Our nonfiction coeditor Mindy Wong recently had this exchange with Elsa Valmidiano, our Issue #31 featured nonfiction author. Here’s what she had to say about her MFA experience, her literary influences, and her intentions in writing the featured essay “Blighted.”
When did you start writing nonfiction?
I started writing nonfiction about ten years ago. Poetry continues to be my main vehicle, where nonfiction ends up springing from poems that were too long to be poems. It seems I fell into nonfiction by accident, though I try to make sure the stories still have their beats and rhythms as they would in my poetry.
How has being the daughter of Ilocano immigrants influenced your writing? If at all?
I grew up in a predominantly Filipino community in LA, so you can say I grew up as a majority during my childhood, but with that came a certain kind of hierarchy. At my parochial school, I was one of a few Ilocano students in my class. While many of us were Filipino in the classroom, they were also predominantly Tagalog, and I and a few other students would sometimes suffer unpleasantries from my Tagalog classmates. Geographically, the Ilocos is located in one of the more northern parts of the Philippine archipelago, and though it seems ridiculous that that kind of subcultural discrimination would exist, that prejudice carried over among Filipino immigrants.
During a few playground exchanges, I would be reminded, “Ilocanos are poor. They come from the barrio. Tagalogs are from the city.” It was as if I was being told that my family wasn’t worthy to have immigrated to the United States because of where they came from. Unlike Ilocanos, Tagalogs are geographically more known to inhabit the metropolitan capital city of the Philippines, Manila, and so the Ilocano from the more rural areas could be seen as a point of condescension, and I believe it’s something that these Tagalog classmates most likely learned at home. My parents had also immigrated from Manila like my Tagalog classmates’ parents, but our ancestry was Ilocano and the rural barrio. The decades-long dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, an Ilocano, and his extravagant wife, Imelda, a Visayan, also may have left a deep scar on many of those Tagalog parents who condemned Marcos’ human rights violations and extravagant lifestyle at the expense of the Filipino people, and I have an inkling that the Ilocano connection to Marcos was interlaced with how we were generally perceived.
To this day, most non-Filipinos will automatically assume I am Tagalog, mimicking Tagalog words and phrases I probably should be familiar with; being Filipino has become synonymous with Tagalog, as it remains the national language of the Philippines. While I know a miniscule amount of Tagalog and my parents can speak it fluently, it was never the language spoken in my home nor the dishes I grew up eating. Tagalog rituals weren’t what I grew up practicing. So being the daughter of Ilocano immigrants has a huge impact on not only being a writer, but just being me.
I don’t know if any discriminatory exchange occurs among younger Filipino-Americans today, and I hope it doesn’t, but as a child of Ilocano immigrant parents, it’s something I experienced and still something I think about. So when I write about the Filipino-American experience, I don’t think anyone can speak on behalf of the entire Filipino-American experience, seeing the diversity that exists within our own culture – down to the different regional nuances, languages, rituals, cuisine, etc. that we have carried over from the Motherland.
After law school, you attended Mills College. How did you make that transition?
I was hoping the subject of my law school education didn’t enter this discussion, but I will share. I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, since childhood, and how I fell into law was a combination of naïve youth and family obligation. I don’t have any lawyers in my family, nor are there any writers. Everyone falls into the science or business background. Literature and writing had always been my passion, but “starving artist” was how artists were perceived in my family, and being deeply rooted in family and obedience, studying law seemed like the next best “practical” and reputable thing to do after receiving a BA in Literature. I learned quickly that law school wasn’t for me, but dropping out of a program was unheard of in my family. You always finished what you started, so I completed the arduous degree. As I learned the hard way, literature and law are not the same thing. I continue to work in the legal industry but largely on the administrative and procedural side rather than the substantive. For me, writing stories and poetry takes precedence.
Though I wrote daily, had a handful of poems published in journals and anthologies, and performed a few readings – some of which were quite big, such as the San Francisco Women Against Rape performance project and Kearny Street Workshop – I didn’t pursue my MFA in Creative Writing at Mills College until six years after graduating from law school. The idea came when I bumped into an Oakland poet, Anh-Hoa Thi Nguyen, also an MFA Mills graduate, at the local laundromat on a late night. She probably doesn’t remember me or that fateful night, but it was her who planted the seed to pursue my MFA. I had approached her as she looked familiar from a poetry reading where I saw her perform. We had fallen into talking about writing and performing while we loaded our clothes into the dryer, and she asked me if I had my MFA degree. I replied I didn’t, to which she responded, “You don’t have to have your MFA to be a writer, but you learn so much and it is helpful,” and it was that night I made the immediate transition to applying for my MFA.
