Merlinda Bobbis


Texts that bridge different cultures


Merlinda Bobis is an awarded Filipina writer, performer and academic who has now made a home in Australia. Merlinda shares with us her insights about how the migrant life has enriched her creativity and on the challenges in trying to make the Philippine story heard in Australia.

I read from website that you came to Australia in 1991 on a study grant and completed the Doctorate of Creative Arts at the University of Wollongong, where you are now an academic. What made you decide to stay in Wollongong, and what can you say has been the impact of migration to your creative works?

I stayed in Wollongong, because I was able to get a teaching job (in creative writing) at University of Wollongong and I also met my now ex-husband at University. Migration made my creative works richer, more layered and inventive, and definitely pushing creative boundaries. In the Philippines, I was primarily a poet. Here in Australia, I’ve been moving across genres and “hybridising” my sensibility: from poetry to performance (stage and radio), the short story, and the novel. This creative risk-taking is an exigency and a gift of this fraught yet fulfilling transnationalism, this negotiating of cultural and linguistic borders (I write in English, Pilipino, and Bikol). I consider myself a border lover: the border is the site of my aesthetics and politics. I have to love this border in order to create, in fact, in order to survive. All the time, I have to invent creative strategies for making the Philippine story and sensibility “heard” in Australia, and, likewise, the Australian story “heard” in the Philippines. I now publish in Australia, the Philippines, and the US, and have performed my one-woman plays in these countries, and in Spain, Canada, France, Singapore, and China. My works have been taught at schools and universities in some of these countries. I have collaborated with other artists: dramatists, composers, filmmakers. All of these would have never happened had I not left my first home, and taken the risk of “settling” my craft away from it.

You were also quite active in the Philippines before you came to Australia in 1991; I would presume your creative career was already promising at that time. Did this create any sort of internal struggle in terms of wanting to go back and contribute to the cultural scene in the Philippines as against staying in Wollongong and trying to reach a more global audience?

I was just beginning to get established in the Philippine poetry scene and had had a few national awards when I came to Australia to do my Doctorate of Creative Arts. I was certain I was going back after my study, and I was terribly homesick during the first two years of being away. But as I said in my previous response, there were developments that made me stay and, now, my works are able to reach a global audience. Nevertheless, I have not stopped contributing to the Philippine cultural scene. My works are mostly still about the Philippines, and are being read and taught there. I go home regularly, because my immediate family is still based there (I’m the only one who has migrated to Australia). I continue to actively participate in the Philippine cultural scene, including the community arts in my region Bikol. In fact, I am currently collaborating with Bikolanos on a river conservation arts project, and this 20-22 March 2014, my latest novel “Fish-Hair Woman” has been performed as a play in Manila, adapted into a musical by Harlequin, De La Salle University’s theatre guild. One never really “leaves” one’s first home. For me, writing is, in fact, a homecoming. I write about this in my guest post in the Australian Women Writers Challenge blog:

You have 10 published works listed on your website. However you are not just a writer and academic, but a performer as well. Do you still get to perform despite your busy schedule?

Yes, I have continued to perform my one-woman plays internationally. In the 90s, I was performing my epic poem “Kantadang Babaing Mandirigma / Cantata of the Warrior Woman Daragang Magayon” at various venues in Australia, Philippines, France, China. In the 2000s, this performance was re-invented as opera then as audio-visual installation. Since 2009, I have been performing “River, River”, my one-woman stage play adaptation of my novel “Fish-Hair Woman.” Last year, I did the show in Vancouver and Singapore. I’m soon to perform it in Cleveland this April 2014. Embodying my own text is paramount for me: I want my audience (especially in the West) to physically experience my first home. I always perform in two languages (English and Bikol/Pilipino). I always have a full-on schedule, because I’m also an academic: I teach, and write and present scholarly papers. But I have arranged my life so I only do face-to-face teaching in the first half of the year; in the second half, I research, write, perform, and travel to facilitate these creative occupations. Unfortunately, I have little time for socialising and the usual “having fun.” My life (and the writer’s life) is mostly solitary, and this agrees with my nature.

Which one would you say has been the most challenging—and on the other scale, has been the most joyful—to produce among your works?

