Darlene Soberano reviews Flood Damages by Eunice Andrada
by Eunice Andrada
Reviewed by DARLENE SOBERANO
In her debut poetry collection, Flood Damages, Eunice Andrada never explicitly mentions the words, ‘New South Wales.’ Nor does she name ‘Australia’ in any of the 37 poems.
She opts for restraint, often using the word ‘here’ as a substitute for the name of a place. This can be seen in poems such as ‘autopsy’: ‘I complain about the weather here, / how the cold leaves my knuckles parched’; and in ‘Marcos conducts my allergy test’: ‘Maybe he grew up here and my accent isn’t quite / right yet, so he can’t understand me’. I am reminded of André Aciman’s essay, Parallax. Aciman details his ‘dreaming’ of Europe while living in Egypt and he declares, ‘Part of me didn’t come with me. Part of me isn’t with me, is never with me’. He eventually comes to this conclusion: ‘I am elsewhere’. For Andrada’s speaker, the exact place isn’t as important as the fact that it is elsewhere; that it is not the Philippines.
The most explicit name for ‘Australia’ I find in Flood Damages is in ‘alternate texts on my aunt’s lightening cream’: ‘o oceania your body an apartment block / cracked under the spanish the british the / americans the japanese the americans’. Here, even, Australia is referred to within the context of a group. Restraint as technique in poetry can often lead to a tepid vagueness, the poet invulnerable and hiding in the text. In Andrada’s hands, restraint is transformed into a compelling exploration of absence. By omitting Australia, Andrada leaves space for memories and dreams of the Philippines to fill in.
In ‘(because I am a daughter) of diaspora’, Andrada writes in water images to capture the sensory experience of moving through the Philippines—a country made up of over 7,000 islands. Water, for the poem’s speaker, becomes the sensory experiences through which all associations flow, even if she is not there. The ‘daughter of diaspora’ is ‘by default – / an open sea’, whose mother is shamed in their not-Philippine country; ‘They convince my mother / her voice is a selfish tide, / claiming words that are not meant / for her’. The ‘carcass of ocean’ makes ‘ragdolls’ of the speaker and her mother’s ‘foreign limbs’, an image that is immediately followed by this declaration: ‘In the end / our brown skin / married to seabed’. Here, water is a force that drowns as much as it is a force capable of returning the speaker home.
Most Filipinx immigrants flee the Philippines in search of ‘a better life’. Andrada offers two main explanations in Flood Damages: dictatorship (‘Marcos conducts my allergy test’) and displacement due to climate damage.
In ‘(because I am a daughter) of diaspora’, Andrada’s speaker, having fled the Philippines, looks back and discovers the loss of belonging, which is marked by the loss of language:
‘When I return to the storm
of my islands
with a belly full of first world,
I wrangle the language I grew up with
yet still have to rehearse’.
A ‘man in rags’ stops the speaker and asks her ‘in practiced English’ a question: ‘Where are you going?’ This question makes the speaker want to plead to him, ‘We are the same. / Pareho lnag po tayo’. Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks that ‘mastery of language affords remarkable power’. In ‘(because I am a daughter) of diaspora’, the speaker is sensitive to the absence of language and therefore the absence of power. The difference between ‘the man in rags’ and Andrada’s speaker is so heightened that the speaker is made aware of even ‘the dollars in [her] wallet’—paper money, which is supposedly quiet, yet the speaker can hear them ‘sing another anthem’.
In contrast, Andrada examines communication between mother and daughter in the poem, ‘rearrangement’. In ‘rearrangement’, Andrada peers at the gap between two languages, Tagalog and English, and at two figures who each have different masteries of both of these languages. The mother pronounces ‘too hot’ as ‘too hat’, says ‘open the lights’ instead of ‘turn on the lights’. In contrast, the speaker struggles to say ‘hinihingal’, a word that means, ‘to be gasping’. ‘Hinihingal’ is pronounced in such a way that mimics a gasp; it is almost an onomatopeia. When the speaker ‘disfigures the [word] in [her] mouth’, it is struggle upon struggle; the speaker gasps twice. When the speaker and her mother are in conversation with one another, they constantly ‘mistranslate’ their words and phrases. Mistranslation should expand the gaps between mother and daughter. For Andrada, it is instead a site of wonder: ‘what careful, imperfect truths / we have birthed in this prose of error / and say it again, please’. There is no gap. When they speak, they are ‘saturating one language with another’.