I had never considered getting my MFA before then and didn’t know much about MFA programs, but she sold me on it. I applied to Mills, which she spoke highly of, and it was in Oakland where I already lived. I must report that the legal industry is still my day job post-MFA, though writing remains my full-time unpaid, and to me, “real” profession where I spend as many hours working hard at it. It’s just not during regular business hours but occurs during lunch hours and many late nights at 2 AM.
During your time at Mills College, did you have any professors that made a lasting impact on your writing? What was the most helpful thing you learned? Overall (whether at Mills or not), what is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
Three professors from Mills spring to mind: (1) Elmaz Abinader, whom I had in a Creative Nonfiction workshop. Her best advice about writing memoir was that it isn’t about regurgitating what we’ve learned but where our truth lies in the storytelling itself. (2) Rebekah Edwards, whom I had in a Cultural Studies and Queer Theory class. She taught us about how the hegemonic structures of society can and will try to drown out our “unpopular” stories and “non-trending” experiences, but it doesn’t mean we have to be drowned out. Also, that hegemonic structures change over time. As a writer of color, that lesson resonates with me, as writing doesn’t have to be about what’s trending, but what’s important to us. (3) Micheline Marcom, whom I had in a Fiction workshop. Her best advice was to stand firmly in our truth, that writing is about the authentic self, and no matter how it comes off, we need to stand in our stories unabashedly.
Another inspirational professor taught at the Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon, where I had the pleasure of having Denise Duhamel in a Poetry Workshop. Her best advice was that you can choose to end your work on a whisper or a slammed door, both equally powerful depending on the context and what you seek to accomplish.
Even before I entered the MFA program, I had stopped writing regularly after I graduated from law school, trying to force myself into a profession I wasn’t happy in. It wasn’t until I met the late artist, Papo de Asis at FPAC, the Festival of Philippine Arts & Culture held annually in LA, that my long dry spell would end. I happened to meet him a year before he passed away of a massive stroke. I stopped by his booth as I recognized one of his art pieces on display that had graced the cover of Jessica Hagedorn’s acclaimed novel, The Dogeaters. I initially thought he was just an art vendor selling on behalf of the artist, not aware that I was talking to the artist himself, until he said, “Do you like my painting?” as he caught me staring at the now famous painting that graced the cover of The Dogeaters. It was the word “my” that threw me off guard, upon which he introduced himself, much to my stammering delight. We talked about art, and he asked me if I practiced any. I told him I wrote a little, used to write, and it was Papo who told me, “Never stop.” Two simple words that I took to heart immediately. It was the best advice about writing: NEVER STOP.
Since we’ve grown out of a writers’ workshop, we like to ask: could you share a best—or worst—workshop experience?
Workshops are hard to talk about, as I find them to be hit or miss. I’ve had wonderful workshops in the past, and then there were others that were difficult. As a writer of color, there were times when I had been asked to elaborate on a specific cultural nuance that would have interrupted the flow of a story, and so a writer must trust their gut and not always take the critique to heart.
An example: one white writer kept asking me to describe exactly what a rice paddy was, as the scene in my story took place in a rice paddy. One can only imagine my frustration as if I were being asked to explain what carpet was because someone didn’t know what carpet was. I don’t mind making my readers work a little bit, though it did shock me that what I thought was common knowledge wasn’t. That would be my biggest concern with workshop. Echoing Junot Diaz, “I assume any gaps in a story and words people don’t understand, whether it’s the nerdish stuff, whether it’s the Elvish, whether it’s the character going on about Dungeons and Dragons, whether it’s the Dominican Spanish, whether it’s the sort of high level graduate language, I assume if people don’t get it that this is not an attempt for the writer to be aggressive. This is an attempt for the writer to encourage the reader to build community, to go out and ask somebody else.” Especially with a plethora of resources available today, it shouldn’t be the responsibility of writers of color to hand-hold white writers and white readers in explaining every little cultural nuance that comes up in a story. Many things can be easily looked up and researched by the reader for a deeper appreciation and understanding, rather than dragging writers of color to explain every little nuance.
You’ve written in multiple genres. Do you find you prefer one or that one is more difficult than the others?
