ELLA deCASTRO BARON Reviews
Letters to a Young Brown Girl by Barbara Jane Reyes
(BOA Editions, 2020)
Barbara Jane Reyes’ newest poetry collection, Letters to a Young Brown Girl, had me clicking, “Add to Cart” from the title alone. I have long-savored Reyes’ butterfly tongued, expertly-carved prose and poetry through the years. Reyes' [brown] body of work is consistently interrogative, liminal, daring, textured, and wholly satisfying—of mind, body, and spirit. She also gets down, honoring the intrinsic musicality of words like a DJ in a night club, a mixologist of language that warms my insides and zaps me alive.
As the book description says, "she's writing through the depths of her "otherness" to find beauty and even grace amidst her rage." By framing these as letters, it is immediately intimate—a kamayan, handfed, generosity that invites us to do find our own "beauty and grace amidst [our] rage" of being colonized, objectified, minimized and erased.
I especially raised my eyebrows and mouthed an echoing “YESSS!” reading the piece, “Brown Girl Consumed.” As soon as the letter opens with, “This is just to say, motherfuckers love your food!” the last few years of OMG, and SMHreactions at how certain culinary experts edified Filipino food hummed back in my throat. I growled remembering a thought close to, This is redonkulous! as I read the recipe in Bon Apetit. They dared proclaim "...the latest craze is popcorn and Gummi Bears in your halo-halo…” (15)! I felt the familiar contradiction of pride and frustration as the gutsy and beloved omnivores Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain 'elevated' regional dishes by merely traveling to the Philippines.
The letter moves through this ambivalence, time traveling back into childhood memories of being told in every grade, “that you eat dog food, and you didn’t know how to go home and cry to your mom because she was just too busy working—.” This is the "meat" of what turns to stone in our bellies. As Reyes names this pain, it becomes a mutuality and vindication to hear how these “gourmands” will “never know” the “…breaking necks and bleeding, all the flaying and the cutting, in pambahay, tsinelas, gold rings, anting-anting. All this after morning mass, all this before noon” of our family as they still managed to listen to our heartbreak and assure us we are “a good girl” (16).
Throughout this book, themes of being commodified, objectified, consumed and underestimated by the usual suspects are no longer how the declarative sentences end. Reyes waves us past what we've known, what we are always knowing. She bolsters her readers as she leads us into occupying our own fullness, pagbabalikloob. At the same time, as the book models, we can reach out towards deep interconnectedness with other sisters through time and space, pakikipagkapwa. Reyes' keen imagery, metaphors, iconography, multilingualism, and lyricism invite us into this ongoing decolonization and re-indigenization of Filipino-ness in, around, and through American-ness.
Ay sus! I can go on and on! There is so much history, artistry, and wisdom on these pages. I highlighted, smeared my fingerprints onto, and wrote little notes on the pages back to Reyes, to our sisters and daughters, to my younger self. What I didn’t know—but in retrospect am not surprised given Filipino and Filipino American culture—is that I would also dance and sing out of my seat!
The "Brown Girl Mixtape" section is the first time I have read a poetry collection and straight up had a dance party! I recognized several of the musicians and songs as I flipped through the titles. Then I went back (as I used to do in college when sampling CDs from Columbia House's famous 12 compact discs for a penny deal) and loosened my limbs, hips, and lips by playing the songs on our computer, one at a time. I read Reyes' responses during or after each song, sometimes more than once out loud.
As a Filipina American who grew up in the Bay Area during the same years as Reyes, I was right there with my girlfriends, my barkada, singing through our longings along with Mary J. Blige, Pinay and Jocelyn Enriquez (together and apart), and Erykah Badu. Luckily, I had time to look up several artists and I did not recognize. How ecstasy rippled through me as I discovered more than half of the Mixtape are Filipino artists across generations and genres!
One of the most delightful discoveries, thanks to Reyes, is the band Ice Age's, "How to Destroy Angels." Reyes' piece feels like it sings harmony to the song's instrumental plucking and the way it moves in waves. I exhaled when Reyes acknowledged: "We know that to be a brown girl is to call the ocean is call to the self is to know you have to find a way" (33). I remembered, too, admiring South Asian artist M.I.A.'s rap video to "Bad Girls" a decade ago, and how my hope rode shotgun in the cars those brown girls dared to drive in protest to Saudi laws against women driving.
Lately, I've spent work time sheltering-in-place to Ruby Ibarra playlists. How I swell oceans whenever I hear and behold such power in Pinays: "Sure as islands rise from the floor of our fiery ocean/ As bone shattering heat, as hunger hollering fists...". I get up and square myself, too, believing I can be part of "Us," of these babae dropping, "...lyrics in chorus, in curses, in crescendo..." with "not one smidgen of sorry from this body of bodies,/ sure as our elders' tongues sear into and through us..." (48). Reyes has created a dynamic ethno-auto-discography (is that a word? I think so!) What a syncopated, transcendent eruption of hunger and fulfillment!
Mystics sometimes refer to cycles of "order, disorder, and reorder" as part of our existence. It is not linear. Each "state" is happening in some way simultaneously. Imagine this as a sphere, a spherical mandala instead of a straight line or even a flat circle. Barbara Jane Reyes' Letters to a Young Brown Girl is like that. The portals in Reyes’ love letters are non-linear and non-dual. They present antidotes to empire, capitalism, patriarchy, invisibility, and even the ivory tower of writing "poetry" in "proper" English. The timing of this book, in 2020, is also clarified vision we need. It is not confined to a specific, predictive, chronological instant. It is a kairotic moment, a decisive “now” time love letter that sees, serenades, and soars us.
Ella deCastro Baron is a second generation Filipina American born and raised in the California Bay Area. She teaches English and Creative Writing at San Diego City College and Brandman University. Ella’s work appears in different publications, including Anomaly, The Rumpus, Sunshine Noir, and as coeditor of the anthology, Hunger and Thirst. Ella's first book of creative nonfiction is, Itchy, Brown Girl Seeks Employment (City Works Press 2009). She collaborates to produce workshops that aim to reconcile the “whole person” through nourishing acts such as writing, art, movement, food (yes!), and community. Ella hopes to continue being a witness to her ethnic upbringing, whole person storytelling as acts of healing, her interracial family, and how it all may or may not fit together.