifica. But Pacifica is presented in the novel as having been the same territory as what was occupied by the Philippines during indigenous times; as time unfolded, a portion of the shared land split and Pacifica separated geographically from the Philippines to become its own island-nation. So there’s overlap between the two countries’ cultures as they used to be one.

Strobel: The language of the novel is sparse…and this actually makes it accessible but also deeply engaging because the reader is at the same time trying to fill in the blanks with details.  As a poet you’ve always said that reader engagement completes the poem.  Were you thinking of this when you were writing the novel?

Tabios: In poetry, I’ve always been interested (as you observe) in the spaces that allow for the presence of the reader or the one interacting with the work. So poetry certainly has affected all of my writing. But—and this just for me, not necessarily other writers—I hold a clear delineation in my mind about the difference between poem and prose. That difference has to do with didacticism—when to wield the actual telling of an issue or a story versus a more subtle approach. Not to say this can’t occur in a poem but as someone who writes both fiction/prose and poems, I tend to opt for the former when I must directly communicate something—and it’s difficult for me not to be direct when I raise issues of abuse, power, and suffering.

Strobel: The repetitiveness in your writing is an interesting strategy. Since there is a mythic and indigenous subtext to the story, were you aware that orality (repetition as mnemonic device) might be at play as you wrote the novel? 

Tabios: I’m so glad you said that! Though I’m aware of orality, that had not been a conscious strategy for me. I was using repetition more as grounding—as continually bringing the reader back to a time of “Now”, which is one of the tenets of what I call “Kapwa-time” in the novel—the collapse of past, present, and future into a “singular now.” That said, I’m glad you raise the matter of orality’s mythic and indigenous subtext because it’s another example of the subconscious (and dreams) coming to the fore, which in turn is relevant as regards how our deep background or roots can simmer and ultimately boil to reach out to one who is receptive to their influence and knowledge.

Strobel: Why did it take so long for Elena Theeland to discover her indigenous identity? What difference would it have made, I wonder, if this discovery happened sooner? 

Tabios: Well, then the story might not have been so interesting! But, I think it had to take time. Coming-of-age can take time. And life, with all of its complexities, also require time to reveal its significances—especially the coming to terms with one’s parents and childhood. Especially, let me repeat myself, coming to terms with early years—we form our gods in our childhood, as the novelist John Burnham Schwartz once said. In real life, I always think I didn’t come to terms with my mother and childhood until at least the age 45.

But it’s that passage of time that, technically, then allowed the novel to develop several themes and characters. Certainly, when the character Elena then discovers her identity in her 80s—okay, maybe that’s too much time (hah!)—the result is all the more sweet.

Strobel: The involvement of the CIA made me furious. How would you respond to a reader who wants to know how to deal with the anger that rises from these historical events in your novel.

Tabios: That’s an excellent question. I’d say educate yourself about history and then actively contribute so that certain negative elements of history don’t repeat themselves. It’s my hope that DOVELION—and my earlier short story collection PAGPAG: The Dictator’s Aftermath in the Diaspora (Paloma Press, 2020)—encourage certain readers to learn more about Philippine history, including the Marcos Martial Law era and the ongoing political corruption, so that they can respond more effectively to the political and economic travails that’s making so many Filipinos suffer. I am appalled at something I read somewhere about many younger Filipinos not knowing much about the Martial Law regime. Today, a clear evidence of the damage corruption effects can be seen in how the Philippines’ Covid vaccination rate lags neighboring countries.

Nonetheless, the story of political corruption affects many other countries, not just the Philippines. As well, the effects of U.S. policies worldwide need to be addressed if not redressed—it’s something I’m exploring more with my second-novel Collateral Damage whose title refers in part to illegitimate children created by CIA spies as they engage in sexual liaisons around the world. The matter, of course, is not just about the thoughtlessly-birthed children but development policies thwarted for the sake of promoting the U.S.’s political positions. The more that this topic is in dialogue—whether through fiction or otherwise—the more it’s in the forefront and, from there, hopefully have an impact for effecting non-fictional change.

