An English major uses poetry for social justice in the Philippines
English major Anna Li ‘15 recently spent six months in the Philippines as part of Wheaton’s Human Needs and Global Resources (HNGR) program. From June to December of 2014, Anna lived in the village of Imugan, where she worked as an English teacher and helped her students to publish a book of poetry in their own dialects. A Little Rock, Arkansas native, Li is currently working on a creative non-fiction piece about the Kalanguya language and upon graduation will be teaching high school English in Chicago, Illinois through Teach For America.
In this interview, Li speaks with fellow English major Sheridan Prince ’14 about the intersection between writing and social justice.
SP: Why did you decide to pursue a HNGR internship?
AL: I have always loved language and literature, and I’ve always had a passion for social justice. In my mind, the two are symbiotic—stories and justice fit together so cleanly. Yet I am surprised that the two do not intersect as often in a tangible, real-world manner the way that other areas have “medical missions,” or “business as mission,” etc. I want to continue pursuing both justice and storytelling, and HNGR seemed like a perfect way that I could explore that intersection by working on a storytelling project in a justice-oriented setting.
How did you use writing to work for social justice during your time in the Philippines?
I like to think that beginning to understand huge, abstract notions like “inequality” and “poverty” starts with small movements: sitting in a chair next to someone and listening to a story. Social justice and storytelling belong together. People need stories like they need water. The marginalized are people whose stories have been silenced or contorted. They need stories—true stories, their stories—to be heard most of all. I was happy to use my writing as a way to document those stories for both the Ikalahan community and my Western context.
What was your inspiration to do “Speak: A Poetry Project?” What was the result of the project?
I fell in love with the tribal dialects of the Philippines: Kalangoya, Ibaloy, Ifugao, Kankana-ey. While the languages are different, they all share a rich musicality—it reminds me of jazz singers scatting on records my dad used to play for me. The problem is that these dialects are looked down upon because they are not the languages used in schools (Tagalog, Ilocano). My friend Asami was inspired by my HUNGR advisor Dr. Galbraith to write poetry in her own dialect, so I thought it would be an empowering project to have my 10th grade students write poems in their own dialect and make a literary journal of their poems and give a copy to every student. Students loved it. When I passed out the books to them, they couldn’t put them down. For some of those dialects, poems have never been written in their language before. My students are pioneers of new art for their communities.
What were some of the most memorable experiences of your time in the Philippines?
From dancing indigenous tribal dances at weddings to eating boiled pig intestine, the whole experience was a memorable one. The final months of my time in the Philippines were the richest part of the experience. All of the energy I had invested into the language and people came to fruition in the smallest and sweetest ways. The storeowner I visited every Friday knew me by name and would have my cup of rice pudding waiting for me when I arrived at his store. I could begin conversations with strangers on jeepneys. Once a woman found out that I, too, was a Christian. “You are my sister,” she said, patting my knee. “You are my sister.” All of the words and faces that were once anonymous to me became partly mine through time.
How has your HNGR experience transformed your writing life?
HNGR helped me hone the art of attentiveness. Good writers are attentive writers. They know how to pay attention to the small things. The first few months of HNGR, nothing came naturally to me. I had to learn and re-learn how to speak, how to wash my clothes, how to harvest vegetables. It forced me to pay keen attention to every small movement and motion. Paying attention to these things was like seeing every day actions for the first time, and it’s that freshness in perspective that makes a compelling piece.
How has being an English major given you perspective on your life in the Philippines?
I’d thought that it would be difficult to integrate my English background into the HNGR context. The truth is that my English background enriched my experience in an invaluable way. If I had to compress my experience into one word, it would be a literary device: paradox. Paradox was the one common thread that ran through the many stories I heard. Our world is marked with paradox—suffering and healing, death and life, vast devastation and impossible hope. All of them coexist in spite of one another and sometimes because of one another. When I found difficulty in understanding the reality that surrounded me, I found myself drifting to discussions on O’Connor’s “grotesque” and the fourth stanza of T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” that helped make sense of these amphibian natures. It makes me all the more convinced how important and relevant language and literature remains in our lives.