Archipelagic Memory: An Interview with Christine Imperial

Maha Ahmed

I met Christine during a balmy summer at the Winter Tangerine workshops in New York. We smoked cigarettes outside the Poets House and bonded over nicotine addiction and anecdotes of our silly immigrant parents. Since then, I continued to be in deep awe of both Christine’s talent and her lack of attachment to it, opting instead to let the work of literary retrieval and syncretism speak for itself. I would later visit Christine in California in March 2022 where we talked more about how being a hybrid subject felt oceanic, and she gifted me her book. Flipping through it for the first time, I recognized the poems she wrote at Winter Tangerine and was excited to see the mosaic that had been created around the work since then. Mistaken for an Empire: A Memoir in Tongues is a work of historical avant-garde and autobiography that explores the process of translating Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” into Tagalog. What begins as a seemingly innocuous translation project turns into an intimate investigation of Filipino colonial history, the disruption and reparation of family ties through travel, and a difficult performance of hybrid longing. I was super excited to talk to Christine about her book, which I devoured in the span of a few hours. We met on Zoom in May of 2023 and talked for almost four hours. This is a snippet of the interview!

Maha: My first question is about form. The multiple forms of the book didn't ever feel overdone or hard to follow. And when there was cacophony, it felt purposeful. So, I was curious about the process of compilation and how you were thinking about form?

Christine: I think part of it is was that I was getting easily bored with sticking to one form. But I think it all stems from how it all started as the translation of Kipling's poem to Tagalog and sort of thinking about the multiple ways you can translate that. Either through poetry, through autobiography, through retelling of history, or through more visual modes. I see the different forms as different modes of translation and articulation, including the ads and the sort of admonishing voices throughout. So just thinking about the ways in which this white man's burden is translated through different discursive formations and how I receive it too. It's sort of translating the poem and then translating my reception as a receiver of the poem. I think it's trying to articulate a postcolonial or neocolonial condition. I see the whole thing as one long poem and each different form is just all articulations of the same thing that are augmented by the multitude of subjectivities that reside within me.

Maha: I see that too, especially because there’s so much in the book about/around the concept of beginning again. It's a lot of retelling, rewriting, reworking of the same story but with multiple subjectivities as you're saying. I’m also really interested in the form because I'm thinking about disorientation and chronology, which are all things you seem to be playing with. I guess I’m wondering about how decisions were made about what pieces to place where? Was it just intuitive or more labored than that?

Christine: I think it was both. That's why the editing process took so long. I was thinking a lot about Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Alongside this sort of musical editing of it, there's sort of a film quality to it too. I was thinking a lot about it in terms of montage. How is one line working with the other to create tension? And that's sort of why it's so fragmented and why the page break and the line break are so integral to the work because it's cutting off the convenience of denotation and of immediate understanding in order to get into what I think Berardi calls the semiotic excessive language, which is facilitated through enjambment and the simultaneous extension of the lines meaning, but also its abrupt fracturing. And I think that’s also a way to look at the geography of the archipelago and the archipelagic consciousness. Glissant also talks about it as a sort of the building up and breaking down of sediment as the formation of an archipelago and the islands that compose it.

Maha: That’s amazing. I think the idea of the archipelago is pretty meta here too: the Philippines being islands, and the “islands” of your experiences which are consistently interrupted. In the book, there is no true linearity.

Christine: You're right. And underneath it all is a critique of the idea of the cohesive citizen. Lisa Lowe talks about legislation around the exclusion of Asians in citizenship, which includes Filipinos because although they were in an incorporated territory of the United States, they were not granted the label of citizenship. So, thinking about the ways in which my already having an American citizenship is a disruption of the cohesive national identity. But I’m also thinking about the simultaneous existence of a Filipino citizenship, and how my performance of a cohesive Western identity is how I am able to leverage power in the Philippines: being able to speak the language of civilization and progress and being understood as articulate, educated, and able to betray the destiny of brownness.

Maha: That ties perfectly into my next question which was about your own specific subjectivity in relation to Kipling’s poem. There’s a lot of self-conscious or overly-conscious language in the book, where you start to question things like who am I to do this work, or you literally write I wasn't there.I can't say we. Could you talk more about including your specific positionality as a translator and its repetition/fragmentation?

