M. Evelina Galang: "At that time, there wasn't a lot out there about comfort women, so we did as much research as we could do about Comfort Women. We call them the Lolas, which means grandmothers, and slowly they started to share their stories in their own way. So the book Lola's house, really—I was trying to figure out how do you tell 15—because there were 15 that I really focused on—15 rape stories. It's difficult for the reader to have to read one, but to have to do it 15 times? And it's difficult for the writer—it's a physically different writing experience than writing fiction. There's a strange kind of fatigue that comes with that."
Jo Reed: That was M. Evelina Galang, talking about the process of writing her book of essays about Filipina Comfort Women, Lola's House, Women Living with War.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host Josephine Reed.
M. Evelina Galang writes short stories, novels, and essays, as well as directs the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Miami. Her books include the story collection, Her Wild American Self,and the novel, One Tribe, which won the 2004 AWP Prize in the Novel and the Global Filipino Literary Award for Fiction. In both her fiction and non-fiction, much of her writing aims to give voice to the women and girls living the hyphenated lives of Filipina-Americans. But she's also become a strong voice for the Filipina Comfort Women, who were forced into sex camps during World War II. Since 1998, Evelina has been researching and collecting the stories of the surviving comfort women and actively advocating on their behalf. Her activism and her writing were recognized by the Filipina Women's Network, and it named M. Evelina Galang one of the most influential Filipinas in the United States.
I had the opportunity to speak with Evelina during an AWP conference. I had just read One Tribe and took that book as my starting point, asking her about its central theme.
M. Evelina Galang: That book, One Tribe—it's an exploration of community, of what it means to belong to a tribe. So that tribe is either familial or, in the case of my characters, part of the Filipino-American community in specifically Norfolk, Virginia, or part of the American community, or part of-- there are gangs, there are youth gangs that are also part of it. And so as much as the exploration is about coming together and unity, it's really about disunity, and it's about division. So it's about this young woman trying to find her place in this community that she moves to. She finds that though she identifies as being Filipina-American, and she's asked to teach these courses to the youth that kind of bring them closer to their culture, in fact the community sees her as not being Filipino enough, whatever that means. So the question is whatever that means, what is that?
Jo Reed: What I think is so interesting is how that shifts depending on physically where you are.
M. Evelina Galang: Physically where you are, and also where you're coming from, right? So how many definitions are there of being who you are and coming from the community that you come from. So for Isabel, who's the character in the book, she has this idea of what it means to be Filipino-American, coming from Evanston, Illinois, coming from the Midwest, where that community there is tiny, and those inhabitants in Illinois, in the Midwest, are mostly families that are first generation, from the Brain Drain generation, where doctors and nurses came to the United States, and there's a class difference there. Where in Norfolk, Virginia, where she goes to, many of those Filipino-Americans are from the Navy generation, when Filipinos first came to the States as cooks and chefs and things like that. And so the people that she's working with are not necessarily college-bound students.
Jo Reed: And yet their parents reach out to Isabel and ask her to teach the kids. They really believe in the American Dream, I think, in a very profound way, and also very much want their kids to know where they come from.
M. Evelina Galang: I think that's very much a universal feeling for many of us here in the United States. There's a part of us that wants to be a part of that American dream, that is in some ways unobtainable, but we never want to forget where we come from, and we never want to forget who we are, and we never want to let go of the things that have made our family and our ancestors who we are. You never want to forget your ancestors. But that becomes difficult when you're a student who enters a community that doesn't understand your culture, that doesn't accept it, that has an idea of what's hip and what's cool, and a lot of that comes from pop culture, media, the idea that you want to assimilate, you know? There's an assimilation that occurs for most kids in any background. You just want to be like everybody else.
Jo Reed: I think that's absolutely true. And I think it's true for most teenagers. How do you figure out who you are? You begin by being what your parents are not.
M. Evelina Galang: Right.
Jo Reed: And if you're the child if immigrants, it becomes even more complicated.
M. Evelina Galang: That's right.
Jo Reed: And what strikes me in literature--how something is so specific and yet can be so universal.
M. Evelina Galang: And that is the way you get to the universal. Through those specific details, and you come from a place of understanding-- your experience, your understanding of those details. And in doing that, you somehow strike that universal chord, even if your family is like fifth, sixth, tenth generation American, there is a way that that chord is hit.
