Merlinda Bobis is a prominent Australian author originally from the Philippines. With four novels and six poetry books, she launched a new book in Canberra at the celebration of the 75th year of diplomatic relations between the Philippines and Australia.
She tells us about her new book, a collection of stories titled The Kindness of Birds …
“Compared to my other books, this one ‘happened fast’. The intensive writing of these 14 interconnected stories took about two years, although they were gestating since 2017 and the revisions extended the writing duration.
“How did this book happen? When my father was dying in the Philippines, two orioles visited and sang for him. I thought, the kindness of birds. A few days after my cancer surgery in Canberra last year, a white dove roosted on our balcony and a street pigeon joined it, nudging its neck. I thought, dare to care for someone different. Care across differences: much needed in these times of loss, grief, and devastation. So, in this book, I pay homage to kindness across cultures and species.”
As with her other works, Philippine culture is interwoven into her stories: “But what is kindness? The old knowing of our wise grandmothers in the Philippines responded: remember the kinship between the human and the non-human world. So, I wrote their ancient wisdom into stories of resilience and solidarity in multicultural Australia. Kinship among women and the planet grew into a major theme, but without excluding the men we love and who love us.”
To her readers and students, Merlinda’s words have been a source of inner reflection. To the Filipino migrant, her words are a salve to the homesick spirit. Despite being in Australia for 30 years, the Philippines – specifically her home region Bikol – still figures strongly in her stories and poetry.
“I believe writing is shaped by geography. My creative umbilical cord is linked with Mayon volcano in Albay, Bikol. I can trace my literary sensibility to the passions of this active volcano and its capacity to make land fertile. That’s what a storyteller does: fertilising, enriching culture.
“I’m still very Pinoy in heart, soul, and body. So to write about the Philippines is to write from all of me. I don’t plan to write about the Philippines. The Philippines (better still, Bikol) writes itself into almost all of my works. And even if it’s about Australia, the writing is still underpinned by a Pinoy style or more specifically a Bikol sensibility — especially in its element of orality.”
Merlinda’s story of migration has similar threads to most of ours. Many international students would find inspiration in her experience. Already an awarded writer when she came to Australia, she continued to persist with her creative expression here – but not without some challenges.
“I taught English and Literature for 10 years at Colegio de San Juan de Letran, University of Santo Tomas and De La Salle University Manila — and I wrote a lot, mostly poetry, and thrived among women writer friends and mentors. My very first book, Rituals, a chapbook of poems in English, grew from the mentorship of the celebrated poet Ophelia Dimalanta. Those poems won me my first Carlos Palanca Award. Then, one of the country’s best poets in Filipino, Ruth Elynia Mabanglo, inspired me to write in Filipino. So I did, and my Filipino poems won me my next Palanca. They’re in my bilingual poetry book ang lipad ay awit sa apat na hangin / flight is song on four winds.
“I came to Australia in 1991 on a scholarship to do my Doctorate of Creative Arts in Creative Writing at University of Wollongong.
“Migration is a lonely experience. I was terribly homesick, so for a year I couldn’t write my doctoral project: an epic poem that’s a feminist re-visioning of the myth of Mayon volcano, which is about Daragang Magayon, the princess forced to marry a man she doesn’t love to prevent a war. At the wedding that breaks out into a battle, she is accidentally killed and her grave grows into the mountain ‘Mayon’, which is derived from ‘Magayon’ meaning ‘Beautiful.’ But in my epic poem, she takes up arms to fight that war. She becomes a warrior woman. I believe it’s her warriorhood and the fire of the volcano that fuelled my resilience to survive those early years of migration.”
“I taught Creative Writing at University of Wollongong for 21 years. It’s a joy to teach how to tell stories. My students were my kin. I saw myself in each of my students wishing to tell a story and tell it well, dredging their own lives and exploring the world around them for material or ‘inspiration’ (that favourite word), seeing the world anew as they read, grappling with words and even the silences behind words. This teaching experience taught me how to write better. My writing and teaching were best friends. They assisted each other in achieving their best potential. I think, as I became a better teacher, I also became a better writer.”
Merlinda has retired from the University of Wollongong and moved to Canberra where she is an honorary senior lecturer at The Australian National University. But to use her words, “the writer never retires …”
“I’m still writing here in Ngunnawal Country (Canberra) that has been nurturing me and my craft — like how Wollongong (Wadi Wadi Country) nurtured me — and I’m so grateful.”
To the readers of Merlinda, there is so much to look forward to as she continues to write stories about our homeland. This includes the film adaptation of her first novel Banana Heart Summer.
“I wrote the screenplay. I’m revising it now after re-visiting it with my wonderful director who’s also from Bikol, the award-winning filmmaker Alvin B. Yapan. Unfortunately because of COVID, we could not proceed with the shooting in May last year. Anyway, it will happen.”
This is good news for Merlinda’s fans who are cheering her on as she brings our stories to broader Australia.
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