Joi Barios: Poet in Exile

Features Opinion & Analysis Jun 14, 2019 at 3:00 pm
JOI BARIOS

JOI BARIOS

By Marra PL. Lanot

The rather short woman waited for the audience to remain quiet, commanded attention, and stood tall. She whipped out a malong, and with that single prop, with the proper projection of her dramatic voice, she read a poem in Filipino, and she owned the stage. (Malong is a tube cloth worn as pants, skirt, or wrap-around dress.) She choreographed her moves. And the stage was the world.

That was the year 2000 in Tokyo, Japan. Maria Josephine Barrios, more popularly known as Joi Barrios, writer, teacher, actor, activist, was a visiting professor under the Philippine Studies Program of the Osaka University of Foreign Studies. She had obliged to read my poem “Ina” to an audience of Japanese, Filipinos, Caucasians, Indians, and other international students and teachers.

She had recommended me and my husband Jose F. Lacaba to be the grantees to the Takeshi Kaiko Memorial Asian Writers Lecture Series. We toured Japan, read our poems, and granted interviews, all with honoraria. Joi was often there to support us.

It was the first time I watched her perform up close. She had been active in protest rallies in the Philippines, in the streets, in theater. She was a member of the nationalist U.P. Peryante troupe during the Marcos martial law.

Says Joi: “My background is in street theater, so I write out of urgency on current issues.  Nasanay kasi ako na kung may issue, kailangang mabilis na mag-produce ng cultural response.  I have learned to adjust to my current situation – migrant academic/poet ako. Therefore, my best medium today is the use of videos.”
Although Joi didn’t have an early training in acting, she appeared in a few movies such as Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa (2011); Stray Cats (2005); and Bridal Shower (2004).

As an activist, Joi has never run out of groups to join or causes to advocate. During her stay in the United States, Joi states: “I learned that first and foremost I am an activist – wherever I am. I have been active in fighting for teachers’ union rights and I continue to be active in groups like the Malaya movement. When I meet young Gabriela members, natatawa sila (they laugh) when I say I was a founding member of GABRIELA, or General Assembly Binding Women for Reforms, Integrity, Equality, Leadership and Action, in 1984. But I am just member number 587 (or some other random member – no one really remembers I was there, because I was just one of the many young women who were present. However, what matters is that I have continued to support Gabriela for the past three decades, and have made myself available to the group as an on-call writer.”

GABRIELA was founded in October 1984 as an umbrella organization of all the women’s groups that sprouted after Ninoy Aquino’s assassination in July 1983. It wasn’t aimed at supporting Cory Aquino’s presidential bid, but just to see how all those groups could work together for an egalitarian and just Philippines.

Joi is also a member of CONTEND, or Congress of Teachers and Educators for Nationalism and Democracy, based at the University of the Philippines.

“Our personal experiences,” Joi expounds, “come from a larger socio-political context.  Even as a writer speaks using the first person, we can better understand the work by understanding its context. For example, in my poem ‘Para sa Mabuting Anak,’ I write in the first person about the death of a child, but this child is not my own, and the poem is really about the young men and women who were victims of state militarization.”

She explains further: “Dapat tayong nagsusumikap maglingkod sa bayan, at maging mapagkalinga sa mga kaibigan at sa kapamilya, maging hindi kadugo… (We should persevere to serve the people and be caring to friends and family, even those not our kin…) These past few months, I have tried to support younger artists and writers who have visited me here at Berkeley.  Na-realize ko, dapat habang tumatanda, mahalagang suportahan ang mga kabataang ito. (I realied, as we grow old, it’s important to support the youth.)”
Joi Barrios is best known for her writings. She avers that she didn’t get her talent from her parents. “Perhaps in high school. I liked reading poetry, so I wanted to write poetry. In college, I majored in Philippine literature, so, I discovered I wanted to read poetry in Filipino. But I didn’t really think of myself as a writer at that time, because I was with a theater group.”