Jo Reed: Now, as somebody who is heading a writing program, how do you try to convey that to students? Because often I think-- and I could be wrong-- but especially students, they're trying to go for the big questions and dealing with the big issues, and somehow dealing with the specificity seems less sexy.
M. Evelina Galang: Yeah. How I deal with that is listening to them. They come into the office with their stories, and sometimes they're writing about these crazy things they've never had an experience with. And so the details are general, they're vague, they're uninteresting. And so you start to talk to them about the details of their lives. What are the colors and the smells, and just really those moments that they remember and that evoke for them sensory details. And in choosing those sensory details, we start to come with the details of their lives, or their experiences. And then soon they are writing not only about those big ideas that they have, but they're using the specificity of their lives to recreate that. And in doing so, my hope is that they find their stories, without my saying, "You got to find your story."
Jo Reed: Right, exactly. Are there certain books that you know you really want them to read no matter where they're coming from?
M. Evelina Galang: Oh gosh. Yes, and that's such a hard question to ask on the spot, but there are certain books that I teach on a very regular basis. And I'm actually talking a lot about the fact that we need to teach the reading of a very diverse body of work, not as multi-culti or anything like that, but as literature. And so it doesn't matter what course I'm teaching in terms of creative writing. I'm always bringing in, yes, John Cheever and Lorrie Moore and Ernest Hemingway, but I also teach Junot Diaz and Maxine Hong Kingston, Jhumpa Lahiri. I teach a cross-section of writers, and we don't think of them as, "Here's an Asian-American writer. Here's a Latin-American writer." We think of them as writers.
Jo Reed: It's literature.
M. Evelina Galang: It's literature. We think of them as writers, and we look at the specificity of those details. And in some ways, that's the way we also-- I also get them to start thinking about their own experiences and bringing their own details into their work. We look at writers-- we were reading Peter Selgin and Jhumpa Lahiri, and looking at the way they deal with relationships, and looking at the details of those relationships. And they start to find things in common and things that are different, but in the end we're looking at story, and we're looking at structure of story, and we're looking at language of story, and we're looking at what they can draw from and bring into their own writing. And so in that way there is always that conversation of all these writers in the same pot writing stories. And I think really when I start to think of how do we change the culture of reading and writing and being proud to kind of come from your experience, it's when we put the writers on the table as writers, and we start to look at them equally-- without fanfare, without the big "Dah-dah-dah-dah! We're bringing in diversity!" It's really, "Hey, let's take a look at stories, and let's take a look at how they're being put together, and let's take a look at the language within those stories," and 'Which of these things are speaking to you? Which of these things would you not do? Which of these things are you already doing?" And then it gets pretty exciting. And it's exciting because then in the conversation of their work, they start to refer to these other stories.
Jo Reed: Now, you're also-- if I got this right-- you're also involved in a film?
M. Evelina Galang: I worked in the film business for many, many years, and my book, Angel de la Luna and the Fifth Glorious Mystery, it was actually born of a project that I was doing that was originally a screenplay. And it was when I took five Filipina-American teenagers to the Philippines to meet surviving Comfort Women of World War II. And the idea was I was doing research for the screenplay. I wanted to know not just the stories of the Comfort Women or the teenagers, but I wanted to know about the relationship that could be between the two. If a grandmother who-- I don't know if you know about the Comfort Women? Yes.
Jo Reed: I do. But do explain.
M. Evelina Galang: So, during World War II, there were over 200 thousand women and girls that were taken hostage by the Japanese Imperial Army and placed into these rape camps all over Southeast Asia, wherever the war was going on. And in the Philippines there were about a thousand women that they suspect were taken between the ages of 8 and, say, 42 or 52, and raped several times a day--15, 20 times a day-- and then made to also do hard labor. And so I came upon their stories at the time my book Her Wild American Self was being taught to many teenagers and youth across the country.
Jo Reed: And that's your collection of short stories.