I focused on fiction during my MFA, but I tend to return to poetry, and then CNF second to that. I haven’t written fiction for a while, only because I tend to insert so much of my personal experience in a story that I figure I might as well write CNF. I don’t want to give the impression, however, that I’ve completely quit on fiction, as I think writing fiction lends a writer great power in sharing a universal truth, where the story need not be confessional like CNF to accomplish that. Despite all of the poetry I write, the only poetry workshop I ever participated in was at Disquiet, the International Literary Program in Lisbon. Of all places to workshop poetry, I had to do it in Lisbon. Not that I’m complaining. Lisbon is breathtaking. Of the three, they are all hard to write, as I don’t think writing is ever easy, but if I had to choose, it’s poetry that tends to bring me back to writing when I’ve had dry spells. From there, it’s a luck of the draw if a CNF or fiction piece arises out of that, or if it just stays a poem.
Which books and/or authors have been most inspirational to you?
There are so many but at the top of my head, anything written by Joan Didion, anything written by Sharon Olds, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, and The Awakening by Kate Chopin. I return to them again and again for their beauty, language, and truth. I also love stories and poems that are deeply rooted in family, the feminine self, and bildungsroman. More recent writers and poets whose words I know I will return to again and again are Khaled Hosseini, Aracelis Girmay, Warsan Shire, Chris Santiago, Claudia Rankine, and Saeed Jones. I read a lot, and many of these I can’t get enough of, like movies I have to watch over and over again.
A lot of the essay takes the narrative outside the hospital room, focusing on you and your husband’s trip, a past abortion – all in an effort to comment on the present moment. In this way, the reader can see the “blight” is more than a plan that got interrupted. Yet it ends succinctly where it begins: in that medical setting. How did you decide what to include, where to go, in time?
From literary abortion accounts I’ve read, particularly Audre Lorde’s own abortion in Zami, and a fictional abortion account in Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, I was blown away by the candor that these two female writers chose to write about the experience, particularly where race and class were factors in those experiences. Though “Blighted” is primarily about my miscarriage, I also wanted to draw out how miscarriage and abortion are such divisive terms when the actual medical experience can be one and the same. The political argument behind pregnancy loss (whether intentional or unintentional) has gravely erased the narrative itself and instead cubby-holed it into a political topic that we are either for or against, when whether we like it or not, illegal or legal, it is a procedure that must exist and has existed for the safety and well-being of women’s lives, and it is a common procedure that happens to many women, more than we’d like to acknowledge. Outside of Lorde and Didion, personal accounts about abortion and miscarriage I read from blogs usually narrate the emotional experience before or after the procedure, and rarely ever discuss the “during.” If I had been put under, the story would’ve been different. From the moment my husband and I found out about the anembryonic pregnancy to what immediately followed within those seven days leading up to the D&C, I wanted to show that waiting period before the procedure and then dive into that exact moment of the procedure.
While there is recent portrayal of abortion in pop culture (need I mention Olivia Pope in Scandal, though I don’t watch the show), discussion around it remains largely nonexistent, and I think there is still this association that the medical procedure is graphic and barbaric, which is not the case. I didn’t mention the post-D&C in “Blighted,” but after the D&C, my husband and I went to grab lunch at a Chinese restaurant, where he managed to make me laugh with his usual humor, and then we popped in a movie while lounging on the sofa. There was no fanfare or tears. I didn’t include this last part, as I didn’t want to minimize the significance of the procedure, but that’s what happened after the D&C. We just went about our day.
I also felt I had to include my mother’s miscarriage in contrast to mine, not only to highlight the experiences that we as women share across culture and generation, but also to highlight how far we’ve come from what was once a painfully long procedure to what can now be completed in as little as ten minutes. This is not to say that medical progress has erased all physical discomfort and pain, or alleviated the sadness and trauma, because that will always follow for some, but I wanted to highlight how extremely lucky we are to have these technologies in place and that our physical health and lives don’t have to be compromised for a biological loss we have no control over.
Whether my feelings about the miscarriage will change, the experience itself is set in stone, just like my abortion from twenty years ago. I think the female body has a way of memorizing events regardless of how our emotions and attitudes may shift over time, which is why I juxtaposed memories of the abortion with the narrator going through the D&C.
Your use of repetition is very effective. “Blighted” is one refrain, of course, and another is the idea of good fortune and the sociocultural comparison to the Philippines. What was it like writing an essay with so many layers, including: individual vs. collective perspective? Stigma and community? Procedure vs. practice? The experience of assisting other people in having abortions vs. the emotional response to your own?
Outside of having grown up in a strict Catholic pro-life upbringing, I wanted to center on the experience alone without the politics, which is not as black and white as the politics preach it to be. I didn’t want this story to be simply about a Filipino-American woman going through a miscarriage; I wanted this story to reflect a woman’s experience, and how factors of race, culture, and the past can affect that very personal experience.