The choice of language is crucial for Joi. “It is important for me to write in Filipino because Filipino is the national language, the language of the masses, and historically (sabi nga ng mga pumili sa (as said by those who chose) Tagalog as the basis for the national language), the language of the revolution.”
Her primary influence on her poetry is not individual poets but her being active in Bagong Alyansang Makabayan and in Gabriela. Her experiences with the people show how the personal is political.

She has authored poetry collections Ang Pagiging Babae Ay Pamumuhay sa Panahon ng Digma (To Be a Woman Is to Live at a Time of War, Institute of Women’s Studies, St. Scholastica’s College, 1990), and Minatamis at Iba pang Tula ng Pag-ibig (Anvil, 1998). She has also written plays as well as romance novels.

Joi’s father passed on when she was 12, and her mother, too, when Joi was 20. Since then, Joi has regarded writers and educators Shayne and Bienvenido Lumbera as her parents.
Born June 29, 1962, Joi Barrios has been teaching Filipino and Philippine Literature at the Department of South and Southeast Asian American Program, University of California, Berkeley, where she has written books on Filipino for beginners. Her marriage to Pierre Leblanc is what brought her to the U.S., where she has been residing for 13 years. Husband Leblanc is instructor and senior research project manager at the psychiatry department of the Mclean Hospital/Harvard.

Joi earned her Ph.D. in Filipino and Philippine Literature at U.P. She served as Associate Professor and Associate Dean of College of Arts and Letters. Among her numerous recognitions is the 2004 TOWNS (Ten Outstanding Women In the Nation’s Service) award.

The ever creative Joi Barrios is coming up with a new collection of poems, entitled Sa Aking Pagka-destiyero (In My Exile).

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ANG KUWENTO NG INODORO
By Joi Barrios-Leblanc
(para kay Jennifer Laude)

Ang kuwento ng inodoro
ay paglalahad ng paghamak.
isubsob ang nguso
sa dumi at baho,
pagkat mapangahas
ang puso at katawan
na tumatawid, nagpapalit
ng kasarian.
Ilublob ang de-koloreteng mukha
sa tubig na nakasusulasok,
at nang ang pantasya,
ay tuluyan nang malunod.

Ang kuwento ng inodoro
ay salaysay ng pagpaslang
nang walang pakundangan.
Bakit mag-aalinlangan
kung walang pagbabayaran?
Sa eskoba at kloroks,
kaunting walis, kaunting kuskos,
nalilinis ang kahit anong kubeta,
naliligpit ang kalat at basura.
Ganyan lang din ang mga kasunduan.
Kahit anong krimen, nababanlawan,
tuluyan nang napagtatakpan.

Ang kuwento ng inodoro
ay pahayag ng walang hanggang
kapangyarihan.
Ang bayan natin at lupain,
ay hindi ating-atin.
Mula noon, hanggang ngayon,
dantaon tungo sa dantaon,
dayuhan ang may angkin,
hangga’t may handang magpaalipin.
Anong kasunduan ba iyang hindi mapunit-punit,
tuluyan na sanang maihagis
sa tubig, at matangay ng agos,
sa alkantarilya at ilog.
Ang sandaling ito, hindi ba’t sandali ng paninindigan?
Ang usaping ito, hindi ba’t usapin ng dangal,
Ang tunay na kasarinlan, ay ipaglaban! Ipaglaban!

TOILET STORY
(Translation of “Ang Kuwento ng Inodoro” by Joi Barrios)
(for Jennifer Laude)
translated by Karen Llagas

The story of the toilet
is a story of violence.
Press her lips
against filth and stench
to punish the deceit, the heart
and body that dare
transform gender.
Plunge her orange lips lips and well-shaped brows
into the sickening water
to drown the fantasy.

The story of the toilet is an example
of murder with impunity.
No one hesitates, no one
is punished. Scrub,
bleach,
Sweep and scour:
any toilet can be sanitized,
any garbage can be disposed.
Isn’t it so with the Agreement—
any crime can be rinsed off,
rubbed out, covered up?