M. Evelina Galang: And that's my collection of short stories. And I was getting these amazing and heartbreaking stories from teenagers saying, "This is my story. I've never read my story. I've been suicidal. I've been trying to get my mom to read these stories." And there was a survey done by the Center for Disease Control back in the '90s that said the highest rate of suicide attempts among teenagers in the San Diego area was among Filipina-American teens. So I had this question-- I wanted to know-- that here were these Comfort Women in World War II that would do anything to survive, who are like marching the streets, they're looking for justice. Now they're in their 90s and many of them are passing away, but at the time that I was doing the research, they were just coming out, and really talking about their fight, and their will to live and to do anything to live. And then you had these teenagers who were of the same ancestry who were feeling so discouraged that they'd rather give up. So I wanted to know what the lesson was that these older women could teach these younger girls. So to research that, because I really feel like I can imagine that, but to really understand that, because you don't know, right? So I brought together teenagers to go to the Philippines with me and to work for eight weeks with surviving Comfort Women of World War II to kind of find out what their stories are.
Jo Reed: And how did the girls respond?
M. Evelina Galang: It was pretty amazing. At that time, there wasn't a lot out there about Comfort Women, and the only ones that people would have heard about, if anything, were the Korean Comfort Women because of the way their people and the government really is in support of them. So we did as much research as we could do about our own Comfort Women-- we call them the Lolas, which means grandmothers-- and then they were excited. They were excited to go, and kind of scared. And so I brought them there, and then a couple of the girls didn't speak the language at all, and many of the Comfort Women didn't speak English. So we had a language barrier. So we started to dance with them. They taught us how to tango. We would teach them how to raise the roof. We started to paint with them and do artwork with them, and they started to build relationships with them. So we really came about the interviews in this roundabout way, in relating as people to one another. And they began to adopt the girls as their granddaughters, and vice versa. Whenever they saw the girls, they would come up and-- hugs and kisses, and the whole thing. And slowly they started to share their stories in their own way with the girls one-on-one. And everybody was heartbroken. Everybody wanted to do something. But depending on the young woman and where she was in her life, there was maybe this much that she could do--letter-writing, or communicating with them, or holding their hand. Or there was that feeling of being so overwhelmed that they couldn't do anything, that they would shut down. So there was a range in response. But one thing was for sure: Their hearts were touched.
Jo Reed: Lola's House is--
M. Evelina Galang: Yes, is a book of essays that I've been putting together, which really looks at not only the testimonies of the women, but the relationship-- my relationship with the women. Because I think that question that I was looking at, what's the lesson that they have to teach me-- really, it's me-- it comes down to me. Because now I've had a relationship with the women for over 12 years. They're amazing. You would expect that women who've gone through an experience like this would be bitter, angry, just want to give up. But there is a generosity. There is a sense of forgiveness. There is a desire to really make these things not just known by other people, but to make sure that this never happens again for their daughters and their granddaughters, for me. So there's that kind of commitment that they have to this cause, but not--it's not just for them; it's hard to believe that they really want to reach out and do better for everybody. So the book, Lola's House, really-- I was trying to figure out how do you tell 15-- because there were 15 that I really focused on-- 15 rape stories. It's difficult for the reader to have to read one, but to have to do it 15 times? And it's difficult for the writer. It's a really-- it's a physically different writing experience than writing fiction. There's a strange kind of fatigue that comes with that.
Jo Reed: And I would also think an enormous sense of responsibility to do justice to the women's stories.
M. Evelina Galang: Yes. So, in this way, I started to think about it, and I thought then the way to tell these stories, and to give breath and energy to it, is to talk about our relationship, and to make it also about the character-- the women's character. So the essays look at the women as they are when I meet them, and what they're like, and each of them is a lively little character--they've got their own thing. I mean, a fiction writer couldn't ask for a better set of characters, you know. So they each have a certain kind of relationship with me, and they each have a certain lesson that they teach me as we journey to-- journey to many of their sites of abductions, many of the places-- the garrisons where they were held-- former churches, former schools. Actually, the schools are still up and running. The buildings are still up and running. So we went back, and sometimes we were going back for the first time.
Jo Reed: That must have been difficult.
M. Evelina Galang: Yeah. Actually because every time a woman goes back to a place like that, she's reliving the account. And it's so interesting, because in some ways they really wanted to take me there and show me the space where they were held and show me where these things happened, and in another way it was devastating for them, like it was too difficult. I mean, it's in the same way when we had the interviews and they would give me their testimonies, they would take my hands, and they would actually make me touch where the cigarette burns were, where the scars are, where there's still a bump, because they want a witness. They want me to witness their experience. In many ways the burden is they want me to say, "This is what happened. Don't let it happen again." You know, and then still thinking about those teenagers during that survey, and really being a teacher that works with young women all the time, and is always seeing issues of self-esteem and a need to empower our young women. It's been an amazing experience getting to know them, and I know that that is the lesson. There is a lesson there about self-esteem and treating yourself right, and speaking up for yourself, that these grandmothers are trying to give to us, they're gifting to us.