Christine: I think that's really a central question of the whole project. Who am I to translate Kipling into Tagalog? Who am I to speak for the “new-caught sullen people,” or the “half devil, half children” of the poem when I speak more Kipling than I do the natives, right?

I grew up already not being great at Tagalog, and then being told I'm not great at it. And then just giving up and really mastering English and being told I was so good at it. That's how I had any sort of influence or validation from anyone that what I was doing was good. And then there's that anxiety of being found out that I have throughout the book too. There are parts where my Filipino isn't great, and there's some grammatical errors, so I'm like, oh, shit. I'm going to be found out as someone who just did this for the clout of seizing upon the opportunity to modify my identity to be consumed. Throughout the book, I'm like, how do I write this book while taking accountability and problematizing identification with both an essential Filipino identity and an identification with the whole Western empire apparatus?

There's a grief there too, because it's not just “I'm hybrid. I contain multitudes. I can do whatever the fuck I want.” It's sort of always having to have an awareness of certain questions like where are you located? Who are you speaking to? How are you speaking? And when is the accent emerging? When should the accent be torn down? When should the accent be shifted? And throughout, especially in the beginning, the Filipino voice appears as scolding me and saying things like, so why are you doing this? You don't know. All you did your whole life was speak English, and now you want to do this. I think it's sort of reckoning with that. If anything, it's a critique of myself too, as a model citizen of the western modernist, colonial project of wanting to create brown Filipinos who could assimilate and perceive themselves the way America perceives them. That's where a lot of the guilt and self-consciousness comes from.

Maha: That’s brilliant.

Christine: So vulnerable.

Maha: So vulnerable, and so courageous too. That position of hybridity really does contain so much grief, especially in relation to the hesitation around this work, and grappling with the consequences of its publication. I think it’s really courageous to include those moments of self-rejection and rejecting the position of Filipino linguistic/national expertise or authority, especially by leaving some of your Tagalog uncorrected. I understand the slippage as part of the ethos of the book.

Christine: Yes, totally. I think that's an issue with writing diasporic literature. You’re not allowed to make mistakes or write about something other than what is stereotypical, and I think sometimes you’re just not allowed to be sad over it. You’re not allowed to mourn for too long. You're supposed to celebrate the multitude. But then also that just feeds into liberal democratic ideas of multiculturalism where we're letting diversity reign free. But there was a point in history where just your existence, my existence, was seen as danger or a threat. And you're sort of like, how do you carry that while also celebrating that? Or I don't know, reclaiming that? How do you do that without experiencing any grief?

Maha: I agree. I think the opacity as a lyric tool is a really helpful tool in this regard. The right to opacity means the right to being complicated and inexplicable. But I think the opacity sort of breaks with the moments of care with your Lola.

Christine: Yeah. I think that's the thread that helps with the hard emotions of the book– that sort of consistent idea of care and home as my Lola. And even when there's moments of her being like “you should be more Filipino,” it doesn't overcome the sense of belonging and nurture that I yearn for in the book.

Maha: Totally. Which is why I think your Lola in the book provides something beyond language. Because it's an untranslatable care. At least that's how I read it.

Christine: I'm really glad. I'm really happy that comes through with people who've read it, because it is that sort of attempt to translate the untranslatability of care, but also there's a resistance to completely overdo it and be like, I love my Lola, my Lola's the best. There are also histories of her own life in the US and her own migrations and her own feelings of loss around having to assimilate and provide for her family through material means. And I think that's sort of there too.

Maha: I agree. I’m also curious to know how you’re hoping readers engage with the Tagalog in this book. We've talked about Sarah Dowling's Translingual Poetics very briefly before in another conversation, specifically about subverting monolingual hegemony, and sitting with the strangeness of a foreign language. I was thinking about how Tagalog is translatable to a foreign reader because it’s written in the Latin alphabet so the reader cannot really escape the responsibility to translate. I’m wondering about how you were thinking about Tagalog functioning in your book and how you wanted the readers to engage with it?