Andrada achieves a similar effect in ‘harbour’. She writes: ‘Pasa sounds like the word / for soaked’. Pasa means bruise; the word it ‘sounds like’ is basa, which can also mean to read, depending on the way it is said. In other words, if there were no difference in the way that soaked and read were conjugated in Tagalog, to read could also mean to make wet. My personal grasp of Tagalog is limited. It is not a language of my present; it is the language of my childhood, with its psychic tendrils touching everything. In my particular linguistic landscape, basa is wetter than soaked; pasa is said quickly, so it is less distressing than bruise. The quickness of pasa also imitates the way in which the bruise might have been formed—object colliding with body. In this way, pasa can almost sound like a verb.
Fanon also wrote in Black Skin, White Masks: ‘To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization’. Language is a tool with which we learn the stories of our lives and our histories before we were possible. The possibility of a voice, saying, This is where we lived. This is where home is. It will always be here. This is how we fell in love. This is why we left each other. This is how we appear human to one another, which is why the forced absence of a home, a site of history, is dehumanising.
The question, ‘Where are you from?’ is a question that many immigrants encounter anywhere—everywhere. A train, a bar, a classroom. In her poem titled, ‘where are you from?’, Andrada answers the question uniquely in two lines:
‘a woman’s ribs / cheating grandfathers /
the confession box / floodwater’.
Here, Andrada writes a complete and complex personal narrative with her first three answers. The tension between them are heightened by virgules. Each virgule reveals the building frustration of the speaker. Andrada ends ‘where are you from?’ with the answer, ‘floodwater’, a resounding word among sentences of the personal. This emphasis works as a reminder that the Philippines is a country that endures severe damage from typhoons year after year. Homes have been drowned, lives have been lost, important family artefacts have dissolved in water. Andrada’s poem, ‘photo album’, then, reads as a firm artefact against erasure—and yet, it is a poem full of physical silence. In it, the speaker imagines many different lives. She imagines her mother’s life in other countries. She is away working as an Overseas Filipino Worker. ‘photo album’ is constructed with sprawling white space, as if silence is Andrada’s true form and language is the failure. Language fails because it is not an alternative to the mother’s presence in the speaker’s life. The speaker’s yearning is so wild that, in her imagination, cities and bodies become equally large: ‘Abu Dhabi, 2009’ and ‘Singapore, 2001’ are captions just as, ‘across ribs, 1998’, ‘on subject’s cheeks (seen above), August’, and ‘pupils, March’ are captions. Similarly, in ‘soft departure’, Andrada constructs a space between every line as such:
‘earlier that day
she mashes chicken liver
into sliced bread
picks us up from school
commits no crimes’.
Viktor Shklovsky once wrote that ‘art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony’—that is, to defamiliarise the reader out of habitualisation, which can ‘[devour] work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war’, and which can, as Shklovsky hints, help to normalise daily oppression. To make the stone stony is to undo the damage of habitualisation. Andrada never writes the word ‘deportation’ in ‘soft departure’. She writes around it, defamiliarises it, refuses to make it another overlooked part of daily life. There is ineffable grief within the many absences in this poem. It is necessary for language to fail, here, so that its failure may leave room for the mother’s return.
Absence in Flood Damages is striking because the book is a physical item. It can be found at a chain bookstore, like Dymocks. It can be found at independent bookstores, like Better Read than Dead, or Hill of Content. It has been shortlisted for the Victorian Premier Literary Award for Poetry in 2019, it won the Anne Elder Award in 2018. Flood Damages is a sizeable presence in the world. It is an artefact that floods cannot destroy. And in it, Andrada tells her many histories—personal, family, country—with lush, specific detail. It is an artefact against forgetting that brown immigrants and their brown families are people. In Flood Damages, that which is human in immigrant families cannot be taken away, despite all efforts to do so. For Andrada, cruelty is decidedly not the point, but its opposite: a tenderness that endures across oceans.
Aciman, André. André Aciman: Parallax. FSG Work in Progress, https://fsgworkinprogress.com/2011/10/13/andre-aciman-parallax/.
Andrada, Eunice. Flood Damages. Giramondo Publishing Company, 2018.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Pluto Press, 1986.
Shklovsky, Victor. Art as Technique. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, 1917.
DARLENE SILVA SOBERANO is a Filipino poet. Their work has appeared in Mascara Literary Review, Australian Poetry, and Cordite Poetry Review. They tweet from @DLRNSLVSBRN