Strobel: A reader who has no knowledge whatsoever about American colonialism in the Philippines (and of martial law and dictatorship) can still find their entry into the novel through poetry and art. How do you want the novel to disrupt the dominant narratives about empire and authoritarianism? Or how do you envision it doing so?

Tabios: Poetry and art often reflects their time. So whether one is a poet/artist or an audience member, the poetry/art can provide doorways into engaging with the larger world. One should always be learning—never stop being a student of the world. You may not even recognize what’s a “dominant narrative” if you’ve not educated yourself.

As for the novel’s effect in this area, well it’s disruptive in so many ways. I can think of it subverting the narratives for gender roles, eros, history (as defined solely by “winners,” as the saying goes), and U.S. foreign policy, among others. But the example I’ll give is an incident from the novel relating to characters looking at and discussing some paintings. Here’s the relevant excerpt from the novel:

The paintings presented pale monochromatic tones of scarlet, orange, and yellow—vivid colors whose vigor was diluted into wash-like approximations. But each canvas also presented the same color as vibrant, thin edges. When one looked into the center of a painting, one’s eyes were easily drawn from the timid stillness to the edges where color joyously dazzled. I overheard two women discussing the works as they stood in front of the painting next to the one I was perusing.
     “You see how the artist privileges the margins?” one said enthusiastically.
     “Yes! I love that! It can be a metaphor for so many things!”
     “Like questioning privilege…”
     “Like questioning the arrogance of vanity…”
     “Like questioning standards by which people judge…”
     “Yes, that! Questioning how certain things or people become anointed as important as if subjectivity is not a factor…”

So here we have the idea of looking at paintings but not “normatively” looking at the center of canvas, not at what’s framed. Instead, we look at the edges of paintings. There’s something in the POC zeitgeist, too: while I’ve long considered the significance of operating in the “margins,” poet-artist Jean Vengua recently made some paintings for me that had very wide edges as she’d wanted to paint on those edges, too, in addition to the center, front areas of the canvases. There are alternate worlds in the margins or in spaces that don’t get the most attention but, quite often, as much—sometimes more—honesty and truth await there.

The notion of dominant narratives arises, too, in how history is written. As has been written in U.S. history textbooks, the Philippine-American War has been called a “rebellion” by U.S. historians. As you know, that war was not a rebellion but a battle against U.S. invasion of an independent country (the Philippines was then independent as it had just successfully overthrown Spanish rule). So Filipinos were battling an invasion by the U.S., not rebelling against a legitimate U.S. rule. I hope a novel like DOVELION makes affected readers cautious of false narratives, and encourages more questioning rather than unthinking acceptance of various matters.

Strobel: One of your characters uses the “they” pronoun. What considerations did you make in creating this character as a “they”?

Tabios: The transgender character arose when I switched the character Ernst from being a white male to a mixed-race trans. I made the switch because Elena is half-Pacifican and I wanted to avoid the reductive profile of white male savior/Asian female relationship (as we saw in “Miss Saigon”). Nonetheless, this switch is one reason I deliberately looked for a sensitivity reader to help me edit the novel as I certainly would not consider myself an expert on trans culture or concerns—I wanted not to be disrespectful by creating a paper-character or non-dimensional person with Ernst.

That said, and speaking of how my indigenous roots surfaced to claim me, it ended up being organic that Ernst’s character allowed me to reference Lakapati, the transgender Tagalog god of fertility and architecture. For me, invoking Lakapati deepened both Ernst’s character as well as widened the novel’s expanse.

Strobel: It feels like there could be a sequel to this novel. Have you thought of it?

