Ina Cariño, author of the poem “Bitter Melon” in NER 40.3, talks to Angela Narciso Torres about growing up in the Philippines, acquiring a taste for the bitter ampalaya, and for writing that draws from both her languages—welcoming us all into the conversation of her poetry.
Angela Narciso Torres: Growing up in the Philippines, ampalaya (bitter gourd) was the vegetable we children loved to hate because of its acrid flavor. But as I grew older, I acquired a taste for it, and even learned to prepare it for my family (which my children promptly resisted). So it seems to me a brilliant choice that you use ampalaya in this poem as a metaphor for awakening into one’s body and coming to terms with one’s personhood with all the accompanying angst and resistance one might expect. Can you talk about the origins of this poem and how you came to employ this vegetable as a central metaphor?
Ina Cariño: So, like you, I despised ampalaya when I was little. I grew up in the Philippines, and my grandmother liked to sauté it for dinner and add a bit of scrambled egg or tomato to the mix. She would always try to get me to eat a bit—sneak it in here and there, as if to get me “on her side” over my two older sisters (I was the youngest for a long time). But of course, it is an acquired taste.
I moved to the United States when I was ten, and still, for a long time, I couldn’t bring myself to like the vegetable. In the last two years, my mom has started pickling ampalaya (she got the idea from my first-ever boss, the Okinawan owner of a sushi restaurant for which I have worked on and off since the age of sixteen, and who everyone lovingly calls “Machiko-san”).
The ampalaya is cut into half-moons, and submerged in heavily-salted water to get some of the bitterness out. Then you wash it, and pickle it with vinegar, sugar, peppercorns—garlic and chili if you like. I grew to like it in this form. It’s quite good with hot rice, as a side dish.
Anyway—all this to say that this poem is a mirror of that transformation. My taste buds have matured. But also, I’ve learned to move past the trappings of being assimilated into American culture. I’ve moved past the self-hatred towards my body as a queer woman who identifies as female only some of the time. And I’ve found that, despite being a small, small person—from culture shock, and from growing up as an immigrant in America—I want so badly to be seen, just like everyone else.
ANT: You use a lot of code-switching in this poem between English and Filipino. As a native speaker, I enjoyed encountering familiar words like “mantika,” “parsyak,” “dugo’t laman,” and the speaker’s final plea: “huwag mo akong kalimutan.” I noticed that you chose not to italicize the Filipino words or provide definitions, and admire your decision not to prioritize one language over another. How do you think it impacts the non-Filipino-speaking reader—and in the end, does it matter in the context of this poem?
IC: I’m going to use a word that one of my thesis committee members used to describe what I was doing in this poem (and what I do in a lot of my other poems): “non-exceptionalism.” This professor specializes in sociolinguistics, and was intrigued by how the poem worked and held together despite the inclusion of these words, and especially without the italicization signaling “foreign-ness” or being “other.”
This is my reasoning for not italicizing Tagalog in my poems: in this century, a point at which there are tools such as the Internet available to many of us, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to expect that the reader does some of the legwork in attempting to understand the poem. This lends itself to my definition of art as not only communication, but also as conversation. Having been partially raised in the Philippines, I also don’t think of Tagalog as “other,” and this practice of italicizing foreign words is counterintuitive to my goal of getting rid of this “otherness” that a post-colonial past has made the norm.
There’s something beautiful to me about finding that a poem is a puzzle. Some poems you shoot back. On others, you dwell. The norm is what your lived experience is. And my poems, whether in English or otherwise, are my offering to a particular understanding of the world through writing.
ANT: Who are some of your favorite poets, Filipino (if any) or otherwise, who have influenced your writing?
IC: I’m going to sound a bit sentimental when I say this, but my mother, poet Luisa A. Igloria, is one of the biggest influences on my writing. I remember that she would write poems and stories for me and my sisters when I was little, and read them to us before bed. She encouraged me to read and write from an early age. I resisted specializing in English or writing in college for a long time—I thought I was being rebellious—but writing is my home, and it’s because of her.
Otherwise: Li-Young Lee, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath are some of my favorite poets. Galway Kinnell, Joy Harjo, Naomi Shihab Nye. This is such a hard question to answer. The poetry faculty in my MFA program—Dorianne Laux, Joseph Millar, Eduardo C. Corral—were hugely impactful as well. Currently reading a lot of contemporary poets. Lots of Asian American voices. Franny Choi, Khaty Xiong, Cathy Linh Che, Chen Chen, to name a few. I love Sam Roxas-Chua 姚—he combines his work with asemic writing and often does sonic elements. I could list so many more!
ANT: What new projects, poetry-related or not, are you currently working on?
IC: I’m trying to start a reading series for writers of color based in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I’m located. There’s a serious lack of platforms specifically for writers of color in this city. There are a few pockets here and there, and more in Durham nearby, which are little seedlings of something great. But I’m talking to a few people about how to go about this, and I would love to make it happen fairly soon.
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INA CARIÑO was born in Baguio City in the Philippines. Her poetry and prose appear in New England Review, The Oxford Review of Books, Fugue, Tupelo Quarterly, Nat. Brut, Raleigh Review, VIDA Review, and December Magazine, among other journals. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from NC State University in Raleigh and was a 2019 Kundiman fellow. Find out more at www.inacarino.com.
ANGELA NARCISO TORRES recently served on the editorial panel at NER. Her poetry collection Blood Orange won the Willow Books Literature Award. Her work appears in Colorado Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Jet Fuel Review, Water~Stone Review, and other journals and anthologies.