Christine: I’m not expecting people to translate it, although I would love for people to do that and have those lines exist as another dimension. But I wanted to let the languages exist. With the inclusion of Tagalog, it was more intuitive than anything. I could sometimes just sort of hear it, especially lines where it’s someone in my family talking to me. That’s just what I know, and there’s no way to translate that other than through memory. I have to be okay with people not understanding certain things. Also, Tagalog is a very sonically charged language, and thinking about how it would just break up the English. At first it was included as moments of critiquing of myself, this inner voice being like, why are you doing this? But later on, it becomes this voice of a desire to return or this voice of grief. At the end of one of the final poems, it reads, “please let me splinter please gusto kong mantili gusto kong lumayas gusto kong mantili gustong-gusto ko gust kong – I’m still translating.” And it’s a language that works on repetition so much so that it creates, not so much a chant, but definitely a rhythm. For me, it’s simultaneously a language of return and a language of rejection. And it comes up a lot in questions, so it’s also a language of questioning for me– a language where I find myself questioning and where the lyric subjectivity gets muddled and sort of expands.

Maha: Yeah, totally. The ideas of chant, rhythm, and repetition resonates and has parallels in how you write in English as well. I think there are several “chants” in the book, right? I’m interested in those poems where phrases or words are repeated along the page. There's so much of that in this book. For example, the poem that goes “Where do you call home” just repeated over and over again. What were you attempting with those moments of repetition? 

Christine: I think these pages of lots of repetition are meant to overwhelm, and I wrote them thinking, not only how do I overwhelm, but how do I translate this feeling of being overwhelmed by having to explain myself? And if I repeat it enough, can it lose its meaning or what other meaning emerges from it? Gertrude Stein says there's no repetition; there's only insistence. Even with this desire I have to empty language, it also gets fuller, and it also returns to history as a sort of utterance too. And I was informed by the idea of language as utterances from M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! where she's thinking about that. I'm not doing the same thing, but I think it’s there in my poetry– this idea of how you can make language an utterance through repetition. It's a visual thing too. It takes the shape of a monument. These long repeating poems are instances, events, or questions. A moment of contemplation. Meditation.

Maha: It’s also a moment where time stops in the book too. I was thinking a lot about the circularity of time and places where time truncates. And I’m seeing these moments of circularity and truncation as parallels to colonial and neocolonial forces. How colonialism maintains itself through its neo-forms, and essentially distorts our experiences of time and progress. For example, the part in the book where you ask about the difference between hospitality and servitude for Filipinos.

Christine: And that's mostly what I was trying to get to with that. For example, the Philippines map where it says, “yours is a history of being subdued” goes into the idea of hospitality. I really like what you said about that circularity that's happening there, because it's the way I experienced time with this text. It was as if I was experiencing my life all at once as this sort of abstract painting and then parsing it out into a book maybe.

Maha: I experienced it that way too. Just one final thing. I wanted to say how much I appreciated the poems on pg. 102 and 103 about home, where you answer the question “where do you call home?” but in a very overwhelming way by naming arbitrary details/ objects of every place you’ve lived. I really resonated with that because I was like, yes, this is exactly it. That question has never been one of geography for me, it just doesn’t compute. It’s so much more complicated than that.

Christine: That's how I view it too. This poem is for when someone asks me, where do you call home or where are you from? To just answer one thing immediately is so hard. And this poem is about having that space, having this whole page to just say yes, these are the multiple places I call home, and these are the multiple places where I'm calling home from. It takes on that dual meaning too. I did a project where the poem is on the wall. In the middle is the question “where do you call home?” And on the sides are the answers from that poem. So that's sort of having to force people to stand still and actually listen to an authentic answer. It's the reality of authenticity. It's like what Magdalena Zurawski says; she talks about how people are always trying to figure out what the function of poetry is, and the true function of poetry is its uselessness. It's sort of lack of use value and lack of efficiency. So, I’m thinking about the idea of people wanting the answer to be efficient in order for it to be processed right away and to not be thought about anymore because we want to avoid the complications of it. It’s an avoidance of feeling too.


Christine Imperial is a PhD Cultural Student at UC Davis. Her first book Mistaken for an Empire was published in 2023 as Mad Creek Book's 2021 Gournay Prize Winner. She holds an MFA from CalArts and a BFA from Ateneo de Manila University. Her work has been published or is forthcoming with The Kenyon Review, POETRY, Poets & Writers, American Book Review, TLDTD, among others. She currently lives in Oakland.