Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing a short series of essays commissioned from writers who participated in the 2012 fall residency. We began the series, “On Going Home,” last year as a way to keep in touch and get a glimpse of what the process of returning home was like for authors who'd spent nearly three months in the U.S. writing, researching, travelling, and interacting with Americans. We asked the authors to include a photograph that represented "home" in some fundamental way. This year’s first installment comes from Genevieve L. Asenjo, a fiction writer, poet, and translator who lives in Manila, in the Philippines; the photograph is the view from the terrace of the author's condo.
America was an introduction to vastness. I returned to my one-bedroom condominium unit in Manila last November feeling suffocated. I wondered how to best fit and display those shipped boxes of books from Prairie Lights, The Haunted Bookshop, Faulkner, The Strand on my already cramped shelves.
Space! This is one thing that awed me about America. Its big open skies and long stretch of land brought me not to seas and beaches comparable to the Philippines but to equally amazing bodies of water: Lake MacBride, The Mississippi River, Barataria Swamps and Wetlands. The 4-hour ride from Iowa City to Chicago was considered near; I relished the 9-hour road trip to Michigan State University the last week of October with two Filipino-American graduate students for a Philippine Studies Conference. And oh, how I wanted to dance either in my long skirt or peasant dress in the middle of cornfields and prairies in that autumn breeze and burst of colors! The closest thing I got, of course, was a portrait by Tom Langdon shot inside the Iowa House Hotel on an October afternoon.
By then, the autumn chill made me fret for home, or somewhere Southwest. I consoled myself that I still needed to see my ‘first real snow.’ A fellow writer with a good view of the Iowa River promised to summon me on the first instance of flurry. No luck, even to the moment the airport-bound limousine collected us from the Broadway-street hotel of our post-Sandy New York trip. Could the regret and relief in my sighs be assuaged by the Kronos Quartet that astonished us all at The Englert Theatre when news of a snowstorm all over the Midwest reached me last December by smartphone in the sunny comfort of my parents’ farm? The farm is on an island in the heart of the archipelago, an hour by plane from Manila and 2-hour land ride boasting an Instagram-worthy seascape. I thought of Scarlet O’Hara’s Tara and Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead. I stayed there throughout Christmas with a heightened valuation of things rural and agricultural as they have become synonymous to slow, organic, well-being. There’s nothing romantic about Philippine poverty; I deeply appreciated the farm trips to Erem Acreage and Solstead. It affirmed for me the possibility of a writing life nourished by my own share of land in a community capable of growing its own produce. And you bet, it become closer and nearer to any point I could find myself using Google maps.
But coming home was really about hard-boiled eggs for breakfast and all-time favorite Filipino dishes like sinigang, adobo, lechon. Never mind rice, I had it from the New Pioneer Co-op. My hunger and sadness in Iowa rested on pizza, bagels, microwave meals, paper cups and plastic utensils yet I was glad to be introduced to the Cajun and Creole cuisine of New Orleans.
“How was Iowa? How much have you written?” Friends asked. To the young ones, I told them about meeting Hualing Nieh Engle in person and giggled with them about Paul’s line for her, “In terrible haste, in full love,” as she told us in the documentary One Tree Three Lives. To colleagues, of how witty Elaine Showalter was, and to many other fellow writers, the thought after listening to Junot Diaz: that we should be writing about our Filipino doctors and nurses and seafarers, so maybe our writing in English will also be read, primarily, by our countrymen and women in diaspora.
More than newly-acquired books, Facebook updates on meaningful moments and photos of places traveled to, collaboration with New York Battery Dance Company, friendship with the staff and fellow international writers, some of whom I introduced in an elective course titled Contemporary World Fiction when I resumed teaching last January, the International Writing Program (IWP) gifted me with empathy for America and the Americans. The rodeo trip, barn dance with the seniors, and farm visits unveiled to me the rural side of America; “the other side,” maybe even “the real America” beyond Hollywood and foreign policy. Engagements toward the reelection of Barack Obama attuned me to America’s share of miseries and burdens. It was made believable by sights of many homeless people in parks and streets, stories of unemployment and that of veterans and families of American troops, and the tug of tax and tipping.
Every time I go out to my terrace and am confronted by a dense cityscape, my mind zooms out and settles in a vast void. A horizon. There, a lingering – the delight I knew well, for instance, when I read Clarice Lispector for the first time, in translation, from the University of Iowa Library, or when I rediscovered Robert Hass, skipping a grocery trip with Mary. Here, I hunger for more words like I desire an oyster. Clear, simple words for those intimate gestures of the mind and heart one keeps in different time zones, thousands of miles above sea level. At times I am startled, as if a squirrel passed by. Mostly, I feel light; glad to have walked Iowa’s ground and made peace with history.