I started writing “Blighted” almost immediately after my D&C. I wouldn’t say I wrote this piece because I was sad and needed to heal, but more so, I became very frustrated at not being able to fully explain the experience to people without them automatically feeling sorry for me and assuming I was devastated about it.
As strange as it may sound, there was something oddly cathartic about the experience, which is a very hard thing to explain in simple conversation. After being a post-abortion counselor in the US, as well as volunteering with the medical community in the Philippines – where abortion is illegal but still happens under clandestine and dangerous conditions – regarding post-abortion complications, the thing I take away from those experiences and writing about them is that every woman’s experience is different, that we cannot pass judgment and say one woman’s experience is more worthy or more necessary than the other. It poses the question, “Who gets to decide when these procedures are necessary?” The simple answer: “A woman and her doctor. Full stop.”
While my pregnancy was very much wanted, I also felt incredibly thankful and lucky that I had the resources in place if something went wrong with the pregnancy. It’s heartbreaking and infuriating to know women who have died or suffered even worse complications to their health because these procedures weren’t accessible to them. And I’m not referring to pre-Roe days, but to what is happening now in our country and overseas where safe D&C and D&E procedures are inaccessible. There’s a complexity of emotion involved in the procedure, while the procedure itself inside the medical setting remains antiseptic and brief, undertaken to accomplish one goal: “I want this patient to survive. I want this patient to be healthy.” Outside of the medical establishment, people can wage on and proclaim it’s much more than a procedure, but at the end of the day, D&C and D&E are medical procedures that lie outside the specific terms of “miscarriage” and “abortion,” which have become emotionally charged and divisive terms, leaving the actual stories of women behind. Attitudes about pregnancy loss are still shrouded in shame, particularly in the US, affording women zero time to process what has happened. While maternity leave remains a privilege in this country not afforded to everyone, the concept of any medical leave for abortion and miscarriage is as far off as a fairytale.
How do you approach the revision process? How do you know when a poem or essay is complete?
It didn’t take me long to write “Blighted.” Probably a total of two months to write the big chunk of it. I had to put it away for a month, which is what I usually do with pieces. The revision process for poems can take just as long or longer when searching for the right word to succinctly capture the scope of what I’m trying to convey. For “Blighted,” the revision process ended up taking me roughly 6 months. As embarrassing as it is to admit, “Blighted” was rejected 9 times before landing a home with Mud Season, and after each rejection, I’d look at it again to see what was lacking in it. The journals wouldn’t give me any specific feedback, but since there’s a waiting period of hearing back, each submission would give me a good chunk of time to not look at it, and then look at it again with fresh eyes after I’d receive the rejection. I refused to give up on the story, as I felt it needed to be told. I understand rejection can discourage writers, to make it easy to give up, but I believe it was the previous 9 rejections that helped me tighten the piece to what it is today. When I started, the piece contained emotional and political vomit, too much for a reader to stomach, so that when I read it a sixth time, even I became a little sick of hearing myself talk. I did a huge deletion of a darling paragraph that was the aforementioned emotional and political vomit, following the rule of “Kill your darlings.” I am grateful to all of those previous journals who rejected it. I would’ve been more embarrassed if it had been published in the shoddy shape it was in. This is not to say that writers should wait for a rejection to revise their work, but my point is that rejections shouldn’t be the end-all be-all. Sometimes rejections can open our eyes to revisions that are necessary.
In general for my work, I know a poem or essay is complete when I don’t feel any bumps after reading it aloud, and it feels smooth as a newly paved freeway. I don’t have a time limit on how long that can take, but when it feels right, it’s done. Of course there are moments of self-doubt that something will never be done. Oftentimes revision feels like suffering a split personality disorder where you might’ve felt absolutely confident about it last night and then suddenly feel like it’s a piece of garbage the next morning. But that shouldn’t stop a writer from getting it out there. Even after we’re done with a piece, there can be so many other things left unsaid. But I think that’s why we keep on writing and revising stories and poems, sometimes about the same topic over and over again. To keep unearthing that very thing that haunts us, excites us, shakes us, moves us, shapes us.
What are you working on right now that we can look forward to reading?
Right now I’m working on a poetry collection and getting ready to launch a blog where I hope to feature poems weekly, along with art from Filipina/Filipina-American artists such as Katrina Pallon, Isobel Francisco, Trinidad Escobar, Genice Grace, and Caren Ang-Oay P, whose beautiful paintings I hope to couple with some of my poems. I imagine it will be a work in progress as I figure out the kinks, but I’m hoping it will be something that readers enjoy.