The story of the toilet
is an exhibit of infinite power.
Our country is never fully
ours: then until now, decade
after decade,
with willing slaves,
foreigners own our land.
What Agreement,
cannot be torn,
cannot be thrown
into water
to let the current take it
down to sewers and rivers?
Shall we not hold our ground?
It is honor, it is freedom
We struggle for.

PARA SA MABUBUTING ANAK NG BAYAN
By Joi Barrios
(para kay Jo Lapira at sa lahat ng mga kasamang nagbuwis ng buhay para sa pambansang demokratikong rebolusyon)

Ipinagluluksa kita, anak, ipinagluluksa kita.
Ipinagluluksa’t ikinararangal,
pagkat mabuting supling ng bayan.

Inihahabilin kita kay Mebuyan, diyosa ng mga Bagobo,
diyosang maraming suso,
tagapagkalinga ng mga sanggol
na sa gatas ay gutom.
Inihahabilin kita, anak, pagkat sa maaga mong pagyao,
nais kong may ina rin na maghahatid sa iyo
sa dako pa roon, may tatanggap
sa katawan mong duguan, at may itim na ilog na maghuhugas,
sa iyong mga sugat.

Ipinagluluksa kita, anak, ipinagluluksa kita.
Ipinagluluksa’t hinahangaan,
ang iyong husay, ang iyong tapang.
Ang prinsipyong buong-buo mong niyapos,
Ang buhay na inihandog, sa lubos-lubusang paglilingkod.

Sa gitna ng hinagpis, sa ibang bahagi ng mito ako bumabalik.
Si Mebuyan, nagngangalit.
Niyuyugyog niya ang puno, hanggang ang mga bunga
ay mahulog sa lupa.
Itinuturo nito sa ating lahat,
na ano man ang ibanta ng pasista,
ano man sa atin ang ibansag o isumbat,
Hindi tayo kailaman, kailanman maduduwag.

Ipinagtitirik ka namin, naming lahat ng kandila,
at inuulit-ulit ang iyong ngalan at aming pagpugay
sapagkat walang kasama na nabubuwal nang mag-isa.
Anak ka na hindi ako ang nagluwal,
Ngunit wala sa dugo ang pagkamagulang.
Higit pa sa tali sa pusod ang sa atin ay nagbibigkis.
Supling kita, mahal kong kasama’t, kapanalig.
pagkat naging katuwang, sa ating himagsik.

TO THE BRAVE CHILDREN OF THE PEOPLE
(Translation of “Para sa Mabubuting Anak” by Joi Barrios)
(for Jo Lapira and all the young men and women who have offered their lives for the national democratic revolution)
Translated by Ralph Peña

I mourn for you, child, and grieve.
I mourn as fiercely as I honor you
a worthy daughter of the people.

I deliver you to Mebuyan, goddess of the Bagobo
divine mother with many breasts,
protector of all children.
I leave you with her, dear child, for now.
And from one mother to another, I ask:
cradle her gently, wipe away the blood,
and with the waters of the Black River,
wash with tender the torment from her body.
Guide her, please, as she moves farther on, farther on, and farther still.

I mourn for you, child, and grieve.
I mourn as abundantly as I burst with pride,
awed by your intellect, your bravery,
the principles you embraced, so completely
and in upholding them, offered your own life.

In my grief, I turn to another part of the myth
the angry Mebuyan, shaking the trees with her fury
until all their fruits fall to the ground,
reminding us that while Fascists accuse and incriminate
we should never, not once, give in to fear.

With burning candles we will keep vigil,
And recite your name, and pay you tribute
because no comrade falls alone.
No, you did not come from my womb
Yet I am mother.
Though not by blood, the cord that binds us together
Forever makes you my child, my sister, my friend
my comrade, in this, our uprising.