Tabios: A good, prescient call on your part! I’m developing a series related to illegitimate children of CIA spies, of which Elena also was one in that her true mother had not been acknowledged. My second and in-progress novel is in this vein. It’s too soon to know how indigeneity will arise, but it will—for now, the novel is situated primarily in Colombia. At the time, I didn’t know I was doing research, but spending time in Colombia for family reasons will be useful in developing the second novel. And such would be in line with my task as a poet/writer: to educate myself—as education for education’s sake—about as many things as possible in our world for creating a root source for references that later might surface in my writings.

Strobel: I think this novel reveals your mythic imagination. Can you talk about this a bit more?

Tabios: I didn’t actually know I had a “mythic imagination” until after I wrote DOVELION. The mythological aspect arises overtly in Part 3 of this three-part novel and I can honestly say I wasn’t anticipating the novel would continue on past and beyond its Part 2. But given how much effort and time—two decades!—was required to accomplish DOVELION, I certainly don’t mind that the result is a new myth. I’ve joked that “DoveLion,” the indigenous name of the island that became modern-day Pacifica, is akin to Wakanda, home to Marvel’s superhero Black Panther.

Still, as regards mythic imagination, I think I’ll pass on articulating more about it as I suspect this element will surface in ways I still don’t know and can anticipate. I can only just keep educating myself on anything and everything so that I am a receptive vessel to its gifts.

Strobel: And always a good last question for an interview—is there anything else you would like to share about your first novel DOVELION?

Tabios: Well, since Dichtung Yammer is mostly a poetry-related journal, its readers may be interested in learning that the novel’s indigenous Pacifican tribe, the Itonguk, considers mandatory poem-writing to be one of its criteria for citizenship, and that the tribe has its own poetry form called “flooid.” The flooid is inspired by the tanka form and is activist reportage poetry—i.e. the Itonguk citizen must conduct a “good deed” before writing a flooid poem about the issues related to the good deed. For example, as regards ecopoetry, the Itonguk cannot simply write about the environment; the Itonguk first must do something on behalf of the environment in order to earn the right to write about it. I love inventing poetry forms (such as the “hay(na)ku”) and this novel introduces my newest invention, the flooid.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a former colonial subject now fluent mostly in a colonizer’s language, I want to move beyond inheritance, especially inherited language. Ultimately, that desire is what makes me a poet because poetry, among other things, is also a radical forum for creativity.

*****

Eileen R. Tabios has released over 60 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in 11 countries and cyberspace. She recently released her first novel DoveLion: A Fairy Tale for Our Times (AC Books, New York, 2021). Her 2020 books include a short story collection, PAGPAG: The Dictator’s Aftermath in the Diaspora; a poetry collection, The In(ter)vention of the Hay(na)ku: Selected Tercets 1996-2019; andher third bilingual edition (English/Thai), INCULPATORY EVIDENCE: Covid-19 Poems. Her award-winning body of work includes invention of the hay(na)ku, a 21st century diasporic poetic form, and the MDR Poetry Generator that can create poems totaling theoretical infinity, as well as a first poetry book, Beyond Life Sentences, which received the Philippines’ National Book Award for Poetry. Translated into 11 languages, she also has edited, co-edited or conceptualized 15 anthologies of poetry, fiction and essays. Her writing and editing works have received recognition through awards, grants and residencies. More information is at http://eileenrtabios.com

Leny M. Strobel is Kapampangan (Philippines) and a settler on Pomo and Coast Miwok Lands/Sonoma County, CA.  She is Professor Emeritus of American Multicultural Studies at Sonoma State University. She is a Founding Elder of the Center for Babaylan Studies. She is the author of Coming Full Circle: The Process of Decolonization Among Post-1965 Filipino Americans which has been widely used as a textbook in Ethnic Studies and Postcolonial Studies. She is the editor of Babaylan: Philippines and the Call of the Indigenous and (with S. Lily Mendoza) Back from the Crocodile’s Belly: Philippine Indigenous Studies and the Struggle for Indigenous Memory. Her other publications, podcasts, webinars can be found at her website: https://www.lenystrobel.com/

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