Retellin’ Oceania & Sensing the Self in the Other

Retellin' Oceania

This past Friday, I listened to storytelling and poem readings from Pasifika* and First Nations peoples at Heyday Books in Berkeley. It made me remember that passing on stories through oration and singing at gatherings is so important and needs to become more prominent in the way we relate to one another. It also made me realize how much of it is lacking in my present reality. Listening to these stories from our perspectives – perspectives from the margin and not from Western-centric  versions in history books – is humbling and enlightening.

We heard stories of life, of death, of forgiveness, of family and lineage, of travel and journey, and of loss – from people, to land, to language.  With each reading, we were transported into a space where the past and present intersected. The voices and lives of the ancestors washed over us in a warm embrace. Afterwards, we continued talking and sharing stories in a more casual way. We sang, we danced, we drank some kava and ate some food.

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When I was saying my goodbyes at the end of the night, I thanked the owner of Heyday, Malcolm Margolin, for hosting this event. We got to talking about his friend, Darryl Babe Wilson of the Achumawi and Atusgewi tribes (northeastern California), who recently passed away. I expressed my condolences, but I could tell he still thought the world was a slight shade darker without Darryl’s presence.  Sensing his mourning and grief, I related to him by saying I never really appreciated hearing “he’s in a better place now,”  when my father passed away. It seemed either a cop-out or an implication that his living moments were full of suffering only. Either way, I used to think it was lame.

Malcolm Margolin of Heyday Books

Malcolm Margolin of Heyday Books

I quickly added that I truly believe our loved ones go to better places, now that I’m older: “He’s among the ancestors, and they were there on the other side to give him a warm welcome,” I said.  Malcolm made some noncommittal noises and shook his head, his Gandalf-like mustache and beard shuffling from side to side. The extremely long pause that followed was both confusing and uncomfortable. He frowned and curled his hand underneath his chin in thought, clicking his teeth. He sighed and scoffed and pulled on his ears in discomfort. Then he furrowed his brow, shook his head again, and said through closed eyes, “I don’t think there is another side. I don’t think there’s anything left for us after death.” He smiled apologetically, knowing that after the night of readings, our beliefs are in contradiction to one another’s.

The Morning The Sun Went Down - Darryl Babe Wilson

The Morning The Sun Went Down – Darryl Babe Wilson

It was my turn to take a pause. I blinked a few times and told him, “Well maybe so. We all believe what we do. If there is nothing for us after we pass on, I think there are ways our spirit continues its journey. Our ancestors are invoked so long as our stories are told.” It was a no-brainer really, but Malcolm finally cracked a smile from behind his glasses and beard. Waving his finger at me in agreement, chuckling slightly, he pushed himself off the bench and walked away. I started to wonder about his off-kilter mannerisms, but before giving it another thought, he returned saying, “let me give you Darryl’s book,” and shoved a copy of The Morning the Sun Went Down into my hands with a smile. I was touched by this gesture. I’m glad I could remind him that we live on past our years through the stories our upcoming generations can tell. He certainly found Darryl’s story important enough to live and pass to me.

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Backtrack a couple hours and here’s where I’m coming from.

The reading delivered by scholar and activist, Fuifuilupe Niumeitolu, opened my eyes. She told of a story that depicted a dispute that occurred between Samoans and Tongans at a gathering, and her father was made to speak on the matter. Instead of giving authority to any one family group, her father recited the genealogies of the clans that brought them together in unity, across the moana and from different islands. During her reading, she iterated that the ancestors her father mentioned were beyond any of their memories’ reach, yet they were familiar and present because they were repeated so often in stories.

There was another performer and young scholar, Makaiwa Tong, who shared two songs from Hawai’i. Before she sang, she emphasized that stories also live inside songs, and perhaps the greatest thing about their power is that it must come from memory. Nobody walks around with printed songbooks at these gatherings – they are known by heart. It’s simple – if you sing, you know it. If you don’t know it, you don’t sing. During her two songs, she sat amongst us in the crowd and faced the front of the room so as not to “sing at” or “perform for,” but rather “share with.” The mana pouring from her voice was so strong; you could sense the ancestors emanating from her breath as she sang, traveling into our ears and hearts – the voices of the ancestors.

As I sat there, happy to be present and honoring the brothers and sisters in the room and their histories, I felt a little vulnerable without my kapwa.* In this case, I was truly sensing the self in the other. I was saddened that thus far, I haven’t been able to enjoy an epic telling of genealogies uniting Filipino peoples. I don’t know any songs by heart. While I feel in touch with my roots, I realized there is so much more work for me – us – to do. So much to find.

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I left that night with a few things to reflect on. Knowing one’s own ancestry and passing on that knowledge is something that hasn’t always been available to me. I know a lot about my immediate family, and a substantial amount of the preceding generations…but beyond that, I can’t recall much. When I go to our Filipino community events, sometimes I feel as though the narratives aren’t mine. Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m a part of the story, because from an archipelago with 7100-some-odd islands and 170-ish languages, our clans weren’t really united (and then what about the diaspora?). There may be stories out there, but I haven’t been acquainted with any yet. It’s got me questioning: am I this family, or am I that family? Am I allowed in? Can I write myself into this narrative? This history? Who’s ancestors am I invoking if I’m singing along to a chant from a tribe I don’t belong to?

I know I can run my mouth on decolonization and indigeneity like a blabbering fool and can debate about cultural appropriation or diasporic/first world transnational communities re-colonizing or re-appropriating till I’m blue in the face. But this night of story telling has really got me thinking on ways I’ve felt both included and excluded even within Filipino communities. For a while I got lost and fortunately our Pasifik cousins helped steer my canoe back in the right direction, until I finally found some fellow kapwatids. While I have a better grasp on cultural displacement, I now have a new filter to observe it from. This story telling session taught me how I can get closer to my ancestors, yet also keep me at a distance. It also reinforced my belief that oration and storytelling are efficient ways of learning, teaching and socializing one into a community.

My head might remain spinning for another few days, but I’m just glad that I will be going to see my kapwa this week and fill up on all the good energy. I really could have used an ancestor hug at Retellin’ Oceania.

*PASIFIKA refers to people of Pacific Islander ancestry or heritage living in the islands, or in diasporic communities, away from their mother islands.

*KAPWA has become a Filipino term that defines togetherness & community as well as a shared inner self amongst others. Read more about it here via Rem Tanauan // Pathfinders Commune. Or check out fellow kapwatids’ definiton over at Kapwa Collective in Toronto.