I met you at the Continuum Convention last June 2017 thanks to my friend Sian, who loves reading sci-fi and fantasy genre fiction and who knew the organisers. When I saw the large prints of your artwork framed and displayed across a wall of the convention floor, I was blown away. Your creativity rejuvenated my devotion to my craft.
I marvelled at the array of framed artworks: the brilliant colours, the fluid, flowing lines and shapes that reminded me of water, of another time and place, of things I might have known and seen in another lifetime.
I was particularly smitten with Arise and Blossom. Mesmerised, I was pulled in to look at the face of the woman you had painted. She was a woman of colour with closed multi-coloured eyelids. To me, she was a volcano queen, quietly simmering, biding her time while sending out waves of calm.
You see, a week before the convention, I had changed my hair colour from blue—which I’d had for five years—to red, reflecting my mood; the simmering slow burn I was feeling within. In 2017, the world seemed to turn upside down. I was trying to cope, finding air to breathe amidst the chaos, the changes happening around me, the relationships beginning to crack from stress, threatening to split me apart. I was finding my space in the dystopian world we live in.
I gasped as you stepped on stage as the guest of honour in your glorious baro’t saya, made of intricate embroidery on what looked like the rarest fabric—was it jusi or piña? Whatever it was, you wore it with pride and grace and I was spellbound.
“She’s…from the Philippines,” I whispered in awe. Then I remembered your pen name ‘Likhain’. I tried to recall my Tagalog. What did ‘Likhain’ mean? Was it “creation” or “created by nature”? I wasn’t sure of the exact translation, or even if there was a way to completely express the word in English.
You clearly still held ties with our birth country.
I am the complete opposite.
I’ve severed all ties with traditional, religious, superstitious, misogynistic, bigoted, patriarchal, and judgmental kababayans. Since their lives were still all about the Philippines, which meant they held ableist beliefs, I chose to keep my children away from them. Their furtive glances either pitied or demeaned us because not only were we renters, but we have a disabled child. We didn’t follow the ‘migrant creed’ (Chan, 2017). To fellow migrant Filipinos, we were walking proof of bad karma and punishment from the heavens.
Instead, in our new country, I searched for and forged new friendships. And would you believe that those who accepted me—my broken self, and my imperfect family—were white Australians, with whom we have co-existed and live in the same neighbourhoods in the inner western suburbs of Melbourne?
Steering clear from anything Filipino, I thrived in the local arts community instead. There were only a handful of us from our birth country, highly educated and talented. As literary writers and artists, we bucked the expectations of our families back in our birth country, “the bourgeois conventions of financial success” (Danticat, 2011).
When I followed you on social media, you followed me back.
When you spoke about our birth country, you brought back memories buried and long forgotten.
You made me realise that not only was the Philippines colonised two hundred years earlier than Australia, it was colonised and occupied by three different countries: Spain, the United States, and Japan.
For someone who was born and raised in Manila, the erasure of our pre-colonial past was utterly, devastatingly complete. My birth name is based on an American crooner’s song, my maiden surname is of Portuguese descent, and my partner’s surname is Spanish. And yet, in Manila, I was considered too dark, too pang-masa for my elitist, bourgeois mother-in-law whose colonial ancestry ran thick in their family’s proud lineage.
Meanwhile in Australia, I was often mistaken for Vietnamese or Chinese.
In your speech, you said:
I knew very little about my country’s history before the colonizers came. The Philippines was colonized by Spain for three centuries, and during that time the Spanish sought to scour all traces of pre-existing culture from my country. They did a thorough job of it; not much survived, and of what was left most people know very little.
So my history only glanced briefly at what came before the Spanish colonial period. What came before was murky and dark. I have encountered something like that here; the untruth, embedded in so many structures, of terra nullius, where nothing existed before settlers came to birth Australia from this land’s unwilling womb. It’s a prevalent story, and one that’s easy to sell; we started with nothing, we brought civilization here and built this country from the ground up. Look at this arrow of progress.
Because I knew little I grew up with the subconscious belief — and I say subconscious because if you had asked me I would have denied it, for all that it clung to my spine — that my ancestors were primitive savages who knew nothing of literature, or music, or art. That our conquerors had elevated us to a civilized state in exchange for our land, our freedom, and our blood.
It was the month of June, the middle of the year, the darkest days with long, cold nights. Winter in Melbourne felt heavier in a post-truth Trump era. 2017 had begun bleakly, more foreboding than ever. This energy rippled across the world, most especially for people of colour living in colonialised countries; migrant Australians were no exception.
My creative energy sagged, almost waning. My blue hair mirrored how I felt—drab and equally blue. And no matter how I tried to “bike my blues away” that month, nothing seemed to work. I even tried something radical. After five years of having blue hair, I changed the colour to red, reflecting my inner turmoil.
Did it matter if I finally found my writing voice? Did it matter that I was published online and in Australian literary magazines? Did my advocacy on social media with all the hashtags on disability, mental health, writers of colour, representation matter? I was frustrated, and I needed to do something, anything to push and sustain the energy.
Even in art class, I felt lost. I had an in-progress oil painting on a 32-by-36-inch canvas, which I had been working on for over a year. While everyone else was painting landscapes, still life, or portraits, I was the only one in my art class who was working on fantasy genre fanart. I was also the only person of colour who had been consistently attending art class for the last five years. A few would attend a term or two but would stop eventually.
Embarrassed that I under-estimated the time frame for my first ever commissioned artwork, I kept apologising to my friend Sian and her partner. The painting had been for their tenth wedding anniversary. They were now approaching their twelfth anniversary and the painting was not even halfway done.
I saw your tweets. You mourned the violent killings in our birth country, sharing news articles that made people cringe in horror at the brutal, bloody images. It felt like the Marcos dictatorship all over again. People were being killed in the streets, in stark daylight, in front of their friends and families. People were disappearing in the night, their bodies never to be found.
This reminded me of Draw Your Weapons by Sarah Sentilles (2017) in which she wrote, “How to live in the face of so much suffering? How to respond to violence that feels as if it can’t be stopped? What difference can one person make in this beautiful, imperfect, and imperilled world?”
Then, one day, you simply disappeared. You stopped tweeting and soon, you completely deleted your Twitter account. Sian told me something had happened.
Were you silenced by the patriarchal, dictatorial, controlling, and misogynistic country of our birth? Did you receive death threats for tweeting about the Philippines?
To my relief, you were not completely gone. While you stopped tweeting your outrage, you continued to create artwork and posted it on another social media platform.
Dear Likhain, please continue creating. Don’t let anyone silence you. More so now. As award-winning author Edwidge Danticat, who grew up during Haiti’s dictatorship before emigrating to the USA, wrote in her book, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work: “To create dangerously is creating a revolt against silence.” We must keep “creating fearlessly, like living fearlessly, even when a great tempest is upon you. Creating fearlessly even when cast across the seas. Creating fearlessly for people who see / watch / read fearlessly.”
Gabriel Chan. ‘Race and the Golden Age’. Meanjin Quarterly, Summer 2017, Vol 76, Issue 4, p 175.
Edwidge Danticat. Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, (2011).
Likhain. ‘Arise and Blossom’ https://likhain.net/2017/02/arise-and-blossom-a-2016-art-sampler/ (4 February 2017).
Likhain. ‘Continuum 13 Guest of Honor Speech – text’ https://likhain.net/2017/06/continuum-13-guest-of-honor-speech-text/ (11 June 2017).
Sarah Sentilles. Draw Your Weapons, (2017).