“Fish-Hair Woman,” the transnational novel (and its play adaptation, “River, River”), has been the most difficult to create. It took me 17 years (from its initial ‘spark’ in 1994) to research and write this novel about the militarisation of my home region Bikol, especially my grandmother’s village—and in the course of writing, half of the novel became a story about Australia.This work began as a short story (in my “White Turtle” collection), then a radio play produced by ABC, then a one-woman stage play in progress; in 2012, it was finally published as the novel. And it’s not even over yet: I’m still performing the play version. Why has this been the most difficult journey? I can answer this through my response to one of the queries raised in the included “Conversation” (among myself and two other Filipino writers) in the Philippine edition of “Fish-Hair Woman”:

Estrella, a character in Fish Hair Woman, writes stories for her English class. Fish Hair Woman, authored by Merlinda Bobbis, was staged as musicale by De La Salle University's Harlequinn Theater Guild. (Photo by Beryl Lao)
Estrella, a character in Fish Hair Woman, writes stories for her English class. Fish Hair Woman, authored by Merlinda Bobbis, was staged as musicale by De La Salle University’s Harlequinn Theater Guild. (Photo by Beryl Lao)

“When the novel was finally published, I thought, if this were my child, she’d be 17: more knowing, yet not quite grown up. Like my imaginary that is still growing up, conjuring stories while interrogating what are conjured. So what energy sustained ‘this growing’ in writing the novel? Obsession and survival. My body was consumed by the Fish-Hair Woman, her hair. I created her, but she took charge of my body and sensibility. Then while researching the Total War, I ‘found’ the bodies of the violated and the dead. I shuttled between insomnia and nightmares. In the 90s I was quite sick and in a state of despair. What made me face the day was the job: to write this novel. Napakahirap mangibangbayan. I’ve never worked so hard, so obsessively in my whole life, until I came to Australia. To write is to survive. Survival is also about the survival of story. It has been a struggle for me, and for many migrants, to publish in Australia. I live and write here now, and each book is often a series of rejections before it gets published. The early versions of FHW were rejected multiple times. I had to keep rewriting, strategising, so the story could survive.”

Now the most joyful? I would not rank joy; suffice it to say that there is always joy in the creative process, even if it is the creation of something so dark or heartbreaking. Joy comes in different ways when you’re researching, thinking, writing, revising: when you remember a lemon tree wrapped in fireflies in the Philippines, or the taste and smell of grandmother’s traditional fish-sauce; when you discover a moment of connection between your Filipino and Australian character as they take you by the hand and lead you to an insight about friendship, love, or shared grief; or when your sentences come together; or when you discover a fresh turn of phrase as you rummage through the three languages in your head. Joy happens in all these, and it is precious.

I’m sure a lot of your fans would like to know: Is it hard to be recognised as an Asian writer here in Australia?

Yes, it is.Each new creative work struggles to be published, to be heard. I get rejections all the time, until now. While my works are in the Philippine canon, in Australia, they (and Asian-Australian writing, except for a few accepted by the mainstream industry) are still in the margins of Australian literature. I have been lamenting this for years. But nowadays, I approach this reality with more equanimity and resoluteness: Merlinda, keep yourself focused on what’s most important. And what is this? To tell the story, to make it heard in such a way that it makes a difference to the lives of even a few. Life is short. Do your job in the best way possible, from the big vision to the crafting of each sentence: this is what you can manage. The job of reading/experiencing your work is the job (and, realistically, the prerogative) of the audience. Finally, trust that a story well told (in whatever genre, language, or style) will eventually find its own audience.

Some of our readers are young writers who are second generation migrants from the Philippines. Do you have any words of advice for them?

The same advice as the previous one, if they wish to write. Plus: remember how rich you are culturally, having the Philippines as part of your life; so make it truly a part of your life; never leave it behind. This other culture/place that you’ve “lived through” through your parents is inherently rich, layered, and hybrid (with multiple languages and indigenous cultures, and the cultures brought by Spanish, American, and Japanese colonisation, and the amazing ‘halo-halo’ of all these). I came to Australia when I was 31, so I have lived Philippine culture since birth. But each time I go home, I am still surprised by my new discoveries about it, new stories and new ways of telling stories. And this “newness” is made even newer, more problematically but delightfully strange because I’m experiencing it as “an outsider”, someone who has lived in Australia for more than 20 years. Yes, it is difficult, this border negotiation between different cultures. But for the writer and creative/cultural producer, this “collision-collaboration” at the border is immense grist for the mill.

On a lighter note, can you describe to us a day in the life of Merlinda Bobis.

At the moment, I’m on study leave from university, so I’m not teaching. Teaching time is a different schedule, but this present time has its own pace. I wake up at 7:00 or 8:00 am, have breakfast and strong coffee, work a bit for 2 hours (researching/writing creative or scholarly works, reading relevant material for these occupations, or preparing for a performance, or answering these interview questions, or checking emails), go for a brisk walk, then ablutions, lunch, and work again until 6pm, prepare and eat dinner through the news and ABC 7:30 report, watch good TV (like ABC Q & A or an SBS foreign film) if any for a break, then work again until about 10 pm, and if there’s a good film on TV (very good break while learning new ways about how to tell a story) or pressing work, continue either of this, then evening ablutions, and to bed at 12 or 1 am. Most of my time is work time. I’m pretty obsessive with it: whether it’s mapping out a research paper or a new novel, or rigorously revising sentences. If I’m too busy with work, I just eat out. Once in a while, I go out for a meal with a friend or my partner (when he’s here) who lives in Canberra.

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