Jo Reed: That's an extraordinary story.
M. Evelina Galang: It's a really difficult book to write.
Jo Reed: I would think it would be.
M. Evelina Galang: I thought it would be easy, you know, because it's just reporting. But what I found was, early on, my body would actually shut down. I can go for an entire weekend and just write fiction. No bathing, not even eating, nothing like-- "Who cares?" But with these stories, within an hour or two, I would actually get sleepy. My body would feel fatigue. There have been times when I would have an illness of sorts, and I would have to stop. I would literally physically have to stop. And as I've been working on it these years, I realize I have to take care of myself as I work through their stories, because there is a way-- and the women would say to me, "The stories enter the body." And I feel like that's really, in many ways, what has happened. And now I have to write them out of me.
Jo Reed: We talked about reading and identifying with something you see on the page. And often that happens in likely places-- when you're reading about somebody who shares your ethnicity or your geographic place. But I wonder if it's ever happened for you in a very unusual place. And I can give you an example from me: Reading Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, and reading about one of the characters, Rat Kiley, who exaggerates like mad. And it's, as Tim says, it's not that he's lying; he just wants you to get the sense-- the real sense of what he's talking about. And Tim said, "You have to do this mathematical equation when talking to him." And I literally said, "Oh my god, this is me," to the point where my step-brother and I, when we talk, he's very understated. And at a certain point I said, "Okay, here's what we'll do: I talk, you divide by five. You talk, I'll multiply by three. We'll know what we're talking about."
M. Evelina Galang: (laughter) Oh my god.
Jo Reed: And it was such an unexpected place. You read about this 18-year-old kid who's a soldier in Vietnam, and suddenly see a real part of myself. And that's such a gift that literature can give. And I'm just wondering--
M. Evelina Galang: Well, that's a hard question, because there's so many things that I've read. And the education that I've had is wonderful, but here's the thing: I never got to read my experience in books. So for me, all the things that I've read where I identify are usually things that are not of my experience and that are not of my background, and that are not of my ethnicity. So this seems like a silly thing, but the two things I thought of as you were talking-- and this is a wonderful conversation about Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried-- but what came to my mind was Beverly Cleary's Ramona the Pest.
Jo Reed: Who doesn't love Ramona?
M. Evelina Galang: I am not a pest. I'm not, I'm not, I'm not. I mean, this is me when I was that age, and this was my-- one of my most favorite books, and got me reading, and I knew that girl. The other person I thought of was Jo, in Little Women. To this day, she is who I am, you know and that was a whole different period, a whole different time. But I think that for myself, I have grown up reading works that do not reflect who I am in that concrete way, but who do speak to me as a soul, who speak to me as a human being. There is that universality in literature where I can connect, and I've had to. Otherwise I wouldn't be sitting here today. Now, having said that, it is amazing to me--there's another body of literature that has been emerging for years, for years and years now, since graduate school-- where all people can see themselves reflected in literature. All people can see who they are-- and then other people can see that experience through the eyes of literature, other people who would never know what it's like to be a surviving Comfort Woman, for example, who still will understand what it means to be abused, to be held captive, to be silenced. Just because it's happening in such a tragic and violent way does not mean it doesn't happen every day in homes all over-- all over. But there's a way that now that experience is going to be shared with a much larger audience. And that's I think really important to the women. I think it's important because they want it to stop-- and we see that it hasn't. We see with what's going on now in Egypt. We see that it hasn't stopped. Their story hasn't gotten out yet. And I think that's why these stories are so important.
Jo Reed: Evelina, thank you so much.
M. Evelina Galang: You're welcome.
Jo Reed: That was writer, teacher, and advocate M. Evelina Galang. Her novel Angel de La Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery will be out in the fall of this year. For more information about the surviving Comfort Women, you can go to her website M.EvelinaGalang.com, click on "Friends of Lolas."
You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts, Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts of "Some Are More Equal" from the album, Oil, composed and performed by Hans Teuber and Paul Rucker. Music is available for download at paulrucker.com
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Next week, actress Rachael Holmes.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking theArt Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.